HAVANA, Cuba — The small-time entrepreneurs who rent out private rooms to tourists in this country may be the future business leaders of a post-Castro economy, but for now they are a beleaguered tribe.
In addition to the steep taxes, stiff regulation and niggling inspections they face from the island’s communist government, they’re also hurt by the U.S. government’s trade and travel restrictions against Cuba.
The bed-and-breakfast proprietors, who operate what are known locally as "casa particulares," suffered a new setback recently, when one of the world’s leading booking websites, Hostelworld.com, informed them that their rental listings were being removed from its site. The reason? The company had been purchased by an American entity.
And so, by making it more difficult for foreign travelers to stay in the homes of ordinary Cubans, the U.S. embargo is effectively steering tourists to hotels and resorts owned by the Cuban government.
Unintended consequences of this type are nothing new in U.S. Cuba policy, but as the current debate over travel restrictions heats up in Congress, one of the most contested issues has to do with who would benefit from a sudden influx of American tourists — the Cuban government or ordinary Cubans?
Proponents of a new bill sponsored by Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.), the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, argue that American tourists will help spread democratic values to the island, and spur change through personal contact with Cubans.
The bill’s opponents say that the more than 2 million foreign tourists Cuba already receives — mostly Europeans and Canadians who buy discount resort packages from the Cuban government — haven’t brought change or more democracy. They insist American tourist dollars will provide a financial boost to Cuba’s cash-strapped government but do little to improve the island’s human rights situation.
Cuba is the only country in the world that the U.S. government restricts Americans from visiting. Journalists and other designated categories of professionals can travel there, along with Cuban-Americans who wish to visit family members, but the restrictions have effectively blocked large-scale American tourism.
Travel analysts estimate that up to a million U.S. tourists would go to Cuba within the first year of travel restrictions being lifted, and millions more would follow. While some would stay at all-inclusive beach resorts owned by the Cuban government, the island doesn’t have the hotel capacity to absorb such a huge influx of Americans. So many American visitors would end up in the homes of ordinary Cubans, an arrangement that may fit their interests anyway.
“I don’t think Americans will be coming for the beaches, at least initially,” said Conner Gorry, a travel writer who has contributed to the Lonely Planet guidebook for Cuba. “They’re going to want to see what makes Cuba tick, and what the political system is about,” she said.
“American tourists are going to want to come see what it is that’s made people so passionate about Cuba for all these years,” said Gorry.
If curious American visitors do venture beyond the beach resorts and visit the island’s towns and cities, plenty of ordinary Cubans are likely to profit. Taxi drivers, bartenders, tour guides and operators of private restaurants are among the many Cubans who would get an immediate economic boost from the Americans.
“We are waiting for the Americans to come. It would be great for us,” said Yovani Santi, who sells handmade refrigerator magnets, bracelets and other knickknacks from a stall he rents from the government in an Old Havana market hall that overlooks the city’s harbor. Next door were port terminals wide enough to park a cruise ship, but they were all empty.
“If American people can come here and cruise ships can come into our port, we’ll have a lot of tourists here,” said Santi, who has been a handicraft vendor for 14 years. “Your people are very good people,” he said.
In the past few weeks, the debate over U.S. travel restrictions has increasingly become intertwined with Cuba’s human rights record, after New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a scathing report on Cuba’s treatment of dissidents and others who speak out against the Castro government’s one-party state.
But none of Cuba’s most prominent government opponents support the travel ban. Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, who remains largely unknown on the island but has a huge international following among Cubans living abroad, sent a letter to House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.) that was read aloud at the Congressional hearing last month on U.S. travel restrictions.
“Cuban citizens, for our part, would benefit from the injection of material resources and money that these tourists from the north would spend in alternative services networks,” Sanchez wrote.
“Without a doubt, economic autonomy would then result in ideological and political autonomy, in real empowerment,” she argued. “The natural cultural, historical and family ties between both peoples could take shape without the shadow of the current regulations and prohibitions.”
Martha Beatriz Roque, one of the Castro government’s most outspoken critics on the island, said she isn’t so optimistic. But she said she opposes the travel ban on principle. “I don’t think it’s going to change the Cuban government at all,” said Beatriz Roque in her tiny Havana apartment, where a sticker on the front door read “CAMBIO” (Change).
“But I believe in democracy and freedom,” she added. “I think everyone should have the freedom to travel, which is something that the Cuban people lack. So if we’re fighting here for democracy, how can we try to restrict the freedom of the American people?”