HAVANA – At San Cristobal, one of the most popular of the restaurants to spring up in Havana as the Communist government created space for private enterprise on the island, the bustle of just a few weeks ago has been replaced by worried silence since Washington barred visits to Cuba by US-based cruise ships.
The eatery was among numerous small businesses in the capital that took part Friday in events to protest the latest sanctions imposed by the United States.
San Cristobal became famous in 2016 for hosting Barack Obama during the then-US president’s historic visit to Cuba.
But with business down 80 percent as a result of the Donald Trump administration’s latest punitive measures against Cuba, owner Carlos Cristobal is struggling to reconcile the “dream” of three years ago with the “nightmare” of the present.
“The United States will no longer permit visits to Cuba via passenger and recreational vessels, including cruise ships and yachts, and private and corporate aircraft,” the US State Department said June 4.
Besides barring cruises to Cuba, Trump clamped down on the people-to-people educational travel program that had allowed thousands of Americans to visit the island after the thaw in relations initiated by Obama in 2014.
The rationale for the new restrictions is to reduce the flow of hard currency to the Cuban government, accused by Washington of interfering in Venezuela through Havana’s support for leftist President Nicolas Maduro, who the US is trying to overthrow.
“I urge everybody to come here, you can, Obama already demonstrated that,” Cristobal told EFE inside his restaurant, which has become a kind of shrine to the momentous events of 2016.
The cup from which Obama sipped coffee sits on what can be described as an altar, while photos of the former president adorn the walls of San Cristobal, along with images of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Cuban independence hero Jose Marti.
Snapshots of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and singer Beyonce also recall happier times for the 9-year-old establishment.
Despite the drop in revenue, Cristobal has yet to lay off any of his 32 employees, though other Havana entrepreneurs know they are approaching a point where reducing payrolls will be necessary for survival.
Asked what he would like to tell Trump, the restaurateur said: “Think about it, people have a right to live. Truly, we are the people, with families. It’s not that it hurts the private sector, it’s going to hurt everyone.”
He points to Havana’s Almacenes San Jose, a massive dockside warehouse converted into a crafts market. Typically packed with tourists, Cristobal says it now “looks like a deserted square, as if there had been a nuclear bomb there.”
Trade is also down for the drivers of the vintage US convertible cars who formerly found plenty of customers willing to pay $50 for an hour-long tour of historic Havana.
For tourists who find the cars too pricey, there is the option of horse-drawn carriages, whose operators mounted a protest Friday against the new wave of US sanctions.
“We are left now with practically nothing. They have strangled us with these unjust measures,” carriage driver Jesus David Rodriguez says. “The tourists stopped coming and it was as if the electricity went out.”
The demonstration took place near the empty cruise-ship terminal, where before the ban it was common on any given day to see one or more of the US lines’ giant vessels docked.
Last year, Carnival and Norwegian ships carried 340,000 Americans to Cuba, double the number of the previous year, leaving the US second only to Canada as a source of international visitors.