The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New Cuba policy on hold while Biden deals with bigger problems

People wave a Cuban flag from a car in Havana during a June 23 protest against the U.S. embargo against the island nation. (Ramon Espinosa/AP)

Five months into his administration, President Biden’s campaign promise to “go back” to the Obama policy of engagement with Cuba remains unfulfilled, lodged in a low-priority file somewhere between “too hard” and “not worth it.”

“I would say that 2021 is not 2015,” when Obama reestablished full diplomatic relations with Havana and opened the door to increased U.S. travel and trade with the communist-ruled island, only to see Donald Trump slam it closed again, a senior administration official said.

“We have an entire world and a region in disarray,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “We are combating a pandemic and dealing with a breaking down of democracy in a whole host of countries. That is the environment we are in. When it comes down to Cuba, we’ll do what’s in the national security interest of the United States.”

Cuba has done itself, and Biden, no favors in seeking a new rapprochement, with recent crackdowns on dissident artists, journalists and academics and ongoing support for repressive regimes in Venezuela and Nicaragua. At the same time, new attention is being paid in Washington to a mysterious brain malady — believed to be the result of targeted attacks — that struck American diplomats and other officials in countries across the globe, including many in Cuba.

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But if the current state of the world and national security demands on the administration make addressing the relationship with Cuba one hard problem too many, what makes it not worth the effort is a purely domestic matter. For the most part, it comes down to two words: Robert Menendez.

The Democratic senator from New Jersey, the powerful chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is a key player in issues the administration sees as far more important than Cuba in a Senate evenly split along party lines. The U.S.-born son of immigrants from pre-communist Cuba, he is strongly against reopening the door to Havana.

The administration has no business reaching out to Cuba, Menendez has said repeatedly, unless its government “takes steps to restore and respect” the rights of its citizens. With a large New Jersey constituency of Cuban Americans, he has long been focused on policy toward Havana and opposed the Obama initiative as endorsing the “brutal behavior” of the Cuban government while getting nothing in return.

Those who backed Obama’s move supported his argument that decades of diplomatic opposition and covert operations against the Fidel Castro government and its successors had moved Cuba no closer to freedom and democracy. Echoing Obama, Biden’s campaign pitch was that allowing more Americans to travel, send money and sell things to Cuba was the best way to erode support for the communist regime.

Trump’s reversals, Biden said during his campaign, “have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights.”

But after losing Florida to Trump — whose charges that Biden would turn the United States into a “socialist” country resonated with Cuban Americans and other Latinos — he quickly promised consultation with Congress and a full-scale review of U.S. policy toward Havana.

Little has changed since then, and there has been little review. “We don’t necessarily need a whole interagency process,” the senior official said. “We know what was done under Obama, and we know what was done under Trump,” and few if any positive moves have come from Cuba itself.

Amid initial high hopes, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez tweeted this spring that “political and ideological differences are no impediment to a respectful and civilized relationship with our neighbors. We’ve shown that we can develop cooperative relations on many issues, to the benefit of both countries and the region.”

By late May, however, it had become clear that there would be no cooperative relations anytime soon. “President Biden’s administration, turning its back on the overwhelming majority of US and Cuban people, enforces Trump’s measures,” Rodriguez tweeted. “There’s a growing gap between words and reality.”

Under Trump restrictions, non-Cuban Americans are still prohibited from sending money to the island. Cruise ships are banned from sailing from the United States to Cuba, and the dozens of scheduled U.S. commercial flights to Cuban cities have largely stopped. Tight limits remain in place on commercial transactions.

On Wednesday, the U.N. General Assembly voted, as it has annually for decades, almost unanimously in opposition to the ongoing U.S. economic embargo of Cuba, with only the United States and Israel voting no.

The U.S. Embassy in Havana is down to a skeleton crew, and the consulate remains closed, with Cuban visa seekers required to travel to a third country. With political repression on the upswing and the economy in dire straits, more Cubans have set sail for Florida in rafts and small boats. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures, 35,738 Cubans attempted to cross U.S. land borders during the first five months of this year, compared with fewer than 20,000 in the 12 previous months.

