14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, June 6, 2019 — Before departing, the ship’s bullhorn sounded and cars near the Havana Cruise Terminal responded by honking goodbye with their own horns. A group of people waved farewell and some even took out a handkerchief. The Empress of the Seas sailed away and, as the impressive structure left Cuba’s main port, an era came to an end.
On Wednesday the Trump administration implemented a travel ban on educational and cruise trips to Cuba, which thousands of Americans had used to visit the island nation that is so close yet so far away. Licenses for recreational and passenger ships were also canceled along with private air flights in an effort to deprive the Cuban government of a major source of hard currency.
However, in the streets of Havana and the areas near tourist attractions, which until recently benefitted from this flow of visitors, the economic pain seemed to be felt more by self-employed workers than the almighty state.
“Now there a lot of people affected by this,” says Sergio, a guide from a private guided tour agency who had been waiting for customers all day Wednesday but went home empty handed. In addition to dealing with the daily challenges imposed by Cuban bureaucracy — the young man’s business does not yet have a license to operate — he now has run up against another obstacle.
“We have to be discreet so that the police patrolling Old Havana don’t stop us. If they see us with a group of foreigners, they’ll slap us with a sixty-dollar fine.” In the middle of the off-season, the arrival of cruise ships offered many like Sergio the chance to earn a little hard currency in a country that in recent months has experienced increased food shortages and a rise in prices.
“The list of those affected by this is long: owners of short-term rentals, privately owned restaurants, drivers of vintage cars,” says the tour guide. A whole network of private businesses that must pay the state high taxes just to stay in business. According to Sergio, owners of the old 1950s cars that offer cruise ship passengers tours around the city must pay almost 800 dollars a month. “Those guys are screwed,” he says,
A sizable portion of economic earnings remain in the hands of officials, a situation criticized by activists and dissidents who are subjected to repression on a daily basis.
Independent journalist Boris González believes that the steps taken by Obama “were seen as somenting potentially positive” at the time but adds that those steps were taken only by one side. The Cuban government barely budged at all. “The first move should have been by the Cuban goverment. It should have lifted the blockade it has on its citizens,” he says.
González believes that, if the Cuban authorities do not lift restrictions on its citizens, “they should not be allowed to enjoy and consolidate the benefits of that policy.” He adds, “We Cubans have to keep insisting that it’s about having freedom and not about picking up the money that falls out of the government’s pocket.”
At the table of a bar near the dark waters of the bay, Jonathan and Josephine finish off a mojito as they count the hours before their return to San Francisco. Both work at a medical insurance company and arrived in the Cuban capital as part of a group that sponsors agro-ecology projects on the outskirts of the city.
“This is the fourth time we have been here in the last three years and we’ve made a lot of friends here. Now it will be difficult to see them again,” laments Jonathan.
Josephine adds, “It’s a shame because we help the people and most of the Cubans we speak with are critical of their government and want more freedom. Now they are going to be punished as well.”
At José Martí International Airport’s Terminal 2, several miles away, dozens of American passengers are boarding a United Airlines flight to Newark. A selfie on the plane’s tarmac with Havana’s afternoon sky in the background was all that was left of a visit that no one knows when they will be able to make again.
Twenty-two-year-old Claire took a trip with two friends to see Cuba and boasted of being the first person in her family to visit the island thanks to measures adopted by Barack Obama after the diplomatic thaw that began at the end of 2014
“We came with a group visiting Baptist churces but we really we had a lot of time to see the country, have fun and visit places.” In her bag are two bottles of Havana Club rum, sealed in a plastic security bag, which she promises will be “the last souvenir we can take with us before it all ends.”
Claire and her friends heard about the end of cultural and educational trips to the island, known as “people-to-people” exchanges, while they were taking a dip at the beach at Santa Maria, east of Havana. They had been able to visit because their trip fell under one of the twelve categories of licenses issued by the US State Department, which include government business, media activities, research, and educational, religious or medical projects.
“I feel sorry for the people I met and hope these measures really help the Cuban people, though at the moment it’s hard to see if they will have positive results,” she admits. “I hope that, when I return to Cuba the next time, there will be more freedom, especially for young people. Many of them I spoke with asked me to help them leave the country and that means they do not feel good about being here.”
For activist and former Black Spring prisoner Angel Mora the measures adopted by the US administration are correct: “The money they get from these businesses will end up in the hands of those strenthening the repressive apparatus of the dictatorship.” He adds, “The public does not benefit from this type of tourism. It amounts to trafficking in properties that were confisctated from their legitimate owners.”
Moya believes the next step will be the elimination of the so-called cultural exchanges, which have resulted in many artists from the island performing on American stages in the last five years. “They serve no purpose other than to allow the Cuban regime to export its ideology and propaganda,” says the activist.
By contrast, Elaine Díaz, director of the independent digital news outlet Periodismo de Barrio (Neighborhood Journalism), is not happy about this action by the Trump administration. “It’s bad news for Cubans. One more measure that hurts citizens rather than the government,” she said.
With the touchdown of the United Airlines plane in New York at 6:35 PM, most of its passengers were saying goodbye to an era.
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