Cuban entrepreneurs brace for President Trump’s new Cuba policy

In this June 16, 2017, file photo, a Havana man walks past a television set showing President Donald Trump signing a memorandum on his new Cuba policy, in a living room festooned with images of Cuban leaders.
In this June 16, 2017, file photo, a Havana man walks past a television set showing President Donald Trump signing a memorandum on his new Cuba policy, in a living room festooned with images of Cuban leaders. AP

Nidialys Acosta handles the booking for a loose association of vintage car owners in Cuba who have banded together to offer transportation for visiting dignitaries and other groups. Clients have included a New York business delegation led by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and one of the founders of Airbnb.

But several groups recently canceled their reservations with Nostalgicar. The first, a group of 10, canceled on the same day that President Donald Trump announced his new Cuba policy in Miami, Acosta said.

“The previous administration’s easing of restrictions on travel and trade does not help the Cuban people — they only enrich the Cuban regime,” Trump said during his June 16 speech, which was reported by official press on the island. His policy, Trump said, will “help the Cuban people form businesses and pursue much better lives.”

“In President Trump’s speech, he said he wanted to help the private sector but I am wondering in what way?” Acosta said. About 20 drivers depend on Nostalgicar bookings for their livelihood, she said, and a group of mechanics also work at Garaje Nostalgicar, a garage run by her husband that refurbishes classic cars.

The president’s new policy is aimed at not only exerting pressure for Cuba to improve its human rights record but also channeling American expenditures and possible business deals away from the Cuban military toward Cuba’s nascent private sector.

The president is eliminating one category of travel to the island: individual people-to-people trips, or self-styled itineraries that were supposed to help Cubans and Americans get to know each other better. And that concerns some Cuban entrepreneurs who welcomed the surge in American travelers after the Obama administration opened up travel and trade last year.

Trump believes that individual people-to-people travel is ripe for abuse by Americans who just want to go to Cuba to sun on the beach or engage in other tourist activities. The United States prohibits tourism to Cuba but allows “purposeful” travel such as educational group tours, family visits and humanitarian trips. To stop illegal tourism, it appears there also will be stepped-up auditing of travelers. People-to-people travel in organized groups remains intact under the new Trump policy.

Acosta said she didn’t speak directly with the canceling groups because the reservations came through the state-run San Cristóbal Travel Agency, which is associated with the Office of the Historian of Havana and specializes in historic tours. But she has her suspicions about why they canceled.

“I think the Americans are afraid if they come here, they may have problems. This worries me a great deal. It could put the brakes on things,” Acosta said. “I hope Trump changes his ideas or has better ones, but I am not too optimistic.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo smiles after seeing a Japanese Toyota engine fitted into the body of a 1956 Chevrolet in Havana. It’s one of the cars in the Nostalgicar fleet. Desmond Boylan AP

Some analysts say limiting transactions with the military by Americans and U.S. businesses won’t necessarily translate into help for the private sector.

“Overall, there is likely to be a decrease in the number of travelers and transactions, and I think that’s going to hurt the private sector in Cuba, which has been growing over the last many years largely as a result of the increase in U.S. travelers,” said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

For Julia de la Rosa, who runs a bed and breakfast called La Rosa de Ortega with her husband, Silvio Ortega, the potential for fewer American visitors is discouraging. For the past two decades, they have gradually renovated an old mansion that was in ruins when they began, adding guest rooms and struggling to find parts to get the swimming pool filter running again.

When Airbnb, the peer-to-peer rental service, launched in Cuba in 2015, the couple listed La Rosa de Ortega and saw the number of American visitors climb. Since it entered the Cuban market, Airbnb says its Cuban hosts have earned nearly $40 million and the booking agency has 22,000 listings in 70 towns and cities across Cuba.

La Rosa de Ortega, a private bed and breakfast in Havana’s La Vibora neighborhood, has 10 guest rooms. Courtesy Airbnb

The couple now rents out 10 rooms decorated with vintage furniture and crisp, white bedding. Seventy-five percent of their guests are Americans.

“That’s completely different from a few years ago, and individual people-to-people is the category that most of my American guests use to travel to Cuba,” de la Rosa said.

“This absolutely will have an impact,” she said. “When I read the points in the [Trump] memorandum and came to the elimination of individual people-to-people travel, my blood ran cold.”

De la Rosa also said she sees the emphasis on U.S. travelers keeping receipts and records of their trips to Cuba for five years as a tactic of intimidation.

“Besides that, I’m afraid that those who listened to Trump’s speech will start to feel Cuba is an inhospitable place,” she added. “Unfortunately, I don’t think the majority of people in the United States understand how the Cuban population can be affected by these measures.”

