By Marc Frank
HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba has jettisoned rhetorical restraint toward the United States and is broadcasting footage of military defense exercises in the face of threats and new sanctions from the administration of President Donald Trump.
The island nation had turned the other cheek over the last two years in the face of Trump’s efforts to end a detente initiated by former President Barack Obama. Local experts said Havana was eager to salvage what it could of improved relations and not be blamed for their deterioration.
Not anymore, as the United States is increasingly blaming Cuba’s Communist government for the political crisis in its left-leaning ally Venezuela and piling new sanctions onto the decades-old trade embargo.
Every day last week, the nightly newscast of Cuban state television showed footage of Soviet-era tanks rolling out from mountain caves, soldiers manning anti-aircraft missile batteries, spandex-clad women shooting rifles and factory workers taking up positions around their plants.
Cuba has always insisted defense preparations are the best way to maintain the peace with the United States and state television described the images as training for “The War of the Whole People.”
Relations between Washington and Havana have nosedived since National Security Adviser John Bolton said in November the United States would no longer appease what he called Latin America’s `troika of tyranny` – Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Few international observers believe the United states has any intention of attacking the Caribbean island, with which it has tense relations since Fidel Castro’s 1959 Revolution. Most view Havana’s military exercises as a way to rally nationalist sentiment.
“The message being sent is for the United States and Cuban population at home,” said Hal Klepak, a Canadian military historian who has written extensively on the Cuban armed forces.
Klepak said, however, the Cuban armed forces take a U.S. military threat against Venezuela very seriously and in worst case scenario planning can not discount a spill-over toward the island.
“Preparations of a very limited kind are being made and the population brought up to speed, both to emphasize the seriousness of the moment and to stiffen popular resolve,” he said.
CHANGE OF TONE
An abrupt change in Cuban rhetoric came last month when President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who replaced Raul Castro a year ago, denounced a speech by Trump as “high-handed, cynical, immoral, threatening, offensive, interfering, hypocritical, warlike and dirty.”
That has set the tone for official rhetoric since then.
In his Florida speech, Trump had launched a broad attack on socialism and pledged to free the hemisphere from communism. He branded Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro a “Cuban puppet” and “a man controlled by the Cuban military and protected by a private army of Cuban soldiers.“
Cuba has furnished tens of thousands of doctors, educators and other technical assistance including intelligence and military assistance to Venezuela’s socialist government since the time of Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, who forged close ties with Fidel Castro. Venezuela in turn has provided Cuba with heavily subsidized crude oil.
Since Trump’s speech, senior U.S. officials have denounced Cuba’s role in Venezuela on an almost daily basis, stirring an angry response in Havana.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo provoked a quick tweet from his Cuban peer, Bruno Rodriguez, on Monday.
“Sec. of State makes a fool of himself when saying ‘Cuba is true imperialist power in Vzla.’ His gov. plundered Vzla for 2 centuries … fabricated ‘self-proclaimed’ president,” Rodriguez said.
The United States led the way in recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as the legitimate president of Venezuela in January – a move followed by dozens of other nations.
The U.S. administration’s decision this month to partially implement Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, a 1996 law, has added fuel to the fire.
Title I and II codify all previous sanctions into law and set conditions that must be met for Congress to lift them.
But previous presidents, both Republican and Democrat, suspended Title III, which allows U.S. citizens, including Cuban-Americans, to sue anyone profiting from their nationalized or confiscated properties. The presidents stopped short because of opposition from foreign governments and fear thousands of lawsuits would clog U.S. courts.
The Trump administration will consider further implementation in April.
Now, not a day goes by without the official Cuban media denouncing the Trump administration and the Helms-Burton Act, which it charges was written by exiles out to reclaim their land and people’s homes and schools to boot.
The return to Cold War rhetoric and new sanctions has disappointed many Cubans for whom the detente had raised hopes the United States might soon lift its crippling embargo on the beleaguered economy and the two countries might normalize relations.
“When Obama was in the presidency, we dreamed of an opening that would make things work better, in a healthier, more pleasant way between the two countries,” said retiree Julia Porrata, who sells used books in the colonial sector of Havana.
“That hope we had is gone,” she said.
(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Steve Orlofsky)