It is ten months into the Biden Administration and time they started owning their approach to Trump era foreign policies that they haven’t changed – like Cuba policy. US policy toward Cuba is stuck in a Cold War time warp and held in place by domestic policy concerns that have nothing to do what makes sense for 2021.
The Obama Administration stepped back from the Cold War “regime change” approach to Cuba policy and instead focused on encouraging change through engagement. With justifiable fanfare – after half of century of relations based on the idea that economic and political isolation would force change – the Obama Administration re-established a US embassy, eased rules on travel that dramatically increased the number of US visitors and eliminated almost all restrictions on the delivery of remittances to Cuba. While Cuba is one of the rare cases in which the US Congress has codified economic sanctions, meaning the Obama Administration couldn’t lift the entire embargo without congressional action, they went a long way in changing the fundamentals of the policy and the relationship.
Under the Trump Administration the US/Cuba relationship reverted to the 1980s. Since President Biden took office little has changed. Technically the US embassy in Havana still exists, but it has few staff members. With almost no staff, they don’t have the capacity to provide visas to Cubans for refugee admissions, family reunification or other options. This lack of legal pathways for migrations is contributing to the large number of Cubans crossing through Mexico and attempting to cross undocumented into the US at the southern border. While travel to Cuba had expanded greatly by the end of the Obama Administration, now only a handful of direct flights from the US are allowed. As Covid-19 related economic disruptions hit Cuba hard, the Trump Administration all but ended the flow of remittances from the US to Cuban families, first limiting total remittances to US $4,000, then imposing sanctions that made it impossible for Western Union to transfer remittances through Cuban financial institutions. These left-over policies from the Trump Administration mean that now, under the Biden Administration US/Cuba policy is still based on isolation.
The question of what to do with countries that break the rules of democratic governance – like Cuba – has long been a diplomatic challenge. If military intervention is off the table – which I’m glad it is – economic sanctions are considered one of the primary tools available to convey objection to human rights violations or anti-democratic behavior.
In recent years a lot of questions have arisen about the impact of economic sanctions, not just toward Cuba, but around the world. General economic sanctions are considered to have serious unintended consequences for the most vulnerable people in the target country. It is not the rich or corrupt who suffer. It is those living on the edge, taking public transportation and using public health services.
With these critiques in mind, the US Treasury Department recently published a global review of sanctions policy. The review recommended changes in how sanctions should be structured rather than recommending changes to specific country sanctions. Nonetheless, it is relevant to Cuba as three of the key recommendations are that: 1) sanctions be linked to a clear policy goal – while Cuba sanctions are about regime change; 2) the cost of sanctions should fall on the intended target – while Cuba sanctions impede access to humanitarian goods and limit the ability of families to support their loved ones; and 3) there should be international support for sanctions – while the UN votes regularly to condemn US sanctions on Cuba.
Among the Treasury Department’s recommendations are this: “Going forward, Treasury will continue to review its existing authorities to consider the unintended consequences of current sanctions regimes on humanitarian activity necessary to support basic human needs, as well as potential changes to address them while continuing to deny support to malicious actors.” Applying this analysis to existing US/Cuba policy is something the Biden Administration needs to do now.
To be clear, the reconsideration of sanctions should not ignore the Cuban government’s authoritarian practices, violations of due process or human rights abuses. This summer, discontent over food shortages, power black outs, and the government’s failure to follow through on promised reforms led to an eruption of spontaneous protests in Cuba, the likes of which have not been seen in decades. It was exciting to watch the free expression of popular sentiment. Unfortunately, the government quickly shut it down. A follow up protest is scheduled for November 15th. There is no doubt that the Cuban government will go to great lengths to stop this protest before it starts. They have a long history of detaining protest leaders before protests even happen. The US and others can and should encourage the Cuban government to tolerate and listen to dissent. The international community shouldn’t be indifferent when popular protest gets stifled. But being critical of Cuba doesn’t mean sticking to a failed policy of isolation.
Restructuring Cuba policy isn’t easy, but just keeping the Trump era restrictions is not the answer. For political pragmatists in the Democratic camp, there is always a reason not to change Cuba policy. Right after Biden came into office it was because he had bigger fish to fry – the domestic economic and social policy agenda. Then, all of the foreign policy political capital was spent on the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Now the reason for inaction is the US mid-term congressional elections. It would incense some voters in south Florida and they think risk the Democrats ability to win congressional seats. After November of 2022 the rationale will be that Cuba policy change will risk the Democrats ability to hold the presidency. The excuses are endless.
It is time for the Biden Administration to own the policies they implement. They did this in a good way last week when they issued a new ruling to end Remain in Mexico, the Trump era policy that forces US asylum seekers to wait in Mexico pending the termination of their cases in the US. That wasn’t a politically easy change. Now they should own Cuba policy by refocusing on engagement, as Obama did, and implementing the sanctions recommendations made by the Treasury Department. Waiting won’t make it easier and certainly doesn’t make current policy any better.
* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson