When hundreds of protesters in Cuba rallied last week against food and medical shortages, American policy-makers responded the only way they know how. Though the deteriorating economic situation is largely the result of purposeful US sanctions, worsened by the pandemic, lawmakers from both parties seized on the protests to agitate for regime change, calling on the US government to intervene.
Representative Val Demings, a Florida Democrat running for Senator Marco Rubio’s seat in next year’s midterms, said the White House “must move swiftly.” At least one Democrat who has advocated normalization of US-Cuba relations, Representative Kathy Castor, appeared to switch sides amid the protests, calling for a “peaceful transfer of power” in Cuba. Some Republican officials had more specific suggestions. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez urged Biden to pursue military intervention, saying air strikes are an option that have “to be explored and cannot be just simply discarded as an option that is not on the table.”
When asked by The Nation about calls for US military intervention, and specifically whether the United States should carry out air strikes on Cuba, Republican Senator Tom Cotton, one of the biggest hawks in Congress, smiled and replied, “No comment.”
While Florida Senator Rick Scott would not indicate whether he supports air strikes, in a statement to The Nation he called on Biden to “take decisive action,” including further sanctions. He described the island nation as a potential danger. “This regime has repeatedly threatened the United States, working hand in hand with our adversaries like Communist China and Iran. If the illegitimate Cuban regime commits a hostile act against the United States, we should respond appropriately,” Scott said.
Last month, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for the 29th time in a row to call on the US government to lift its 60-year embargo on Cuba, a severe economic blockade that the country says constitutes an act of genocide. But just weeks after the world denounced the embargo, President Joe Biden signaled a sharp right turn against the island nation, despite his campaign promise to “go back” to the Obama-era policy of engagement.
In his harshest comments yet, Biden called Cuba a “failed state,” saying that communism is a “failed system” and socialism is not a “very useful substitute.” But he made no mention of the role Washington has played in strangling Cuba’s economy. During the 2020 presidential race, he vowed to “reverse the failed Trump policies that inflicted harm on Cubans and their families.” Six months into office, and he hasn’t lifted a finger, carrying on with the same approach that destroyed the progress of the very administration he served in. As one Biden aide put it, “Joe Biden is not Barack Obama in policy towards Cuba.”
Top House Democrats, from progressives like Representative Barbara Lee to House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Greg Meeks have called on Biden to immediately rescind Trump’s sanctions. Indeed, Biden could reverse any of the 240 additional Trump-imposed sanctions with one stroke of his pen, but he has declined to do so. Until recently, the White House thought it could avoid the subject altogether, repeatedly telling reporters that Cuba policy wasn’t a priority, until the protests forced its hand.
Biden has also broken his campaign promise to reverse his Republican predecessor’s restrictions on the amount of money people in the United States can send to their families in Cuba. Biden’s excuse for not easing the restrictions was that “it’s highly likely that the regime would confiscate those remittances or big chunks.” But according to Geoff Thale, president of the Washington Office on Latin America, Biden’s claim is a “misjudgment on several grounds”; he says it’s highly unlikely the government would confiscate any of the money. Thale noted that the 3 percent exchange fee Cuba charges on remittances, and the small transfer fee that goes to the financial institutions handling the transaction, is consistent with “standard practice” worldwide. Thale adds that the Trump administration’s claim that Fincimex, the Cuban financial institution that received and distributed the money, is owned and controlled by the Cuban military “misunderstands the Cuban economic system.”
“The result of that misanalysis is that most Cuban Americans can’t send money to their relatives right now, who face difficult economic circumstances and shortages of food and medicine, and that’s not conscionable,” Thale told The Nation in an e-mail.
Moderate and progressive Democrats remain divided on whether to end the embargo, as well as on less contentious issues, like removing the Trump-era cap on remittances. In a private letter to Biden, Representative Lee and Massachusetts Representative Jim McGovern, who has been a vocal opponent of America’s policy on Cuba since he was in college, asked for an in-person meeting to discuss their concerns. New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also condemned the Biden administration’s ongoing support of the embargo. “The embargo is absurdly cruel and, like too many other US policies targeting Latin Americans, the cruelty is the point. I outright reject the Biden administration’s defense of the embargo,” Ocasio-Cortez said. Her statement drew criticism from a prominent Florida Democrat, former representative Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who’s calling for the United States to intervene.
On the Senate side, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has been one of the leading voices calling for an end to the embargo. It may not be as lonely a position as it used to be; when asked if he would support ending the US blockade and Trump sanctions, Senator Tom Carper, a Democrat from Delaware and one of Biden’s biggest allies, told The Nation that he would be “very open to discussing that.” On the other hand, Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, who has previously called for lifting the embargo, is now qualifying his support, saying, “This is a time where you don’t want to give the wrong signal to the Cuban government.”
Strangely enough, Republican Senator Jerry Moran had a more sympathetic response to the question of the embargo than Senator John Hickenlooper, a conservative Democrat from Colorado. When asked by The Nation if he supports lifting the embargo, Hickenlooper replied that he doesn’t “want to get in the middle of someone else’s negotiation.”
“Well, I mean there’s a point,” Hickenlooper said, after being asked again. “The embargo is, the ultimate goal is to bring some level of democracy to Cuba.”
Senator Moran, who previously introduced legislation with Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar and Patrick Leahy to lift the trade embargo, reiterated his support for ending the blockade. “Cubans deserve fundamental political and human rights, and I support their ongoing calls for freedom,” he said in a statement.
“This includes economic freedom. Not only do trade restrictions with Cuba harm American producers, but the current, 60-year-old trade policy has failed to bring lasting reform in Cuba,” Moran continued. “Our trade policies should seek to benefit American producers and help people in need. My legislation will help bring American-grown products to the people of Cuba, spreading America’s influence in their country.”
The Kansas senator, a staffer said, has been trying to make the case to his Republican colleagues that the embargo has been “ineffective in accomplishing government reforms” and harms American producers. Easing trade restrictions could “help alleviate the suffering of ordinary Cubans,” the senator believes.