Biden’s Cuba policy is suddenly in the spotlight

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The protests erupted Sunday in San Antonio de los Baños, a town outside Cuba’s capital city, Havana. They spread from there, with demonstrations bursting out across the country, from the streets of Havana to the countryside. They became the largest anti-government protests to happen in the country in decades — a remarkable show of resistance against Cuba’s communist regime.

Outrage and desperation over Cuba’s deepening economic crisis and a resurgent pandemic fueled the demonstrations. Food and medicine shortages are widespread. Prices for food and utilities are rising, making it harder for Cubans to afford the essentials. Frequent blackouts are intensifying the public’s frustration. Cubans are waiting in long lines for food they can barely afford and may not have a fridge to store in, or even a fan to get them through the island’s July heat.

Cuba’s economic problems largely predate the pandemic, but the coronavirus sharpened them. It decimated Cuba’s tourism industry, a huge slice of the island’s economy. Trump-era sanctions — which the Biden administration has not rolled back — have added to the pressure. And the pandemic itself is taking a toll: Cuba is currently experiencing a record surge in cases and deaths.

“It’s been a perfect storm,” said Lisandro Pérez, a professor and chair of the department of Latin American and Latinx studies at John Jay College. “All of these factors that have long been there — with the addition of the pandemic.”

But the sudden uprising in Cuba is also shaping up to be a perfect storm of a foreign policy problem for US President Joe Biden: another crisis at America’s doorstep, one with strong domestic political considerations that could have reverberations whether Biden acts — or doesn’t.

Biden said the US supports Cuba’s “clarion call for freedom and relief.” Both Democrats and Republicans have backed the protests, but US lawmakers are split over how to approach the demonstrations and acute humanitarian crisis on the island.

Biden promised during his 2020 campaign to roll back Trump’s sanctions on Cuba, but he hasn’t acted. Now, the issue is urgent — both for those who want to see the sanctions gone and for those who feel Biden must keep them in place to continue pressuring the regime.

Biden’s best-laid plans on foreign policy didn’t include Cuba as a priority. But now a crisis in Cuba is here. What the US should do is always a complicated decision, but it’s clear Biden can’t just ignore Cuba.

The US looms large in the Cuba protests. But there are no easy answers.

After the protests, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel blamed much of the unrest on the United States, claiming US-backed mercenaries caused the unrest. He called on supporters to also go to the streets and “defend the revolution.” About 100 people were arrested, according to human rights groups.

Díaz-Canel also accused Washington of “economic asphyxiation” because of its sanctions policy. Michael Bustamante, of professor of Latin American history at Florida International University, said the position of the Cuban government before the protests, and definitely after, was “what happened is precisely the result of a US policy that has been intended to provoke destabilization.”

“They’re using that as a cudgel to not address any of their own shortcomings,” he added.

The specter of United States interference remains powerful in Cuba, given, well, a very long history of US intervention there. Fast-forwarding to the Cuban Revolution in 1959, communist revolutionary Fidel Castro overthrew the US-backed dictator and began to pursue closer ties with the Soviet Union — an absolute no-no for the US during the Cold War.

The US tried to overthrow Castro during the Bay of Pigs invasion in the 1960s, but after that failure, the US strengthened an economic embargo that largely blocked Americans from doing business or trade with Cuba. There have been tweaks on the margins since, but the embargo has long outlasted the Cold War.

In 2014, then-President Barack Obama began a historic diplomatic opening with Cuba, and as a result of the process, rolled back some economic restrictions tied to the Cold War-era US embargo and opened up travel.

Trump, as president, vowed to reverse those policies; he did throughout his time in office, significantly stepping up the pressure starting in 2019. He imposed renewed travel restrictions and other sanctions, including designating Cuba as a “state sponsor of terror” in his final days in office. A key pillar of Trump’s sanctions severely limited remittances to the island, which cut off another economic spigot.

As experts said, Cuba’s problems are deeper than US sanctions alone, but the Trump-era policy, especially coming during the pandemic, is adding to the strain. And that is creating a dilemma for Washington.

Biden’s Cuba foreign policy is often framed

Broadly, the Biden administration has made clear that it stands with protesters against Cuba’s authoritarian regime.

“We stand with the Cuban people and their clarion call for freedom and relief from the tragic grip of the pandemic and from the decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba’s authoritarian regime,” Biden said in a statement Monday. “The United States calls on the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves,” he added.

But beyond the rhetoric, Biden is facing pressure to act, too. Or not act, depending on how you look at it. Some US lawmakers are calling on Biden to ease the Trump-era sanctions, which they say are making the humanitarian situation in Cuba much worse. Removing some measures won’t completely solve Cuba’s problems, but it could create a meaningful difference, for example, by making it easier for people in the United States to send money to family in Cuba.

