R.P. is a Cuban entrepreneur. His business consists of him and his car — but this is not just any man and any car. R.P. is 40 years old. Sixteen years ago he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from Havana’s technological university, but six years ago, when government relaxed the rules on private enterprise, he left his transportation specialist job to become a taxi driver. Almost immediately he started earning five, six times his previous salary. His car, of course, is as idiosyncratic and Cuban as he is: a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air he inherited from his father.
A year ago, R.P. converted his sedan into a convertible, the mode of transportation most sought-after by the new crowds of American visitors keen to take in Havana’s sights. To perform this reconstructive surgery, R.P. spent his entire savings and more, some $3,000.
But in November, the American president-elect, Donald J. Trump, threatened to roll back the countries’ newly restored relations. Now R.P. has no idea whether his business will continue to prosper or if he just made the worst investment of his life.
Barack Obama and Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro, began the process of loosening the embargo and strengthening diplomatic ties between their two countries in December 2014. One of the most visible signs of these improved relations was the expansion of Americans’ ability to visit the island and the reinstatement of commercial flights. The most notable of all was the revocation in January 2017 of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy under which Cubans who reached the United States could stay — a policy that the Cuban government had greatly resented.
That was Mr. Obama’s doing, however. It seems doubtful that the relationship between Cuba and the United States will continue to improve under his successor.
On a recent morning, a plane touched down at the Havana airport. The flight, from Miami, lasted 45 minutes. Safely landed, the passengers had to wait another 45 minutes on the runway for a portable staircase to arrive so they could disembark. They then spent 90 more minutes at immigration, customs and baggage retrieval. Total: three hours.
That same evening, on a TV news program, the supervisor of the airport terminal assured viewers that the airport was able to handle the present volume of visitors to Cuba and could absorb even more passengers if the travel embargo were completely eliminated. Yet many Cubans (both here and in the United States, I believe) can’t help wondering whether that will happen.
A reversal in the present state of relations could revive the mistaken political calculation that a hostile American policy will destabilize the island’s government. Cuba, as we know by now, has survived everything from Cold War tensions to the embargo that began in 1962 to the collapse of European Communism, which plunged the country into dire economic straits. The Cuban government withstood those assaults, but it was the Cuban people who bore the brunt of the sacrifice and suffering.
Since Raúl Castro assumed the presidency from his brother Fidel in 2008, one of the most profound changes in Cubans’ lives has been the loosening of restrictions on their travel abroad.
This change has spawned more emigration and a lucrative cottage industry: Many Cubans now travel to Panama, Ecuador, Mexico and Miami as “mules,” returning with kitchen appliances, clothing and food that supply small businesses and the black market here. With each voyage the “mule” can earn up to $200, or what a Cuban doctor earns in four months.
Now President Trump is threatening this freedom, saying that either Cuba changes its political system or he will reverse the United States’ stance. This would effectively continue a policy that President Obama and many others viewed as a failure.
Even with the recovery of the tourism industry and small private businesses, the Cuban economy shrank by 0.9 percent in 2016. In his end-of-the-year address, Raúl Castro called for a more dynamic policy to attract foreign investment. The country needs it to grow. The new relationship with Europe has helped bring Old World businessmen to the island. If Mr. Trump reinstates the old policy, he will prevent American businesses from doing what they normally do: make progress in existing spaces and create new ones, even with an embargo. Will that be good business for the United States?
In the meantime, R.P. and other entrepreneurs like him pray that Cuba’s relationship with the United States will continue to improve. If it doesn’t, their investments and hope for a better life don’t stand a chance. At the same time, hundreds of Cubans preparing to emigrate by crossing the Mexican border were suddenly surprised by the change in immigration policy that Mr. Obama put in place. It has left many of them in limbo, with their houses and goods here already sold.
Mr. Trump’s unsettling comments in November came just as Cubans were mourning the death of Fidel Castro, for so many decades a boogeyman for Washington. After the nine intense days of funeral rites, which came to an end on Dec. 4 — a significant date in Cuba because it is the day of St. Barbara, syncretized as the Orisha warrior Chango — life on the island slowly recovered its very Cuban normality.
Many people celebrated Christmas. The top baseball players still on the island began the decisive playoff period, while the Yoruba priests, in their annual predictions, announced that 2017 would be a magnificent year. But people still are wondering what will happen in the coming months, without Fidel in Cuba and with Mr. Trump on the other side of the Florida Straits and the new immigration agreements in place. Will it really be a good year for Cubans?
Leonardo Padura is a journalist and the author, most recently, of the novel The Man Who Loved Dogs. This essay was translated by Kristina Cordero from the Spanish.