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Cuba in the Age of Trump

Havana locals share their hopes – and fears – at the dawn of this terrifying new administration in the United States

Malecon Street, The Sea Wall, Street Musician

How Cuba reacted to Trump's Inauguration Day.

Zach Doleac for Rolling Stone

On August 31st, 2016, the first commercial flight directly from the United States to Cuba touched down on the once-forbidden island's soil. It was a tangible result of nearly three years of efforts from the Obama administration to ease 58 years of tension between the U.S. and Cuba by relaxing trade and travel restrictions, restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba and taking the island nation off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terror.

But any security of lasting reparations was short-lived. The 2016 presidential election and the death of Fidel Castro marked November with uncertainty. The former Cuban dictator's death was the emblematic end of an anti-democratic era for Cuban people, but the impending closure of the Obama era proved to have a far bigger impact – and the relationship with Cuba seemed to grow even more fragile when Donald Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States on November 8th – only 70 days after that first commercial flight.

On November 9th, the tumult between the two countries churned again. Cuba activated their troops and began a five-day nationwide military exercise to prepare its "troops and population to counter a range of enemy action," as described by the country's Ministry of Defense. It was a sign from the Cuban government of a potential emerging diplomatic strain – a signal to the Trump administration that they would be ready, just in case. Ready for exactly what, no one could say.

In January, Trump said on Fox News that he was in favor of "opening it up" with Cuba – hinting at his own desire to foster a healthy relationship of trade, commerce and tourism between the two countries. Early in the campaign, he characterized Obama's push to open up diplomatic ties with the country as "fine." He has also actively expressed past interest in developing real estate on the island himself.

However, as president-elect, Trump pledged to "terminate" Obama's policy if Cuba continues to deny concessions to the U.S. and refuse to establish economic liberty, democracy and the freedom of expression for the Cuban people. It's Trump's way of striking a business deal in international diplomacy – and either the Cuban people or the Cuban government is going to lose. "With the amount of issues on the table, any kind of action against Cuba would be detrimental," says Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, a U.S.-licensed Cuban tourism operator. "Cuba doesn't possess any threat politically, economically or in any way to the U.S., so it would be an odd priority to try to curb travel and hurt that budding industry."

On January 20th, 2017 – Trump's Inauguration Day – and the days following, locals in the streets of Havana spent their time searching for answers on what Donald Trump's presidency would mean for Cuba. Peaceful coexistence of the two countries? More democratic and economic opportunities for Cubans? A reinstitution of U.S. embargo policies that isolate the island? It's clear what the Cuban people want. “I’m comfortable with my life," Alberto, a manager of several rental properties in Havana, says. "But I wish I had the freedom of expression and the freedom to vote and do what I want – to say what I want."

Donald Trump is president. Fidel Castro is dead. Raúl Castro has announced his retirement in February 2018. We are at the tipping point of a diplomatic seesaw and only President Trump's actions – not his words – will determine which way it will all go. But until then, people will live and observe and express their hopes and their worries – collectively divided.

Zach Doleac for Rolling Stone

A Little Night Music

A street musician sits on the Malecón seawall, which edges the length of Havana's coastline. While he sat playing his horn for spare dollars as the sun went down the night before the inauguration, his song of choice "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Zach Doleac for Rolling Stone

Pirate Television

On Inauguration Day, Cubans at their home in central Havana rigged a television in their apartment to pull a U.S. news station from an illegal satellite dish.

Zach Doleac for Rolling Stone

An Artist’s Approach

Just like many in the U.S., Cubans were shocked by Trump's election. "At first, I couldn't believe it," says Cuban artist Jorgé Rodriguez Diez, also known as R10. "I couldn't even hear the words coming out of his mouth because I was in shock. You have so many questions and worries about what will happen. You spend so much time worrying and fighting and questioning and one day you get tired. I'm exhausted with worrying. My mood now is, 'who cares?' What will be will be. I'm tired." Here, at his home in Havana, he displays a series of his paintings.

Zach Doleac for Rolling Stone

Slow News Day

Things were strangely quiet around Havana on Inauguration Day itself. No Trump news made the dailies until the following days, when accounts of the protests in Washington D.C., and New York – as well as Trump's first round of executive orders (namely green-lighting the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines) – made headlines. Granma, the official government-owned newspaper of the country, ran feature stories with the headlines like "Protests Welcome Trump," and "U.S. Environmentalists Declare War on Trump." Here, a woman working in a newsstand in Old Havana shows her selection of papers and magazines deemed acceptable by the government.

Zach Doleac for Rolling Stone

Early Edition

Gramma, the official paper of the communist party, sits on a table at a home in the neighborhood of Vedado, the day after Trump's inauguration. Cuban citizens' understanding of Trump is being formed in two ways: the country's state-run media outlets and the uncensored opinions of American tourists. Pre-election research found that double the number of active travelers from the U.S. intended to vote for Clinton as opposed to Trump – and between interactions with a left-leaning travel population and socialist-censored media, the average Cuban isn't forming favorable opinions about Donald Trump. 

