It’s been less than a month since the visitor visas for Cubans coming to the U.S. were scaled down. A lot.
They used to be good for five years and you could come in again and again – similar to U.S. visitor visas for people from many other countries. But now: three months – and just one visit. And that’s clouded the future of Cuban entrepreneurs like Rubén Valladares.
Valladares is a private entrepreneur – the sort of aspiring capitalist the U.S. says it wants to promote as a challenge to Cuba’s communist regime. Even with the tight restrictions that that regime puts on private businesses, Valladares has been successful making personalized paper bags. So successful he’s now investing in ventures in Miami – like a tire shop in the Pinewood neighborhood, where customers get free candy in paper bags that bear the logo of his Cuban company, called Adorgraf. Valladares calls it synergy.
Now Valladares and another Cuban entrepreneur want to open a Cuban gift shop in Wynwood. But there’s just one problem.
“My visa,” says Valladares, “finishes in January 2020.”
That visa has allowed Valladares ample visits and time in the U.S. to buy the supplies and maintain the professional relationships he needs to help his businesses in both Cuba and Miami thrive. But when the five-year visa expires in January, he’ll face a time crunch with the new, significantly reduced visa.
“I’m very surprised,” Valladares says as he looks over a box of printing ink from a Hialeah supplier that he’ll be taking back to his Adorgraf shop in Havana. “I think the new visa measure is a very big problem for entrepreneurs in Cuba.” He sits back, slips into Spanish and adds: “Indudablemente esta medida va a dañar al empresario Cubano” – it will undoubtedly hurt Cuban entrepreneurs.
Valladares’ partner in the planned gift shop venture is Cuban swimsuit maker Victor Rodríguez. (Folks call him “Victor Bikini.”) He agrees with Valladares – and his own visa runs out in 2021.
“This will affect me enormously,” Rodríguez says by phone from Havana. “With this shorter visa I don’t know how we can carry out our plans.”
Cubans like Rodríguez also say they don’t really understand why the U.S. cut back on their visas.
In a video statement last month, Mara Tekach, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Havana, called the change “reciprocity” – bringing U.S. visas for Cubans in line with the visas Cuba gives Americans. The State Department won’t comment beyond that.
Critics of the new policy speculate it’s also meant to please President Trump’s conservative Cuban exile supporters in Miami. That cohort want U.S. engagement with Cuba halted in order to punish the regime – although no hardline exile leaders have publicly applauded the visa change.
But many other Cubans here call the punishment logic flawed.
“I don’t understand who’s going to be punished except for the Cuban people,” says Guennady Rodríguez, a Cuban business consultant in Miami. He argues that by cutting the contact that cuentapropistas, or Cuban entrepreneurs, have with the U.S., Washington is undermining its goals in Cuba.
“This is not a helpful way to promote your ideas in Cuba, because you are simply making yourselves the bad guys,” says Guennady Rodríguez. “I think it’s good to criticize the Cuban government – but, you know, I learned this from Americans: two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Another theory is that the administration hopes to use the visa measure as a way to force Cuban officials to start making the wholesale goods cuentapropistas need more available on the island. Most Cuban economy experts agree the regime has to open up that wholesale access. But Guennady Rodríguez points out countries like Panama, seeing an opportunity in the U.S. visitor visa change for Cubans, are already advertising for cuentapropistas to come there for business supplies.
And it’s not just Cuban cuentapropistas who are complaining about the new visitor visa policy.
“The ability of families to visit each other – it’s a big problem,” says Kristy Figueroa-Contreras a Cuban-American immigration attorney in Coral Gables.
Figueroa-Contreras notes that Cubans were already having to travel to U.S. consulates in third countries like Colombia to access the five-year visitor visas. That’s because the U.S. has only a skeleton staff now at the embassy in Havana – due to the dispute over alleged sonic attacks on that mission.
She says relatives like hers who live in Cuba probably won’t want to go to that third-country trouble and expense for a mere three-month, single-entry visa.
“The heart of this is, [Cuban] families are going to be more divided again,” says Figueroa-Contreras. “Most of the people that I know that have these visas are elderly and they do reside permanently in Cuba, and they’re coming to visit their children and their grandchildren – to spend the summer with us, help take care of our kids. That’s been cut short.”
Figueroa-Contreras says the anti-U.S. resentment that could cause among Cubans on the island will not really serve to undermine the regime. Instead, she says, “it just adds to the regime's [anti-U.S.] propaganda. And so [Cuban leaders] definitely are using this to their benefit – as they always do.”
Meaning: the more things change in U.S.-Cuba relations, the more they seem to stay the same.