Before Hurricane Irma ravaged Cuba’s north coast last month, Carla León’s private business – renting her family’s three-bedroom house in Havana through Airbnb – had already begun losing customers thanks to another force of nature: Donald Trump.
In June, President Trump announced he’d make it harder for Americans – the vast majority of León’s clients – to make trips to Cuba. Then came Irma, which further blunted the number of U.S. visitors. Now the Trump administration is warning Americans about traveling to the island after alleged “sonic attacks” on U.S. diplomats in Havana.
“We had a lot of reservations from September through December,” says León, “and most have them have been canceled.”
León, whose property sits in Havana’s Plaza neighborhood, says she could understand the U.S. travel advisory if it were based on something solid.
“But we don’t have evidence, we don’t have facts about this,” she says. “People are confused.”
Washington says it is still not sure what or who is responsible for the mysterious, supposedly acoustic assaults at the Havana residences of more than 20 U.S. and Canadian diplomats. U.S. officials say the attacks started last year and initially targeted U.S. intelligence agents, or spies. The victims suffered health problems including hearing loss and brain injuries.
Even so, León thinks the U.S. is jumping the gun. And she says it’s hurting Cuban entrepreneurs who often depend on U.S. visitors – and who thought Washington wanted to promote capitalist growth in communist Cuba.
“My biggest fear is my family business,” she says. “This is affecting Cuban livelihoods.”
Many if not most Cubans on the island feel the same way. They’re of course sorry for what happened to the victims. And they realize Cuba’s ubiquitous spy-and-surveillance system might be responsible.
But without conclusive evidence, they believe the Trump administration – which has also withdrawn almost two-thirds of its embassy staff in Havana, suspended issuing new U.S. visas for Cubans and expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from Washington – is acting rashly.
For now they agree with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez. Last week, Rodríguez said Cuba denies involvement and “strongly protests and condemns this unfounded and unacceptable” U.S. response.
Cuba, Rodríguez added, “emphasizes that the U.S. government decision has an eminently political character.”
He was referring to the widely held notion in Cuba right now that U.S. actions have less to do with real medical and forensic conclusions than with a conservative effort to sabotage the normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations that began three years ago.
“Most Cubans on the island are suspicious,” says Collin Laverty, who heads Cuba Educational Travel, based in Miami and Washington, which books people-to-people visits to Cuba for Americans.
“I think they’re demanding answers from the United States in terms of some transparency about the investigation.”
OFF THE RAILS
Speaking from Havana, Laverty said many Cubans see the hand of hardline anti-communist leaders in the U.S., like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who oppose diplomatic relations with Cuba’s anti-democratic regime.
“A lot of civilians in Cuba feel that regardless of who’s behind this,” says Laverty, “there are folks in the U.S. Congress that are taking advantage of this situation to push their political agenda.”
Cuba expert William Leogrande, a government professor at American University in Washington, thinks so too. Leogrande says that agenda ultimately hopes to cancel U.S.-Cuba normalization, and he fears the still unsolved attacks have given that campaign an opening.
“I think these incidents have become an excuse for taking punitive actions against Cuba,” says Leogrande, co-author of “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.”
“It’s a kind of lever for conservatives to refight the battle they lost back in June” when Trump decreed a normalization rollback that fell well short of what they’d hoped for.
Leogrande also points out scientists have yet to confirm the maladies the victims reported could have resulted from sonic devices. And he says because of the push by Rubio and company, a U.S.-Cuba relationship that was "moving in a positive direction, has now been knocked off the rails. That does not serve the interests of either country.”
It would, however, serve the interests of Cuba’s communist hardliners, who are just as opposed to normalized relations with the U.S. Many in the Trump administration speculate they may have been rogue perpetrators of the alleged attacks (if not a third country).
Either way, many others in the U.S. feel Cuban President Raúl Castro’s government bears at least some responsibility.
“Their intelligence apparatus is one of the best in the world,” says Andy Gomez, who heads the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.
“Something like this could not have happened without Raúl Castro and his inner circle knowing about it.”
The question is how far both the U.S. and Cuba will let this hot dispute restart the cold war they thought they’d ended.