Trump’s Reversal of the Cuba Travel Policy Will Hurt Cuban Women the Most
The short-sighted policy could harm a generation of Cuban women entrepreneurs and business owners.
Today, US president Donald Trump will announce a rollback of an Obama-era policy that had loosened restrictions for individuals traveling to Cuba.
Trump’s policy will put an end to individual people-to-people travel, which allowed Americans to travel to Cuba under 12 different categories, including educational and religious exchange, humanitarian projects, and the catch-all category, “support for the Cuban people,” that many used as a means to travel to the island more-or-less for touristic activities.
Americans will still be able to travel to Cuba through approved people-to-people tours, which often cost more than $5,000 and are strictly regulated.
Diplomatic relations between the two countries, which were officially established on July 20, 2015, remain untouched, as does Obama's dismantling of the controversial “wet-foot, dry-foot” immigration policy that granted automatic asylum to Cubans who set foot on US soil.
According to senior White House officials, the new policy is aimed at “[restricting] the flow of money to the oppressive elements of the Cuban regime” and “[ensuring] the benefits of any economic commerce with the United States will go directly to the Cuban people.”
But in reality, this policy will harm the Cuban people more than it helps them. This is especially true for Cuba’s emerging entrepreneurial class and private sector, which has seen unprecedented growth in the past two years.
Last year, an estimated 4 million tourists visited Cuba, contributing $3 billion USD to the economy. It’s been estimated that of those 4 million tourists, more than 600,000 were Cuban Americans and other US travelers.
This increase in tourism has been paired with a dramatic increase in private businesses, such as privately-owned restaurants, bed and breakfasts, and startups throughout Cuba.
Many US travelers stay in Cuban homes, eat in Cuban restaurants, and engage in cultural exchange that fosters greater understanding and dialogue between the two countries. They buy Cuban art, attend concerts and theater performances, and some even invest in Cuban businesses when they return to the United States.
Read More: Travel between Cuba, US just got easier
“The majority of Americans who are traveling to the island, the vast majority, are patronizing the private sector,” Marguerite Rose Jiménez, senior associate for Cuba at the Washington Office on Latin America, told Global Citizen. “So that means that hard currency is going into the hands of individual Cuban citizens, not just the Cuban government.”
For Cuban women in particular, who make up a growing proportion of the emergent private sector, a policy of retrenchment and isolation could have disastrous effects on their incipient businesses.
“Cuban women have emerged within Cuba’s new entrepreneurial class in a big way,” Jiménez said. “A reduction in travel is going to have a direct effect on Cuban women and reduce their ability to earn their living independently of the state.”
On Tuesday, a coalition of 55 Cuban women entrepreneurs penned an open letter to Ivanka Trump, daughter of and special advisor to the US president, urging her to “please support travel, trade, and exchanges between our two countries.”
“Undoubtedly, the restoration of relations between Cuba and the United States has been key to the success of the private sector,” the women wrote. “A setback in the relationship would bring with it the fall of many of our businesses and with this, the suffering of all those families that depend on them.”
The writers of the letter — who are artisans, chefs, photographers, hotel owners, and more — noted that women are increasingly leading the charge to increase private sector growth in Cuba. They said that hundreds of thousands of women are already getting involved in the private sector in Cuba.
In 2013, it was estimated that about one in four of the country’s 400,000 private sector workers were women, but as tourism has increased in the past two years, this too has begun to change.
AirBnB, which has more than 20,000 listings across more than 70 cities on the island, released a report showing that a majority of their hosts in Cuba were women. On average, Cuban AirBnb’s bring in an average annual pay out of $2,700 in a country where the average yearly government salary is $360, or $30 per month.
Cuban women are increasingly ditching their state-run jobs for opportunities in entrepreneurial fields, one report found. This is giving Cuban women more economic bargaining power in a country where gender inequality is still a big issue, and also inspiring future generations of Cuban women to start their own businesses.
The founder of Cuba Emprende, a startup incubator that has trained more than 1,000 entrepreneurs since 2012, noted that what used to be a male-dominated program now actually consists of about 60% women.
“The fact that those individuals are no longer entirely dependent on the state to earn a living, that is very significant,” Jiménez said, “especially if you believe that economic rights as an aspect of broader human rights matters.”
When US companies like AirBnB are able to provide higher-paying jobs to Cubans, and especially Cuban women; companies like Google are increasing access to the internet, creating a greater flow of information; and Americans are able to more freely travel to the island and support Cuban-owned businesses, it puts the onus on the Cuban government to invest more in the equitable development of people and communities.
If the goal of US-Cuban relations is to promote human rights in Cuba, then denying women and others economic opportunities to escape poverty, reduce their reliance on the state apparatus, and enter the private sector will accomplish the opposite.