Art of resilience

The tourism restrictions announced by President Donald Trump may not make any drastic impact on Cuba.

Published : Jul 19, 2017 12:30 IST

A tourist sleeping on the Malecon sea wall of Havana in January. The Trump administration's new policy on travel by Americans to Cuba may have some impact on the country's booming tourism, but it is unlikely to unsettle the resilient nation.

A tourist sleeping on the Malecon sea wall of Havana in January. The Trump administration's new policy on travel by Americans to Cuba may have some impact on the country's booming tourism, but it is unlikely to unsettle the resilient nation.

On June 16, United States President Donald Trump addressed a large audience in Little Havana, Miami, alongside Marco Rubio, the Cuban American senator who ran against Trump in last year’s presidential campaign. Everything about the event appeared designed to be symbolic for the largely Cuban-American crowd gathered on the day, right down to the location: the Manuel Artime Theatre was named after a former ally of Fidel Castro who had led Brigade 2506 which participated in the attempted Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961. To thunderous applause, Trump accused his Democratic predecessor of striking a completely “one-sided deal” with Cuba when he chose to take forward relations beginning in December 2014.

The changes brought in by President Barack Obama included allowing U.S. banks to open accounts at Cuban financial institutions; reducing restrictions for U.S. citizens to enable them to travel individually and not just in a group; increasing telecommunications connections between the two countries; and the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana and vice versa. “We will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalise relations between our two countries,” Obama said at the time.

Trump, by contrast, insisted that he would “very strongly restrict American dollars flowing to the military, security and intelligence services... enforce the ban on tourism... enforce the embargo”. “My action today bypasses the military and the government, to help the Cuban people themselves form businesses and pursue much better lives,” he said.

The precise details of Trump’s plan for future relations are yet to be unveiled, but one thing is clear: one of the most tangible changes brought in by the Obama administration, the ability of U.S. tourists to travel individually to Cuba, which has led to a sharp rise in the number of people visiting the island, is likely to be reversed. On the face of it, the announcement appears plain bad news for Cuba. Within the past couple of years, rapid changes have taken place, which are easily discernible to the casual visitor: planes of several major U.S. airlines stand aside the growing international presence at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport, while cruise ships can be sighted off many parts of the coastline. The U.S. embassy stands imposingly on the Malecon (the broad esplanade in the heart of Havana), having reopened just under two years ago. Visitors can use sites such as Airbnb to book accommodation, often at far higher rates than domestic websites and requiring people to meet with U.S. requirements that they confirm the purpose of the visit, which has to fall into 12 broad categories including family visits, attending workshops or exhibition or “supporting the Cuban people”.

Not much had changed anyway

But there is much that is not moved at all: without an Act of Congress, Obama was only able to change so much and the trade embargo remains in place, as it has been since 1962. Its impact continues to be seen everywhere: from the empty shelves in stores (those fortunate enough to get supplies of desired items from toilet paper to beer can attract queues, even in Havana) to the potholed multi-lane highways that criss-cross the country. Out of the main cities, where “modern” cars compete for space with 1950s gas-guzzlers, horse-drawn carts and other non-motorised forms of transport are a common sight. With little access to the infrastructure that has changed telecommunications across much of the rest of the world, Internet access remains patchy and slow. Commercial advertising is rare, and billboards along roadsides are far more likely to carry revolutionary slogans than try to persuade one to buy the latest face cream.

Scarcity has created many efficiencies, too: a visitor often gets the sense that every resource is being put to its maximum possible use. Driving across the country, it is rare to come across uninhabited terrain that is not given over to agricultural production of some sort or another. Farmers stand by highways selling their produce, including delicious mangoes, guavas and coconuts. Less-used roads are put to other uses, such as the drying of rice. There is even a section of a four-way highway, on the way to the tobacco-growing region, that sometimes doubles as a landing strip for aircraft.

The fact that the country is already pushed to the max means that the tourism boom has not been a straightforward blessing. Anecdotal evidence, culled from speaking to people across the country, suggests that shortages have increased in the past couple of years as thousands of extra tourists have tested the nation’s supplies and infrastructure. Prices have also risen to the extent that price caps have been brought in by the government for certain agricultural produce.

The tourism boom has also left some divisions. Those working in areas related to tourism (taxi drivers; owners of casas, or private residences in which foreigners are able to stay) have done well. But the largesse has not fallen evenly. Monthly salaries of employees in the public sector can be what those in tourism make in a day, and this can be particularly harsh at a time when prices are rising rapidly. A former lawyer who had earned tens of euros a month contrasted that with the hundreds he was able to make monthly as a driver for tourists travelling across the country. The impact of the uneven reaping of benefits can be seen by those visiting—in Havana and other cities, dilapidated buildings that have not been repaired in decades stand next to tastefully done-up apartment blocks or gleaming new projects on their way up.

The complex impact of the U.S.’ tourism ban is one reason why in the days immediately after the Trump speech, many reacted with a mixture of acceptance and defiance (and of course little sympathy with Trump’s reasoning that what he was doing would help “free” the Cuban people from the government and military). Steady numbers of tourists from other parts of the world would continue to keep business steady, the owner of one casa insisted, even as he received cancellations from U.S. travellers who were due to arrive in the coming months. Another said that whatever the impact of the tightening of restrictions by the U.S., things could never return to the difficulties of the 1990s, particularly as Cuba had now inured itself, to a certain extent, tothe impact of international developments. (Cuba’s gross domestic product, or GDP, fell by 34 per cent between 1990 and 1993 as the collapse of the Soviet Union hit its major source of supplies, including energy. But the period ultimately helped the country develop agricultural and other sectors, leaving it more resilient than ever before.)

The coming months and year will be riddled with uncertainty for Cuba. President Raul Castro is set to step down in 2018 after his second five-year term, and his successor will be decided by the National Assembly following elections.

The most likely candidate is Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, a 57-year-old party stalwart, favoured by Fidel Castro, but a low-profile and private figure thought to be behind some recent reforms, including opening up of Internet access. Whatever happens, one has the sense that the island that has dealt with much over the decades will keep its cool.

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