“Serious instability in Cuba will have an immediate impact on the United States,” warns a secret CIA intelligence estimate, citing massive migration, civil strife and “pressures for US or international military intervention.” The dire situation amounts to a “nightmare scenario,” according to a confidential State Department memorandum that calls for a substantive change in US policy to address the looming crisis. “If ever a foreign policy case cries out for dramatic US leadership,” the memo advises, “Cuba today is that case.”
These red-flag alarms were actually all written in the early 1990s—as Cuba faced what the CIA called a “devastating economic decline” after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it is not hard to imagine similar internal warnings circulating inside the Biden administration over the past several months as Cuba struggles to emerge from another dire economic crisis often compared to that “special period” 30 years ago.
With their tourism-dominated economy decimated by the impact of the Covid pandemic on travel, Cubans are again abandoning their country; this spring over 70,000 have made their way to Central America and trekked northward to cross the Mexican-US border as illegal immigrants; as thousands of Cubans did during the 1994 balsero crisis, others are increasingly setting sail in rickety boats toward Florida. The country is suffering from severe shortages of electricity, fuel, medicine, foodstuffs and other necessary commodities. Blaming Trump-era economic sanctions on trade, travel, and finance, Cuban officials have recently warned US journalists that the hot summer months could bring renewed civil unrest—the clear intent, they say, of an ongoing US strategy of deprivation and destabilization.
Now, the Biden administration has tacitly acknowledged that the wreak-havoc policies they inherited are inimical to US security and diplomatic and humanitarian concerns. On May 16, the State Department announced that it would rescind a number of Trump-initiated sanctions on Cuba and reset Washington’s punitive posture. The limited measures the US plans to implement do not approximate the scale of Obama-era efforts to normalize US-Cuban relations. But they reflect a strategic appreciation that a policy of at least partial engagement is needed to advance real national and international interests, as well as the humanitarian needs of the Cuban people.
To make Biden’s Cuba policy reset politically palatable, and to blunt the effect on the midterm and 2024 elections, the administration has focused on changes designed “to further support the Cuban people,” empower the private sector, and bring Cuban-Americans together with their loved ones on the island. The first measure announced by the State Department was the restoration of the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program—a mechanism for Cuban-Americans to expedite immigration applications for relatives on the island that Trump shut down after his State Department shuttered the US Consulate, in response to unexplained health incidents among Embassy personnel in Havana in 2017. The Biden administration also announced it would reverse Trump’s cruel decision to suspend commercial air flights to all regional airports on the island—a decision that has created extreme transportation hardships for Cuban-Americans seeking to visit relatives who live in the Eastern and Western provinces.
But the most consequential change is Biden’s decision to lift the $1000 per quarter cap on remittances that Trump imposed. As part of Obama’s strategy for normalization, there were no restrictions on remittance levels; several billion dollars annually flowed directly to tens of thousands of Cuban families enabling them to purchase goods, transform their homes into AirBnBs, and create small businesses. In an effort to provide an informal mechanism for foreign investment in Cuba’s growing private sector, the Biden Administration has now authorized “donative (i.e., non-family) remittances, which will support independent Cuban entrepreneurs.”
“We will work to expand entrepreneurs’ access to microfinance and training,” according the May 16 announcement. In addition, the administration plans to relax embargo restrictions on Cuban access to Internet-related cloud technology, application programming interfaces, and e-commerce platforms and expand “support of additional payment options for Internet-based activities, electronic payments, and business with independent Cuban entrepreneurs.”
For advocates of a commonsense Cuba policy, Biden’s belated decision to restore a semblance of sanity to US-Cuba relations is positive but partial. It is “a timid but very welcome step,” as Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, a staunch supporter of normalized ties, characterized the initiative. “I hope this announcement is the beginning of a wholesale renunciation of a discredited policy that is beneath our country and has exacerbated the hardships inflicted on the Cuban people,” Leahy noted, in an effort to prod the Biden administration into taking more definitive actions. Effective diplomacy, he suggested, “requires inspired and principled engagement.”
Biden was in the Obama White House when it established the successful model of such “principled engagement” just seven short years ago. But that historic accomplishment already appears to be lost on his administration as it continues to cautiously navigate the contentious domestic politics of Cuba policy. Consequently, contradictions abound in its new approach.