“Cubans are facing profound hardship because of the health and economic impacts of COVID-19, the entrenched culture of corruption and mismanagement among Cuba’s leadership, and the strict sanctions callously imposed by the Trump Administration,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-NY) said in a statement.

“I call on President Biden to help alleviate the suffering in Cuba by rescinding the Trump era sanctions and offering additional humanitarian and vaccine assistance to the Cuban people,” he continued.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) also said it was “long past time to end the unilateral U.S. embargo on Cuba, which has only hurt, not helped, the Cuban people.”

Some experts also said that Biden offering aid or easing sanctions would also make it harder — especially for a frustrated public — for the Cuban regime to scapegoat Washington for all of its woes.

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But there is also a chorus demanding that Biden promise to keep the Trump-era sanctions in place, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Bob Menendez (D-NJ). Lifting sanctions now, they believe, would look as though the United States is giving in to the Cuban regime as it ignores the real grievances of its people and continues to crack down. They also see the protests in Cuba as proof that the Trump policies are working — creating the necessary pressure that is causing people to rise up against the regime. But some experts caution it’s still not clear if these protests are such a moment, and in the meantime, Cuban people are suffering.

Much of this comes down to timing. Biden promised during the 2020 campaign to undo some of Trump’s measures, which he said “have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights.” But even as some Democrats pushed Biden to reengage on Cuba, the administration hadn’t taken any steps to ease sanctions, and Cuba remained on the US list of state-terror sponsors as recently as May. Still, even then, officials told Reuters in May Biden was committed to rolling back Trump policies on Cuba, but didn’t offer a timeline.

But as is often the case, foreign policy crises rarely adhere to a president’s foreign policy to-do list. Now Biden has to deal with Cuba whether he likes it or not — in a much more politically fraught environment.

And of course, this isn’t just about foreign policy, but domestic policy, too. Since the protests Sunday, solidarity protests in US cities from Miami to Dallas to New Jersey have erupted. The Cuban-American community is not at all a monolith, and not everyone supports the US embargo, but there is support for Trump’s more hardline policies, which Trump really sold to Cuban Americans. In the 2020 presidential election, Trump won the Cuban-American vote in Miami. As Vox’s Nicole Narea wrote, in Florida, the Trump campaign cast Biden “as a socialist and capitaliz[ed] on the fears of Latinos from failed socialist regimes.”

Republicans may seize on that talking point again if Biden tries to pursue an opening at this particular political moment. “If Biden had come in and reversed Trump’s sanctions, he’d have taken a bit of a political hit from the right,” William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert at American University, said. “But nothing like what he would take now — and now the situation has gotten way worse.”

In Washington, the status quo prevails. In Cuba, the crisis continues.

At least for now, nothing is changing. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday that the administration didn’t have anything to announce regarding a policy shift.

“Our approach continues to be governed by two principles: First, support for democracy and human rights — which is going to continue to be at the core of our efforts — through empowering the Cuban people to determine their own future,” Psaki said. “Second, Americans, especially Cuban Americans, are the best ambassadors for freedom and prosperity in Cuba.”

Biden has learned the hard way in recent weeks that the foreign policy problems you don’t think you’ll have may end up being the ones you get. And with or without protests, a humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Cuba. Experts said there are ways for the US to offer or deliver more aid — food or vaccines, say. At the same time, US interference remains that ever-present cudgel for the Cuban government, and any US actions also come with a degree of distrust.

Cuba’s struggles could also become a migration crisis, as it did in the 1990s. Experts say the situation is nowhere near that yet, and it is unlikely to look anything like it did in the 1990s, when the Cuban government allowed Cubans to flee by raft to the US. Instead, most Cubans are coming to the southern border, like others seeking asylum here in the United States. But even the number of Cubans attempting to come by sea to the US has increased in the past year. On Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas warned both Cubans and Haitians against fleeing to the US by sea.

The future of the protests is also uncertain, especially as a heavy presence from Cuban police forces appears to have slowed the outpouring onto the streets that the island saw last weekend. It’s still unclear how lasting the political movement may be, and just how much political pressure it might put on the Cuban government.

The fraught US-Cuba relationship means Cuban people are often torn between the beast they know — the communist regime — and the other beast they know, the United States. As Tanya Saunders, an associate professor in the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida, told me, the “Cuban people are always trying to pursue their own self-determination, with whatever resources they have.” This weekend’s protests, if nothing else, are another expression of that pursuit.

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