HAVANA – Every morning, Julio Cesar parks a brand-new looking 1948 DeSoto Deluxe in front of the Havana cruise ship terminal. It’s a rare day when he doesn’t have two or three groups of American tourists board his red convertible to tour the city at a price of $30 to $40 an hour. That is, until today.
“You told me bad news. If cruise ships don’t come here, there won’t be any customers,” he told EFE after hearing that the US State Department banned US citizens on Tuesday from stopping in Cuba on cruises and restricting cultural visits by Americans.
The US government’s ban on cruises to Cuba on Tuesday has condemned the booming private businesses of Havana’s historic center, from restaurants and souvenir shops to the emblematic classic cars to a bleak future.
Cruise tours brought some 340,000 Americans to Cuba in 2018, twice as many as the previous year, which made travelers from the US the second largest group to visit the island by ship behind Canada, according to data from the Ministry of Tourism.
Since the first cruise ships arrived in 2016 as a result of the “thaw” promoted by Raul Castro and Barack Obama, new Cuban businesses and entrepreneurs have multiplied in the formerly impoverished neighborhood of Old Havana, a booming collective that has energized the private Cuban economy.
These entrepreneurs run restaurants with giant screens, cocktail bars, artists’ studios or traditional clothing stores and even the humble stand of Yolaina the hairdresser, an expert in converting the heads of tourists with corkscrews and braids under the shadow of the basilica of San Francisco de Asis.
“I want to die. How can the cruise ships not come? They are the only income we have, because there is almost no tourism here anymore,” Yolaina complains, after claiming that about half of her customers come from the ships that dock just a few hundred meters from her business.
Yoasi Garcia, who runs a souvenir shop in the area, shares similar concerns.
“We’re surviving because of the cruises. We believe that if cruise ships fail to come, business will also fail here,” she states, although she doesn’t lose her optimism: “Cubans are tremendous, we are adapted to live in any stage, climate and time. We are strong.”
The two cruise ships anchored on Tuesday in the port of Havana could be the last from the US, as the ban takes effect within 24 hours. Its passengers, however, were scattered throughout the streets of the city without knowing that they will probably be the last to enjoy this type of vacation, at least for a while.
“I was stunned. We were worried before coming because we thought it might happen, but we weren’t sure. At least we still have a few days to support the people here,” retired US citizen Scarlett Skinner tells Efe, as she tucks into the traditional Cuban dish “ropa vieja” (lit. “old clothes,” a dish of beef with vegetables) in a neighborhood restaurant.
Trump’s administration also announced a ban on cultural and educational contact with the Cuban people trips from Wednesday, known as “People-to-people,” which allowed thousands of Americans to visit the island since the thaw began in 2014.
Americans are prohibited to travel to the island, but until now there were exceptions for 12 categories: government visits, media activities, for research, or educational, religious and medical projects.
These modalities won’t be affected and regular commercial flights between the two countries, which resumed in 2016 after a break of more than half a century, will also continue to operate normally.
In the case of the cruise ship ban, the US government argues that the objective is to end “veiled tourism” by considering that it serves to “fill the pocket of the Cuban military” and, ultimately, to support Nicolas Maduro’s regime in Venezuela.
This hypothesis doesn’t much worry Linda Harper, another US pensioner who came down from her cruise liner to spend the afternoon in Havana: “my money goes for mojitos, I’m not sure where it goes next,” she says ironically and feigns a toast with the Cuban cocktail.