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Trump’s tough Cuba line scores big in Little Havana

By AFP   |   17 June 2017   |   8:19 am  

A man holds signs referencing US President Donald Trump's policy on Cuba, June 16, 2017 in Miami, Florida.<br />Trump on Friday vowed to roll back his predecessor Barack Obama's deal re-opening trade ties with Havana, in favor of measures to support the Cuban people against what he called their "cruel and brutal" regime. / AFP PHOTO / Jose CARUCI

President Donald Trump's new measures restricting some trade and travel with Cuba did not go very far in practical terms, but they made a big noise in the place most eager to hear it: Miami's Little Havana neighborhood.

In return, the Cuban-Americans who turned out to welcome him to the symbolic heart of the exile community rewarded Trump with what in turn he seems to want the most: wild applause.

Hundreds packed the rickety Manuel Artime Theater -- from recently arrived dissidents fleeing Raul Castro's rule, to older veterans of failed CIA covert operations and the new generation of Cuban-American US lawmakers.


Back in Washington, Trump's critics warned that his clampdown on dealings with Cuban military-run tour firms and on private US travel to the communist-run island would only impoverish ordinary Cubans and threaten diplomatic rapprochement.

American private sector firms and business groups warned that he was cutting off avenues for investment that could only provide more opportunities for Cubans -- and profits and jobs for companies north of the Florida strait.

Still other observers noted that -- for all the hype about the reversal of the painstaking efforts towards rapprochement by Trump's predecessor Barack Obama -- the new measures amounted to little more than a commitment to enforce existing laws.

But here, the resounding speeches by Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Florida Senator Marco Rubio struck home. The crowd chanted "Viva Cube Libre," sang "God Bless America" and cried out: "Thank you Mr President. We love you."

Before his election campaign last year, Trump had no history of supporting the cause of Cuban freedom -- and since coming to power he has embraced other authoritarian regimes without much pause to consider their human rights records.

But during the 2016 race to the White House he met veterans of Brigade 2506, the units of exiled Cubans covertly trained by the CIA to launch the ill-fated 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion in a failed bid to oust then Cuban strongman Fidel Castro.

The veterans were again at the theater -- named after one of their own -- on Friday to welcome Trump and cheer as he made good on his promise to them to revise Obama's outreach strategy and demand Cuba make good on democratic reform.

"The change is not radical. Trump did not reverse Obama's policy, but made adjustments. Much of Obama's policy remains the same," said Sebastian Arcos, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

For Arcos, Trump was making a gesture to a community that came behind him in the election and a lot of the hype around his visit was whipped up by local leaders for political reasons -- but his decision carried symbolic weight.

By putting his decision in terms of service to US values and human rights, while taking a practical measure to defund Cuban state entities he is trying to recast the embargo as a measure against Raul Castro and government -- not the Cuban people.

This is a message that has some support, even among those in the once monolithic Cuban community who had begun to doubt the embargo and cautiously welcomed Obama's efforts to mend the half-century-old divide.

It's not hard in the scruffy streets of Little Havana, where old men play dominos in parks between Cuban diners and up-and-coming jazz bars, to find hardliners who spit on the "communist Obama" and his supposed sell-out to Castro.

But there are also those who see the value in opening up business links and making family travel easier, giving Cubans back home economic freedom while they wait for politics to catch up -- but even they sympathize with Trump's measures.

The domino park locks its gates at 6:30 pm, but on this muggy early summer evening Gerardo Diaz, 65, and his friends are in no hurry to head home, and happy to argue politics with reporters.

All are anti-Castro to varying degrees, but Diaz and some of the other older players were hopeful about the re-opening of ties -- after all, years of embargo had achieved little. But the idea of military cronies profiting stuck with them.

"I agree with Trump on the military. The government people should not be profiting," he said.

The Trump's new rules prohibit financial transactions with Cuba's military-backed tourism conglomerate GAESA, run by Castro's son-in-law, and an indispensable ally for foreign hotel and cruise brands seeking a foothold

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