Biden under pressure to spell out Cuba policy
Lawmakers are growing impatient for the Biden administration to nail down its stance toward Cuba as the White House gives few hints on how it will approach the island nation.
President Biden has said he wants a reset on Cuba, but that has been complicated by competing political considerations, tensions over Venezuela and suspected microwave attacks targeting American diplomats in Havana.
That hasn’t stopped lawmakers, however, from jockeying to influence the administration’s eventual policy toward Cuba.
A trio of Senate Republicans is trying to ensure Biden cannot remove Cuba from the State Sponsor of Terrorism List — a last-minute designation made by the Trump administration — as they seek to halt any changes in the U.S. approach. Biden has not indicated whether he will seek Cuba’s removal from the list.
On the other side of the aisle, many Democrats are pushing for a more open policy, stressing the potential benefits for the former Cold War adversaries. A group of 75 lawmakers penned a letter to Biden earlier this month arguing he should be “promptly returning to the Obama–Biden Administration policy of engagement and normalization of relations.”
“Biden campaigned on reversing the travel and remittances policies and made the argument that concern for Cuban Americans, concern for families, concern for the humanitarian situation mean that Americans can be the best ambassadors for all those values,” said Geoff Thale, president of the Washington Office on Latin America, which has called for expanding U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba.
“They made the commitment during the campaign, and I think they are going to live up to it. I think the timing of that is in question and depends on their judgment of the politics of Florida and politics of the Senate.”
So far the administration has taken few steps on Cuba. Its only major move was to appoint an official to oversee the State Department’s response to the “Havana syndrome” attacks that first occurred in 2016 but have since been carried out in several other countries.
Formulating a policy toward Cuba comes as Biden is also under pressure to respond to the increasingly dire situation in Venezuela with similar hardline policies — laying down sanctions while aiding democracy efforts.
“A Cuba policy shift is not currently among President Biden’s top priorities,’’ White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing earlier this month.
“But we are committed to making human rights a core pillar of our U.S. policy, and we’re committed to carefully reviewing policy decisions made in the prior administration, including the decision to designate Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.”
But for many lawmakers, time is of the essence.
“The last two years of the Obama administration saw an explosion of positive change in Cuba. The fledgling Cuban private sector flourished, innovation, the internet, communications and political space expanded, and exchanges between our two peoples multiplied. … Dialogues began on tough topics like economic reform and human rights,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a longtime proponent of Cuba normalization, said on the House floor last week, blaming the Trump administration for single handedly stalling that progress.
“Let’s not make the mistake of moving slowly and incrementally. We need to act now.”
Biden’s hesitancy to take immediate action could be due to the headache it might create.
In addition to legislation that would block Biden from reversing Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terror, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Rick Scott (R-Fla.), and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have vowed to oppose any “any motions or consent requests with regard to any legislation that seeks to amend our nation’s policy towards Cuba.”
“Given the importance of this issue to our constituents, many of whom were forced to flee the regime’s brutality and repression, the U.S. Congress cannot turn a blind eye to the plight of the Cuban people. Any efforts to weaken U.S. law would only finance the Cuban military and support their corrupt and oppressive policies,” the three GOP senators wrote in a letter to Senate leaders earlier this month.
It’s not an entirely partisan issue.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has long opposed any changes to a tough U.S. stance toward Cuba.
Fulton Armstrong, an American University professor and director of Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council (NSC) during the Clinton administration, said statements like the one from the GOP senators is precisely why the Biden administration can’t afford to wait on establishing his Cuba policy.
“Stalling sounds like more of a conscious decision, it’s just that there’s no leadership on it. And if there’s anything that political junkyard dogs know how to do, it’s fill leadership voids. And if you don’t put out markers, people will fill that space,” he said.
“The State Department is without leadership on the Cuba issue; and the NSC is without leadership on the Cuba issue, and that’s a void members of Congress will be more than happy to fill,” Armstrong said, noting there isn’t a point person on Cuba at the NSC like there was during the Obama administration.
Biden’s ability to follow through on campaign promises regarding Cuba suffered a setback in November after Democrats lost two congressional seats in South Florida, one of which includes Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood as well as Venezuelans, Colombians and Nicaraguans, some of whom moved to the U.S. because of dissatisfaction with their governments.
Rep. Maria E. Salazar (R-Fla.) made socialism a key line of attack in her race against former Rep. Donna Shalala (D). Democrats have struggled to shake the socialism label on this issue and many others.
“I think it would be foolish for [Biden] to spend a lot of political capital on something that is really not going to please a lot of people and is more of a loser than a gainer in the political sense,” said Dario Moreno, a professor who works at the Cuba Research Institute at Florida International University.
“You would tighten already slim margins in an important state, and there’s a midterm coming up,” he said, warning that “if Democrats do something rash, they’re going to have another 20 years in political wilderness in Florida.”
Biden is facing pressure from Democrats who expected him to more closely mirror the policies from his last stint in the White House, when the Obama administration eased restriction on travel and remittances.
Former President Obama’s Cuban thaw, carried out in the last two years of his presidency, not only removed Cuba from the terror list but formally opened a U.S. embassy on the island for the first time since 1961.
“Unilateral sanctions almost never work, and they have failed miserably in Cuba,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), said in a recent statement, blaming the Trump administration for rolling back Obama’s policies “in order to curry favor with Florida voters.”
“If the Biden administration conditions our re-engagement with Cuba on steps we know its government will not take and that we do not demand of U.S. allies that are no less and in some cases more repressive, we will perpetuate a policy that has hurt, not helped, the Cuban people,” Leahy said, adding that “the U.S. can either be actively engaged, or watch as our competitors fill the vacuum, as they are already doing.”
Moreno, however, doesn’t see Obama’s legacy with Cuba as a particularly successful one and cautions that Biden would likely face a similar outcome.
“He gave Raúl Castro this great propaganda victory. He got the president to come to Cuba. But Obama got very little in return. He got internet access, which they haven’t shut down. But now there are more political prisoners than when Obama visited, and there are less diplomats than when Obama visited,” Moreno said.
But Fulton warned the Biden administration shouldn’t focus those who will only be satisfied with “explosive change” rather than incremental progress.
“Normalization gave much needed oxygen to political space, to private businesses,” he said, while hardline policies “empowered and emboldened the government to resist change and also deprive Cuban people of a viable alternative to the current situation.”
Updated on Monday at 10:19 a.m.