Zach Doleac for Rolling Stone

Changing World, Changing Cuba

Although renovations are being made to the Capitolio in Havana, the government inside still functions as it has for decades, censoring rhetoric about affairs with the United States – despite Cubans becoming more connected through the Internet and social media. "The government still says the things they think they need to say, just to try and act like they have the control to brainwash the way they always have," says Yuerle, an artist in central Havana and a former Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces member. "The news here says that Trump is nasty and Trump is racist. But I have a friend in Chicago who works for ABC who told me not to believe the lies about Trump – that it's lies and manipulation. And we [Cubans] know it's manipulation now."

Zach Doleac for Rolling Stone

Healthy Distraction

"It's a Cuban tradition. We talk about sports in the park on the weekends." Robert, a member of a local peña deportiva (sports club), says. This particular peña gathers in John Lennon Park in Vedado, a former closed military defense zone that is now a residential neighborhood. Each Friday, the members of the club gather to jaw about MLB news, which they read off of three printed sheets of computer paper. Do they talk about anything else? "No," he says. "We don't have anything to argue about. We can't argue about politics."

Zach Doleac for Rolling Stone

Speaking Freely

"In military life, they explain that Americans are always the enemy," says Yuerele, center, a former Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces soldier and artist. "But I know that Americans are not bad guys. I don't think the military even really believes that they are. We don't have any strength – we couldn't fight anyone. Fidel acted like we could, but there is no way. Raul has changed things since Fidel, though. He [Raul] doesn't make the police watch people. If the police see me talking to you now, they won't stop me. I can say what I want. I can say, 'Cuba, freedom.'" However, freedom of expression is illegal and enforced. According to the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, there were roughly 10,000 politically motivated arrests made in 2016. 

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“He Is Crazy, But Will Do Good Things”

However, not all people in the country are opposed to the new administration. As a Cuban patriot, Nelson, 46, is an advocate for nationalistic movements in government – whether they take place in the United States in 2017 or in Cuba in 1959. "Donald Trump already has money so he has no reason to be corrupted," he says. "He's somehow different… he's not the same as the politicians that Americans are used to. He is crazy but I think he will do good things."

Oficios Street, Street Musicians, Joel (cow jaw player)

Zach Doleac for Rolling Stone

Revolution Rock

Using an irreverent sense of humor to cover some very harsh truths, Cuban street musician Joel freestyles a song about his thoughts on America: "I was in Pasco, Washington…working hard there/ But I had to come back to Cuba to play music for you/ I promised Barack Obama to go back there when he finishes in the government today/ I don't think I would like to play for Donald Trump/ I think that he only likes money."

Zach Doleac for Rolling Stone

Uncertain Times

President Trump's now-active executive order to build a wall to curtail Mexican immigration and racially charged campaign statements are causing people of color to question their safety. Aléjandro Green, a Rastafarian truck driver, asked us what we thought of Trump before he pointed at the skin on his arm and added, "Do you think we'll survive?" We asked what he thought of the new American president. "What do I think? No, I have to see first…when the man has the power."

Pla

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Holding on to Freedom

Lionel, a Mexican immigrant married to an American woman, came to stay with his mother in Havana when she fell ill, and has been living in Havana since 2015. While explaining his dual citizenship, he pulls out his American passport. "I have this," he says. "I'm safe. I think I'm safe. I hope nobody takes it from me. This is my freedom."

Zach Doleac for Rolling Stone

The Old Guard

Two men take a rest on a Sunday afternoon. There are still apparent generation gaps when it comes to current U.S.- Cuba relations. "For a long time Cubans were taught that America is a demon," says Alberto, a 22-year old Airbnb manager in Havana, not pictured here. "For many of the older generation, that meant Americans were demons. But now we are taught in school that you have to humanize Americans. An American is not America. I have not met a single American that I have not liked yet. You learn that it's about people. I've met a lot of bad people, but I've only met good Americans. The more you have the opportunity to have experiences with people and places the less your opinions depend on what someone else teaches or tells you. It's important to have the opportunity to depend on your experiences."

Zach Doleac for Rolling Stone

Connected in Cuba

Women stand in a government-designated WiFi area to connect to the Internet on smart phones. All residents and visitors to the island are required to purchase Internet access cards from the government and can only access the web in places approved and equipped with routers by the government. "I explain our situation like this," says artist Jorgé Rodriguez Diez, aka R10. "Sixty years ago, everyone in the world used dial phones. Then smart phones were invented, and everyone in the world got smart phones. Every Cuban has a metaphorical smart phone in their hand, but we choose to use them exactly like a dial phone – never to their full capability. It's ignorance that we are accepting."

Zach Doleac for Rolling Stone

An Uncertain Future

Artist Ismary Rodriguez captures the current state of anticipation, hope, and fear of both Americans and Cubans with a collection of prints, including one that reads "TR(I)UMP(H)?"

"I think Obama did a lot of good things," says Lionel, the  street performer in Old Havana. "I hope this new president is going to be a great one – for everybody. For you guys, for all the people who are leaving here to go over there." Artist Jorgé Rodriguez Diez concluded while working in his studio, "Only time will tell."