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Boxing Cuba In Benefits No One

It’s on the United States to break the detente because Cuba’s continued isolation may have serious geopolitical consequences.

By , a senior research fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, and , a coordinator in external relations at Chatham House.
People take part in a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel in Havana on July 11, 2021.
People take part in a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel in Havana on July 11, 2021.
People take part in a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel in Havana on July 11, 2021. YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images

Despite recent claims by the U.S. State Department that Cuba is a “top priority for the Biden-Harris Administration” and promises by then-presidential candidate Joe Biden in 2020 to “reverse the failed Trump policies that inflicted harm on Cubans,” Trump-era sanctions on Cuba—the tightest in the U.S. embargo’s 60-year history—remain in place. The inertia is even more curious since historic protests swept the country on July 11, 2021, and shook new Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel’s regime. These protests were supported in part by access to the internet and social media, made possible by U.S. President Barack Obama’s brief opening that former U.S. President Donald Trump reversed.

Cuba’s continued isolation may have geopolitical consequences. Responding to U.S. and NATO support for Ukraine, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov hinted that Russia is considering a military deployment to Cuba and Venezuela if talks with the West on European security and Ukraine fail to go its way. Although U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan dismissed the threat as “bluster,” the White House has few cards to play to punish or sway a Cuban government should it be tempted by the offer.

On the face of it, the reasons for policy stasis on U.S.-Cuba sanctions are pretty obvious. Cuba remains pretty far down the list of foreign-policy priorities—except for those whose families fled Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s repression, a declining number of lefties, and a small group of policy masochists who believe there is a better way to promote human rights and political change on the island than a punishing sanctions regime.

Despite recent claims by the U.S. State Department that Cuba is a “top priority for the Biden-Harris Administration” and promises by then-presidential candidate Joe Biden in 2020 to “reverse the failed Trump policies that inflicted harm on Cubans,” Trump-era sanctions on Cuba—the tightest in the U.S. embargo’s 60-year history—remain in place. The inertia is even more curious since historic protests swept the country on July 11, 2021, and shook new Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel’s regime. These protests were supported in part by access to the internet and social media, made possible by U.S. President Barack Obama’s brief opening that former U.S. President Donald Trump reversed.

Cuba’s continued isolation may have geopolitical consequences. Responding to U.S. and NATO support for Ukraine, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov hinted that Russia is considering a military deployment to Cuba and Venezuela if talks with the West on European security and Ukraine fail to go its way. Although U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan dismissed the threat as “bluster,” the White House has few cards to play to punish or sway a Cuban government should it be tempted by the offer.

On the face of it, the reasons for policy stasis on U.S.-Cuba sanctions are pretty obvious. Cuba remains pretty far down the list of foreign-policy priorities—except for those whose families fled Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s repression, a declining number of lefties, and a small group of policy masochists who believe there is a better way to promote human rights and political change on the island than a punishing sanctions regime.

The lack of momentum in changing Cuba policy is also in part driven by fear of political blowback that would follow opening diplomatic and economic relations, particularly from those politicians whose family members fled Cuba. There are three in the Senate—Sens. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Robert Menendez—and with more than 300 administration appointments still pending Senate approval, Biden can’t risk alienating them. (Rubio’s parents actually left Cuba before Castro’s revolution in 1959, though he remains one of the strongest supporters of punishing the communist regime.) Anything seen as dialing back sanctions would meet opposition not only as a shift in Cuba policy but other policy initiatives as well. On Biden’s own side, Menendez has spoken often about his support for human rights in Cuba and his belief that the embargo remains the best means of forcing regime change. With the Democrats’ razor thin majority in the Senate, Menendez remains a key vote for passing what’s left of Biden’s domestic agenda.

The Cuban regime hasn’t made a detente easier either. Its recent strict crackdowns on expressions of popular discontent are signs of growing insecurity internally in the face of worsening economic conditions. On July 11, 2021, largely peaceful street demonstrations across the country against food and medicine shortages, inflation, and the lack of freedom were met with a brutal crackdown, where security forces rounded up more than 1,300 protesters. Some were later released on house arrest, but more than 600 individuals remain behind bars. In recent weeks, the government has started trying those still in detention. So far, 172 of the demonstrators have been charged with crimes, such as sedition, with some facing up to 30 years in prison.

In a sign of the United States’ self-imposed lack of options, the State Department’s response to the Cuban government’s crackdown was to place Global Magnitsky sanctions on the head of Cuba’s military and its security forces. But pulling the visas and threatening to freeze the bank accounts of Cuban officials is an impotent gesture. It’s unlikely any of them were planning a trip to the United States any time soon and even less likely they maintained U.S. bank accounts.

For now, the United States is in a weak position with very little diplomatic and economic leverage over the Cuban government when it comes to punishing the regime for further human rights abuses; courting U.S. rivals, such as Russia; or supporting Venezuela’s failed regime. With a little political courage though, that could change.


It wasn’t always this way. After several half-hearted attempts to open the United States’ borders to Cuba earlier in his administration, on Dec. 17, 2014, Obama unexpectedly announced a full-scale executive action to normalize diplomatic relations with the island. Relations had been frozen since 1960; Obama’s announcement provided limited openings for U.S. travel to the island and for U.S. business investments.

In May 2015, the State Department removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. In July 2015, the United States and Cuban Embassies, closed since 1961, reopened. In March 2016, Obama made a historic visit to Cuba, meeting with then-Cuban President Raúl Castro. It was the first visit of a sitting U.S. president in nearly 90 years. According to Obama, he had traveled to the island to “bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.” With full diplomatic relations and a fully empowered U.S. diplomat (though unconfirmed ambassador), the two countries launched a series of initiatives and cooperative agreements in border security, science, public health, intelligence, and law enforcement.

