Sandra is a 32-year-old Cuban psychologist. In 2015 she began to rent her home in the Flores neighborhood, outside of historic Old Havana, to take advantage of the boom in US tourism following the historic breakthrough in US-Cuban relations announced by Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro on December 17, 2014. But now the boom is a bust. This fall, she turned in her cuentapropista—self-employment—license since, she says, “only American tourists are willing to be this far from the center and pay the prices we charge for these residences.”
Julio is a 68-year-old retiree. At considerable cost, he restored and altered his 1951 Oldsmobile, cutting off the roof and transforming it into one of the popular vintage convertibles that give Havana’s streets so much color and character. American visitors love these classic US cars so much that, until recently, they paid as much as $50 an hour to drive around in one. Today, Julio’s car is at home. There are no more tourists to pay for his services; and because there’s no longer a roof, he can’t drive the car around as a taxi for Cubans because the “sun is too bothersome.”
Sandra and Julio’s dire economic experiences show the impact of the Trump administration’s efforts to sabotage the recent opening in relations. Trump began the rollback on June 16, with regime-change rhetoric and a new directive curtailing the ability of individual US citizens to travel to Cuba. His administration further scared potential travelers by announcing a “travel warning” in late September, tied to the mysterious maladies that affected US Embassy personnel last winter. And on November 9, the US State and Treasury departments issued new rules and regulations on US travel to Cuba, as well as a “Cuba Restricted List” of hotels and stores where those who do travel are prohibited from any commercial transaction. The result is that potential individual US travelers appear confused, scared, and, in too many cases, deterred from coming to Cuba.
Trump’s declared intention behind this decision is to prevent tourist dollars from going to the Cuban military. In practice, however, his policy hurts Cuban entrepreneurs—the very private-sector small businesses that US officials claim to support. Cubans who opened private restaurants that cater to US visitors, who fixed up their homes and began renting them on AirBnB, who are restoring and driving those alluring vintage US cars, and who became guides and fixers for the tens of thousands of US citizens who came to Cuba in 2016 and the first half of 2017, are among those most affected. Those Cubans—I am one of them—bet on, and invested in, the continued growth of American tourism on the island.
President Obama opened the door to that tourism with the expectation that tourist dollars would help expand Cuba’s small private sector. He authorized individual US citizens to designate themselves as “people-to-people” visitors. Trump’s new regulations eliminate that category for individual travelers. Now, all non-academic educational visits under the “people-to-people” licenses must be done through a recognized US group-tour agency. This last point is key, as the individual people-to-people category was the one most commonly used by Americans visiting the island; it was the easiest to obtain, the cheapest way to visit Cuba, and the one that offered the most freedom to travel around the island.