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Biden’s Missed Opportunity in Cuba

The U.S. president’s hard-line rhetoric belies the island’s humanitarian crisis and cedes an opportunity to shape what comes next.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service.
People hold Cuban and U.S. flags during a protest showing support for Cubans demonstrating against their government, in Hialeah, Florida, July 15.
People hold Cuban and U.S. flags during a protest showing support for Cubans demonstrating against their government, in Hialeah, Florida, July 15. Eva Marie Uzcategui/AFP/Getty

When U.S. President Joe Biden pledged to return America to the global stage after four years of isolationism under Donald Trump, the Caribbean was admittedly not a priority. And in the middle of a battle royal with Republicans over domestic spending, the last thing Biden wanted is a foreign-policy crisis infected by politics.

The Caribbean had other ideas. After reeling from a presidential assassination in Haiti that left a power vacuum on top of extreme violence and a growing humanitarian crisis, Biden now confronts historic protests in Cuba that have elicited a chorus of support from American lawmakers, anger from the Cuban government, and a fear of a mass exodus of Cubans to U.S. shores.

If Cubans are protesting massively, that’s because the island is facing the worst economic crisis in decades, causing hardships for the Cuban people that rival those during the so-called Special Period in the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union devastated the country. Food shortages, skyrocketing inflation that has made goods even more expensive, and hourslong electricity blackouts have been compounded by the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic—which dried up tourism dollars and remittances from Cubans living abroad that have served as vital sources of foreign currency and income for families on the island. Public anger boiled over during the hot, sweltering summer when the country saw a surge in coronavirus cases. Record numbers of cases have strained the country’s health system to the point where even basic medicines are unavailable. 

When U.S. President Joe Biden pledged to return America to the global stage after four years of isolationism under Donald Trump, the Caribbean was admittedly not a priority. And in the middle of a battle royal with Republicans over domestic spending, the last thing Biden wanted is a foreign-policy crisis infected by politics.

The Caribbean had other ideas. After reeling from a presidential assassination in Haiti that left a power vacuum on top of extreme violence and a growing humanitarian crisis, Biden now confronts historic protests in Cuba that have elicited a chorus of support from American lawmakers, anger from the Cuban government, and a fear of a mass exodus of Cubans to U.S. shores.

If Cubans are protesting massively, that’s because the island is facing the worst economic crisis in decades, causing hardships for the Cuban people that rival those during the so-called Special Period in the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union devastated the country. Food shortages, skyrocketing inflation that has made goods even more expensive, and hourslong electricity blackouts have been compounded by the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic—which dried up tourism dollars and remittances from Cubans living abroad that have served as vital sources of foreign currency and income for families on the island. Public anger boiled over during the hot, sweltering summer when the country saw a surge in coronavirus cases. Record numbers of cases have strained the country’s health system to the point where even basic medicines are unavailable. 

Cuba’s communist regime has been able to weather multiple economic and political crises since taking power some 60 years ago by blaming the U.S. embargo on the island. But Cubans’ anger has turned against President Miguel Díaz-Canel, the head of the Communist Party and the first person outside of the Castro family to lead the country since the Cuban Revolution. Díaz-Canel’s financial mismanagement of the Cuban economy and the growing hardships created a growing boldness among civil society, driven by younger dissident Cuban artists, to make their demands known. The protests have caught on like wildfire to more than 40 locations across the island—a nearly unprecedented show of defiance.

At first the regime dismissed the demonstrations as a U.S.-backed uprising, calling on supporters to take back the streets and warning that the United States was risking an exodus of Cuban immigrants. But as the protests spread and criticism grew of the heavy-handed response against the demonstrators, Díaz-Canel changed his tune. This past week, in a nod to the people’s hardships, the government lifted restrictions on travelers, allowing them to bring in unlimited food, medicine, and other essentials without paying customs. With air travel to the island restricted because of COVID-19, the measure may have little effect. But it does present an opportunity for the United States to help. 

Biden has described the protests as a “clarion call for freedom” from an “authoritarian regime.” His administration is walking a tightrope: voicing support for the protesters and asking the Cuban government to be responsive to the people’s demands without creating difficulties for the protesters and playing into the regime’s hands.

