It was in the wake of the presidential election. The occasion was a large family gathering, with a dozen of us feasting on terrific New Mexican dishes at a popular Santa Fe restaurant. I turned to my seat mate and started discussing the plans my wife and I had just made in the couple of days since the election.
“We are going to Cuba,” I said. “We decided to go now before all the commercial flights are canceled.”
“Who would do that?” she asked, a look of frank puzzlement on her face.
“Oh,” she rejoined dismissively, “he’s not going to do that.”
“He said he would,” I said before we turned away from each other to converse with others. We didn’t talk much he rest of the day.
This woman is a Republican who, although I didn’t ask, almost certainly voted for Trump—in contrast to the overwhelming Democratic and pro-Hillary Clinton majority in this four-generation extended family. Our family has a tacit understanding: We maintain the peace by not talking politics. This time I inadvertently slipped up.
I have heard opinions similar to this woman’s from others who voted for Trump. They say they voted for him because they wanted a change, not because of his policies, beliefs and positions. They say they assume Trump will not do and does not mean the things he says. It’s the weirdest bit of political sophistry I’ve heard in my 76 years.
Here is what Trump actually said about Cuba.
When President Obama visited Cuba in March, recognized the communist government, eased trade restrictions and resumed commercial flights, Trump supported the policy changes. Then during the last weeks of the presidential campaign he reversed his position and opposed the opening to Cuba. His reward was that he won the support of older Cuban-Americans, a plurality of the Florida popular vote, Florida’s 29 electoral votes—and the election as president. (Trump’s 290 electoral votes were only 20 more than the 270 he needed to win the election.)
Which policy represents Trump’s true position? I doubt if anyone, including Trump himself, knows.
The Cuba situation is a particularly excruciating illustration of the conundrums facing the Trump presidency, the U.S.government and the world as whole in the wake of the election.
Cuba is losing its last foreign subsidizer as Venezuela plunges into bankruptcy. To fill the gap, the island is pushing tourism. Already 2 million Europeans a year visit the island, but the island is hoping for a massive influx of Americans due to the resumption of unrestricted commercial airline service. While currently only Jet Blue and Southwest fly commercial flights (as opposed to charters), many others have been planning to enter the market in the coming weeks with numerous flights a day between a large number of Cuban and American cities.
But given the doubtful future of Trump administration policy, will the tourist expansion (let alone the end of trade restrictions and a political accommodation) actually occur? And if not, what in the world will the island do to spur its economy?
Does Cuba have another option? Yes, indeed, it surely does.
Russia has begun discussions with Cuba on establishing a permanent naval base in the country. Some Russian ships are nuclear powered and some can carry nuclear-armed missiles.
If Trump nixes the Obama opening, it would be plausible for Cuba to turn to Russia, and equally plausible for Vladimir Putin to grab at the chance to poke his finger in the Yankee eye.
Putin is now the man another president, Trump, seems to think of as a friend; whom Trump wants to negotiate a deal with in Syria; who supported Trump’s election; who did all in his power to manipulate the election by hacking into Democratic computer files.
What will Trump do if Putin places nuclear missiles in Cuba?
It may seem like a long time ago and a different world, but the last time Russia put nuclear missiles in Cuba, in 1962, the world came terrifyingly close to nuclear war. The former head of the British spy agency MI6 said a few days ago that he feared that with Trump’s election there could be a nuclear war between the U.S. and either Russia or China.
George W. Bush discovered just how quickly Putin’s friendship could turn to enmity when Russia’s interests are threatened.
Bush met Putin for the first time in Slovenia in 2001 and during a press conference afterward was asked it he could trust Putin. Bush replied, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straight-forward and trustworthy—I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
Later Bush’s national security adviser, Condolezza Rice, wrote, “We were never able to escape the perception that the president had naïvely trusted Putin and then been betrayed.”
Of course, Putin isn’t the only one who can change his mind about a putative friendship. Just ask New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was the head of Trump’s transition team until Friday, when he wasn’t.
I have no idea what Cuban President Raúl Castro, Putin and Trump will do in the coming months, but my wife and I prefer not to let these leaders determine the path of our lives. So we are acting now while we still have the chance. We are headed for Cuba and will later report back to you on what we find.