For Jennifer Herrera, a 20-year-old student and daughter of Cuban immigrants, Halloween was supposed to be special. It would have been the first with her fiancé, Andro, after they reunited in the United States.
Herrera fell fast for Andro when she traveled to Cuba in 2016. He was a friend of her cousin, and over her month-long stay, they became friends. But one day, Herrera and Andro were chatting when she suddenly burst into tears, realizing the connection she felt with him. Andro then acknowledged that he felt the same way, and they became a couple.
A few months later, Herrera traveled back to Cuba. They planned a special date night, and when he picked her up at her aunt’s house, he proposed in front of her extended family. For the past year, they’ve had a long-distance relationship: he in Havana and she in Portland, Ore.
Like other Americans who found love on the island, Herrera realized that dating someone in Cuba meant her relationship would be subject to volatile international politics.
On Sept. 30, Herrera was sitting in biology class. Two days later, she was scheduled to travel to Cuba, where she and Andro had an interview at the U.S. Embassy for his K-1 visa, the category for a fiancé of a U.S. citizen. That September day, however, a year of hopes shattered. She received an email from the U.S. Embassy in Havana, saying that her Oct. 3 appointment with Andro had been canceled. “I looked at it and thought, ‘This can’t be right,’ ” she remembers. “I couldn’t focus in class.”
The day before, on Sept. 29, President Trump issued a travel warning and cut more than half the embassy staff because of alleged “sonic attacks,” in which sound waves can be used to cause physical problems. According to the State Department, Americans suffered a series of inexplicable and mysterious attacks. Neither the cause nor the source is known, and the Cuban government has denied any involvement.
As a result of the embassy staff removal, visa services for Cubans have been halted.
Herrera says that she’s trying to be positive, but that it’s hard. She and Andro had started planning a wedding for December. Her mother and grandmother were eager to try Andro’s great cooking. Had Trump not halted diplomatic services and the interview gone according to plan, Andro would be in Portland. Now Herrera is not sure when they will be together.
The challenge isn’t new. Michael Bustamante, a professor of Latin American history at Florida International University, says the “protracted divorce of the U.S. from Cuba” had “human effects of all kinds.” Families – split between alliances, borders or economic interests – have often been forced to separate. Now domestic-born Americans are also feeling the strain with romantic partners.
Before Trump’s presidency, the Obama administration normalized relations with Cuba in 2015. Part of this policy shift included 12 approved ways for Americans to visit the island, including “people to people” educational trips. In 2016, 615,000 Americans visited the island, a 34 percent increase from the previous year.
Austin-based academic and blogger Kiona Pilles, 27, was one of them. On her first day in Havana, she went to a party and met a man named Alejandro. He would later become her boyfriend – and one of the main reasons she has returned to the island six times in the past year and a half.
Pilles wrote about their relationship on her blog, How to Not Travel Like a Basic B—-. Soon readers flooded her inbox with questions or advice about dating a Cuban. In response, she published the blog post “8 Things You Need to Know Before Dating a Cuban Papi and Ruining Your Life,” with wisdom such as: “If he hasn’t proposed to you, he doesn’t love you.”
The exact number of Americans with long-distance Cuban partners is unknown. But with recent increased contact came more opportunity for romance. Pilles says that every woman she knows who has gone to Cuba has come back with “some sort of romantic story.” And now that visas for Cubans are in limbo, the future of these relationships is unclear.
“The Obama administration created a window where a lot of contact was possible, and that’s the window that’s now shutting,” says Guillermo Grenier, a sociology professor at Florida International University. “In the big scheme of things, the U.S.-Cuba relations have so many detrimental effects across the board [that] the individual cases where people have actually met and fallen in love just fall through the cracks.”
Leslie, a 35-year-old health-care consultant from New York who spoke on the condition that only her first name be used, realized this quickly. On a trip to Havana to see her boyfriend in June, she ducked into a hotel in Havana to charge her phone when she saw Trump on TV, announcing his promised repeal of President Barack Obama’s Cuba policy. “I thought, ‘This is just my luck,’ ” Leslie tells me, “I finally meet the dream person and there are going to be lots of obstacles if we ever seriously want to be together.”
Leslie worried that she wouldn’t be able to travel back to Cuba. But when Trump’s new travel restrictions took effect on Nov. 9, they didn’t affect personal travel. Americans can still travel legally to Cuba, but Cubans’ inability to access visa services can create stress.
The U.S. Embassy in Havana later announced that it would transfer services to Bogota, Colombia, although Herrera felt little relief. The added financial strain of flights for her and Andro to Colombia – in addition to accommodations, food and transportation – makes it unlikely that they’ll be able to travel there. These visas generally require multiple visits to an embassy, but multiple trips from Cuba to Colombia isn’t feasible for the average Cuban. “It’s a totally complicated mess on the visa side,” Bustamante says.
Under Obama, Americans developed relationships with Cubans, assuming communication and contact would improve between the two countries. Since Trump came to office, the odds have been stacked against them. “These kind of relationships are less likely to emerge or become sustainable under these circumstances,” says Ana Lopez, director of the Cuban and Caribbean Studies Institute at Tulane University.
Cubans and Americans shouldn’t lose hope for a viable romantic future, though. It takes creativity, patience and the ability to “somehow maneuver around the obstacles that have been around for the last 50 years,” Grenier says.
For some, the possibility of one day reuniting makes the effort worth it. “When Andro gets here, he might pass out or something after all we’ve been through,” jokes Herrera.