Within 12 hours of President Trump’s announcement that he plans to limit travel to and trade with Cuba, Julio Álvarez and Nidialys Acosta had received three cancellations from groups of American visitors.
Julio and Nidialys founded Nostalgicar, a private taxi and classic car repair shop in Havana, in 2012, and now employ 10 drivers and 14 mechanics. In the last couple years, business – particularly from American travelers – has been very good.
When we visited the Nostalgicar repair shop last Saturday, they were worried.
The day before, President Trump had declared in Miami, “The previous administration’s easing of restrictions on travel and trade does not help the Cuban people,” announcing that he would roll back significant pieces of the policy. In his National Security Presidential Memorandum on Cuba, the President directed federal agencies to begin drafting new regulations curtailing travel and commerce, prohibiting individual people-to-people travel and placing limits on U.S. visitors’ financial transactions. According to a fact sheet released by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, regulatory changes will be issued “in the coming months.”
Since President Obama allowed Americans to write their own itineraries and travel to the island on their own, and restored regularly scheduled commercial flights to Cuba several months later, U.S. travel to the island has skyrocketed. Between 2015 and 2016, the number of U.S. visitors increased by 74 percent, and in the first five months of 2017, Cuba saw as many U.S. visitors as it did in all of 2016.
As we’ve joined many others in pointing out, President Trump’s claim that his impending policy changes will “support the Cuban people” just doesn’t match up with the reality we know in Cuba.
“It has already affected my business,” Julio told us Saturday. “I don’t see how it can be positive for the Cuban people … We’ll have to see what happens, but in the meantime, I am already losing money.”
Nidialys added: “President Trump says he wants to support the Cuban people. Tell me how.”
Just hours after President Trump’s speech, we visited Niuris Higueras. Niuris founded the popular private restaurant Atelier, and has been in Cuba’s restaurant business since the 1990s. “Eighty-five percent of my clients are now Americans. For businesses like mine, it will be really hard – we will have to find other clients,” she said.
Visitors from the U.S. spending dollars in Cuba have helped breathe life into the country’s nascent private sector. Twenty-five percent of Cuba’s working population is now employed in the private sector, up from just 12 percent in 2010. Since 2011, the Cuban government has approved 201 forms of self-employment, ranging from owning and working in restaurants to being a cobbler, from taxi services to accounting services, from party planning to being a barber. This has been life-changing for many Cubans who have been able to start their own businesses.
The Washington Post’s Nick Miroff reported on Twitter this week that in March 2016, when President Obama authorized individual people-to-people travel, there were about 4,000 Airbnb listings in Cuba. As of Monday of this week, there are 22,000 listings. “They’re related,” wrote Miroff. Indeed, as Airbnb announced earlier this month, “in 2016, over 12 percent of all U.S. travelers to Cuba … stayed in an Airbnb.” Since the company entered the Cuban market in April 2015, hosts on the island have brought in a collective $40 million, with the average annual payout for hosts at $2,700 each.
One Airbnb host we spoke with said, “It’s like we take one step forward, then 20 back.” That one step forward, particularly for Cubans renting out their homes to visitors using Airbnb, has been a big one.
Yamina Vicente, a former professor of economics at the University of Havana, owns a party decorations business called Decorazón. “This is not only a halt to improved relations, it is a step backwards,” she said of President Trump’s planned rollback of engagement. “This is not good news for anybody. Not only tourism-related businesses will be affected, but all the other businesses that depend on the overall health of the economy.”
Yamina was one of over a hundred Cuban entrepreneurs who wrote to President Trump soon after the election to encourage him to continue engagement, particularly travel, saying, “U.S. policy towards Cuba greatly affects our day-to-day reality … An influx of American and Cuban American visitors stimulates growth for our businesses, directly and indirectly.” They continued, “Small businesses in Cuba have the potential to be drivers of economic growth in Cuba and important partners of the U.S. business community.”
“Apparently President Trump did not listen to our letter,” Yamina told us. “This is so unfortunate – we had advanced so much.”
At the end of the day Saturday, we met up with Magia López and Alexey Rodríguez of the hip-hop duo Obsesión. “Today, we’re a little angry,” Magia said.
They had listened to President Trump’s speech, as he told the crowd in Miami’s Artime Theater that he and the U.S. “will stand with the Cuban people.”
“President Trump says he stands with the Cuban people, but with which Cuban people?” Alexey asked. “It’s an empty statement.”
“It wasn’t surprising,” Alexey said, to hear the President of the United States speak that way. “President Trump’s actions will hurt people in Cuba and, as always, those most affected are at the bottom.” If President Trump’s planned restrictions on travel and trade go through, “a lot of families will be affected” – not just small business owners.
Cubans are accustomed to enduring the ebbs and flows of U.S. policy toward the island, each tide with direct impact on their lives – this is a part of the Cuban reality. And they don’t like it.
Julio left us with a message to take back to Washington: “I hope you return to the U.S. with the will to help the Cuban people.”
These are the messages Cubans want to get to the White House. They know the people of the U.S. and Cuba stand to gain even more than they already have from continuing engagement, and they are eager to help President Trump to understand.
These are the voices of people most affected by his decisions on Cuba policy. He should hear them.
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