For its first six months in office, the Biden administration did its best to ignore Cuba, slogging through a seemingly endless policy review and responding to questions about it with campaign platitudes. The social unrest that broke out across the island last weekend illustrates how dangerous it is for U.S. policy to remain dead in the water, subordinated to domestic politics—Florida politics in particular.
So far, President Joe Biden has left in place all the punishing economic sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump—sanctions candidate Biden denounced during the campaign—including a near-total prohibition on Cuban Americans’ ability to send remittances to family on the island. For years, remittances have been a lifeline for Cubans struggling to get by on inadequate state wages. Yet on July 13, State Department spokesman Ned Price flatly denied that the cut-off in remittances had anything to do with Cuba’s economic problems—which is patently ridiculous since pre-pandemic, remittances brought more money into Cuba than the tourism industry.
Trump’s sanctions are nothing new, of course. The U.S. embargo has been in place for 60 years and it has never been enough to achieve Washington’s goal of regime change. But at moments when the Cuban economy has been particularly vulnerable, the embargo has had a devastating impact on the living conditions of ordinary Cubans. This is one of those moments.
In the early 1960s, Cuba was struggling to adjust after the embargo severed its historical economic ties with the United States. The resulting recession prompted the first migration crisis, with refugees leaving on small boats from the port of Camarioca. In 1992, as the Cuban economy struggled after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington tightened the embargo by blocking the sale of food and medicine by the foreign subsidiaries of U.S. corporations. Two years later, hundreds of Cubans rioted on the Havana waterfront and thousands headed out to sea, trying to reach the United States on homemade rafts.
In 2017, using the reported injuries of U.S. officials in Havana as an excuse, Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recalled most of the embassy staff and closed the consular section to Cubans seeking visas, making legal emigration to the United States almost impossible. The Trump administration simply ignored the U.S. obligation under the 1994 migration agreement with Cuba to issue a minimum of 20,000 immigrant visas to Cubans annually.
One of the reasons the number of illegal immigrants coming from Cuba is on the rise today is that Trump closed off this pressure value that President Bill Clinton put in place to avoid future migration crises by giving Cubans a safe, legal path to emigrate.
Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” in 2019 began a series of escalating economic sanctions with the aim of starving the Cuban regime of foreign exchange currency, forcing the government to cut back on imports of food, fuel, and medicine. He pressured Latin American governments to kick out Cuban doctors, tried to block Venezuelan oil shipments to Cuba, eliminated travel to Cuba for most U.S. residents, cut back air travel, and cut off family remittances.
Just as Trump’s sanctions were beginning to bite, the COVID pandemic closed Cuba’s tourism industry, leaving the country destitute. The Cuban government unveiled a package of economic reforms in January 2021 to boost domestic productivity, but they have gone awry, leading to runaway inflation and further eroding Cubans’ real income. All these factors have come together in a perfect storm of economic trauma, resulting in severe shortages of all basic goods, especially food and medicine. As living conditions have deteriorated, social tensions have risen and pressures for migration are intensifying. The recent demonstrations and social unrest are a manifestation of people’s economic desperation—and probably not the last.
The protests should be a decision-forcing event for the Biden administration. In the next few weeks, Biden will have to make a fateful choice. He can slide Cuba to the back burner of his agenda once again in the hope that the crisis on the island will subside without any U.S. action. Or he can act decisively, announcing a policy aimed at reducing the suffering of the Cuban people by lifting Trump’s sanctions—as he promised to do during the presidential campaign.
The first option is tempting. Continuing to wait-and-see avoids actions that might complicate the Democrats’ 2022 political aspirations in Florida, because any relaxation of Trump’s sanctions will be denounced by Republicans as throwing a lifeline to the sinking Cuban regime. In fact, Sen. Marco Rubio even denounced Biden’s statement of support for the protesters because it wasn’t tough enough.
But this option does nothing to relieve the underlying economic desperation and social tension that led to the Cuban protests in the first place. Those will continue to grow, and if a crackdown on dissidents by Cuban authorities prevents a new cycle of demonstrations, those tensions may manifest themselves next time in a migration crisis that will cause Biden worse political problems than pursuing a policy of renewed engagement.
The components of that policy are straightforward and can all be done using the president’s executive authority: restore the ability of Cuban Americans to send unlimited remittances to family on the island; restore full air service so Cuban Americans can visit family in the interior; restore the right of other U.S. residents to visit Cuba in order to revive the ailing private sector; and restaff the embassy’s consular section so it can resume issuing immigrant visas in numbers that bring the United States back into compliance with the 1994 migration agreement.
This is Biden’s choice: a Cuba policy based on the foreign policy interests of the United States and the well-being of the Cuban people, or a policy driven by domestic political calculations. Joe Biden is a man of uncommon decency and empathy for the suffering of others. A policy that holds the welfare of the Cuban people hostage to the machinations of domestic politics is unworthy of him.