Last month a big anniversary in the western hemisphere went largely unnoticed in the U.S.
Havana – one of the oldest capitals in the Americas – celebrated its 500th birthday. Among the few Americans at the fiesta was former Key West city commissioner and Cuba native Tony Yaniz.
“The final night, the old part of Havana there, they re-lit the Capitol and there was about three hours of music and poetry and dancing, and it was amazing,” said Yaniz, who came to the U.S. in 1960 after his journalist father was hounded out of Cuba by dictator Fidel Castro.
Speaking from Key West, Yaniz – who today supports engagement with the communist island – said he’d hoped to bring hundreds of other Americans with him to Havana for the event. And three years ago that might have been easy. But since the Trump Administration began a new crackdown on U.S. travel to Cuba, "a lot of Americans feel as though either they can’t go or it’s just a hassle to go," Yaniz said. "And so [the Cubans] understood why there wasn’t many more of us, as they call us, North Americans.”
One of those Cubans Yaniz says he talked to briefly at the Havana jubilee was President Miguel Díaz-Canel. He remembered that earlier this year Yaniz hosted Cuba’s ambassador to the U.S., José Cabañas, in Key West. And so the Cuban leader said next year he wants to visit Key West – which is only 90 miles from Havana.
“That’s a goal that I’ve been looking at for more than 40 years," said Yaniz.
But Yaniz wonders if it will still be possible next year for a Cuban president to visit Key West or any part of the U.S. outside the U.N.
“I’m very, very pessimistic at this point," Yaniz conceded, "that it’s gonna shut down.”
What he fears is gonna shut down are diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba – which were only restored five years ago after being, well, shut down for more than half a century.
In recent weeks Washington and Havana have raised the animosity level in ways that lead many to wonder if the U.S. is set to cut ties with Cuba again.
“I think we’re seeing a truly ugly cauldron moment," says John Kavulich, who heads the nonprofit U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council in New York, which closey follows U.S.-Cuba relations.
The cauldron Kavulich’s referring to is the dispute over Cuba’s treatment of a leading dissident named José Daniel Ferrer, who was thrown in prison three months ago. The U.S. – especially the chargé d'affaires who currently heads the U.S. embassy in Havana, Mara Tekach – has been especially critical of Ferrer’s arrest. Cuba is accusing Tekach of attacking the country’s sovereignty – and the U.S. now accuses Cuba of harassing her.
As a result, experts like Kavulich fear this potential scenario:
“The U.S. recalls the charge d’affaires. So the Trump Administration says there’s no reason to have a Cuban ambassador in Washington. Ambassador Cabañas is instructed to leave. The U.S. says there seems to be no need to have embassies. And therefore we go back to interests sections.”
Interests sections were the diplomatic missions the U.S. and Cuba had in each other’s capitals when they did not have full diplomatic relations.
Kavulich admits recalling Charge d’Affaires Tekach from Havana, and expelling Ambassador Cabañas from Washington, would be drastic, and that those moves don't necessarily mean dissolution of diplomatic relations. But he points out the Trump Administration has accelerated efforts to roll back normalized relations with Cuba. And so this – as well as eventually placing Cuba back on the State Department's list of regimes that sponsor terrorism – may be the endgame.
“They believe all the stars have aligned and this is the moment," says Kavulich – especially since all of it’s on the wish list of conservative Cuban voters who support President Trump in Florida.
One of them is Irina Vilariño, a Republican candidate for Congress from Florida's 26th District in Miami and a Trump supporter.
"I believe that the [Trump] Administration is going in the right direction," says Vilariño, a restaurant owner (Las Vegas Cuban Cuisine) who fled Cuba for the U.S. in 1980 durng the Mariel boatlift.
Vilariño too believes the Ferrer case – and Havana's supervision of the brutal security forces of the authoritarian regime in Venezuela – signal the Trump Administration should keep tightening the screws on Cuba.
"You know, I'm always for diplomatic relations, but it's a two-way street," says Vilariño. "And what we got with the [U.S.-Cuba] negotiations form the Obama Administration was basically we were giving everything and the Cuban regime gave nothing in return. I question what has Cuba done to promote our relationship with them?"
Vilariño's question is a fair one. But the bigger question is whether isolating Cuba again will produce the kind of change Cubans like Vilariño want to see there – and pro-engagement pols like Yaniz in Key West argue it failed for more than half a century.
The only thing that's fairly certain is that Cuba's president won't be visiting Key West any time soon.