Airbnb Mum on Privacy in Cuba Home Rentals

After sonic attacks on U.S. diplomats and tourists, dissidents warn of surveillance in hotels, rented residences

An American car decorated with the image of late Cuban leader Fidel Castro in HavanaAn American car decorated with the image of late Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Havana

An American car decorated with the image of late Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Havana / Getty Images


Airbnb, which is struggling to defend itself against a wave of scrutiny after several guests discovered hidden cameras in the company's short-term lease properties, remains mum on its privacy policies for lodgings in Cuba.

Cuban dissidents and experts on the Castro regime's use of its security police to monitor government opponents, as well as Americans, on the island are warning that the Cuban government has a long history of surveilling U.S. visitor activity, including entering hotel rooms or other rented lodging and examining belongings.

In the wake of the sonic attacks on U.S. personnel over the last year in Havana, anti-Castro activists say Americans should know the privacy risks when traveling to Cuba and using hotels operated by the Cuban government or casas particulares, Cuba's home-rental network that now includes thousands of Airbnb properties.

Airbnb over the last week has suspended or banned hosts—both in Europe and the United States—for violating a strict Airbnb prohibition on undisclosed cameras on the properties.

However, the company has not responded to several Washington Free Beacon inquiries about whether it warns U.S. or other tourists traveling to Cuba about the potential for Cuban government's electronic surveillance of guest quarters and long history of the Castro regime's security police gaining access to rented rooms.

The U.S. government in September advised Americans not to travel to Cuba in the wake of alleged sonic attacks against at least 24 U.S. personnel or their spouses in Havana.

U.S. doctors have since detected brain abnormalities in victims of the suspected attacks, some of whom have also experienced permanent hearing loss, vision and equilibrium problems, as well as headaches and sleeplessness.

The Associated Press reported in October that a U.S. tourist and an FBI agent, both of whom were staying in government-owned hotels, may have been victims of the sonic attacks, fueling more concerns about Cuban government surveillance and activities in hotels and other rented accommodations on the island. The same month, Reuters reported that a "handful" of private U.S. citizens who have traveled to Cuba experienced similar symptoms.

The Cuban government has repeatedly denied any involvement in or knowledge of the sonic attacks.

Lawmakers, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), as well as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have argued that surveillance of Americans by the Cuban government is so constant that the Cuban government knows more than what it is acknowledging and could have stopped or prevented the attacks.

Cuban dissidents said Cuban authorities have a long history of demanding access to rooms where Americans are staying.

"All the people who are visiting the island, especially for Americans, they like to know what these people are talking about what is the position they have in relation to the regime," Antonio Rodiles, a Cuban political activist, told the Washington Free Beacon.

If a tourist sparks their interest, the Cuban government's security police speak to the owner of the house, gain access to the rooms where they are staying and look through belongings in suitcases, as well any books or other reading material, he said.

"This is the normal behavior of the regime," Rodiles said.

The government can easily track foreign guests because it requires Airbnb hosts to report their passport numbers to Cuban immigration authorities, according to a report last year in the Miami Herald.

Rodiles said he knows of at least one recent instance in which a family who was renting space in their house to tourists stopped doing so because they were tired of dealing with government inquiries about their guests and requests to gain access to the rooms where they were staying.

Out of concern for the property owner's anonymity, Rodiles would not say whether the property was an Airbnb listing or part of the broader casa particulares network.

"If they feel the necessity and they want for some reason to get inside [the rooms], they pressure the owner of the house to get inside," Rodiles said. "They have all the resources—they control everything in Cuba. If the owners try not to allow it, they will lose their licenses to operate."

Jaime Suchlicki, who spent nearly 20 years as the director of the University of Miami's Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies before his retirement this summer, said it is common knowledge that the Cuban government is closely monitoring American tourists during their visits to the island.

Cuban government surveillance of foreign dignitaries is especially common at the government-owned and operated Hotel Nacional, he said.

"There are a number of rooms that are bugged and prepared for video and audio, and foreign dignitaries are usually assigned to one of these rooms," Suchlicki said.

The U.S. embassy in Havana has identified the Hotel Nacional and Hotel Capri as two places where U.S. personnel have experienced symptoms associated with sonic attacks.

Marriott International, through its Starwood subsidiary, is the first and only hotel that the U.S. government, under the Obama administration, allowed to operate in Cuba. The hotel chain signed a multi-year license with the Cuban military in 2016 to turn the Cuban military-operated Hotel Quinta Avenida in Havana into a Four Points by Sheraton.