For example, the administration appears to have opened the door to more, and easier, travel to Cuba by reinstating the “people-to-people” general license category for group trips that Trump eliminated. But, as veteran Cuba tour guide Christopher Baker pointed out in a Facebook post, until Biden “also removes the existing Trump ban on use of ANY hotel in Cuba (all of which are government owned), reinstating the group ‘people-to-people’ license effectively restricts groups to small numbers capable of staying in private B&Bs.” And by refusing to reinstate the “people-to-people” license for individual travel, the administration is further limiting the number of US citizens who will visit the island.
Similarly, the Biden administration has taken the urgent step of lifting restrictions on remittance amounts, but it has yet to rescind Trump’s order to shut down Western Union and other smaller wire transfer services to Cuba because they processed money through a state financial entity that took a minuscule transaction fee. The Trump administration forced Western Union to close over 400 service centers in Cuba, cutting off the fastest and most effective way for Cuban American families to support their relatives during the pandemic. State Department officials say they are in talks with the Cuban government to establish a civilian agency to process electronic transfers of funds, but that could significantly delay the flow of desperately needed remittances in the coming weeks and months. In its announcement, the State Department vaguely stated that it would “engage with electronic payment processors to encourage increased Cuban market accessibility.”
The limited, contorted nature of the administration’s new Cuba approach—and its failure to take a new approach until now—is a result of Biden’s effort to mollify the hardline Cuban-American Democratic senator from New Jersey, Robert Menendez. With the Senate evenly split, the president needs Menendez’s vote to pass his legislative agenda—not to mention Menendez’s cooperation as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee to pursue Biden’s foreign policy objectives. The administration has also evaded any Cuba policy initiatives, until now, to increase the odds of victory this coming November for Representative Val Demings, who is running against the arch-conservative Cuban-American Republican Senator Marco Rubio in Florida. Beating Rubio in November would kill three political birds with one stone: help the Democrats keep their Senate majority; eliminate the leading protagonist of a hardline, regime change policy in Congress, and undercut Rubio’s own presidential aspirations.
Neither Menendez nor Demings, however, appear to be appeased. Menendez clearly does not believe in the constitutional rights of US citizens to travel; he professed to being “dismayed” that the Biden administration was authorizing educational, people-to-people group travel to Cuba, which he described as “akin to tourism.”
“For years, the United States foolishly eased travel restrictions arguing millions of American dollars would bring about freedom and nothing changed,” Menendez charged, ignoring the overwhelming data on the expansion of the private sector around the influx of US visitors, including his own constituents. Representative Demings also condemned Biden’s limited modification of the travel restrictions, as well as the renewed US efforts to support the private sector. “Allowing investments in the Cuban private sector and easing travel restrictions will only serve to fund the corrupt dictatorship,” Demings said in a statement.”
Nor is Biden’s limited Cuba initiative likely to curry favor with Latin American nations who are due to gather for the Ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles in early June. A potential boycott, led by Mexico, is brewing, in protest of Biden’s exclusion of Cuba—along with Nicaragua and Venezuela—from the Summit. In a dramatic, high-profile state visit to Havana last week, Mexican President Andrés López Obrador denounced Washington’s decision not to invite Cuba and announced that he would not attend unless all nations in the region did also. Honduras and Bolivia, along with some 20 Caribbean countries, have said they will also not attend unless Cuba is invited. While in Havana, Lopez Obrador also denounced the US embargo against Cuba and demanded that it be lifted; at press conference this week he declared that the US was pursuing “a genocidal policy” toward Cuba.
Whether the Summit implodes over the threatened boycott or goes forward, the United States is certain to face a major rebellion against its Cuba policy—to the detriment of its other pressing diplomatic, economic, and security interests in the region. To address those issues, and to ease the humanitarian crisis in Cuba that threatens US interests in peace and stability in the Caribbean, the Biden administration will have to significantly expand its engagement strategy beyond the measures announced this week. There is no time to lose to manage this potential nightmare scenario. The State Department admonition from the early 1990s remains as relevant now as it was then: “If ever a foreign policy case cries out for dramatic US leadership, Cuba today is that case.”