Leaving the ill winds of Washington behind, President Donald J. Trump basked in the adulation of supporters in a packed Manuel Artime Theater in Little Havana, the heart of the Cuban exile community in Miami, where he announced on Friday his rollback of Washington-Havana relations and a crackdown on travel and business ties to the island.
His directive, signed with a Trumpian flourish after the speech, prohibits Americans from doing business with companies controlled by the military in Cuba, which controls much of the economy and the tourism industry. Claiming that the Obama rapprochement with Cuba had only strengthened the communist government and the military, Trump dealt a major one-two blow to Cuba’s thriving tourism industry, small businesses and entrepreneurs.
But he didn’t go all the way to wipe out the Obama policy: Embassies in Washington and Havana will remain open; licensed people-to-people tour groups will continue to operate but under stricter rules; cruises and direct flights will continue; and Cuban-Americans will travel freely to the island.
Reaching some Cuba experts on both sides, I heard exultation and condemnation.
“President Obama failed both Cuban human rights advocates and the American business community when he crafted a deal that benefitted no one but Raul Castro’s thugs,” Kristina Arriaga, vice chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal commission, told me by email. “President Trump is right to restrict trade and travel with Cuba. Cuba is not yet open for business. To think otherwise is a fantasy.”
But Emily Mendrala, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy in the Americas, emailed me, “I’m in Havana now, and it’s clear to me that the Cuban people want engagement with the United States to continue. Even in the hours since my plane landed, I’ve heard as much from several people working in Cuba’s private sector – the hostess and property manager for the Airbnb I’m staying in, my taxi driver from a private taxi service – each of them depends on U.S. engagement for business, and values contacts with U.S. visitors.”
Twelve years ago, in 2005, when I first visited Cuba on a reporting assignment, I saw little commerce in Havana. Russian-made cars rattled down broken down streets even along the famous Malecon; food was mediocre to terrible even at the Hotel Nacional, where I stayed; families lived in ruined mansions without electricity; neighborhood grocery markets were foul, their poultry and meat covered in flies, ripe vegetables spoiled. My drivers avoided political questions, and the city seemed at least half a century behind developing Caribbean and Central American countries.
But there was, even then, an optimism that the island would prosper if it could entice Americans back. I was told this openly by high-level members of the Castro government. They were seriously putting in motion a plan for tourism development with Americans in mind. “Americans spend more money than anyone else,” one Ministry of Tourism executive said readily.
But Jose I. Jimenez, a Cuba-born Miami businessman I’ve known for years, who came to the United States as a child on a Peter Pan flight, tells me frankly, “The Obama policy resulted in a significant increase in repression of opposition leaders. Cuba’s communist leaders mockingly repressed opposition party leaders and members to the point of almost daring the U.S. to respond. The Obama government never responded. Participation in the ridiculously limited and anemic openings to free market initiatives were always denied to the people in the opposition. Any relaxation of Cuban government restrictions on private enterprise only benefitted Castro government apologists.”
That’s a refrain often heard in the endless debates that define so much of life in the Cuban exile community. No retort will suffice or change minds. It’s been that way for half a century, and only younger generations show inclination to consider the other side. But in the last presidential election, not enough of them voted to preserve Obama-era reconciliation. At least half of the Cuban American bloc favored Trump and won Florida for him.
Apart from partisan politics, what’s the real impact of Trump’s policy on Cuba’s and U.S. economy and business? No question, Trump’s policy will hit U.S. businesses. Many American corporations and the US Chamber of Commerce support closer trade and economic ties to Cuba. A report released recently by Engage Cuba estimated that rolling back the Obama policy on Cuba could cost U.S. businesses and taxpayers $6.6 billion over the course of Trump’s first term in office and could affect 12,295 jobs in this country. Cuba will take a harder hit. Restrictions on American travel will damage hotel and restaurant businesses, shops, and deprive taxi drivers, waiters, hotel janitors and maids, bartenders, guides and others linked to tourism their only means of having independent income.
Belmont Freeman, a half Cuban New York-based architect, adjunct professor at Columbia and columnist for the online journal Places, told me cutbacks on travel,“Pretty much all of the new paladares, clubs, guest houses, fleets of restored automobiles, and other private businesses that we’ve seen pop up in Havana have been the consequence of the off-island money that has flowed into Cuba since Obama lifted restrictions. If that is cut off by Trump, it will really hurt the Cuban people, so many of whom have aspirations to private enterprise. If Trump makes travel to Cuba more difficult for Americans, that will induce a slump in tourism.’’
Trump would not reverse businesses like the airlines, cruise ship lines, hotel operators, and telecommunications companies already doing business in Cuba, Mr. Freeman said. “Indeed, the Trump Organization has already had people in Cuba scouting for hotel and golf resort sites.”
"These measures will crush the emerging Cuban small businesses by taking away the possibilities of more economic opportunity and will further isolate the Cuban people," said Mariola Montequin, a multicultural-communications consultant in the Washington area, daughter of Cuban exiles, and graduate of Georgetown University and the University of Puerto Rico.
All this reminds me of my most recent visit to Cuba, a year after the Obama-Castro opening. Havana seemed transformed. This time I stayed at the Parque Central, a restored colonial building, run by the Spanish hotelier Iberostar, fitted with a lush lobby, modern facilities and amenities, good service, good food, and a horde of American tourists. The lobby was perennially crowded with Americans trying to work their iPhones.
Old Havana was a hive of activity with strollers and peddlers in leafy plazas, crowds at the museums; freshly painted yellow taxis lined up in front of hotels; sophisticated restaurants; and glorious baroque and Beaux Arts colonial-era buildings renovated and retrofitted for the 21st century. Air-conditioned tourist buses rolled up to hotels day and night; peddlers, sightseeing tour guides, and souvenir hawks smiled happily for tips, dollars the government could not take away from them. Fledging private enterprises like those were growing with the tourism industry, especially private car services, upper-class restaurants and shops, and boutique Airbns. Havana seemed an open city, a city beginning to come into its own, welcoming the world.