Cuba’s small businesses say they will suffer under Trump’s policy changes
Alan Gomez , USA TODAY 3:33 p.m. ET June 18, 2017
HAVANA — When Julia de la Rosa heard President Trump’s speech
restricting Americans’ ability to visit Cuba, she immediately started
calculating how many workers she’ll have to fire.
De la Rosa, 49, has spent the past 20 years renovating an abandoned
family home and turning it into a private bed and breakfast in Havana.
She and her husband used to rent out five rooms, but expanded to 10
after then-President Barack Obama re-established diplomatic relations
with Cuba in December 2014, unleashing a flood of American travelers to
the long-isolated, communist island.
De la Rosa said the expected drop in visitors from the United
States, who account for two-thirds of her business, will force her to
let go of some of the 20 people she employs as maids, cooks, carpenters,
gardeners and drivers.
“For the first time, we thought our future had no limits,” de la Rosa
said of the period after Obama announced the opening with Cuba. “We
thought our history was being rewritten. Now I feel like everything is
crumbling around me. I never thought this would really happen. I’m in
In Trump’s speech Friday in Miami before a supportive group of
Cuban-Americans, the president said he would restrict American travel to
Cuba because U.S. dollars were going straight into the hands of Cuba
President Raúl Castro and his communist regime. Trump said too many
Americans were staying in government-run hotels, eating at
government-run restaurants and not helping Cuba’s growing class of
Nearly 300,000 Americans flocked to Cuba in the first five months of
2017, almost the same number as all of last year, according to the Cuban
“They only enrich the Cuban regime,” Trump said.
But Cuba’s growing class of private entrepreneurs, now more than 530,000
people working independently outside of the state-run economy, say the
opposite is true. Nereyda Rodriguez sells paintings by local artists out
of a renovated house in Old Havana and says her business has boomed
thanks to all the Yankees.
“These last two years have been great,” she said. “It’s been a beautiful
thing. We talk with the Americans, they learn about our lives, we learn
about theirs. Now? I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Trump’s restrictions are counter-productive because they will limit the
very kind of travelers who help Cuban entrepreneurs, said Augusto
Maxwell, who chairs the Cuba practice at the Akerman law firm in Miami
that represents airlines, cruise lines, Airbnb and other U.S. companies
operating in Cuba.
He described American travelers as independent people who don’t want to
stay in large government hotels, so he doesn’t understand why Trump
believes they’re propping up the Cuban regime.
“It’s these folks who tend to stay in private homes, who hire a private
car for the day, who eat at private restaurants,” he said. “And those
are the travelers who are now generally disallowed from traveling to Cuba.”
Some entrepreneurs in Cuba were so worried that the U.S. would shift
course that they tried to limit their reliance on American travelers.
Gilberto Smith Alvarez, who runs two pizza shops in Havana, said
he welcomed the rush of American visitors but tried to maintain a more
Cuban clientele. He said about 80% of those who eat at his restaurants
are Cuban — a plan he described as insurance against the kind of
reversal Trump just announced.
“I’m focused on Cubans precisely because this was a possibility,” he
said. “Tourism from the U.S. is too unstable for me, too politically
The rest of Cuba’s entrepreneurs are left to figure out how to recover
from the expected drop in American visitors. De la Rosa said she spent
the weekend fielding calls from workers and friends she had encouraged
to get private licenses and open their own businesses.
“They’re been calling and asking, ‘And now what?'” she said. “I don’t
know what to tell them.”
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