On Cuba, President Joe Biden has maintained his predecessor’s “maximum pressure”- style tactics of sanctions.
Along with a blend of other domestic and international factors, they have helped to fuel economic woes that today have manifested in historic antigovernment protests across the Communist-led island nation.
This strategy, however, has proven politically inconvenient both abroad and at home.
Internationally, the decades-long U.S. embargo of Cuba received a near-unanimous condemnation at the United Nations last month. Domestically, it runs counter to Biden’s past role in promoting ties between Washington and Havana during his role as vice president in the Obama administration.
The reversal of the detente with the Cold War-era foe by Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, was credited, at least in part, with enabling him put Florida securely in the Republican column in the 2000 election, where a large Cuban diaspora community has long opposed any U.S. overture to the Cuban Communist Party.
But rather than welcoming Biden’s extension of Trump’s hard-line approach, Republicans are pushing him to do more against Cuba, which is suffering not only from disrupted trade ties due to the reintroduction of tight restrictions but also a collapse in the tourism industry brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jared Carter, a Vermont Law School assistant professor who specializes in U.S. policy on Cuba, told Newsweek that “there is no question that Biden’s continuation of the Trump policy and his walking back of his campaign promise to return to the diplomatic approach that Obama took has had a major impact on the Cuban people and the Cuban government.”
Carter, who lived, worked and taught in Cuba for more than a decade, said Obama’s moves helped the Cuban economy and decreased the isolation of the island nation.
“Under Obama, the influx of U.S. travelers and remittances allowed thousands of Cuban people to start small businesses and build bridges between Cubans and the outside world,” Carter said. “It was people-to-people diplomacy and it fostered relationships and a sense of hope.”
Now, however, the situation has devolved drastically.
“Covid-19, Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ approach, and Biden’s decision not to soften U.S. restrictions on trade and travel have been a triple threat that has left Cubans with few economic options,” Carter said.
Biden has never explicitly endorsed Trump’s take on Cuba. In fact, he appeared to back Obama’s rapprochement with enthusiasm back in 2014 and 2015. The following year, just weeks before the 2016 election, then-second lady, now-first lady Jill Biden traveled to Cuba on an educational and cultural trip to highlight a milestone shift in relations.
During last year’s campaign, Biden argued that the policies Trump later set in place “inflicted harm on the Cuban people and have done nothing to advance democracy and human rights.”
These two goals were referenced as recently as late last month when Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed the ongoing foreign policy review toward Cuba, one of many such reviews conducted by Biden as he considers the best path forward on international issues he’s inherited.
“There’s only so much you can do in six months’ time,” Blinken said during the interview with Italy’s RAI TG1 news program. He assured that the administration was “looking very hard” at the topic after the 184-2 U.N. General Assembly vote criticizing the U.S. embargo on Cuba.
Reached for comment, the State Department referred Newsweek to Blinken’s comments during Monday’s press briefing.
“Over the weekend, tens of thousands of Cubans took to the streets on the island to exercise their right to assemble peacefully and express their views, the protesters called for freedom and human rights, they criticized Cuba’s authoritarian regime for failing to meet people’s most basic needs including food and medicine,” Blinken said.
“In many instances,” he added, “peaceful protesters were met with repression and violence.”
Blinken offered the State Department’s official position in support of the demonstrations.
“The Biden-Harris administration stands by the Cuban people and people around the world who demand their human rights and expect governments to listen to and serve them rather than try to silence them,” he said.
“Peaceful protesters are not criminals,” he add. “And we join partners across the hemisphere and around the world in urging the Cuban regime to respect the rights of the Cuban people to determine their own future, something they’ve been denied for too long.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also discussed the matter during a press conference Monday.
She said the Biden administration was “continuing to provide a range of assistance” to the Cuban people, but declined to update on policy review, saying only that “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. Second, Americans, especially Cuban Americans, are the best ambassadors for freedom and prosperity in Cuba.”
She said she had nothing to offer reporters on whether or not Biden planned to reverse Trump’s measures, only that humanitarian exemptions had been made in certain cases to facilitate trade under Biden.
And Psaki, who said in April that “a change in policy toward Cuba or taking additional measures is not currently among the top foreign policy priorities of the president,” said she was not currently in a position to divulge whether that remained the case for Biden today.
“I can tell you that we will be closely engaged,” she said.
Carter said that in Havana, a much greater sense of urgency was apparent.
“Had Biden decided to return to the Obama approach, the Cuban economy may have had more space to weather the COVID-19 storm,” Carter said. “But, with the U.S. embargo fully in place, even during a global pandemic crisis, the food and medical shortages that the average Cuban has to deal with are bubbling over, and these protests are a direct result of that very legitimate frustration.”
And while there’s more to Cuba’s economic difficulties than merely U.S. sanctions, they prove a stumbling block that even Biden, his officials and family have acknowledged as unhelpful.
“To be sure, U.S. restrictions are not the only cause, clearly the Cuban economic system needs reform,” Carter said. “But the U.S. restrictions during a pandemic certainly have made matters worse for the average Cuban, And it seems that daily difficulty in obtaining basic necessities is at the heart of these protests.”
Influential Republicans, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants who came to the U.S. shortly before the 1959 revolution, have called for the Biden administration to adopt tougher language and measures against Havana amid protests.
