Along the docks in Havana, the streets are quiet. Where thousands of people disembarked from cruise ships on a daily basis, the port now lies empty. A quick stroll away, in the Almacenes de San José crafts market, María Hernández watches a handful of tourists browsing the aisles of this vast restored 19th-century warehouse, hoping they will pause at her stall. For the past nine years, she has been selling a range of goods: decorative plates, coffee mugs, vintage car magnets and Che Guevara keyrings. She welcomed the influx of people from the United States after the “normalisation” of relations with Cuba in December 2014.
“Without doubt, when the cruise ships were here, it was much better,” she said. Now, after further tightening of US sanctions against Cuba under the Trump administration, she has only seen one ship in the past month. “But it wasn’t just the tourists in the cruise ships, independent travellers also came,” she said, and now there are fewer of them as well. The future is uncertain, she admits, but she’s hopeful that she’ll see the visitors from the US again.
Hernández may remain optimistic, but this year has been a troubled one for Cuba, as the island was further sucked into the whirlwind policy-making of the Trump administration, causing increased economic troubles throughout 2019. Perhaps the tornado that touched down in Havana in January should have been taken as a portent of things to come.
Despite these problems, it has also been a year of landmarks: the Cuban revolution reached its 60th anniversary, and the island’s capital was spruced up for its 500th birthday party in November, which included the first-ever state visit from the Spanish royal family.
Garlanded with Christmas decorations, the city looks festive. Potholed streets have been repaved, and dilapidated buildings have been renovated. The bustling shopping district by Calle Galiano was lit up with an extensive light installation, and luxury hotels continued to open. Not all of the work was completed in time for the anniversary celebrations, but the remaining scaffolding gives a sense that Habana Vieja is undergoing an extensive facelift. Yet beneath the scrubbed-up surface, people in the city and across the island are bracing themselves for an indeterminate period in an economic limbo.
The most recent blow to the island, announced in October, was the stopping of commercial flights between the US and the regional cities of Cuba from early December. Last April the US rolled back its “‘people-to-people” educational travel permits and prohibited cruise ships from calling into the island. These measures further deflated tourism after a surge that saw some 1.5 million people coming from the US, including Cuban-Americans visiting family, in 2017, driving overall numbers to 4.7 million visitors. However, after a year of Donald Trump’s presidency, the numbers began to decline, and in 2019 tourist numbers have only just reached 4 million.
Marta Rodríguez, who runs a casa particular (B&B) in the Vedado neighbourhood of Havana, emphatically shakes her head of grey hair and gives an exaggerated “thumbs down” when asked about this year. She has lived in her second-floor flat for more than 30 years and has been renting out a room since 1999.
She charges £15-£19 a night, but she also has to pay a monthly tax of £26, whether or not there have been any guests. In addition, she cares for her husband, who has Alzheimer’s. He receives a pension of 300 pesos (around £8.50) a month, so the business has been a lifeline for them. Over the past few years she welcomed plenty of visitors from the US. “We were happy up to a certain point with Obama,” she said, but noted that some Cubans were worried that the new relationship wouldn’t last – and it didn’t. With Trump, Rodríguez’s situation has worsened. “Every day he [Trump] squeezes a little more. It is much more difficult to get things. Everything has been complicated.”
Although many tourists come through Havana, the entire island will feel the pain of these recent measures. The ending of regional flights will force Cuban-Americans visiting family, and independent travellers, to drive or take coaches to places such as Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second city, some 12 hours from the capital – or they will simply decide not to go. The island’s regional cities had shared in the tourism boom – Santiago de Cuba had become a stop on cruise ship itineraries, while on the opposite side of the island, Viñales transformed itself from a sleepy town to a gastronomic destination. Now these developments are also under threat.
In addition, the economy has suffered from Venezuela’s reduced oil production and tightened sanctions, in part as punishment for Cuba’s support of the regime of Nicolás Maduro. By the autumn this caused long waits at the fuel pumps. Prices overall have risen, and people are complaining of shortages of foods including chicken and coffee. Rodríguez claims her outgoings have more than quadrupled, explaining that a bit of ham that cost around 50p last year, is now £4.55. The government gave state employees and pensioners, some 2.75 million people, a pay rise this year, but the cost of goods is eating away at modest increases, and price controls have been implemented.
These problems are further exacerbated by the two-currency system. Cubans in the state sector are paid in Cuban pesos (CUP) while tourists and people working in the private sector use the convertible peso (CUC), which is pegged to the US dollar that it was meant to replace nearly two decades ago, with one CUC worth 24 CUP. The end of the CUC appears to be a step closer, as the government announced some initial reforms, including the banning of use of CUC at Cuba’s airports. Once the CUC is gone, the island would use CUP and US dollars. In the meantime, there will be less money to change, as the measures introduced in April also curbed the remittances people in the US can send to Cuba, from an unlimited amount to $1,000 per person, every three months.
All of this amounts to a huge challenge for Miguel Díaz-Canel, who succeeded Raúl Castro as president in April 2018. Despite his attempts to communicate with the public, – even going so far as to appear on the current affairs television programme Mesa Redonda (Roundtable) in September to discuss the economic situation –there is a sense that the president has not clearly articulated the country’s direction through these problems. “Right now they seem to be responding and maybe that’s all one can expect them to do,” says Michael Bustamante, assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University in Miami.
While this period seems to indicate that the reforms that started under Raúl Castro are over, it is not a return to the “special period” the island suffered after the end of the Soviet Union. “While certainly a shock to the system and a grave one at that, this is not of the same kind of scale,” says Bustamante. “Cuba today has investment partners elsewhere.”
Hopes that the Trump administration would not undo the Obama normalisation were misplaced. “The [US-Cuba] relationship has really been torn to threads,” says Bustamante. Trump’s real concern is south Florida. Although Cuban-Americans there have a wide range of views about US policy toward the island, according to Bustamante, the Republicans have calculated that the support of the hardliners will be enough to deliver the votes they need to win this key state in the 2020 presidential election, and so “it stands to reason that we haven’t seen the last of the escalatory measures as November 2020 approaches”.
Although times are tough, to Rodríguez, they are not as bad as the 1990s. “Previously, it was very hard. There was nothing,” she recalls. “But now other countries want to trade with Cuba.” She remains hopeful that tourism will pick up – she has a few bookings from French visitors for December, though there is nothing lined up beyond that. “There are much fewer guests than before, but I have enough to sustain myself. I have nothing else. This is what I have to live.”
Names of Cubans have been changed to protect their identity
Carrie Gibson is the author of El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America