Biden under pressure to decide Cuba policy
The 10th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s resignation from the Cuban Communist Party’s central committee falls this month, at a time when the US Biden administration is under growing pressure from Congress to nail down its stance toward the socialist island state.
President Joe Biden has said he wants a significant reset in relations, but that is not a straightforward process. Cuba policy is intensely controversial in several key US electoral states, especially Florida, and foreign issues have also clouded the US-Cuba agenda, including suspected “microwave attacks” targeting American diplomats in Havana and growing US tensions with Venezuela.
In the absence of Biden moving quickly on this agenda, legislators in Congress are seeking to fill the vacuum. Republican Sens. Marco Rubio, Rick Scott and Ted Cruz, all of whom have potential 2024 presidential ambitions, are seeking to block any Biden attempt to remove Cuba from the US state sponsors of terrorism list — a designation made by the Trump administration. This trio has also vowed to oppose any “any motions or consent requests with regard to any legislation that seeks to amend our nation’s policy toward Cuba.”
By contrast, several Democrats, including Rep. Jim McGovern and Sen. Patrick Leahy, are pushing for a more open policy. They have highlighted that Biden campaigned on reversing the travel and remittances policies toward Cuba and expanding US diplomatic relations with Havana.
While Democrats generally favor change and Republicans the status quo on Cuba, it is not a completely partisan issue. For instance, powerful Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has long opposed any reform of policy toward the island state.
So far, the Biden team has made few concrete commitments and the congressional Democrats that support change fear the administration will keep pushing back action and then proceed only incrementally. They remember that it was not until the last two years of Barack Obama’s presidency that he acted on his controversial normalization agenda.
Biden’s caution is not just due to the massive agenda he is already tackling, including the pandemic. In some key swing states, especially Florida, US policy toward Cuba is a major polarizing issue and Democrats are on the defensive. Last November, the party lost two congressional seats in South Florida. This is an area with high concentrations of people from Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, who have moved to the US because of dissatisfaction with their leftist governments.
Biden is also aware how, in the 2016 presidential election, multiple Republican presidential candidates, including Cruz and Rubio, were vociferously opposed to Obama’s Cuba policy and sought to build political capital from it. This included Donald Trump, who used his standard argument that, as president, he would have negotiated a better settlement with Cuba than Obama did.
So it might not be until after the 2022 midterm elections that Biden moves on Cuba. But, if and when he does so, he already has a road map he can use to navigate. In December 2014, the two countries announced they would restore diplomatic relations and Obama later became the first US president to visit the country in almost 90 years, announcing a suite of measures that further eroded the bilateral sanctions regime introduced during the Cold War.
These actions, which then-US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew claimed “chart a new course in US-Cuba relations,” saw a relaxation of travel and financial rules that allowed Cubans to open US bank accounts, as well as permitting Cubans in the US homeland to earn salaries or other financial compensation. They also allowed US citizens to travel more easily, independently, to the island, including the resumption of frequently scheduled air services from US airports to Cuba.
However, bilateral relations could not be fully normalized without the acquiescence of Congress, where there was (and still is) opposition to rolling back the decades-long measures freezing US-Cuban relations, including the trade embargo. Part of the hesitation on the part of the-then Republican leadership in Congress stemmed from Cuba’s lack of meaningful political reform.
This again highlights the partisan US divide over Cuba policy. Republicans assert that Obama gave First Secretary of the Communist Party Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, a major propaganda victory with very little in return and assert there are more political prisoners on the island now than when Obama visited.
The congressional Democrats that support change fear the administration will keep pushing back action and then proceed only incrementally.
Democrats, by contrast, point to the change in Cuba in the short period of normalization before the Trump administration reversed it. Often cited here is how the island’s fledgling private sector flourished; the internet and political space expanded; people-to-people exchanges multiplied; and bilateral dialogues began on tough topics like human rights.
This partisan gulf will not disappear soon and is one key reason why Biden may move only gradually on reversing Trump-era policies toward the island. While a reset in relations remains likely, it could need to wait until the second half of his term.
- Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.