The latest move by Trump’s administration puts Cuban entrepreneurs like casa particular owners, street vendors, private Cuba taxi drivers and restauranteurs in checkmate. 

A churro stall in Old Havana - photograph by Susana Corona Cruz
Cuban entrepreneurs to face hard times – a churro vendor in Old Havana – photograph by Susana Corona

Once again, the Republicans do it again, and once again it’s doomed to be an epic fail right from the start…You only need look at the past 60 years to see that however grim the outlook of the global or national economy, things in Cuba don’t change much, especially not due to U.S. involvement and U.S.-imposed economic sanctions. The trick hasn’t worked since the Helms-Burton Act came into force in 1996 and it most certainly won’t work now, two decades later. Especially not after Cuba has already (out of its own will – well, Castro’s will – and not due to external pressures) opened up the economy, loosened rules regarding private ownership and openly voiced the need to reform its socialist model to keep up with the times. It began reversing its paternalistic approach a little over a decade ago. And the only policy that helped that evolve (or went some way towards its evolution) was Obama’s thawing of U.S.-Cuba relations starting on December 2014. Going back in the opposite direction will only make proud Cuban authorities take a harder stance towards the U.S. and the ones to suffer the brunt of it, will be, once again, ordinary Cuban themselves. Hasn’t the U.S. learned anything about Cuba in 60 years?

The tried-and-failed isolation tactic – why it has never worked and why it won’t work now

With the dawning of Trump’s reversal on Obama’s loser Cuba travel and trade policies, will the Cuban government shake with fear? Are they likely to crumble under the pressure? If they didn’t move an inch when they had it far worse after the USSR collapsed in the early 90s they won’t so much as battle an eyelid now. As Sabatini rightly explains in his article for The New York Times “Trump Doubles Down on Cuba Failed Policy”, back then Cuba was more isolated than ever and didn’t have the backing of other authoritarian powers like China, Venezuela, and Russia (who is back to being its friend…well, it never really broke ties, just discontinued the freeflow of subsidised products), it’s unlikely to lift a finger. Authorities will protest and blame it all on the U.S. embargo as they have before, shrugging and looking the other way. The U.S. will be the enemy once again, the one responsible for their woes and shortcomings, and this time, in good measure, it will be true.

Nevermind that in the 90s, Cubans had to withstand the most extreme food shortages and disastrous weekly power cuts that lasted for hours. The Castro government survived it all then, and whoever didn’t like it desperately sought a way out and risked their lives on makeshift boats headed towards U.S. shores. The only thing that the U.S. “wet feet, dry feet” policy of welcoming Cubans with open arms (if their feet touched U.S. soil) achieved was the deaths of hundreds of souls who perished at sea and a U.S. state almost entirely dominated by hardline Cubans full of resentment and a thirst for vengeance. The Cubans in Cuba continued to suffer.

A new era …back to an old flavour

Obama put an end to the “balseros” era by ending the “wet feet, dry feet” policy of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1996. In the meantime, Cuba’s first wave of inventive entrepreneurs had already shyly surfaced, with the first businesses of this kind being “paladares” and “casas particulares”. While the former catered to Cubans and foreigners alike, the latter was the result of an unfulfilled demand from some foreign tourists to the island. Private holiday accommodation in Cuba was inexistent and when Cuba’s started opening itself up to the world in the mid-90s (authorities saw tourism as a way of rescuing their ailing economy) Cubans themselves thought of offering up rooms inside their homes to tourists in order to make some extra income. And that is how private accommodation in Cuba began.

At the start, the concept of a casa particular existed only in Havana, and overtime it extended to other cities in the Cuban archipelago. In its early days, rooms in a casa particular were very humble and most facilities like bathrooms and kitchens were shared with hosts. Fast-forward nearly two decades later and some are even better than Cuba hotels. Rooms at casas particulares in Havana and beyond now come with ensuite bathrooms, mini-fridge, satellite TV and air-conditioning, plus, they have that personal touch and attention to detail that no Cuban hotel can compete with. Nowadays, private accommodation in Cuba is no longer reduced to a room (or rooms) inside a casa particular, but they also come as entire standalone houses offered for holiday rental (without a live-in host, AirBnB style). Some have become so sophisticated that they call themselves boutique hotels (and rightly so) but their fast development and refinement could be seriously set back by the new travel restrictions imposed by Trump’s administration, as many casa particular hosts who had opened up business in recent times were looking to cater to an increasing number of American travellers.

According to Sabatini’s New York Times article:

“American tourists had been helping to support the private restaurants, shops and the approximately 20,000 Airbnb’s that have sprung up in recent years.”

So, how about now?

The only ones trembling with fear are the most helpless of all, the Cuban entrepreneurs, casa particular owners, restauranteurs, chefs, designers, artists, private Cuban taxi drivers and even a new segment in the Cuban market, spa and bar owners.

The only U.S. policy that has ever worked in Cuba to directly benefit Cubans and give them economical and artistic freedom has been Obama’s rapprochement measures. Anything that moves in the opposite direction will serve for little more than animosity between the two neighbours.