Time will tell, but many believe it was the most-watched U.S. election in Cuba's history.
us election cuba
Photo credit: David Rotbard

In the fall of 2018, two years into the Trump presidency, I studied abroad in Cuba. As a friend and I were walking by the Gran Teatro de la Habana one afternoon, chatting in English, a Cuban woman excitedly stopped us. 

¿Norteamericanas?” she asked.  

When we replied with a hesitant “,” she grinned widely, flashed both middle fingers, and proudly yelled “F*ck Trump!” 

We were caught off guard by the outburst, but were even more surprised when the woman fell into step beside us. Genuinely curious, she began peppering us with questions about the inner workings of the American political system and our thoughts on the president. We had a pretty pleasant conversation, which ended only because we all had to head home for dinner. 

When we replied with a hesitant “,” she grinned widely, flashed both middle fingers, and proudly yelled “F*ck Trump!” 

While most Americans tend to conceptualize the last sixty-plus years of policy between the United States and Cuba as a bitter fight between governments with competing ideologies, they forget that there are millions more people involved. In fact, it’s regular Cubans like the señora who stopped us —los cubanos de a pie—who tend to feel the impact of U.S. foreign policy towards Cuba most strongly. Because of this, Cubans on the island were arguably just as invested in the 2020 presidential election as Americans. 

havana cuba
Photo credit: David Rotbard

“These elections have been the most followed of all time in Cuba,” says Kevin Jane Villamarín, a philosophy student from Mayabeque. “On the street, all the talk was about the United States elections — while standing in line, at the park, in work centers, people were saying how bad it would be if Trump were re-elected.”

“The last years of Obama’s presidency gave Cubans a lot of hope… The advances were notable, Cuba was moving forward and opening. When Trump became president, all of that ended and began to reverse.”

Kevin Jane Villamarín

Former President Obama made history when he traveled to Cuba at the end of his second term, the first and only active U.S. president to visit the island since 1928. This marked a pivotal point in the “thaw” of U.S.-Cuba relations, which officially began on December 17, 2014 (17D) with the announcement that both countries would reestablish diplomatic relations. In the months that followed, Cuba and the United States banged out 22 bilateral agreements, including regular flights between the two countries, collaborative cancer research, and environmental conservation efforts, among others. 

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“The last years of Obama’s presidency gave Cubans a lot of hope,” Kevin emphasizes. “The advances were notable, Cuba was moving forward and opening. When Trump became president, all of that ended and began to reverse.”

…given that Biden was President Obama’s right-hand man during the thaw, many Cubans are hopeful that he’ll repeal President Trump’s restrictions and continue to improve relations with the island. 

Jorge Bencomo Cuestas, another university student from Artemisa, agrees. “There exists an embargo that with [the Trump administration] was further exacerbated, to the point that almost every week there was some measure that caused economic asphyxiation,” he says. “It provoked the elimination of remittances and the lessening of family visits to Cuba, which distances family members on both sides of the strait of Florida.” 

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Renowned Cuban scholar Rafael Hernández explains in a recent article for OnCuba News that the changes enacted by the Trump administration weren’t qualitatively different than previous U.S. policy towards Cuba. Rather, they were an unfortunate return to normal after the anomaly of the Obama-era thaw. Additionally, he argues that even the progress made under Obama was marked by a “radical asymmetry” in economic and political power that placed most of the burden of improving relations on Cuba, which has gone unrecognized for extending an olive branch unprompted on multiple occasions.

Still, Trumpian limits on travel, tourism, educational exchange, and remittances have severely affected the Cuban economy. Limits on the length of U.S. visa validity for Cubans, the transfer of visa processing to Colombia, and the implementation of Title III of the Helms-Burton Act —which allows U.S. citizens to sue foreign companies operating on property confiscated by the Cuban revolutionary government— have further deteriorated diplomatic relations. 

Then there’s the general anti-Cuba rhetoric that continues to offend island officials and hinder progress. “The Trump administration has basically reestablished the Monroe Doctrine, and has created an extremely recalcitrant sentiment of nationalist ideology bordering on fascism,” says Jorge. 

vinales cuba
Photo credit: David Rotbard

However, given that Biden was President Obama’s right-hand man during the thaw, many Cubans are hopeful that he’ll repeal President Trump’s restrictions and continue to improve relations with the island. 

“There are those who pessimistically believe that ‘nothing will change’ or that ‘the problem isn’t those governing over there, but rather those governing here’,” Kevin admits. “But for the most part, with Joe Biden, people hope that the ‘good path’ that began to be constructed under Obama continues and strengthens.” 

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Though many Cubans are celebrating Biden’s win after nights of nail biting and circulating political memes about Nevada just like their American counterparts, that much-anticipated “good path” to normalization is unlikely to be without its challenges. Firstly, we’ll have to see how the Trump administration’s recent allegations of voter fraud play out in court. The question of U.S. policy towards Venezuela and its allies, notably Cuba, is also a big one. And lastly, while normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba will certainly help, it won’t solve all of Cuba’s domestic problems. 

“For four years there can be an American president that favors us, but in the next four, there could be one that’s hostile and makes things here go very badly.”

Kevin Jane Villamarín

“For four years there can be an American president that favors us, but in the next four, there could be one that’s hostile and makes things here go very badly,” Kevin comments. “That’s why I think we should focus on the internal order — there’s too much that we can’t depend on, and that’s what worries me most.”

us election cuba
Photo credit: David Rotbard

But it’s not all doom and gloom. As Hernández points out, the glimmer of hope is that the framework for improving U.S.-Cuba relations is still there. All that remains to be seen is if Biden will use it.

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Gabriela Rivero

Gabriela Rivero is a rising senior at Harvard College majoring in Sociology with a minor in Latinx Studies. She comes from a colorful Caribbean (Cuban & Venezuelan) and Mediterranean (Spanish & Italian) background, to which she attributes her love of sunshine and her addiction to guava pastelitos. Gabby uses her English–Spanish bilingualism in her work with the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic (HIRC), helping immigrants obtain asylum in the United States. After college, she plans on going to law school to become an immigration attorney —shocker!-— specializing in asylum law. She enjoys writing, cooking, singing, and playing tennis and guitar. However, Gabby’s favorite activity is traveling to Cuba, exploring her grandparents’ home country and visiting the friends she made while studying abroad at the University of Havana.

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