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Cuba's Small Businesses Brace For New U.S. Trade, Travel Restrictions


Now that President Trump has announced stricter rules for U.S. businesses doing work in Cuba, residents there are trying to figure out the implications. Many Cubans say they felt a new level of economic independence after President Obama re-established diplomatic ties with Cuba two years ago. Now they fear that economic freedom could be in jeopardy. Here's NPR's Carrie Kahn.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: President Trump says he's aiming his Cuba trade restrictions at the communist regime's military, which in recent years has grown into the largest stakeholder in the island's growing retail and tourist industry. Nowhere is that more visible than the brand-new five-story, five-star Gran Manzana luxury hotel in downtown Havana - a joint operation between the military's tourism company and Kempinski, the Swiss hotel operator. The bottom floor's open-air mall carries luxury offerings from $10,000 Bulgari watches to $100-an-ounce perfumes.

DANI MATOS: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Twenty-nine-year-old Dani Matos, who just graduated from law school, says on his state salary, hopefully about $80 a month, he'll never be able to buy something here. That doesn't stop him from admiring the luxury fair and taking selfies with his young daughter in front of the glistening window displays.

Not all, though, are impressed with the huge hotel, where the least expensive rooms go for $440 a night, 470 with breakfast.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: This taxi driver outside the hotel, who didn't want to give his name for fear of speaking to a foreign journalist, says Donald Trump got it right. The military owns the biggest and best businesses in the country. "That's the reality," he says.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: But he says the government will continue making money as it always has. "It's the people who will suffer," he says. That's the fear of many in Cuba's new middle class, which has grown greatly since relations between the U.S. and Cuba warmed two years ago. Take Marta Elisa Deus Rodriguez. She's 29 and owns a Havana accounting firm. Her clients are bed-and-breakfast owners, taxi drivers, event planners all catering to tourists, many American.

MARTA ELISA DEUS RODRIGUEZ: And last year, I opened two other businesses.

KAHN: One is a messenger service, which also delivers takeout food, akin to UberEATS, and a business magazine. She employs up to 15 people. Deus and 54 other female Cuban entrepreneurs recently wrote to Ivanka Trump urging her to ask her father not to restrict American travel to the island. They never heard back. Deus says any drop in Americans coming to Cuba will affect her clients greatly.

DEUS: Yes - maybe some of them close or maybe some of them, they have to stop hiring my services because they will have less work.

KAHN: She says this is a great turnaround from just last year, when President Obama was here and met with island entrepreneurs, like herself. She says the future looked a lot brighter then.

DEUS: I'm sad because everything, like, that is a step back is very sad for me.

KAHN: Many in Cuba's small, middle and business class say Trump's portrayal of human rights on the island is narrow. Deus says while her country is not perfect, Cubans can now travel more freely, have greater access to the Internet, and more own businesses and homes than ever before. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Havana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.