The Pre-Trump Scramble

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  • President-elect Trump has vowed to reverse the thaw in relations with Cuba. But will he do it?
  • Cuban entrepreneur Marta Deus holds a letter to President-elect Trump urging him to support Cuban businesses. Photo by Gabrielle Jorgensen, Engage Cuba.
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) speaks to the press about a letter Cuban entrepreneurs sent to President-elect Donald Trump. Photo by Gabrielle Jorgensen, Engage Cuba.

Businesses with a foothold in Cuba, from internet giant Google to event planners in Havana, are treating President-elect Donald Trump’s threats to undo President Obama’s Cuba opening with similar urgency.

To win votes from those who oppose the re-engagement—especially in South Florida—Trump threatened to undo the Cuba opening during the final weeks of his campaign, and since then has sent several non-specific signals about changing course. Shortly after the death of Fidel Castro, Trump issued a statement saying “Our administration will do all it can to ensure the Cuban people can finally begin their journey toward prosperity and liberty.” He also appointed several prominent Cuban-American critics of Obama’s Cuba policy to his transition team.

“Everything President Obama has done in the last eight years is subject to change, whether it be reversal, elimination, or alteration,” said U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council President John S. Kavulich. “Any company that hasn’t planned for a contraction in commercial activity is being delusional, because there will likely be no expansion, and there will likely be some contraction.”

While not all pundits agree with that assessment, it still isn’t clear which parts— if any—of the opening Trump intends to reverse. In the meantime, the Cuban government and businesses on both sides of the Florida Straits are rushing to approve deals before Trump reaches the White House.

Royal Caribbean International, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Pearl Seas Cruises all won approval from the Cuban government in early December to send cruise ships to Cuba. Those cruise lines, which will sail from Miami and Tampa in 2017, were approved despite worries about limited capacity at Havana Harbor. Barring a sudden reversal by Trump, those companies will join Carnival Corp., currently the only U.S. cruise line offering Cuba voyages; its Fathom brand has been sailing to and from Cuba since May 2016.

“Could they actually reverse the progress that has been made by cruise companies, airlines and other people who are planning to go to Cuba? Yes, absolutely that could happen,” said John Thomas, a Florida International University assistant professor specializing in tourism in Cuba. “But there is going to be a lot of pressure not to do that, because it does create jobs and business for Americans.”

Nonetheless, warned Kavulich, “The airlines, the cruise ships, the hotels, the travel agents, and the tour operators should all be planning for increased enforcement, which will likely lead to a decrease in the number of travelers.”

Cubans are also set to have faster internet access thanks to an agreement signed between Google and Cuba’s telecommunications monopoly ETECSA on Dec. 12. The deal will allow Google to install servers for storing data on the island. The move is expected to speed up access to Google services such as YouTube. At the moment, those services travel through Venezuela before reaching the island.

“This in turn means Cubans who already have access to the internet and want to use our services can expect to see an improvement in terms of quality of service and reduced latency for cached content,” Google wrote in a statement.

Google and ETECSA did not answer questions from the media after the deal was signed, raising concerns about when and where the servers will be installed, and who is covering the cost. The secrecy of some deals may lead to additional scrutiny under the new administration.

“When Google announces the placement of servers in Cuba and refuses to be proactive with the details, it continues the narrative that the incoming administration, the president-elect’s administration, view the transactions with suspicion,” Kavulich said. “Generally they are focused on whether this is another U.S. company donating something that provides more value to Cuba than the U.S. company.”

Cuba’s blossoming private sector is also making moves to preserve its progress during the Trump administration. Four Cuban business owners joined U.S. lawmakers and pro-engagement advocacy groups in Washington, D.C. at a Dec. 7 press conference to release a letter signed by more than 100 Cuban entrepreneurs urging Trump to maintain trade and travel policies that benefit their businesses.

“Small businesses in Cuba have the potential to be drivers of economic growth in Cuba and important partners of the U.S. business community. Additional measures to increase travel, trade and investment, including working with the U.S. Congress to lift the embargo, will benefit our companies, the Cuban people and U.S. national interests.” the letter said.

The entrepreneurs argued that looser travel and remittance policies have given them access to more customers and sources of funding. According to the Cuban government, the number of American visitors to Cuba increased by 80 percent from the first half of 2015 to the first half of 2016.

Remittances to the island have also skyrocketed under the Obama administration. A study by the Havana Consulting Group study says remittances have increased by about 132 percent from 2008 to 2015. Those funds are no longer used exclusively for family assistance, but for funding private businesses.

“We’re hopeful that he will continue to build on the progress of the last two years that has helped U.S. businesses and created positive changes for the Cuban people,” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a pro-engagement advocacy group that helped organize the press conference.

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