Julia de la Rosa and her husband Silvio Ortega run La Rosa de Ortega bed and breakfast on the outskirts of Havana. Mimi Whitefield

Because their house is located in La Vibora, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana, and it’s sometimes a bit hard for guests to get around, she and her husband decided to start a rental car agency. They bought 11 old cars that are in various stages of being repaired. Now she says they may scale back their plans.

But de la Rosa said the new travel policy won’t just have an impact on her and her husband but also on their 17 employees and the private subcontractors she uses to do everything from carpentry work to washing and pressing clothes for guests. “Cuentapropistas [the self-employed] have created a network,” she said. “We regularly seek out each other’s services to solve our problems.”

Meanwhile, the long days of summer have been a slow time at Finca Los Colorados, a restaurant and five-room bed and breakfast that sits above Rancho Luna Beach outside Cienfuegos. Proprietor José Piñeiro Guardiola said he recently noticed that 50 people viewed his casa particular (a private Cuban accommodation) on Airbnb one day, but not one of those viewings converted into a reservation. “I watched the Celestyal cruise ship go by recently, and it didn’t seem very full to me,” he added.

Nonetheless, Piñeiro said he supports Trump’s new Cuba policy. “I like it,” he said in a telephone interview. “He gives instructions, a road map, on how Cuba can have a better relationship with the United States. I think Trump is an intelligent man. As a businessman, he knows what he is doing.”

José Ignacio Piñeiro Guardiola runs Finca Los Colorados, a paladar (private restaurant) and five-bedroom bed-and-breakfast just past Rancho Luna Beach, Cuba. AL DIAZ

He said he doesn’t believe his business will be impacted much by the new policy because the Americans he generally hosts are on small cultural or educational trips and aren’t individual travelers. Piñeiro said he can accommodate groups of up to five people.

But Phil Peters, a consultant and president of the Cuba Research Center, said most casa particulares are small and won’t be able to handle group travel. “It’s harder if you have 20 people and need to run a scheduled program. You can’t have a tour bus stop at 10 different locations to pick up group members. It’s a little impractical,” he said.

The exceptions, he said, are tourist towns like Trinidad or Viñales where it seems like almost every other house is a casa particular. The three state-run hotels in Viñales, a small rural town near dramatic rock formations and caves, have a combined total of 193 rooms, while there are 1,107 private bed-and-breakfasts, many that have two or three rooms.

Walter Sedovic is a New York architect who has visited Cuba in a group and also as an individual people-to-people traveler.

“I think the whole thing is disconcerting — for our country to be shutting doors, especially after opening them after almost 60 years of isolation. The fear is when they start something like this [the Trump policy], the first step is not the last step.” He said his own experience with people-to-people travel is that such “exchanges are healthy, fruitful and mutually beneficial.”

Architect Walter Sedovic arrives in Cienfuegos on American Airlines’ inaugural scheduled service from Miami to Cuba on Wednesday, September 7, 2016. AL DIAZ

Sedovic, whose interest is heritage buildings and preservation, said both times he went to the island he met with Cubans involved in the stewardship of heritage buildings and sites. On his group trip, Sedovic said, he was “principally bused around.” But when he visited Cienfuegos and Trinidad last September as an individual traveler, he stayed at private homes, and walked, biked and took private cabs.

“I feel bad about this [Trump’s new Cuba policy]. I’ve traveled plenty, and I’ve seen that politics and people are almost always two different things,” Sedovic said.

Sandra Levinson, executive director of The Center for Cuba Studies, which is based in New York and has sponsored educational travel to Cuba since 1973, said the potential impact of the new policy on private Cuban restaurants, casas particularles, private cab drivers and other service businesses will be felt in Miami and other Cuban-American communities, too.

“Millions are being spent by Cuban Americans who are helping their families in Cuba start their businesses by providing them with the necessary equipment for their startups — everything from bought-in-the-U.S. blenders, ice cream makers, coffeepots, dinnerware, air conditioners, TV sets, leather upholstery for cars, computers, cellphones, sound systems, bedding, shower curtains and more,” she said.

“The issue shouldn’t be about supporting the private sector; it should be about helping the Cuban people,” said Andy Gómez, a Cuba scholar who lives in Coral Gables. “This [new policy] will hurt the Cuban people — no doubt about it. The bottom line is that for the past 60 years U.S.-Cuba relations have become a sport and there are two teams, one that wins and one that loses. But the biggest losers are always the people in Cuba.”

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi