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Cuban Entrepreneurs Fear Economic Gains Will Be Lost With Trump Policy Change


We begin this hour in Havana with the latest on changes to trade and travel rules between the U.S. and the communist nation. NPR's Carrie Kahn is there, and she has this reaction from American visitors and Cuban residents.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: It may be the so-called low season for Cuban tourism; caribbean summers are very hot and humid. But friends Theresa Sul and Val Estrada say they're glad they came to Havana for vacation.

THERESA SUL: We lost a lot of weight being here (laughter).

KAHN: From sweating?

SUL: Yes.

KAHN: They ducked out of the hot sun and into a hotel lobby in Old Havana. Sul, a massage therapist from San Jose, Calif., says President Donald Trump got it wrong. Friday, Trump announced he was reversing relaxations on trade and travel to Cuba. He says the Obama-era initiatives only served to enrich and embolden the repressive communist regime, which now own large stakes in the country's growing tourism industry.

Sul says she's been spending her American dollars renting a room in a private home and eating in private restaurants. A recent study by Airbnb showed that more than $40 million was earned by individual Cubans renting out rooms in their homes over the past two years.

SUL: So I don't see that going to the government. It's more going to the people.

KAHN: Estrada, who works for a cell phone company, says taking dollars away from locals will only hurt them.

VAL ESTRADA: I think there haven't been any problems right now so far since Obama opened the doors. So why close them?

KAHN: Sul and Estrada are among the rush of tourists that hit the island since relations warmed between the U.S. and Cuba two years ago. However, under Trump's new rule changes, they won't be able to book another visit to Cuba on their own. They both traveled under so-called people-to-people exemption to the U.S.-Cuba travel ban. Such cultural exchanges will only be allowed through authorized travel agencies. Both women say they wouldn't come back in a large group. That's the fear of many Cubans, says University of Havana economist Ricardo Torres.

RICARDO TORRES: Tourism is probably the single biggest sector in Cuba that is growing the most. So anything that affects tourism and travel is bad for the economy.

KAHN: He says Trump's retrenchment comes at a particularly bad time for Cuba's economy. Hurt by turmoil in Venezuela and depressed worldwide commodity prices, the only bright spot has been tourism. Torres says Trump is correct that the biggest player earning tourist dollars is the military, which owns and operates several large island hotels. But he adds, nearly a quarter of a million people are directly employed in the sector, much in private hands, and many thousands more indirectly.

TORRES: So it's difficult to disentangle - right? - what goes to the military as a sector and what goes to the people.

KAHN: After all, the earnings of the military go into the national budget, he says, that funds education and health care, too.


KAHN: But as a growing number of Cubans work in private businesses tending to tourists, everything from taxi drivers to these street musicians, the fear over Trump's policy changes is palpable.

FRAN GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I wish Trump was more humane," says Fran Garcia, who draws portraits for tourists in Old Havana and recently opened his own haircutting salon in his home. He says it's the people who are going to suffer from these new rules, not the Cuban government, which he says, has withstood countless sanctions and the embargo by many other U.S. presidents. 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.