Russian spies, border walls and pussy grabbin’. If the Trump presidency so far has seemed like a nostalgic trip down memory lane with a detour through the worst parts of the 1950’s, it’s because that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be. Nothing proved that more than yesterday’s Cuban policy reversal, officially commemorated in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood at Manuel Artime Theatre. The small, mediocre venue looks like it may have once been a church. Christened after a man chosen by Allen Dulles to lead the C.I.A.’s doomed incursion into Castro’s Cuba, actual members of the paramilitary group Brigade 2506, served as a backdrop for the proceedings. Sitting in makeshift bleachers on stage, the octogenarians faced the packed theatre and the backs of the distinguished speakers.
Opening remarks fell to Senator Mario Diaz-Balart, one of two former relatives of Fidel Castro* in the building. His brother, former congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, was gleefully hopping from one press camera to another giving short, gushing interviews about the policy review. Back on the podium, the Senator had sufficiently warmed the crowd up and invited his colleague Marco Rubio, architect of the whole affair, to appear on stage. Walking out to loud cheers, the young scandal-plagued, first generation Cuban-American Junior Senator soaked up the acclaim showered on him by hundreds of aging, adoring Cuban exiles in the audience. After a few words, he kept the carousel moving, introducing the governor of the State, Rick Scott, who cut his usual, dry and unmemorable figure. Following Scott’s robotic presence was a surprisingly affable Vice President Mike Pence. In hindsight, his brief, yet grandiose words were the perfect aperitif to the main course of slobbering populism that awaited backstage.
When Donald Trump emerged, it may as well have been Beyoncé parachuting down at the DNC victory party that everyone thought was going to happen. The mostly middle-aged spectators, from the front row to the mezzanine, jumped out of their seats with cellphones raised in camera-mode and screaming for joy. The ovation left no doubt who they were really there to see. The President started fast, reminding everyone that he was there to carry out his campaign promise of reversing Obama’s “deal with Cuba” and couldn’t resist mentioning Iran in the same breath, but quickly got back on message. Actual policy changes weren’t on the itinerary. Most of Obama’s “deal” remains intact, including the reopening of the American embassy in Havana and travel to the island but only a few token changes served well enough to make a big show of it and massage an old wound that is routinely kneaded by Republican politicians whenever they come to South Florida.
Trump managed the crowd like a man who knows how to push buttons. Slowly, he worked through the easy marks. He talked about the hardships of the men and women in the bleachers behind him, relating all of it back to the audience members who themselves had suffered at the hands of the Castro regime. Round after round of applause was elicited by stories they had all heard a thousand times, but somehow found a bit more validation when the current occupant of the White House referred to them. Suddenly, Trump began telling a story nobody in the audience seemed to know, about an eight-year-old violin prodigy whose father was imprisoned soon after Castro took over. His name was Luis, he explained, and such great things had been heard about the boy that the new government wanted him to use his gift to serve the revolution. Like in a scene straight out of “The Red Violin”, the child was tracked by a group of soldiers who urged him to play for them. The boy was reluctant and in an act of defiance, began to play the “Star Spangled Banner” to the shocked revolutionaries. To top it off, Trump trots out Luis himself, now a fully-grown adult man, to play the national anthem on his violin in front of the stunned crowd. It was a climactic moment that underscored the theme of the whole afternoon and a few minutes later, the President would make his way towards the tiny oak table to sign his new Cuban policy directive.
Nothing was accomplished other than the humoring of a few thousand old folks who cling to a world that has already come and gone. Fidel Castro is dead and the decades-old Cuban embargo has produced exactly zero results. Change is not only inevitable, it has already taken place and no amount of nostalgia will restore things to the way they were. Trump found great solace in the crowd yesterday. These were people, who like him, cannot deal with a mutable world and seek to stop the onslaught of change by building walls, barricades and fortifications. But not even the President of the United States can stem the inexorable tide of change, no matter how many threats, bombs or sanctions he throws at it.
A multi-polar world is in the offing, spurred on by a revolution far more powerful than the one launched by Castro almost sixty years ago. It is the information revolution that is transforming the way everything works and is reducing the leverage of large state actors like the United States, who will increasingly find themselves at the mercy of global, non-state collectives asserting their rights and pursuing their interests. Things like the blockchain, the IoT and the creative commons are upending traditional notions of capitalist organization; big data-driven companies are re-writing the way business is done and growing automation in the workplace is leading us into a labor-less society that will demand new ways of organizing ourselves.
Trump’s election is a symptom of the same resistance to change and while yesterday’s event in Little Havana was billed by his supporters as a reclamation of things as they should be, it was simply a reprising of a past that is no longer viable.
*Mirta Diaz-Balart, Fidel Castro’s first wife, is Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart’s aunt.