After second US policy flip in as many years, Cubans ask, 'What's next?'

The tourism industry may be most immediately impacted by President Trump's executive order tightening restrictions on US travel and business in Cuba. But the policy may have consequences for internal politics as well, some analysts say.

Ramon Espinosa/AP
A man walks past a television set showing US President Trump signing the new Cuba policy, in a living room festooned with images of Cuban leaders at a house in Havana, Cuba, on Friday, June 16, 2017.

Like most Cubans’ apartments, Yanela Duran Noa’s four-bedroom went nearly unchanged for almost six decades. She didn’t have the income to upgrade the outdated fixtures or replace sagging furniture.

That changed last year, when the island saw an influx of US tourism. In 2012, Ms. Duran, had received government permission to rent one bedroom in her central Havana home; in 2016, she started booking through Airbnb, for $30 per night.

“The room was rented to capacity. Now, before a current month ends, the next month is already booked,” she says from her home, which overlooks a hodgepodge of dirty concrete buildings interspersed with freshly painted ones in shades of blue and green. She finally has the money to remodel three bathrooms and three bedrooms, and has plans to apply for permission to rent two more rooms.

Across Havana, cracks in intricately painted tile floors, crooked window panes eroded by decades of hurricane seasons, and bedroom fans that buzz as loudly as prop planes but barely circulate the air are all part of the allure for many Americans, who envision Cuba as a land stuck in time. That image helped draw more than 600,000 US tourists last year, after former President Barack Obama loosened individual travel restrictions.

But the uncertainty surrounding President Trump’s executive order last Friday has Cubans in and outside the tourism sector concerned about what’s next. The new rules aren’t a total rollback to pre-Obama restrictions, but will once again limit individual US travel to Cuba, and aim to clamp down on money going to the Cuban military, which runs most hotels on the island. And, in a diplomatic relationship better known for its animosity than trust, the move has symbolic importance: not only in US politics, but for Cuba’s own internal reforms, analysts say.

“Cuban tourism isn’t solely dependent on the US market, but it’s an increasingly important market,” says Michael Bustamante, an assistant professor of history at Florida International University. Even so, the policy change still “has the potential to hurt people – the average people who rent a room or own a snack bar,” he says.

“You’re taking the sails out of a kind of momentum that was important for individual lives and had an important resonance in internal politics,” Dr. Bustamante says. “Cuba is in a delicate moment.”

Human rights debate

One of the central reasons cited in Mr. Trump’s change in US-Cuba policy has to do with human rights, with the president announcing in Miami on Friday that he would “expose the crimes of the Castro regime and stand with the Cuban people in their struggle for freedom.”

The government has a long track record of citizen repression, and critics of Obama’s rapprochement have pointed to the lack of improvement on political prisoners or press censorship since then as reasons to once again roll back US-citizen spending or business investment.

“The profits from investment and tourism flow directly to the military,” Trump said Friday. “The regime takes the money and owns the industry. The outcome of the last administration's executive action has only been more repression.”

Some analysts, however, argue that the rollback will do little to improve Cubans’ rights. José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division, argues that important changes in civil liberties and human rights took place in the lead-up to the diplomatic thaw and the subsequent two and a half years. This includes more space for human rights activists, academics, and bloggers to speak out and generate debate, he says.

“The unilateral sanctions over more than half a century imposed by Washington [have] been a total failure,” Mr. Vivanco said on a call with the Atlantic Council in the lead up to Trump’s announcement last week, calling it “highly unrealistic” to expect different results from Trump’s rollback.

Carlos Alzugaray Treto, a former Cuban ambassador and retired professor at the University of Havana, casts doubt on the administration’s human rights argument. Trump is catering to Cuban-Americans opposed to any interaction with the Castro government, he says, and human rights “are simply used for justifying” the change.

“The damage is going to be felt by Cubans more than the military, more than the government,” he says.

New opportunities

The diplomatic thaw hasn’t transformed the country. But it has provided an important influx of money – and opportunity – on the island just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, many Cubans and analysts agree. And the timing was key: it provided a new lifeline to Cuba as the economy stuttered, and as it lost most help from a key benefactor, Venezuela, thanks to that country’s own economic and political crises.

President Raúl Castro took over from his brother, Fidel, in 2008, and attempted to revive the flailing economy through gradual reforms like allowing citizens to open their own businesses or buy and sell property. Today, there are an estimated 500,000 self-employed Cubans. Many work in tourism: setting up restaurants in their homes, driving tourists around town in their decades-old cars, or acting as translators or tour guides.

Loosened US restrictions “helped some of the changes already in place [in Cuba’s economy] to a new degree,” Bustamante says.

Duran says it’s not just the rental-room income that has benefitted her family, but the relationships she’s made with visitors, most of whom are from the United States.

“Tourism in Cuba [today] is very different than years past,” which she felt was defined by foreigners seeking prostitutes or drugs, she says. “Today, tourists are here because they want to know Cuba. They want to know firsthand what is happening here,” she says.

Airbnb will remain a presence on the island, where roughly 22,000 properties are currently listed. As of April 2015, some $40 million has been paid to Cubans renting their homes.

But even outside the tourism sector, the increase in visitors has made a small but palpable difference. Walking through the candy-colored building-flanked streets of Havana’s center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, social communications graduate Katia Morfa says she thinks that the two-year thaw may not have delivered on Cubans’ high expectations, but that “turning back will only harm citizens.”

“The image of [Havana] has changed, the private sector is changing, and that means individual growth,” Ms. Morfa says. “[These are] developments that were strengthened by the thaw.”

Time of transition

It matters when it comes to internal politics as well, analysts say.

“To the extent that there are better international relations, more rapprochement, and normality with the US, the more possibility there is that those who want to see change in Cuba will have more opportunity to come into power,” says human rights activist Miriam Luisa Leiva Viamonte, who previously worked for the Ministry of Exterior Relations.

Mr. Castro has announced plans to step down as head of state in 2018, and the current first vice president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, is considered a likely successor. Economically, it is also a time of change. Cuba’s gross domestic product shrank by about one percent last year, and the country is trying to make significant reforms, like changing its dual-currency system.

“It’s a delicate process of transition,” says Bustamante, noting divides in the government between those who embrace further economic reforms and those who don’t. Against that backdrop, any US changes Havana can interpret as “hostile” may affect Cuba’s “domestic process in a way that doesn’t serve the kind of ... gradual but sustained road to real reform that most Cubans would like to see.” 

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