Travelers and tourism workers cast doubt on motivation of US-Cuba diplomatic fallout

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Wendy Iznaga, a waitress and bartender at Creperíe Oasis Nelva in Old Havana, waits for customers on a slow night. She says foreigners should feel safe traveling to Cuba in spite of a U.S. travel warning. Photo by Julienne Gage.

Susan Mutschler of Toledo, Ohio grew up watching news of the Cuban Missile Crisis and wondering what Cubans on the island were like. Last week, she bucked a U.S. State Department travel warning for Cuba that suggested U.S. citizens could be targeted by a string of unexplained incidents that left at least 22 U.S. diplomats and family members with symptoms such as hearing loss, fatigue and cognitive disorders.

“It’s very nice here. The people are friendly and striving to increase tourism with their businesses. All the places we went, all the restaurants visited were wonderful. That’s not what I read before I came down,” she said as she boarded a U.S.-bound plane at Havana’s José Martí International Airport with fellow members of a Friendly Planet Travel tour.

But ask her about the Trump administration’s response to what it has called “attacks” and her face tightens.

“I did not believe that from the beginning. No tourists were affected by whatever that was,” she said. “I think it was a political ploy. Relations were improving and I think the powers that be were not happy with that.”

Others in her tour group shook their heads in agreement and repeated her line “a political ploy.”

“I would encourage anybody to come here,” Mutschler added.

On Sept. 29, the U.S. announced a withdrawal of more than half of its staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana in response to the incidents. The State Department also expelled 15 officials the Cuban Embassy in Washington to “ensure equity.”

The Cuban government has repeatedly denied responsibility in alleged sonic weapon attacks. Investigators, including FBI agents who traveled to Havana, have not yet determined who or what is behind these incidents.

Several Cubans working in the tourism sector said they are worried the diplomatic fallout will have a negative impact on their businesses – dealing another blow after Hurricane Irma. Many Havana businesses have recovered from the storm, but with high season just weeks away, workers say business is a bit slow.

A Cuban dancer tries to keep up spirits on a slow business day in Old Havana by entertaining foreign travelers with his dance moves. Photo by Julienne Gage.

They’re trying to maintain their traditionally upbeat appearance, but the mere mention of a new U.S.-Cuba diplomatic crisis evoked intense emotions.

“I think it’s a big Trump exaggeration. I’ve never heard of anything like that happening in Cuba,” said Carlos Romero, a young entrepreneur who runs an Airbnb and bartends at the privately run Nelva Crepería bistro in Old Havana. Asked if it was affecting business, he said “maybe.”

“I’m still hosting Americans, but there are fewer. I don’t know if it’s because of the hurricane or the politics,” he said, adding that he wished Americans knew Cuba is safe for them. “There’s even legislation to protect tourists.”

“You go to so many other countries and you can’t even walk down the street without worrying about your purse getting snatched. You don’t have to worry about that here. It’s really safe,” said his coworker Wendy Iznaga.

None of the Cubans Cuba Trade interviewed seemed convinced any attacks happened. If they had, they said it wouldn’t have been under the direction of their government, which they say has always prioritized the safety of foreign diplomats.

One British traveler who did not want to be identified said it doesn’t matter who might have carried out these alleged attacks.

“Trump did the right thing by pulling the diplomats out until more information is available,” she said. “He has to look like he’s protecting his people.”

Cuban trucker Mario Hernandez Mateos gets emotional questioning the U.S. government’s decision to remove a large number of U.S. and Cuban diplomats from Washington and Havana in response to what it’s calling “attacks.” Photo by Julienne Gage.

On the Malecón Boulevard near the Havana Harbor, a group of Cuban souvenir vendors and classic car taxi drivers said the diplomatic fallout is already damaging their bottom line.

“This is really hurting me because I want the United States and Cuba to go forward with their relationship,” said Jorge Lantigua Garcia, who said he would be parking classic cars instead of sitting on the Malecón if there were more tourists.

Mario Hernandez Mateos, a state-employed trucker and fervent believer in the Cuban Revolution, agreed.

“I ask that Trump be fair and that he stop this game. Why should his people have to leave the embassy? Why does Trump have to do this?” he asked as tears streamed down his face. “Cuba is a beautiful country, a human one. We Cubans don’t just work; we struggle. We’re poor, but we have worthy souls.”

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  1. Daily Briefing - October 10, 2017 - Cuba Trade Magazine - October 10, 2017

    […] Casting doubt on motivations behind incidents harming U.S. diplomats: Many Cubans working in the tourism industry say their businesses will take a hit thanks to an updated State Department travel warning for Cuba. They say the travel warning is unjustified because there are not confirmed reports of U.S. travelers being affected by the unexplained incident that harmed at least 22 U.S. diplomats and family members. Some U.S. visitors to Cuba called the travel warning a “political ploy.” (Cuba Trade Magazine) […]

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