Pres­i­dent’s Cuba pol­icy tries to de­fine ‘good’ tourism

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY NICK MIROFF IN HA­VANA

The Amer­i­can trav­eler in Cuba — sweat­ing, dis­ori­ented and prob­a­bly a bit woozy from the rum drinks — is once more at the heart of the strug­gle for the is­land’s fu­ture. Cen­tral to Pres­i­dent Trump’s plans to peel back his pre­de­ces­sor’s de­tente with Cuba is the idea that there is “good” and “bad” U.S. travel. The United States, Trump be­lieves, can tightly reg­u­late Amer­i­can va­ca­tions to deprive the Cas­tro gov­ern­ment of dol­lars and re­di­rect the money to the is­land’s grow­ing class of en­trepreneurs.

But it will be dif­fi­cult to pick win­ners in Cuba’s state-con­trolled econ­omy, where gov­ern­ment busi­nesses and the pri­vate sec­tor are thor­oughly in­ter­twined. And even harder will be de­ter­min­ing what sort of travel con­sti­tutes the kind of “peo­ple-to-peo­ple” in­ter­ac­tions the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion says it wants to pre­serve.

By re­in­stat­ing re­stric­tions on in­de­pen­dent trav­el­ers, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s new pol­icy will hurt Cuba’s emerg­ing pri­vate sec­tor that caters to Amer­i­can vis­i­tors, crit­ics in­sist.

In­stead, the new rules will herd Amer­i­cans back to­ward the kind of prepack­aged, pre­dictable group tourism that the Cuban gov­ern­ment ac­tu­ally prefers — and earns more rev­enue from.

“I think if you come here on a pack­age tour, you see what the Cuban gov­ern­ment wants you to see,” said An­drew Sleyko, 36, a food sci­en­tist from Chicago who was vis­it­ing the is­land for the first time as Trump an­nounced his new pol­icy.

Sleyko and a friend had booked rooms through Airbnb and were spend­ing their days walk­ing around the city in the muggy heat.

“We’re talk­ing to peo­ple wher­ever we go,” he said. “Isn’t that the idea of peo­ple-to-peo­ple?”

The Trump plan, an­nounced Fri­day in Mi­ami’s Lit­tle Ha­vana neighborhood, asserts that the Obama-era rules fa­cil­i­tated what the White House called “il­le­gal” tourism as more U.S. trav­el­ers booked their own trips by rent­ing rooms in Cuban homes through sites such as Airbnb.

While the law still al­lows cer­tain Amer­i­can trav­el­ers to visit as in­di­vid­u­als for re­li­gious, pro­fes­sional or other pur­poses, it elim­i­nates the “in­di­vid­ual ed­u­ca­tional” cat­e­gory that quickly be­came the most pop­u­lar way to go to Cuba without book­ing a group tour.

Amer­i­cans will gen­er­ally still be al­lowed to visit Cuba if they come on cruise ships, for in­stance, or book with U.S.-ap­proved tour agen­cies that en­sure travel itin­er­ar­ies do not in­clude too much un­struc­tured time.

The com­pli­ca­tion for Trump’s rules, how­ever, is that large tour groups are too big for smaller bed-and-break­fast ren­tals, and their gov­ern­ment-ap­pointed guides tend to ply the well­trod­den routes that by­pass the new gal­leries, restau­rants and night spots opened by en­ter­pris­ing Cubans and oth­ers after the open­ings spurred by Obama.

That, in turn, will cause a rip­ple ef­fect.

“If in­de­pen­dent Amer­i­can travel is cut off, you won’t only hurt the bed-and-break­fasts. It’s also the con­struc­tion crews, the pri­vate tour guides, the taxi driv­ers, the restau­rants and the artists sell­ing hand­i­crafts,” said An­drea Gal­lina, an Ital­ian entrepreneur who last year opened a high-end boutique ho­tel, Paseo 206, with his Cuban spouse.

The 1934 man­sion has an Ital­ian restau­rant on the ground floor, and Gal­lina es­ti­mates twothirds of his guests are Amer­i­can, book­ing rooms through Airbnb, Ex­pe­dia and other U.S. sites.

“To be hon­est, Amer­i­cans don’t have time to go to the beach, be­cause they get ab­sorbed into the city,” he said. “In­de­pen­dent trav­el­ers have more con­tact with real Cubans.”

Amer­i­can travel to Cuba has been a po­lit­i­cal bat­tle­ground since the early 1990s, when the col­lapse of the Soviet Union left the is­land’s com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment starved for hard cur­rency.

