Cuban travel restrictions may hurt island’s emerging entrepreneurs

I’ve been thinking about how anxious Yolanda, Juan Carlos and Ana must be in the face of the latest Cold War-style tensions between the U.S. and Cuba.

The three young Cuban entrepreneurs (I’ve changed their names to avoid any possible repercussions) were some of a dozen or so my husband and I met during an August trip to Havana.

RELATED: US to ask Cuba to withdraw diplomats

All had quit their secure but low-paying government jobs to work as tour guides, managers of Airbnb properties or independent taxi drivers in the island’s private tourist economy, doubling or tripling their monthly salaries.

They were certain that tourism, spurred by President Obama’s normalizing relations with Cuba, would bring new freedoms to their country.

And for a while, it did.

They told us they had more choices and more independence than their parents or grandparents had been allowed by the Communist regime, and of their hopes for far more in a country where it’s still illegal to have wi-fi at home.

But to make it work, they need tourists, especially Americans, who have been flocking to the former no-go land 90 miles off the U.S. coast since the easing of relations in 2015 during the Obama administration.

RELATED: Trump announces new Cuba policy, no details yet

But just when it seemed that Cuba could become a weekend jaunt for Floridians, Cuban travel has become complicated.

On September 29, the U.S. State Department issued a warning to Americans “not to travel to Cuba,” saying U.S. Embassy employees in Havana had been “targeted” by bizarre sonic attacks in hotels and residences, leaving some with hearing loss and cognitive issues.

There is no travel ban, however. Until the U.S. issues President Trump’s new Cuban travel regulations, Americans can still go to Cuba through 12 individual people-to-people licenses under which most Americans can easily fit. The people-to-people licenses are expected to be eliminated when new regulations are issued.

After we clicked a box for “journalistic activities” when booking our flights, the subject never came up again, when leaving or re-entering the U.S. Americans traveling to Cuba do need a Cuban-issued tourist visa, however, which most airlines flying to Cuba will arrange.

Although the U.S. has not officially blamed the attacks on Cuba, which is cooperating with FBI agents in Havana, the tension between the two countries has grown since President Trump was elected.

On Tuesday, the U.S. expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from Washington, D.C. The week before, the U.S. said it would pull half of the American diplomats in Cuba, leaving only a skeleton staff.

That’s bad news for the self-employed Cubans we met, whose numbers jumped from 144,000 in 2009 to 535,000 in 2016, according to The Economist. Most of those jobs are in the tourist industry.

Before going, we decided to stay in privately-owned casa particulars and eat in privately-owned restaurants called paladares as much as possible, so most of our money would go to the Cuban people. We learned to avoid government-run establishments as much as possible, where indifferent service and shortages of menu items were the norm.

We didn’t realize the restaurant we stopped in to listen to the band was government-owned until I ordered black beans and rice for lunch. The waitress came back to say I could have rice, but they were out of black beans.

“What? Black beans are Cubans’ blood,” said the shocked manager of a rooftop paladar when I told her the story that night. We dined deliciously on fish as elegantly prepared as you could find in any Palm Beach restaurant, with black beans on the side.

The young Cuban entrepreneurs we met were bursting with ideas and ambition, eager to communicate with the rest of the world.

Yolanda was making more than $300 a month working as a tour guide and waitress, while hoping to create a collective of creative people to give tourists authentic Cuban experiences in art, cuisine and culture. Her mother, she said, earned $45 a month as a medical doctor.

Juan Carlos had been a government bus driver, earning about $30 a month, before quitting to ferry tourists around Havana in a meticulously-restored 1952 Chevy. On the way to the Miramar neighborhood one night, he said he now makes more than $200 a month, even after buying diesel fuel and paying the car’s owner.

Ana operates the spacious Airbnb apartment in which we stayed, serving as concierge and front desk clerk for the owner. She booked the chef who cooked us breakfast and warned us that the operator of the 1920s elevator left at 9 p.m., so we’d have to hoof it to the sixth floor late at night.

The spacious apartment, filled with antique mahogany furniture, had tall French doors opening to balconies which overlooked the Malecon waterfront where, a month later, Hurricane Irma’s 30-foot waves smashed ashore.

Keeping its occupants happy had doubled Ana’s government salary as a computer technician, allowing her dreams for her infant daughter.

But now those dreams are dependent on the shifting tactics and tensions between Havana and Washington.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Community

Actress Halle Berry ‘done with love’ after latest break-up
Actress Halle Berry ‘done with love’ after latest break-up

Halle Berry doesn’t need a man and she has the Instagram story to prove it. >> Read more trending news  On Wednesday, the actress reportedly shared a photo on her Instagram story of a rope shaped like a heart and the words “done with love” along with three flexing muscle emojis. The post comes just hours after US Weeklyreported...
Tavis Smiley accuses PBS of ‘biased and sloppy’ investigation, denies any misconduct
Tavis Smiley accuses PBS of ‘biased and sloppy’ investigation, denies any misconduct

Former PBS host Tavis Smiley is fighting back against sexual misconduct allegations, accusing PBS of a conducting a “biased and sloppy” investigation. >> Read more trending news  The network suspended the “Tavis Smiley” show on Wednesday after former staffers accused the interviewer of inappropriate behavior...
Walt Disney presents: ‘Avatar,’ ‘The Simpsons,’ ‘Alien’ and ‘Rocky Horror’
Walt Disney presents: ‘Avatar,’ ‘The Simpsons,’ ‘Alien’ and ‘Rocky Horror’

As of Thursday morning, the Walt Disney Co. is set to own a large part of the Murdoch family's 21st Century Fox in a $52.4 billion deal. With this merger, the number of major studios in Hollywood will go from six to five, and the combined Disney and Fox assets would have a 39% theatrical market share, according to Variety.  >> Read...
Quantum House unveils kosher rooms for Jewish families during Hanukkah
Quantum House unveils kosher rooms for Jewish families during Hanukkah

On the first night of Hanukkah, the Quantum House in West Palm Beach unveiled three kosher rooms for families staying at its facility. Gary S. Lesser of Lesser, Lesser, Landy & Smith helped arranged for Mezuzah to be added to the doors. The Mezuzah received “an extra blessing” from Rabbi Yoel Gancz of Chabad of West Palm Beach. “It&rsquo...
Rape case against rapper Nelly dropped after victim fails to cooperate
Rape case against rapper Nelly dropped after victim fails to cooperate

Washington state prosecutors have determined they cannot proceed with criminal charges against rapper Nelly for allegedly raping a woman while on tour with Florida Georgia Line. On Wednesday, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office reportedly told TMZ that it’s impossible to move forward with criminal charges against Nelly...
More Stories