With a collective chorus of “we are no longer afraid” and “we want freedom,” the Cuban movement trending under #SOSCuba has reverberated across the Florida Straits. A groundswell of consternation for the Cuban government, this moment poses a new opportunity for President BidenJoe BidenOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by American Clean Power — Methane fee faces negotiations White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege The No Surprises Act: a bill long overdue MORE’s diplomatic approach towards Havana.
Not since the Maleconazo of the 1990s — when tens of thousands of Cuban rafters (balseros) perilously fled the post-Soviet economic malaise for the United States — has the country faced such upheaval, with thousands of protesters raising their voices in a nation notorious for its censorship and Miami exiles cheering them on.
In many ways, this disturbance is part of a longer story of pandemic protest. President Miguel Díaz-Canel faced a similar but smaller challenge last November with the San Isidro Movement, a collection of artists and activists clamoring for democratic freedoms while battling the government crackdown. So far, the Cuban government has not budged, maintaining that the revolution lives on while it continues to blame the United States for general suffering under the economic embargo. This is not a moot point. The embargo continues to drastically impair everyday Cubans’ livability, though the United States does export certain humanitarian goods, food, and medicine on a limited basis under the embargo’s exemptions.
But today’s insurgence is different and has revolutionary potential. Cubans are facing more dire conditions as COVID-19 relentlessly wreaks havoc. In addition to taking more lives, the virus also has ravaged the island’s normally dependable tourist industry. The result is an economy in shambles, frequent power outages, and a hungrier, angrier and desperate population.
Just after his inauguration, Biden expressed a desire to reinvigorate U.S.-Cuban relations up to Obama-era levels, but in the months since his administration has inched back from that pledge. At a time when many congressional Democrats are urging the president to lift the embargo, Senate Republicans and Miami’s exile community are fighting the move.
But the current uprising could be an opening for Biden, one he might embrace following his vocal support for the Cuban people in their fight for “freedom from an authoritarian regime.” Before moving beyond the wait-and-see approach, however, he will want to gauge how Díaz-Canel responds to the current climate. Cuba’s human rights record sits at the top of a list of U.S. priorities that must be addressed before rekindling diplomatic embers. If Cuban authorities escalate repressive measures against the protesters, Biden faces an uphill climb in justifying any next steps in rapprochement, particularly to his Republican detractors.
If there is a transition to be made, Biden will need to maneuver delicately. He will need to side with the Cuban protestors yet also express a willingness to work with Cuba’s leadership should it make significant concessions in the current environment. This line of communication is important, for undoubtedly there are those in Washington who worry that further volatility will bring about another refugee crisis, something akin to the Mariel boatlift in 1980 or the waves of balseros in the mid-1990s.
It is not possible to know if the Cuban government would undertake positive actions for the embargo to be lifted or if the United States would do so without certain benchmarks met. Both scenarios seem unlikely soon. In Cuba, there has been a rationale that the embargo is an easy scapegoat permitting the Cuban government to steer the nation as it sees fit, all the while blaming the country’s woes on U.S. sanctions. But it seems that this strategy has run its course. Now, Cuba faces an internal reckoning, and Washington’s modest accommodation could make the move to liberalize easier.
Biden’s recommitment to internationalism is impaired by America’s worn isolation of Cuba, an exceptional position when one considers the now decades-long partnerships with Vietnam, China, and other Cold War antagonists. Last month, the U.N. again overwhelmingly approved a resolution condemning the embargo for the 29th year in a row. But Biden finds himself in a divided country in its own right, which has resuscitated the language of “socialism” and “communism” in attacks on him and Democrats more broadly. Moreover, his presidency faces a public relations problem with Cuba that Obama’s did not. While it is true that more Americans — Cuban Americans included — express less faith in the embargo’s effectiveness, favorable attitudes towards Cuba in the general population have declined since the Obama years.
Abrogating the embargo requires congressional action, and Biden does not yet have the votes in Congress for this to happen. But the president can follow in stride with the pro-democratic dissent while keeping channels of negotiation open with Havana towards the possibility of a new normal. The Cuban people are now sounding the cry for that brighter future.
John A. Gronbeck-Tedesco is an associate professor of American Studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey. He is the author of "Cuba, the United States, and Cultures of the Transnational Left." Follow him on Twitter @Professor_G_T.