HAVANA,June 18th 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 Cuba.
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 shock.”
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 private entrepreneurs.
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 government.
“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 unstable.”
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.”