Obama lifted Cuba’s long-standing designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. Trump reimposed it during his final days in office, and it remains in place. Last month, Biden renewed Trump’s separate classification of Cuba as failing to cooperate with U.S. anti-terrorism efforts, a label it shares with Iran, North Korea, Syria and Venezuela.

There is no widespread belief inside the administration that Cuba is involved in global terrorism, but “why play the card with that?” the senior official said. Any change in Cuba policy is likely to be “scrutinized and criticized,” and there is little advantage seen in doing it piecemeal, the official said.

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In the meantime, the administration is confining itself to asking Cubans what they want and trying to determine how to support them in accordance with Biden’s commitment to global backing for human rights and democracy.

“Artists, entrepreneurs, independent journalists, and environmental activists as well as religious, minority, and human rights advocates represent some of the many groups in Cuba with a voice and a desire to be heard,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price. “We seek to empower the Cuban people to determine their own future.”

Havana has charged that such “empowerment,” including $20 million in Biden’s new budget for unspecified democracy promotion in Cuba, is merely a continuation of U.S. support for counterrevolution.

The Cubans “are disappointed, obviously,” said William LeoGrande, a senior administrator, professor and Cuba expert at American University. “They listened to what Biden said during the campaign and expected, like a lot of people, pretty quick action on some basic things. And there’s nothing.”

“It reminds them that they still think the United States is an imperialist power,” LeoGrande said.

Part of the outreach to Cubans on the island has included meetings with some of Havana’s most prominent dissident groups, many of whose members have been subject to arrest and mistreatment.

As a May 25 virtual roundtable with several well-known dissidents was being planned by the State Department, the Cuban government launched a media blitz denouncing the United States as the main backer of “counterrevolutionary” activities.

In the process, it revealed the extent to which such groups are monitored and likely infiltrated. An “exposé” aired on state-run television last month included intercepted telephone and text exchanges between dissidents and the Mexico-based Cuba program director at the National Democratic Institute, a congressionally funded nonprofit.

People familiar with the situation confirmed that the NDI’s Karla Velasquez, acting at the request of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, was on the other end of the line. The report referred to her as the “godmother” of the San Isidro Movement of opposition artists and intellectuals and the go-between for ties “between the United States and those who want to subvert domestic order.”

A list of State Department-prepared questions, sent by Velasquez to the dissidents in preparation for the roundtable, said that “the new administration is in the process of consulting with various interested parties with respect to U.S. policy toward Cuba.” It invited their participation in a call with “various [U.S.] leadership officials” seeking their opinion on how the administration should approach U.S.-Cuba relations.

Among the questions, it said, were: “What are the obstacles or traps in the relationship that we ought to take into account and avoid?” and “How do you imagine your organization could play a role moving forward?”

In an intercepted phone call, whose authenticity was confirmed by the people familiar with it, Velasquez said she was working “on behalf of a State Department person to coordinate this meeting with you.”

NDI spokesperson Clayton McCleskey said that the organization had “no comment on attempts to distract from the Cuban people’s legitimate calls for democratic rights.”

As it looks toward midterm elections next year and anticipates political blowback, the senior official said, the administration is contemplating what the traffic will bear. Lifting restrictions on remittances, travel and the processing of visas in Havana is likely to be first on the list, but there is no timetable.

“If we can find a way to open the consulate again safely, we will do so,” the official said. “We’re conscious of the fact that if we open it again and something happens, then we’re not opening again for a very long time.”

The reference is to what Trump called Cuban government “attacks” that sickened U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials and led to the evacuation of the embassy and consulate in 2017.

Cuba has denied responsibility for the undefined brain injuries, whose cause is still undetermined. Following reports of similar cases in China, Russia and even inside the United States, U.S. intelligence officials now say they suspect Russia is responsible, perhaps through the use of microwaves or other forms of directed energy.

But amid new rounds of investigations, “we have to make sure we get it right,” the senior administration official said.

Shane Harris contributed to this report.