HAVANA (Reuters) - Lazaro Hernandez, who has made a good living showing U.S. cruise ship passengers around Havana in his pink 1950s Chevrolet, says the new U.S. ban on cruises to Cuba will wipe out 90% of his business overnight.
Hernandez is one of thousands of Cubans who benefited from the boom in American visitors to the Caribbean’s largest island following the loosening of travel restrictions under former U.S. President Barack Obama during the short-lived 2014-2016 detente between the Cold War foes.
Obama’s successor, President Donald Trump, aims to punish Cuba’s Communist government - especially for its alliance with Venezuela - by tightening the rules once more. Yet Cubans say those who will really suffer are the people, including the private-sector workers the United States purports to support.
“This is a fatal blow for us,” said Hernandez, 27, who makes $30 an hour - the equivalent of the average monthly state salary - doing tours of Havana. “If there’s no tourism, we don’t have work.”
U.S. travelers excluding Cuban-Americans became the second- biggest group of tourists on the island in recent years after Canadians, with cruise travelers making up half of those.
Although they typically contributed less to the economy as they stayed on ships rather than in hotels or bed-and-breakfasts, they hired drivers and tour guides and spent at private shops, bars and restaurants.
“We bought T-shirts as souvenirs and bags,” said Sarah Freeman, 42, one of the passengers on the last U.S. cruise ship to sail from Havana, using a handcrafted wooden Cuban fan to fend off the Caribbean heat.
The new restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba also include the elimination of so-called group people-to-people educational travel, one of the most popular exemptions to the overall ban on U.S. tourism to Cuba.
William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert at American University in Washington, estimated the measures could reduce the number of non-Cuban-American U.S. visitors by two-thirds or more.
That could cut overall tourist arrivals in Cuba by about 10 percent, he said. Another expert, John Kavulich, said the drop could be as much as 20 percent.
“Optically, not having Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean in the marketplace will recreate negative perceptions about Cuba,” said Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council Inc, referring to the three main cruise lines forced to cancel service.
Tourism revenues, the country’s second-biggest source of hard currency, already slumped nearly 5 percent last year, according to official data.
That was partly the result of an earlier round of Trump administration restrictions.
Washington says it is pressuring Cuba to reform and tamp down its support for socialist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whom Trump has been seeking to force out in favor of opposition leader Juan Guaido, who is backed by most Western countries.
Critics say Trump is seeking to drum up support from the Cuban-American community in the swing state of Florida ahead of next year’s election.
Starting on Thursday, many Cubans will already be feeling the sudden absence in revenue from cruise passengers.
“For me, it will have a domino effect,” said Nichdaly Gonzalez, who earns her living posing for photos, dressed up in her colorful colonial garb, adding she expected to have to rein in her spending. As such, it will have a trickle-down impact on the local economy, especially in the ports of Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Cienfuegos that received the U.S. cruise ships.
The Cuban government has said it is aiming for tourism income to increase 5.8% this year, but it is hard to see how it can reach that goal now.
“We’ve lived with U.S. hostility now for 60 years, since the revolution, so we’ll get by,” said Abel Amador, 46, selling sketches to tourists on a cobbled street. “But this new move will still affect us.”
Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Christian Plumb and Peter Cooney