June 16, 2017 / 9:33 PM / a month ago

Many Cubans crestfallen at Trump's detente roll back

U.S. President Donald Trump is seen on a TV screen announcing his Cuba policy in a state-run bar in Havana, Cuba, June 16, 2017.Alexandre Meneghini

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cubans watched television sets with dismay and anger on Friday as U.S. President Donald Trump railed against their country in a speech from Miami that made many fear a return to an era of frostier U.S.-Cuban relations.

Trump said in the speech widely broadcast in Cuba that he was cancelling former President Barack Obama's "terrible and misguided deal" with the Communist-run island that aimed to normalize ties after five decades of hostility.

"It's like we are returning to the Cold War," said Cuban designer Idania del Rio, who joined a group of friends in a hotel in Old Havana to watch the speech in English on CNN.

"He used rhetoric that President Obama had left behind so it definitely feels like an enormous setback in relations."

In reality, Trump left much of the Obama-era opening in place and did not sever diplomatic ties but his bluster against Cuban's communist rulers and tightening of rules harked back to tougher times.

Some of del Rio's friends were too disappointed to continue watching the speech until the end and left halfway.

In the rest of Havana, Cubans at home watched the speech translated into Spanish on Venezuelan channel Telesur.

"Trump's words seem a bit ambiguous to me because he says he wants the best for the Cuban people while tightening the blockade," said Aurelio Seguera, who watched on an old boxset from a rocking chair in his ramshackle home in Central Havana.

The landmark 2014 detente sparked widespread euphoria in Cuba and raised hopes for an improvement in its ailing economy. 

Eased restrictions fuelled a boom U.S. tourist arrivals, especially in Havana, creating demand for more bed and breakfasts, restaurants, taxis and tour guides in the fledgling private sector. (tmsnrt.rs/2rBfMTI)

But critics say the opening failed to improve rights. Trump justified his partial reversal of Obama’s measures on those grounds, and some Cuban dissidents back his tougher stance, saying repression worsened after the detente.

    Cuban authorities have stepped up short-term detentions of activists, often confiscating their telephones and laptops, and have also come down with a heavy hand on self-employed Cubans who appear to be empowering themselves.

Retired electronics technician Aramis Castillo, 79, watches U.S. President Donald Trump announcing his Cuba policy live on television in his home in Havana, Cuba, June 16, 2017.Alexandre Meneghini

    "When the Obama administration stopped condemning human rights violations in Cuba, the regime here said 'look we can do this and nothing happens, so we can continue repressing more forcefully'," said Jose Daniel Ferrer, who leads the Patriotic Union of Cuba, the largest dissident group.

    Ferrer said his group had 53 activists currently imprisoned due to their political views. Other dissidents agree repression has worsened but say rolling back the detente, which will hurt ordinary Cubans, is not the solution.

    "It will probably not have any benefit in terms of human rights," said Eliecer Avila, the leader of the opposition youth group Somos Mas.

    The Cuban government has withstood the U.S. trade embargo for more than a half century and will not make political concessions to the United States due to economic pressure, said Carlos Alzugaray, a retired Cuban diplomat.

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    "I am concerned it will affect the private sector quite a bit and much more than the Cuban government," he said.

    Without doubt it will impact those in tourism who have benefited from a threefold increase in U.S. visits in the last two years, although it remains unclear how much.

The biggest change in travel policy will be that Americans making educational people-to-people trips, one of the most popular authorized categories, can no longer go to the island on their own but only in groups.

Experts say travellers may simply use the "support for the Cuban people" category instead, depending on how broadly the authorities interpret that going forward.

"We are all really scared because we live from rent," said Maria Elena Reyes, 45, who rents rooms in her large house in a leafy suburb of Havana.

The number of Americans booking her place this year had surpassed all her hopes, she said, but now that demand looked under threat.

    This new setback to the Cuban economy comes at a time when it is wrestling with falling oil shipments from crisis-stricken ally Venezuela and a decline in exports.

    "This is another blow for Cubans and it will hurt our pockets obviously," said Martha Garcia, 51. "With the United States, there is no tranquillity."

Additional reporting by Marc Frank in Havana and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Michael Perry, Frank Jack Daniel and Lisa Shumaker

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