As its re­sort in­dus­try grew and more for­eign vis­i­tors ar­rived, the Cas­tro gov­ern­ment’s en­e­mies in Mi­ami and in the halls of Congress fought to re­strict Amer­i­cans from go­ing — know­ing their dol­lars could un­der­mine ef­forts to choke the Cuban econ­omy.

In­stead, Cuba’s tourism in­dus­try grew on eu­ros and Cana­dian dol­lars. But that’s be­gin­ning to change. The gov­ern­ment says it re­ceived more than 4 mil­lion tourists last year — a record num­ber — of which about 615,000 were U.S. vis­i­tors. That in­cludes 330,000 Cuban Amer­i­cans vis­it­ing rel­a­tives on the is­land, but many of the rest were Amer­i­cans tak­ing ad­van­tage of Obama’s land­mark moves to re­store diplo­matic ties with Cuba.

Travel by non-Cuban Amer­i­cans has been on pace to dou­ble this year, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est gov­ern­ment data.

But Trump’s roll­back is ex­pected to put a brake on that growth. U.S. of­fi­cials say the new re­stric­tions have yet to be writ­ten and will not take ef­fect un­til then, and Amer­i­cans who have al­ready booked Cuba travel won’t have to can­cel.

Lim­ited eco­nomic re­forms by Cuban leader Raúl Cas­tro, 86, have al­lowed Cuban en­trepreneurs to buy and sell prop­erty and run small busi­nesses, but it was Obama’s nor­mal­iza­tion mea­sures that kicked the process into over­drive.

In Old Ha­vana’s tourist quar­ter, en­tire city blocks of crum­bling cen­tury-old build­ings are be­ing ren­o­vated and turned into boutique hos­tels and chic cafes.

The work is be­ing al­most en­tirely car­ried out by pri­vate sec­tor trades­man and con­trac­tors.

“I’ve never been this busy,” said Roberto Claro, a dust-cov­ered con­struc­tion fore­man in Old Ha­vana, whose crew was busy con­vert­ing a ru­ined, cen­tury-old build­ing into a seafood restau­rant. There were two other build­ings on the same block also get­ting an over­haul.

The new rules aim to ban or limit Amer­i­cans from pa­tron­iz­ing mil­i­tary-linked busi­nesses in­clud­ing Cuba’s gar­gan­tuan GAESA con­glom­er­ate, which is es­ti­mated to con­trol more than half of the is­land’s tourist econ­omy.

The U.S. Trea­sury Depart­ment’s Of­fice of For­eign As­sets Con­trol said Fri­day it will pro­vide Amer­i­cans with a lists of pro­hib­ited ho­tels and other busi­nesses linked to the com­pany so Amer­i­can trav­el­ers can steer clear.

U.S. trav­el­ers will need to keep de­tailed records and re­ceipts from their Cuba trips in case of an au­dit by Trea­sury Depart­ment of­fi­cials, and that alone could be a de­ter­rent if ag­gres­sively en­forced.

“The real chal­lenge in im­ple­ment­ing will be this,” said Chris Sa­ba­tini, a lec­turer at Columbia Univer­sity’s School of In­ter­na­tional and Pub­lic Af­fairs and the di­rec­tor of the web­site Global Amer­i­cans. “Mon­i­tor­ing trav­el­ers, eval­u­at­ing who is stay­ing in mil­i­tary-owned ho­tels, track­ing li­cense com­pli­ance — all that re­quires bu­reau­cratic ca­pac­ity and fol­low up.”

Be­cause Trea­sury’s for­eign as­sets divi­sion is the same of­fice in charge of en­forc­ing sanc­tions against coun­tries such as Iran and North Korea, it has come un­der crit­i­cism for de­vot­ing re­sources to in­ves­ti­gat­ing the va­ca­tion re­ceipts of Amer­i­can trav­el­ers who visit Cuba. A bi­par­ti­san Se­nate bill that would com­pletely lift travel re­stric­tions has 55 co-spon­sors.

“You or I could travel to any coun­try on the globe and there’s not a fed­eral gov­ern­ment pro­hi­bi­tion from us do­ing so — the only re­stric­tion is Cuba,” Rep. Mark San­ford (R-S.C.) told CNN as Trump an­nounced the new mea­sures. “We’re not the Soviet Union. We don’t have to have ‘travel pa­pers’ for the gov­ern­ment to de­cide whether or not you can travel.”

Trea­sury said it will is­sue new guide­lines in the com­ing months.

Gal­lina and oth­ers in Ha­vana said they have been flooded with calls and emails from Amer­i­cans in the past three days ask­ing if they should can­cel their trips.

YAMIL LAGE/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IMAGES

A Cuban wear­ing a hand­ker­chief de­signed with the U.S. flag walks along a street of Ha­vana on Fri­day.

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