In a six-point letter sent to Biden and shared with Newsweek, Rubio demanded the president warn Cuba against using mass migration as a weapon, permit the U.S. to facilitate outside internet access across Cuba, instruct the State Department to engage Western allies for united condemnation of the Cuban government’s actions, authorize sanctions on any Cubans deemed to be involved in acts of violence against protesters, communicate to Havana that Washington is prepared to provide COVID-19 vaccines and other humanitarian assistance, but only if it is distributed by independent organizations and, finally, that the administration “issue a clear and unambiguous statement that the current U.S. policies towards the regime implemented by the Trump Administration will remain in place.”
Blinken’s predecessor, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, touted his approach in a Sunday tweet.
“The Cuban government poses a threat to the world and its own people,” Pompeo wrote. “As your Secretary of State, I designated it a state sponsor of terrorism, and we implemented sanctions. Now, American leadership must be clear: we stand with the freedom-loving people of Cuba.”
Across the aisle, Democratic were much quieter, but some lawmakers critical of the embargo reiterated a lasting need to lift sanctions, while recognizing the weight of the current protests.
“The Cuban government must respect the right of the Cuban people to peacefully and legitimately protest,” Massachusetts Representative James McGovern said in a statement sent to Newsweek. “Yet even though the U.S. has repeatedly stated that we stand with the Cuban people, we have not taken basic steps that could help empower them and relieve their suffering. To the extent we disagree with the Cuban government on economic issues and human rights, diplomacy and communication are the solution—not sanctions that disproportionately harm ordinary Cuban families.”
McGovern also criticized Biden’s hesitance to roll back the restriction reinstated by Trump.
“It’s deeply disappointing that President Biden has failed to reverse Donald Trump’s executive orders, which support an outdated Cold War strategy and an embargo that only adds to the suffering of ordinary Cubans,” McGovern said. “By perpetuating Trump’s policies, the Biden Administration is failing to offer the Cuban people the type of hope that President Obama spoke about when he traveled to Havana. Hope that is rooted in a future that Cubans can choose for themselves as they build their own country.”
“President Biden should use this moment to restore U.S. leadership in the region and immediately reverse Donald Trump’s counterproductive and misguided policies,” McGovern added.
So far, the Biden administration appears to be taking a cautious approach.
The first statement released Sunday by the State Department came through the account of Acting Assistant Secretary for Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs Julie Chung, who tied the demonstrations specifically to the country’s coronavirus response.
“Peaceful protests are growing in #Cuba as the Cuban people exercise their right to peaceful assembly to express concern about rising COVID cases/deaths & medicine shortages,” the account tweeted without including her initials. “We commend the numerous efforts of the Cuban people mobilizing donations to help neighbors in need.”
Later messages doubled down on U.S. support for the protests and expressed concern regarding “calls for combat” by pro-government factions against those participating in the rallies.
Biden also issued his own statement on the situation Monday.
“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. “The Cuban people are bravely asserting fundamental and universal rights. Those rights, including the right of peaceful protest and the right to freely determine their own future, must be respected.”
He then addressed the leaders in Havana directly.
“The United States calls on the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves,” the president added.
Biden also expounded on the U.S. position to a gathering of reporters at the White House.
“The Cuban people are demanding their freedom from an authoritarian regime. I don’t think we’ve seen anything like these protests in a long long time if, quite frankly, ever,” Biden said. “The U.S. stands firmly with the people of Cuba as they assert their universal rights. And we call on the government of Cuba to refrain from violence in their attempt to silence the voices of the people of Cuba.”
But Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel fired off in defense of his government on Monday, accusing Washington of attempting to choke out the country through its ongoing embargo.
“All these processes that we have tried to overcome and confront, in the face of a policy of economic asphyxiation to provoke social unrest in the country, have cumulative effects,” he said. “I believe the problems that we are experiencing have to do with those accumulative processes.”
Responding to such accusations during Monday’s press conference, Blinken said he felt “it would be a grievous mistake for the Cuban regime to interpret what is happening on in dozens of towns and cities across the island as the result or product of anything the United States has done.
“It would be a grievous mistake because it would show they are not hearing the voices and will of the Cuban people, people deeply deeply deeply tired of the repression that has gone on for far too long, tired of the mismanagement of the Cuban economy, tired of the lack of adequate food and fo course inadequate response to the COVID pandemic,” Blinken said. “That is what we are hearing and seeing in Cuba and that is a reflection of the Cuban people not of the United States or any other outside actor.
Díaz-Canel has succeeded the late revolutionary leader Fidel Castro’s brother Raul as both head of state and chief of the Cuban Communist Party, marking the first time since 1959 that a Castro family member does not hold an official position of power in the country.
However, the watershed development has not translated into any serious shift in U.S.-Cuba relations.
Last month, Cuban permanent representative to the U.N. Pedro Luis Pedroso Cuesta told Newsweek that the Trump administration adopted 243 “coercive measures” against Cuba, all of which “remain in force today, and are a reflection of the unprecedented levels that the economic war against Cuba has reached, bringing about hardships of all kinds and material shortages in the daily lives of every Cuban.”
And on Monday, Díaz-Canel’s top diplomat doubled down on accusations against the U.S.
“I urge the US government to confirm or deny that the main political operators of the company that generated the campaign against #Cuba has received funding from the State Department and USAID,” Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said in a tweet referred to Newsweek by the Cuban embassy in Washington as the situation in Havana calmed.
He said “the forceful response of our people” had thwarted an operation that intended to “generate a situation, which does not exist in #Cuba, of ungovernability, of social disorder.”