Trump, Florida complicate Biden approach to Cuba
The Trump administration’s hard-line approach to Cuba may complicate efforts by President-elect Joe Biden to return to Obama-era policies.
The State Department is reportedly weighing a proposal to put Cuba back on its list of state sponsors of terrorism, a step intended to make it more difficult for Biden to open relations.
In addition, while former President Obama won the state of Florida twice, Biden was defeated by Trump in Florida in 2020 — at least partly because of disappointingly low support from Latin American voters in the state. Much of this has been attributed to GOP efforts to paint Biden as a president who would bring socialism to the United States.
Biden won just a narrow victory in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, while Florida Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D) and Donna Shalala (D) both lost their seats to Trump-aligned GOP challengers.
In 2014, Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced that their governments would restore full diplomatic ties, signaling the start of a new era following more than 50 years of bilateral tensions.
The following year, Obama removed Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism list. The Caribbean country had first been placed on the list by President Reagan in 1982 for its support of leftist militant groups in Central America and Africa, leading to decades of sanctions and trade embargoes.
In 2016, Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge.
Upon taking office, Trump signaled a change, imposing restrictions on commerce with certain Cuban businesses, as well as a ban on individual educational and cultural exchanges.
The administration has also put restrictions on remittances, or money transfers, from Cuban Americans to family members back home in Cuba, with October Treasury Department rules prohibiting remittances to Cuba through companies controlled by the Cuban military.
John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, says that these actions, as well as deliberations among the State Department to add Cuba back to the terrorism list, are “not surprising.”
“The Trump administration began with a list and the list had everything that the Obama administration had done, and a primary goal of the Trump administration during the last four years has been to undo what President Obama did, or do what President Obama didn’t,” Kavulich said in an interview with The Hill.
“And with respect to Cuba, there was a large quantity of items that President Trump could look at in terms of wanting to change,” he continued. “Primary among them was President Obama’s removal of Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism because that was integral to the process of reengagement with Cuba.”
The State Department defines a state sponsor of terrorism as a country that has “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.”
States given this designation are subject to four main categories of sanctions: restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance, a ban on defense exports and sales, controls over exports of dual-use items and other financial restrictions.
Kavulich said the Trump administration has been successful in expanding the definition of “terrorism.”
It is “no longer focused on something being blown up, someone being killed,” he said, but instead now can be based on “behavior, and particularly behavior toward one’s citizens.”
In the State Department’s 2019 “Country Reports on Terrorism” for Cuba, the agency argued that “Cuba maintains close and collaborative ties with designated state sponsors of terror such as Iran and North Korea,” and the nation “continues to harbor multiple fugitives who committed or supported acts of terrorism in the United States.”
In May of this year, the department notified Congress that Cuba was among the countries identified as “not cooperating fully” with U.S. counterterrorism efforts in 2019, marking the first year that Cuba had been certified as not fully cooperating since 2015.
However, American University professor Philip Brenner, who specializes in U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba and other Latin American countries, told The Hill that a Biden reversal of a Cuba terrorist sponsor designation would signal an internal review, in which intelligence experts would likely not find enough evidence of Cuba directly supporting terrorist actions.
Politically, Brenner said Biden would face pushback from Republican lawmakers if he were to walk back on Trump’s approach to Cuba.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) in an opinion piece published in the Miami Herald last month said Cuba’s crackdown on peaceful dissidents should prevent Biden from returning “to a one-sided Cuba policy.”
Miami’s Florida International University in a 2020 poll found that 58 percent of Cuban Americans support maintaining diplomatic relations with the Caribbean nation and 65 percent believe all air travel to the country should resume.
Additionally, more than half of Cuban Americans in South Florida send remittances back to family members in Cuba, with 70 percent having close relatives or significant others living on the nearby island.
One of the survey’s authors, Guillermo Grenier, a sociology professor at the university, told The Hill that restoring remittances and travel may be Biden’s key focus in resuming Obama-era relations.
He said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s move on Cuba is political.
“The only reason Pompeo is doing this is because it will make life for Biden quite difficult,” Grenier said. “There’s not going to be a big rush to do anything on Cuba, other than to resume remittances, which is having a horrible impact on the Cuban people, and travel once COVID is over.”
The FIU Cuba poll finds that Cuban voters have more support for hardline foreign policy toward Cuba, but that it does not rank among the top concerns for Cuban American voters in South Florida.
According to the poll, economy and healthcare remain the two most important issues among those surveyed.
“Cubans are basically Republicans, so when you ask what are their priorities, they will answer like Republicans,” Grenier explained. “The importance of the economy is an American concern and a Republican priority.”
Grenier also said that while Cuban voters now have shown support for Trump and other Republicans, this is more so a result of the party’s engagement with voters in South Florida, whose Cuban population Grenier says is the only true Republican stronghold in the Sunshine State.
Grenier noted that support for the trade embargo on Cuba went down to as low as 34 percent under Obama after he began opening relations. Under Obama, Republican party registration also declined, with more Cuban voters registering as independents.
Grenier argues that under the Biden administration, Cuban American voters will have “less hardline” views toward Cuba, and will also “be more open to continued change.”
“What has to be kept in mind is in the polls, the hard-line has made a comeback, but there are plenty of soft spots in the hard-line, such as travel, consular services, remittances,” he said.
“So, I do think if Biden changes the rules, we will see further changes among Cuban voters,” he added.
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