The island of Cuba will fully reopen to tourism on November 15, the Cuban Ministry of Tourism has announced. As of that date, travelers with vaccination certificates or pre-travel Covid test results will no longer face mandatory testing upon arrival and will no longer have to endure a five-day quarantine at designated hotels while awaiting tests results.
The Tourism Ministry (MINTUR) announcement, released earlier this week, noted that Cuba plans to have vaccinated 90 percent of its population by November, making the normalization of travel possible in time for the holiday season. The U.S. Embassy, however, noted that any American travelers will have to take Covid tests before returning to the United States.
Cuban scientists have produced their own Covid-19 vaccines on the island, which authorities have recently submitted to the World Health Organization for approval. The government’s vaccination campaign is targeting all Cuban citizens, including children above the age of two years old.
The Cuban government, led by Miguel Díaz-Canel, is pinning its hopes on tourism to revive Cuba’s moribund economy. The country confronts a perfect storm of socio-economic hardships and humanitarian crises. The ongoing pandemic has all but shuttered the revenue-generating tourism sector, essentially bankrupting the Cuban economy and leaving critical shortages of oil, foodstuffs, medicines and other basic goods that the government no longer can afford to purchase abroad. Like numerous other nations, Cubans face the humanitarian catastrophe of Covid-19, as new cases surged through the country in July and August, overwhelming hospitals with depleted reserves of medicine and equipment.
Trump-era U.S. sanctions have further deepened Cuba’s crisis. Those punitive measures included curtailing remittances—an estimated $3.5 billion (in 2017) annual revenue stream for 56 percent of Cuban families—as well as impeding travel to and from the island.
On July 11, frustrations among the Cuban populace turned into manifestations of discontent as unprecedented public protests erupted. The first demonstrators took to the streets in San Antonio de Baños, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana, swelling in numbers as they marched through the streets protesting increasingly desperate living conditions and the lack of civil liberties in Cuba. Cell phone videos of the initial marchers went viral; by afternoon, throngs of Cubans began demonstrating in more than 40 cities across the island—most peacefully, some violently—voicing a litany of social, economic and political grievances.
The Díaz-Canel government moved quickly to quell the protests. One demonstrator was killed, dozens were beaten and hundreds were detained, with some subjected to summary trials and harsh sentences. Internet access was temporarily blocked. But the nationwide expression of discontent, unheard of in Cuba since the 1959 revolution, poses an ongoing challenge to Cuba’s Communist system as it struggles with the dire economic consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic, and faces continuing hostility from the United States.
Before the protests broke out, President Biden had been content to let the Trump sanctions stand, and avoid all policy initiatives on Cuba, but the demonstrations have reignited the U.S. policy debate over aggression vs. engagement and pushed Cuba to the top of Biden’s agenda. Pro-engagement advocacy groups and leading Democrats have petitioned the White House to rescind U.S. sanctions that penalize the Cuban people and adopt a series of humanitarian gestures to ease suffering on the island, while Cuba policy hardliners have lobbied the White House to escalate pressure on Cuba. In the wake of the protests Miami Mayor Francis Suarez even suggested the Biden administration should consider the option of “a coalition of potential military action in Cuba.”
In response, Biden issued a series of tough declarations, calling Cuba “a failed state” and leveled individual--and largely symbolic—sanctions against a number of high-ranking Cuban police, interior and defense ministry officials for human rights violations. At the same time, on July 22, Biden announced that “We are reviewing our remittance policy to determine how we can maximize support to the Cuban people. And we are committed to re-staffing our embassy in Havana to provide consular services to Cubans and enhance our ability to engage with civil society.”
To date, the Biden administration has not addressed the limitations on flights and travel that its predecessor imposed. The Trump administration restricted commercial flights to Havana, eliminating the ability of U.S. travelers to fly into regional airports; suspended charter flights to the island, and reduced the legal categories under which U.S. citizens could lawfully travel to the island. Currently, only Jet Blue and American Airlines have a limited flight schedule to Cuba. In late August, the Biden administration quietly approved a limited number of small cargo flights ferrying humanitarian aid to the island.
In Cuba, the government has moved to address what President Díaz-Canel acknowledged was a lack of “attention to certain social problems” that left Cubans “legitimately dissatisfied.” After much delay, on August 6 the National Assembly finally approved major economic reforms to expand and legalize the private sector, and provide autonomy to state-owned businesses, in hopes of expanding production. In early August, the Cuban commerce ministry also authorized the very first Cuban-American-owned Miami company, Fuego Enterprises, to conduct business on the island--opening the door to future investment from, and commercial engagement with, the exile community.
“The negative result of the protests on July 11 is that hopes the Biden administration would lift at least the Trump-era sanctions are dashed," Omar Everleny Pérez, a former University of Havana economics professor, told the Reuters news agency. "The positive is that it signals we have to do what we have to do in terms of improving the economy without waiting for the United States."