Cubans React To Trump's Reversal Of Obama-Era Policy

Jun 16, 2017
Originally published on June 16, 2017 7:16 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today President Trump announced that he's canceling the deal President Obama made to re-engage with Cuba.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The previous administration's easing of restrictions on travel and trade does not help the Cuban people. They only enrich the Cuban regime.

SHAPIRO: The president made this announcement to a gathering of Cuban exiles in Miami. He told them the U.S. embassy which was opened in Havana by the Obama administration will remain open and that the U.S. is willing to renegotiate what he called a better deal if Cuba eases repression of its people.

NPR's Carrie Kahn joins us now from Havana. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi.

SHAPIRO: Were most Cuban people able to watch Trump's speech? What's the reaction been from people you've spoken to today?

KAHN: No, they weren't. Maybe later it will be rebroadcasted in some fashion, but it was not on Cuban TV. It was only live in bars and hotels that have international cable connections. I did, though, talk to many Cubans about the policy shift by Trump. They were aware of it. And overwhelmingly, I would say the Cubans I spoke with were worried about what they see as these changes, especially what they mean for those working in the growing private sector.

You know, nearly all those jobs, like people renting out rooms in their homes to travelers and taxi drivers, tour guides, restaurant owners - those jobs - those are tied greatly to tourism. And many Cubans expressed wonderment and anxiousness about changes to the rules and how that would dampen tourism.

SHAPIRO: It'll likely become more difficult for Americans to visit the island. Have you spoken to American tourists there today?

KAHN: I did. I actually watched President Trump's speech in a bar in Old Havana - actually the Ambos Mundos hotel, you know, the one that's said to be the stomping grounds of Ernest Hemingway. There's a meeting of Hemingway scholars in the hotel this weekend. And there was quite a crowd of American travelers in the bar, and it got larger as the speech went on.

And many of the Americans were concerned about the changes. And many had kept asking me, am I going to be able to get home? And am I going to be able to travel to the island again? Nearly all of them were exploiting cracks in the travel ban that - they say they're on these people-to-people tours, but there's nobody checking up on them. And they're not on organized tours. And that loophole in the ban will be closed, and Americans will have to go through organized official tour groups with full-time people-to-people activities if they want to come back. That's according to the new rules.

But one woman I - who was watching it with me - she was just incredulous at Trump's accusation that travelers to Cuba were supporting the regime. She said, I've been here 48 hours, and all my money has gone directly to the Cuban people, and he doesn't know what he's talking about. That was sort of the reaction I heard. But it's really difficult, though, to avoid, you know, your tourist dollars going to the military, who is in charge of large parts of the economy and the tourist sector. That bar that we were in is owned by the government. And so people were spending money and giving it to the government.

SHAPIRO: President Trump says the Obama policy did not lead to any improvements of human rights in Cuba, that it only enriched the regime. How do Cuban people see it?

KAHN: Well, I think from hardline dissidents here, you would get the affirmative on that one. The president even mentioned two directly here on the island that are routinely targeted with short-term tensions and harassments by the regime. But if you talk to many Cubans, especially those who can now travel, hook up to the internet, open businesses, they would really disagree that improvements have not happened since the opening.

You know, for example, Airbnb just had one study that said they've booked more than $40 million in guest rooms and bed and breakfast for travelers from the U.S. here in the past two years, and that money went directly in the hands of private citizens. So you'd be hard pressed to find those here that say that life has not improved somewhat.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn speaking with us from Havana. Thanks, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome.

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