Can Biden Finish What Obama Started With Cuba?

Can Biden Finish What Obama Started With Cuba?

Can Biden Finish What Obama Started With Cuba?

Here’s a smart blueprint for returning to normalized relations.


Today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past so as to reach for a better future—for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere and for the world,” President Barack Obama announced on December 17, 2014, inaugurating a new era of “positive engagement” in US-Cuba relations.

For two short years, Obama’s new, historic approach showed remarkable promise: Washington and Havana reestablished full diplomatic relations; Obama reinstated commercial air service as well as cruise ship visits to the island; hundreds of thousands of US citizens exercised their constitutional right to travel, providing direct economic stimulus to Cuba’s expanding private sector; US companies received permission to do business in Cuba; Google helped modernize Cuba’s Internet systems and connectivity, expanding the flow of information and self-expression for the Cuban people; US and Cuban officials established bilateral commissions to advance mutual interests in critical areas for both countries, among them counter-narcotics, environmental protection, human rights, and migration.

And Obama became the first US president to conduct an official state visit to the island in an effort to leave the geopolitical baggage of the past behind. More than six decades of Washington’s perpetual hostility toward the Cuban revolution finally appeared to be over.

Then came Trump.

“I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” Trump announced in June 2017. Since then, his administration has dismantled virtually every major component of Obama’s policy, replacing engagement with estrangement and diplomacy with punitive sanctions and imperial demands. As Trump exits the White House screaming and kicking, he is leaving bilateral relations with Cuba, among so many other nations, in tatters.

But last week, two leading foreign policy advocacy NGOs—the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA)—released a comprehensive blueprint for reengaging with Cuba. Titled “The United States and Cuba: A New Policy of Engagement,” the report is intended to provide a clear “roadmap” for President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration to revisit and redress the abysmal state of current US-Cuba relations. At a briefing for media and foreign policy analysts on December 17 to mark the sixth anniversary of Obama’s historic breakthrough on Cuba, WOLA and CDA representatives said they had provided the “detailed inventory of what needs to be done” to members of Biden’s transition team, and they hoped the report would create a “momentum for engagement” that would lead to stronger US-Cuba ties in the future.

Indeed, the briefing book provides a detailed assessment of how the Biden administration could act quickly to restore, decree-by-decree and statute-by-statute, a policy of constructive engagement—as well as a persuasive argument for why it is in the US interest to do so. “Diplomatic engagement will reduce bilateral tensions, help avoid future crises, and advance U.S. interests on a wide variety of issues,” the report asserts. “Like it or not, many of the most critical problems we face in the Western Hemisphere are transnational—the effects of climate change, the spread of infectious disease, environmental pollution, narcotics and human trafficking, and migration. Progress depends on cooperation with our neighbors, especially near neighbors like Cuba.”

Moreover, “Cuba is changing,” the blueprint continues. “The United States can have a positive influence on the trajectory of change, but only by being engaged. To continue the policies of the past or to simply modify them at the margins will leave the United States out of the game—isolated from its allies, isolated from ordinary Cubans other than small groups of dissidents, and isolated from the rising generation of Cuban leaders who will shape the island’s future.” Even with all the other critical problems the new administration will face—the Covid crisis, economic recovery, and Iran’s nuclear development among them—the report offers a compelling case for making Cuba a foreign policy priority.

The report recommends that in his first few months in office, President Biden use his executive authority to “reverse the damage done by President Trump.” In a series of short presidential directives, Biden could restore the people-to-people category of travel, which permitted hundreds of thousands of US citizens to see Cuba for themselves; reinstate full commercial air and sea service to the island; and abolish the onerous “Cuba Prohibited Accommodations” list that Trump imposed to prevent travelers from staying in Cuban hotels. Biden also has the power to immediately reopen the flow of family remittances that Trump has closed, and to lift sanctions that have curtailed commercial economic activity between the two countries, which has contributed to the dire economic crisis Cubans are now confronting.

At the same time, the WOLA/CDA blueprint recommends specific steps the Biden White House should take to reestablish the channels of civil diplomacy, which provides the foundation for constructive engagement. Those include:

  • A personal call from Biden to Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel inviting Cuba to attend the Summit of the Americas, which the United States will host in late 2021.
  • Issuing a new Presidential Policy Directive “establishing the core principles of the policy of engagement and directing executive branch agencies to pursue relations of mutual interest with their Cuban counterparts.”
  • Nominating a new US ambassador to Havana, which Trump refused to do, and restoring full staffing at the US Embassy, which Trump cut, as well as reopening the consulate.

“Diplomatic re-engagement is a first necessary step in repairing the damage,” the report emphasizes, “and the United States should take the initiative to re-start it.”

After an initial phase of resetting Obama’s engagement policy, in its second year the Biden administration would undertake a series of initiatives to deepen and consolidate commercial, cultural, and political ties. The United States would increase collaboration with Cuba on international health issues such as pandemic preparation, as well as on environmental protections, artistic and scientific exchanges, and economic engagement. Washington would then be better positioned to engage the Cubans on the important, if contentious, issue of human rights. These steps would go “beyond what the Obama administration was able to accomplish,” the study suggests, “in order to keep the process of normalizing relations moving forward.”

The success of these initiatives would put Joe Biden in the historic position to press for legislation that would end the economic embargo altogether. “The embargo is a central obstacle to the normalization of relations with Cuba, as President Obama recognized when he called on Congress to repeal it,” states the report. But that will require finding the votes in Congress to repeal key sections of three laws—the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, which provided the original authorization for the embargo; the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act; and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which codified the embargo into law. Removing the embargo-related clauses of these laws would allow Biden to lift the embargo, once and for all, and, like Obama, break the shackles of the past.

Of course, there are formidable political forces arrayed against ending the embargo, and, the report concedes, major obstacles to renormalizing relations with Cuba. Among them are the unresolved mystery of medical maladies suffered by US personnel in Havana and the deepening crisis in Venezuela, “because Republicans will attack engagement as rewarding Havana despite its support for [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro.”

Those Republicans, particularly the ones with presidential aspirations of their own, have already launched preemptive attacks on any potential changes Biden may make. “Trump clearly and powerfully sided with the people of Venezuela and Cuba over their oppressors,” former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley claimed last week in The Washington Post. “A Biden reversal in either country would amount to an embrace of socialism and give a pass to the most monstrous regimes in our hemisphere.” Florida Senator Marco Rubio has urged Biden to “follow in the footsteps of President Trump” rather than “return to the failed Obama Administration policy of rewarding Raúl Castro and Miguel Díaz-Canel…for decades of repressive behavior.”

In fact, Obama’s policy was a major success. As “The United States and Cuba: A New Policy of Engagement” cogently argues, “Engagement accomplished more in two years than the policy of hostility achieved in sixty”—advancing concrete US interests and the interests of the Cuban people. Moreover, it was a history-making game-changer for US foreign policy. “Obama’s opening to Cuba was every bit as historic as Nixon’s opening to China,” states American University professor William LeoGrande, who drafted the blueprint. Despite Trump’s merciless effort to erase that accomplishment, he told The Nation, “Biden now has the opportunity to finish what Obama started.”

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