In the first quarter of 2018, fewer than 100,000 tourists from America visited Cuba according to statistics published by the Cuban government. This represents a 40% drop compared to the first quarter of 2017 and is squeezing the burgeoning private sector in Cuba at the same time as the government has stopped issuing new business licenses to entrepreneurs.
After the initial détente in Cuban-American relations during the Obama administration, there was an influx of visitors from the U.S. “We had so many Americans coming that we didn’t know where to put them,” explained Matilde Portela, 73, who runs an Airbnb on the island.
In June 2017, President Trump gave a speech in Miami where he claimed he was “canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba.” Then, two months later, it was revealed that there had been so-called “sonic attacks” on the U.S Embassy in Havana.
In response, the Department of State issued a travel warning recommending that U.S. citizens not visit Cuba. Following on from this, the administration issued revised guidelines for travel in Cuba. These rules were to ensure that U.S. money wasn’t being used to help support the communist government in Cuba. Stores, restaurants, and hotels with links to the Cuban military were off-limits.
While Trump claimed he was “canceling” the arrangement with Cuba, the new rules left open the possibility for individual Americans to visit Cuba. The proviso was that visitors would have to engage with artists or local entrepreneurs on their trip. This restriction was almost identical to the one given by the Obama administration.
Nonetheless, the travel warning coupled with the confusing travel rules seem to have encouraged many Americans to reconsider visiting Cuba. For example, the Texas Christian University canceled plans for a student trip in January this year, citing the travel warning as their reason.
“Americans can still travel to Cuba in almost the same way as they could before, but a lot of people just don’t know that,” says Collin Laverty who runs Cuba Educational Travel. “I think that’s exactly what [the administration] wanted.”
The impact on private industry in Cuba has been profound. Portela says her business has dropped by over 50 percent since the end of last year. “I can’t understand the U.S. government,” she says. “Why not help us build the private sector in Cuba instead of trying to hurt us?”
Nidialys Acosta owns NostalgiCar, a company offering chauffeur-driven classic cars to tourists. Her revenue has fallen by 40 percent in 2018. While the economic embargo has been hard on her business, U.S. tourism offered her company an opportunity to grow revenue. “We cannot get loans. We cannot import spare parts. To even buy them in the United States… I need to use a friend’s credit card because we can’t get one,” she says. “For a while, we at least had the American tourists. They were the ones driving our business growth.”
Acosta is aware of the knock-on effect the reduction in U.S. tourism has had throughout Cuba’s private sector. “The pain is spread beyond just us. We’re hurt, so we don’t spend as much money on restaurants or house cleaners. It’s a chain of small businesses that are affected.”
When asked about the impact on Cuban entrepreneurs of the new U.S. policy, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla) replied that, “If the Cuban people continue to suffer, it is because the Castro regime doesn’t allow them to hire employees and operate and expand their own businesses, not because of the new U.S. policy toward Cuba.”
Despite these problems, there are recent signs of a potential improvement in U.S. tourism to Cuba. For example, the Department of Transportation is currently in the process of awarding new flight routes from the U.S to Cuba.
Image of Senator Marco Rubio by Gage Skidmore.