Biden Shouldn’t Backtrack on Cuba

The lesson of the past four years is clear: Don’t let policy toward the island dominate the U.S. agenda on Latin America.

U.S. President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba shake hands during a bilateral meeting at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on Sept. 29, 2015.
U.S. President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba shake hands during a bilateral meeting at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on Sept. 29, 2015. Anthony Behar/Getty Images

As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office, all signals point to a change in U.S. policy on Cuba. On the campaign trail, Biden enthusiastically indicated that he would pursue an opening with the dictatorship to reverse course on four years of sanctions under U.S. President Donald Trump. Trump’s policies undid much of the work of the Obama administration to break the long-standing stalemate between the United States and Cuba, such as normalizing relations with the Castro dictatorship, offering concessions, and working closely with Cuban officials to restart economic and diplomatic relations.

Yet Biden’s team should reconsider the wisdom of jumping headfirst into another slog to normalize ties with the longtime U.S. foe. Over the last four years, Cuba’s intransigence on human rights domestically and the destructive role it plays beyond its borders have become undeniable. Meanwhile, far more pressing challenges than U.S.-Cuba relations now face the region, even as arguments for the broader diplomatic benefits of showering Havana with concessions are failing the test of time.

In many ways, the Obama administration prioritized its opening with Havana at the expense of addressing more pressing regional crises. As U.S. negotiators secured agreements with Havana on issues like oceanic conservation and commercial air travel, the last vestiges of democracy were unraveling in Venezuela and Nicaragua, coca production in Colombia was skyrocketing, and widespread corruption was festering beneath the surface of the region’s most apparently stable democracies. In 2015, the first year after the announced normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba, nearly a quarter of the State Department’s Western Hemisphere press releases focused on Cuba, while just 6 percent centered on Venezuela. The island was also the sole destination of one of three trips Secretary of State John Kerry made to the region that year, the other two revolving around international conferences.

The Biden administration must now face the ramifications of these and other pressing challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the worst economic crisis in decades. Add to that broader geopolitical challenges, such as rising Chinese influence, and Latin America holds no shortage of urgent issues that require active U.S. engagement. The case for prioritizing another round of normalization with Cuba, which would involve a new flurry of high-level negotiations and engagement, is thin, especially after Havana largely flouted U.S. terms by reversing its opening for the island’s nascent private sector, continuing its widespread human-rights abuses, and ramping up its support for the authoritarian Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela—all before Trump walked back most key U.S. concessions.

At the same time, the Trump administration’s track record in the region largely disproves optimistic predictions about the broader benefits of engaging Cuba. Proponents for normalizing relations with Havana often argue that regional disapproval of the United States’ sanctions on Cuba prevented Washington from building deeper relationships with the rest of Latin America. Biden echoed this sentiment earlier this year, saying that normalization “is more than about Cuba, it’s about all of the Caribbean and it’s about all of our friends and allies in Latin America.”

However, the argument that a friendly stance toward Havana is essential to a productive relationship with Latin America has not fared well. Despite ramping the pressure back up on Cuba, the Trump administration actively engaged the region on a range of issues, including the coordinated diplomatic effort to isolate Venezuela’s authoritarian regime. The administration even successfully encouraged Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador to cut off Cuba’s overseas medical missions, a key source of revenue for Havana which exploits the labor of Cuban doctors abroad by forcing them to work under arrangements reminiscent of human trafficking.

The administration’s active engagement with Latin America is not isolated to right-of-center leaders already hostile toward Havana. Even Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador, who expressed solidarity and support for Cuba’s regime on multiple occasions, has had little to say about the issue in its dealings with the United States. Indeed, Lopéz Obrador has maintained a highly active bilateral relationship with the United States and with Trump personally. In Ecuador, the Trump administration has had laudable success in winning over President Lenín Moreno, the chosen successor and former vice president to the pro-Cuba leftist strongman, former President Rafael Correa.

Even before the Trump presidency, a shift on Cuba began to materialize in the region’s premier diplomatic body, the Organization of American States (OAS). There, in the space of less than a decade, member-states went from actively paving the road for Cuba’s restored OAS membership to largely dropping that initiative and pushing ally Venezuela out of the international organization. Secretary General Luis Almagro is an outspoken critic of the Cuban dictatorship, even accepting human-rights awards from Cuban dissident groups—something his predecessors had declined to do.

These shifts in the region are not merely the result of Trump’s lobbying of Latin American leaders or even churn in the region’s political leadership. Rather, Havana’s role in supporting the Venezuelan regime’s repression has taken a significant toll on the region’s historical goodwill and tolerance for Cuba. It was not lost on many in Latin America that, as Washington negotiated accords with the Cuban dictatorship to combat drug trafficking, Havana fortified its support for Venezuela’s narco-dictatorship, propping up institutions that violently crush the Venezuelan people and sparked an unprecedented refugee crisis last year.

However, perhaps the most crucial factor in Latin American leaders’ turn on Cuba is the end of booming economic times in the region and the rise of multiple severe crises. In many ways, for Latin America’s political class, using Cuba as a pretext for limiting engagement with Washington was largely a luxury of booming economies. With the end of the commodity boom, though, those days are drifting further and further away, and with them, much of the willingness to discard opportunities for economic and political engagement with the United States.

Simply put, Latin America’s leaders, even some with a friendly disposition toward the Cuban dictatorship like those in Mexico and Ecuador, have far too much to worry about to jeopardize mutually beneficial U.S. engagement. Of course, some highly ideological leaders in the region will continue to rebuff the United States and raise the issue of Cuba in doing so, but deeper bilateral irritants often exist in those cases. There is little doubt that, for most of the region’s leaders and populations, it is far more urgent for the Biden administration to invest its time and energies into a plan for hemispheric economic recovery, nearshoring of supply chains, environmental protection, and facilitating access to an effective COVID-19 vaccine, than return to another series of negotiations and unrequited concessions with the dictatorship in Havana.

All this does not mean that the United States should ignore Cuba, or cease pressing the dictatorship to respect human rights and release its stranglehold over the island’s nascent private sector. Instead, it means sending a clear message to Havana that the rest of the Western Hemisphere is moving forward toward an agenda of shared prosperity, and the United States will not bend over backwards in a bid to get Cuba’s repressive regime to come along.

In the coming weeks and months, Biden and his team will have to make important decisions about its priorities in Latin America. The events of the last several years—and especially 2020—should make those clear.

Andrés Martínez-Fernández is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute, whose research includes Latin American policy issues.

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