As vice president, Biden was part of President Barack Obama’s opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba, which saw an easing on travel restrictions that promised more tourism dollars and remittances, an opening of embassies, and Cuba coming off the list of U.S. state sponsors of terrorism. Trump rolled that all back, enacting even tougher sanctions that further strained the economy and hardened the Cuban’s government’s position. The pandemic made the problems worse by shutting down tourism, a major source of foreign currency. The government has also suffered the collapse of its closest regional ally, Venezuela, whose government under socialist leader Nicolás Maduro is also under U.S. sanctions. 

As a candidate, Biden pledged to reverse Trump’s hawkish sanctions-led policies, arguing “the crackdown on Cubans by the regime has gotten worse under Trump, not better.” Yet, a half-year into his administration, as on so many issues from Afghanistan to trade, Biden’s policies are effectively a continuation of Trump’s. 

Supporting calls for freedom in Cuba dovetail nicely with Biden’s democracy agenda, in which he has divided the world into an existential battle between democracies and authoritarian regimes. There is also a pageantry about certain U.S. politicians promoting democracy in Cuba, when it’s at best parlous in the United States. But the more vocal the administration becomes, the higher the cost of inaction will become in turn. 

The Biden administration is in the middle of a policy review on Cuba, which the protests have only complicated and made even politically charged, as Cuban Americans in Florida took to the streets in solidarity with the protesters and Republican leaders like Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz—both of whom played a major role in Trump’s hard-line Cuba policy—criticized his response. Biden is also trying to placate Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, the powerful chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—a major voice of opposition to returning to Obama-era Cuba policies and someone the administration needs to confirm all of its nominees, in addition to supporting Biden’s domestic agenda.

The rhetoric out of Washington is centering on support for democracy and human rights in Cuba. But today, unlike in past protests, Cubans are protesting their crushing poverty and lack of food as much, if not more, than their lack of democratic freedoms. 

Addressing the acute humanitarian hardships that drove the Cuban people into the streets and supporting their desire for freedom don’t need to be mutually exclusive policy options. It is possible that the Cuban government won’t accept U.S. help. But renewing access to remittances and loosening travel restrictions to the island would help people cover their basic needs. The United States can also speed up efforts to get vaccines to Cuba. Savvy humanitarian organizations and nongovernmental organizations know how to both navigate U.S. sanctions and get around Cuban government restrictions. 

In the short term, the United States can help keep the internet running. The internet has exploded in recent years on the island, and social media has been an empowering tool for civil society, largely thanks to agreements with companies like Google and YouTube as a result of Obama’s outreach. U.S. officials are considering a proposal by Rubio to use U.S. satellite-based technology to provide internet access, aiming to overcome Cuban government efforts to cut the internet and stop the flow of information and communication between the protesters.

Then there is the age-old question about how best to bring about long-term change on the island. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week ,“Americans, especially Cuban Americans, are the best ambassadors for freedom and prosperity in Cuba.” That would suggest the wisdom of a return to the Obama-era detente. The premise of Obama’s policy was not that the Cuban government was going to democratize overnight but that opening up the island would connect Cubans to a flood of American travelers who would not only bring in some revenue and make life less desperate for Cubans, but also give them more opportunity to interact with the rest of the world and, ultimately, to pursue political change. 

The administration must also be mindful of the larger climate in Latin America, where the pendulum is swinging pretty heavily to the left. U.S. policy in Cuba is intertwined with its policies toward Venezuela, Peru, and Nicaragua—all of which are made more difficult because of the current U.S. Cuba policy. 

The logic of Rubio, Menendez, and others that the opening did not create meaningful change makes some sense (though neither did 60 years of embargo). But Biden’s effort to be a less aggressive version of Rubio is not a winning strategy and only legitimizes a hard-line policy that will make it harder for him, or a future administration, to try a new approach.

It remains to be seen whether the protests will be quashed by Cuba’s government or represent a larger movement that could ultimately see the long-awaited end of the dictatorship. Should the regime ultimately fall, Cuba’s institutions will not be any stronger than they are in Haiti, Venezuela, or Libya. China and Russia are already visible on the island. If the United States doesn’t get in now, it won’t have any credibility later to help shape what comes next.

This week, Díaz-Canel called on the Biden administration to lift the embargo, and said, “we will see what this people … is capable of.” Maybe it’s time for Washington to test the premise.

Elise Labott is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service. As a correspondent for CNN for two decades, she covered seven secretaries of state and reported from more than 80 countries. Twitter: @EliseLabott

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