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.

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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.

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