There was just one problem: Despite the self-congratulatory hoopla, the changes remained politically and legally fragile. In 1992 (and again in 1996), U.S. Congress codified the embargo, previously only an executive order, into law, blocking U.S. trade, investment, and travel to the island. Obama’s changes came through executive action; they did not require an act of Congress, so the 1992 and 1996 laws were left in place. As a result, Obama’s orders could be reversed through a simple stroke of the pen. Both Cuba and the United States seemed to believe that the momentum of embassy openings; new initiatives; high-level business and diplomatic trips; American tourists; and movie-making, rock star and fashion attention would grow by itself, and that the full lifting of the embargo was a fait accompli.

It was pure political hubris—true on both sides of the Florida Straits. On the U.S. side, the Obama administration failed to press its newfound advantage on urgent issues like meaningful negotiations between Cuban ally Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Venezuela’s opposition—at the time (and still) the more serious issue in the region. On the Cuban government’s side, failure to move on approving U.S. investment proposals not only left its citizens with fewer economic and employment opportunities but also diminished the potential of advocates in Washington. The communist government spurned almost all investment proposals from banks, manufacturers, agriculture companies, and hoteliers to invest directly in the island.

Trump’s surprise 2016 election victory demonstrated how ephemeral this supposed historic moment was. Convinced by the statistically dubious claim that Florida’s Cuban American voters were the key to winning that state’s 29 electoral votes, Trump steadily rolled back Obama’s executive actions and added one new restriction. In June 2017, he traveled to Miami to sign an executive order reimposing restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba and U.S. commercial activity with businesses controlled by or operating on behalf of the Cuban military—effectively consigning most of the country’s economy, especially in the tourism sector, to commercial isolation. The June 2017 order and others that followed scrapped the self-declared “people to people” travel license, limited group travel, disallowed cruise ships from stopping in Cuba, and imposed restrictions on U.S. airlines and charter flights from flying to any city other than Havana. Trump’s team also increased financial and banking restrictions against the Cuban regime and increased restrictions regarding shipping to Cuba.

In April 2019, the administration turned up the pressure to a level that not even former U.S. Republican President George W. Bush had dared to go. Reversing the policy of the past three administrations, the Trump White House announced it would no longer suspend the implementation of Title III of the 1996 Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act. That controversial provision allows U.S. nationals to sue entities that own or benefit from property expropriated by the Cuban government after the revolution. By May 2020, 25 lawsuits against 51 companies had been filed. Amazon, Expedia, Iberostar, Mastercard, NH Hotel, Pernod Ricard, Royal Caribbean, Trivago, and Visa are just some of the companies that have been subject to claims. Canada and the European Union have condemned the move as a violation of international law and have taken their cases to the World Trade Organization.

Political views within the United States also started to shift toward a more hard-line stance. In a 2014 survey conducted by Florida International University, a slight majority of the Cuban American community in Miami-Dade County—home to more than 1 million Cuban Americans—opposed continuing the U.S.-Cuba embargo, and a large majority favored diplomatic relations with Cuba (68 percent). By 2020, the majority of the Cuban American population in south Florida had reversed their view; 60 percent of Cuban Americans supported continuing the embargo.

Biden’s campaign promises and half-hearted efforts to court select Cuban Americans in the White House have not managed to win back the community’s support for reengaging with Cuba’s regime. A March 2021 Bendixen & Amandi survey revealed that a full 66 percent of Cuban Americans in Florida oppose reverting to Obama policies toward Cuba. So what next?


The Cuban regime isn’t making change easy for the Biden administration. It refuses to lessen repression and fails to respond quickly or nimbly to any economic opportunity that requires it to liberalize the control of state bureaucrats. But precisely because the regime dragged its feet during the short moment of openness, the Biden administration should end the current paralysis.

For the past year, the Biden White House has promised that its Cuba policy is under review. What that means is not clear, and the administration has not been in much of a rush to reveal anything beyond symbolically welcoming Cuban Americans to the White House.

Admittedly, Cuba policy will never be first on any administration’s to-do list—especially given the political costs threatened by well-placed embargo advocates and the low political returns in doing so. This is particularly true now that the business community has lost interest after its attempts to court the Cuban government were rebuffed. Watching how quickly and effortlessly advances were reversed under Trump—and the cost paid by the career diplomats involved in the initiative, with ambassadorial confirmations of career diplomats held up by Rubio for their alleged role in the opening—will also give any elected or public official pause.

But expecting reciprocity from an autocratic regime should not be a precondition when it falsely claims to represent 11.4 million citizens just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. In one of the few success stories of U.S. investors gaining a toehold in Cuba during the Obama window, Google helped link up internet access on the island and the Cuban government agreed to open up Wi-Fi hotspots in public spaces around the country. Demonstrators on July 11 posted videos and messages about the protests that quickly spread across the country, animating younger generations of Cubans who had not been politically active before.

The White House should work to give the U.S. government better leverage to respond to suffering at the regime’s hand and any of its designs to flirt with Russia or other U.S. adversaries. Yes, that will require some economic upfront concessions from the United States by lifting restrictions on U.S. travel to the island for educational or cultural purposes, permitting banks to establish operations on the island to better facilitate remittances, and allowing U.S. travel there. The gains would give Cubans on the island more economic agency while also giving the United States leverage over the Cuban regime. This is a better result for everyone rather than leveling symbolic sanctions on officials.

Update, Feb. 7, 2022: The photo with this article has been updated to show an anti-government protest on July 11, 2021.

Christopher Sabatini is a senior research fellow for Latin America at Chatham House. He is currently writing and editing the book Human Rights in a Changing World Order, to be published August 2022. Twitter: @ChrisSabatini

Lauren Cornwall is a coordinator in external relations at Chatham House.

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