HAVANA—Cubans fear the “bromance” between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin could result in a U.S. invasion of the communist island.
A day after American voters elected Donald Trump, President Raúl Castro placed the Cuban military on high alert and announced military exercises. Then, to mark the Revolution’s anniversary on New Year’s Day, Cuba’s military marched through downtown Havana in a show of force.
It may appear unreasonable to most Americans that Cuba expects Trump to invade the island. Yet many Cubans believe this is a possibility.
Cubans are fearful, dreading the worse.
“Trump’s policies are very aggressive,” Pedro Machado, a retired engineer, told Britian’s Independent. “We’ll have to see what he actually does. But it certainly looks like bad news for Latin America and for Cuba in particular. … The United States has acted as an empire, and that’s what Trump represents. Given what he has said, the future is not looking great.”
That sentiment is widely shared. Joaquin Villanueva, who moonlights as a taxi driver in front of the Hotel Inglaterra, worries about a possible invasion: “We’ve always been told to prepare for an invasion, but with Trump it looks more likely.”
On Monday, when Cuba commemorated the 58th anniversary of the Revolution, the Cuban people were told to prepare for the worst from the incoming Trump administration. “We are braced for conflict with the USA, we always have been,” Marcial García, aged 70, told reporters. “But I hope Trump will instead follow the path … towards normalization.”
It is a fear fueled both by historical precedent and paranoia.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev bypassed Fidel Castro and negotiated with John F. Kennedy directly. Mexican ambassador to Havana, Gilberto Bosques, was charged with keeping Fidel Castro in the dark while Khrushchev and Kennedy ended the crisis.
Now, Raúl Castro fears that a quid pro quo will result in Trump and Putin negotiating a deal in which Cuba is sacrificed, in order to cement relations between Washington and Moscow.
The idea of invading Cuba may have a certain appeal to some of Trump’s advisers. After all, it would be a grand gesture that serves the “can-do” image the incoming administration is cultivating.
During the New Year’s party at Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s estate in Palm Beach, Florida, cocktail chatter among some guests noted that America’s military is best when it invades countries in Latin America, a person in attendance reported. Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada in October 1983 was “easy,” remembered as “a lovely little war” and George H.W. Bush’s invasion of Panama in December 1989, named “Operation Just Cause,” is fondly remembered as a success, some guests reportedly reminisced.
Now a few advisers to Trump believe “liberating” Cuba is a “Just Cause” long overdue that would be a “lovely” little way for Trump to signal to the world that American military power is great again.
Proponents argue a military operation against Castro would truly “open up” Cuba in a way Obama’s reestablishment of diplomatic relations has failed to do. Indeed, in the year and a half since the United States and Cuba reestablished diplomatic relations, apart from U.S. airlines commencing regular service and Starwood announcing a contract to manage one hotel, nothing has been achieved.
Cubans are exasperated by the “nothingness” and broken promises.
A measure of their discontent can be seen in one startling fact: the number of Cuban refugees following the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. In 2014, for instance, fewer than 25,000 Cubans sought political asylum. In 2016, that number had almost doubled to more than 45,000. Critics point to this mass exodus as proof of the failure of Obama’s overtures to the communist island nation. And, in an unthinkable act, Fidel Castro’s tomb was vandalized just over a week after El Comandante was laid to rest.
Just over a week after Fidel Castro’s funeral, his tomb was vandalized … “Abajo Fidel” — Down with Fidel.
Meanwhile, the Cuban regime is lashing out at critics and opponents: more than 10,000 Cubans have been arrested by security forces since diplomatic ties were restored.
Some in Trump’s transition team see the mass exodus of Cubans, the crackdown on political dissent, and the brazen acts of defiance—graffiti proclaiming “Down with Fidel” on his tomb—as a signal that a swift military action can be a quick affair.
There are strong domestic and foreign reasons coalescing around this idea.
Trump’s estate in Palm Beach is less than 300 miles from Havana; the White House is 860 miles away. Last week there was talk of the convergence of interests: “Liberating” Cuba would reward the Cuban exile community in South Florida whose votes put Florida in Trump’s column. It would cement Trump’s credentials among conservatives, finally delivering on a promise that has not been kept since Kennedy’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion. It would ensure that the two Cuban-American senators in Washington, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, would support Trump’s agenda for years to come. And it would allow Cuban Americans, among the most educated and wealthiest Hispanic constituency in the United States, to put their capitalist skills to work in Cuba.
There are also powerful foreign policy incentives at play. Russian leader Vladimir Putin loathes Raúl Castro. Putin is still furious that Russia had to write off $32 billion in Cuban debt he inherited from Soviet Union.
Trump advisers bet the Russian leader wants revenge. Why? Putin, like Trump, holds grudges and loves to dole out payback.
Putin, after all, has tolerated Raúl Castro because he had hoped to use Cuba as a listening post to spy on the United States. With Trump, an ally, in the White House, that may no longer be necessary.
More thought provoking is the “hypothetical” that invading Cuba could be the first Trump-Putin cooperative venture: Russia’s intimate knowledge of Cuba’s military, which it helped build over decades, could be used to expedite any invasion. Trump would get his first foreign policy win, defeating Communism on America’s doorstep, “liberating” a nation from tyranny, opening a virgin market for American goods, and rewarding those conservatives and Cuban Americans who supported him. Putin would exact revenge on a deadbeat nation he despises and he would curry Trump’s support for Russia’s own ambitions for the former Soviet republics on its borders.
Raúl Castro understands—and fears—his predicament.
He is well aware of the seductive quid pro quo in the works: Putin will allow Trump’s “liberation” of Cuba and in return Trump will recognize Putin’s annexation of Crimea.
“Getting rid of Castro would be like finally swatting an annoying mosquito that has been buzzing around for far too long,” said a source close to the Trump transition team. “And if Putin wants Crimea, well, why shouldn’t he have it?”