HAVANA: Alex Romero was delighted when President Barack Obama came to Havana in March bearing the promise of a bright new future.
Like so many other Cubans, the 42-year-old state photography shop employee thrilled at the president’s vision of restored ties between the U.S. and Cuba. Families would reunite. A flood of American business would lift the stagnant centrally planned economy, fueling its slow path toward reform. Even as Obama spoke, an 80 percent surge in U.S. visitors was drenching state-run and private businesses with hundreds of millions of desperately needed dollars.
Nine months later, the world seen from Havana looks very different.
President Raul Castro faces what could be his toughest year since he took power in 2006. 2017 brings a possible economic recession and a U.S. president-elect who has promised to undo Obama’s normalization unless the Cuban government makes new concessions on civil rights. Resistance to pressure from Washington is a founding principle for the Cuban communist system, making domestic concessions in exchange for continued detente a virtual impossibility.
“People expected that after Obama came there would be changes in the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba but that we could keep the best of what we have, the benefits for the people,” Romero said. “Trump’s not going to be able to get what he wants, another type of Cuba. If the world’s number one power takes us on, 2017 is going to be really bad for us.”
Castro must manage these twin economic and diplomatic challenges during a year of transition. The 85-year-old general has promised to hand over the office in early 2018 to a successor, widely expected to be Miguel Diaz-Canel, a 56-year-old official with neither the Castro name nor revolutionary credentials. The change will occur without Castro’s older brother Fidel, the revolutionary leader whose largely unseen presence endowed the system he created with historical weight and credibility in the eyes of many Cubans before he died last month at 90.
“Even if those two events hadn’t taken place – Trump’s victory and Fidel’s death – 2017 was going to be a very difficult year for Cuba,” said Cuban economist Omar Everleny Perez, a visiting professor at Keio University in Tokyo.