Other deals Marriott struck for Cuban government-owned properties have faced delays.

A spokesman for Marriott said the company only manages one property in Cuba, the Four Points Havana, which was not involved in any health-related attacks on Americans.

The spokesman pointed to a company safety and security policy when asked if Marriott provides guests in its Cuban hotel and whether the company informs guests of potential health, privacy, or surveillance risks when traveling to Cuba.

"We encourage all guests to consider all relevant information including State Department advisories before making travel plans to Cuban or any other international destinations," the spokesman said.

Airbnb was one of the first U.S.-based businesses the Cuban government licensed to operate on the island after President Obama's historic efforts to normalize diplomatic relations and renew commercial ties between the two countries.

An April 2016 article in Fortune magazine touted the company's Cuba success story in an article headlined: "How Airbnb pulled off a coup in Cuba." The existing collection of casa particulares on the island made it easy for Airbnb to launch in Cuba.

In the first year and a half after Obama's opening, an estimated 4,000 of Cuba's casas particulares signed up with Airbnb and more than 13,000 Americans booked rooms in them.

That number has multiplied to 19,000 Airbnb current listings across the island, Airbnb said earlier this year.

Combined with Americans' new desire to travel to the island, the dynamic helped make Cuba the fastest-growing market Airbnb launched, according to the Fortune article.

As the company worried about new restrictions on Americans' travel to Cuba President Trump was planning, it touted its successes in "generating economic opportunity" for Cuban citizens in the two years of it operating there.

Airbnb said hosts on the island have earned nearly $40 million and provided lodging for 560,000 guests since 2015 in a report about its activities there.

The Airbnb report earned high praise from a CNN reporter in Cuba, Patrick Oppmann.

"Wow. @Airbnb says Cubans have earned $40 million form house rentals," Oppmann tweeted in June.

Ben Rhodes, Obama's former deputy national security adviser, who lists his role as a "Cuba negotiator" for the administration on his Twitter profile, responded by touting Airbnb as a success story for Cuba's private sector.

"That's money that improves the lives of ordinary Cubans and fuels the Cuban private sector," Rhodes tweeted.

Neither the Airbnb report nor the subsequent tweets of praise mention the percentage of money that went to the Castro regime.

A Cuban host who rents a room in Havana can earn up to $164 a booking or $227 a week, nearly 10 times the average monthly salary of a state worker, the Airbnb report stated.

The report does not mention that the Cuban government charges an undisclosed amount for a self-employed license fee nor that hosts must pay monthly taxes whether they rent out their homes or not. The Cuban government also takes a 10 percent fee of what the hosts collect, according to media reports.

Self-employed workers who earn more than $2,000 a year are forced to hand over 50 percent of their income to the government in taxes, according to Rodiles and Suchlicki.

Additionally, Cuban Aibnb hosts complained earlier this year that the company is no longer paying them through a Miami-based remittance company, VaCuba, for their bookings but insisting they obtain an AIS debit card issued by Financiera Cimex SA, or FINCIMEX. VaCuba would then send the payments to the card.

As the Miami Herald reported, it is unclear if the U.S. Treasury would allow such a financial transaction because FINCIMEX is part of controlled by the Cuban military.

Airbnb hosts have complained that the Cuban state would then know exactly how much Airbnb has paid each Cuban host.

President Trump has tightened travel and commercial ties to Cuba as part of an effort to roll back some of former President Obama's efforts to normalize relations with Havana and the Castro regime.

The new rules placed new restrictions on "people-to-people" visas that Americans have used in recent years to easily book their own individual travel online.

Instead, the U.S. government will again require the travelers to participate in an educational tour accompanied by a U.S. tour guide who is licensed to ensure that Americans are not violating U.S. sanctions and doing business with prohibited Cuban military and government entities during their stay.

Rubio and others backing the new limits have assured travelers that they will still be able to visit the island and use privately owned lodging like Airbnb because such travel falls into "support for the Cuban people" category.

Susan Crabtree

Susan Crabtree   Email Susan | Full Bio | RSS
Susan Crabtree is a senior writer for the Washington Free Beacon. She is a veteran Washington reporter who has covered the White House and Congress over the past two decades. She has written for the Washington Examiner, the Washington Times, the Hill newspaper, Roll Call, and Congressional Quarterly.

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