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Joe Biden can shift the tone on Cuba

Joe Biden can shift the tone on Cuba
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When former Cuban President Raul Castro eased restrictions on religious activity in 2010, a parish priest wanted to have a procession in the streets like prior to the revolution. The priest met with the local Communist Party boss for permission, arguing that many Cubans were believers and would welcome the event. The boss rejected the idea and said that from what he observed, they may be believers but they are certainly not practicing. The priest acknowledged the point, and he contrasted it with the Communist Party whose members are practicing but none are believers.

Cuba is still ruled by veterans of the revolution who are old in age today. The potential successors have already lost faith in the Communist Party, but they fear the dismantling of the system. The leaders warn members that they risked imprisonment or even worse if the revolution were to be overturned, the same fate the revolution set on the past regime decades earlier. While the Communist Party system failed as the economic model, it is highly efficient for political repression in Cuba. This reality is that no matter how severe the hardships, the Communist Party has been able to remain in power by rewarding loyalty and punishing dissent.

Since the early 1960s, American foreign policy toward Cuba has been to inflict great economic costs that could either force the Communist Party to surrender or motivate the people to rise up and overthrow them. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the implosion of Venezuela, more sanctions, and the pandemic, the revolution leaders prevail.

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Economic growth in Cuba accelerated after President Obama normalized relations with the country in 2014. The Communist Party leaders began to hold second thoughts with the system as citizens became less dependent on the government, created wealth, and pushed back against restrictions. All the factors combined with a loss of faith in the system represented an existential threat to the Communist Party. It doubled down on orthodoxy, rolled back reforms, and increased political repression, which coincided with the reversal of easing sanctions under President Trump.

Dismantling the old system is not likely unless change is embraced by new leaders. For the Soviet Union, it was not United States pressure that ended it, but the decision of the Communist Party leaders to cede when the next generation assumed power. Joe Biden will need to send the signals for the administrative and technical class in Cuba that the United States is willing to work with those who do not have blood on their hands. After those old regimes of Eastern Europe collapsed, those democratic leaders assumed power with minimum disruption from those who faced defeat.

Many in the Cuban American community backed the stricter economic measures from this administration, but they were also the driving force behind thousands of small businesses created between 2014 and 2016 that provided skills and financial capital. Breaking the fetters over small businesses is the key to improving the economic status of citizens and sparking the transition of Cuba to a modern Western nation.

Biden may be tempted to return to the foreign policy from his tenure as vice president, but any relief for Cuba should be tied to open economic activity for citizens, tolerance of political dissent, and no restrictions on access to information. The first move toward this must be to restore the American consular presence in Cuba after securing the assurances that diplomats will not be subject to physical harm or harassment.

John Caulfield served as the former chief of the United States interests section in Havana and was the founder of the Innovadores Foundation.