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More than 100 House Democrats urge Biden to implement changes in Cuba policy

People rally outside the White House in support of the protesters in Cuba this summer.
People rally outside the White House in support of the protesters in Cuba this summer. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

More than half of House Democrats urged President Biden on Thursday to implement promised changes in Cuba policy, such as removing Trump-era restrictions on travel and remittances to the island by U.S. citizens and residents and loosening impediments to humanitarian assistance.

In a letter, 114 lawmakers, most from the liberal and progressive wings of the Democratic caucus, asked Biden “to prioritize the well-being of the Cuban people, who are experiencing the worst economic and humanitarian crisis in recent history.”

The administration reportedly has completed a review of its policy toward Cuba but is hesitating to implement its results as the White House struggles to preserve its razor-thin majority in Congress for upcoming votes on big-ticket domestic legislation and in next year’s midterm elections.

Powerful forces on both sides of the aisle, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) as well as many lawmakers from the key electoral state of Florida, are strongly opposed to lifting any of the current restrictions.

Their views were solidified following the harsh Cuban government put-down of islandwide economic and civil rights protests last July. Follow-up demonstrations in November never got off the ground, as the government mounted an extensive media campaign against them and a strong security presence on the streets.

Read the letter from the Democratic lawmakers to Biden

Addressing those concerns in their letter to Biden, the signers said that “protecting human rights in Cuba, including the right to protest, is better served by principled engagement, rather than unilateral isolation, which has proven to be a failed policy.”

Social movements that sparked the protests only emerged in force, the lawmakers argued, after space for them was opened “during the rapprochement years” following the Obama administration’s reestablishment of long-severed diplomatic relations.

“Engagement is more likely to enable the political, economic, and social openings that Cubans may desire, and to ease the hardships that Cubans face today,” they wrote.

Obama’s outreach interrupted decades of bipartisan support for an economic embargo and isolation of Cuba’s communist government, led by Cuban American lawmakers, that now appears to have reconstituted itself in spades.

During the 2020 campaign, President Donald Trump accused Biden of planning to impose Cuba-like socialism in the United States, and touted his reimposition, and tightening, of restrictions. Biden, echoing Obama’s insistence that nearly 60 years of pressure and isolation had failed to dislodge the Cuban government, said he would “go back” to the Obama policy of engagement.

But as with Iran, where years of sanctions and isolation have also failed to bring hoped-for changes, Biden has left the pressure in place nearly a year into his term.

After witnessing the Cuban government’s response to the protests this year, a senior administration official said the administration was now seeking “a third way” that “allows us to transcend what has been a pendulum between Republican and Democratic administrations that have no consistency.”

Drafted measures, which the administration had hoped to announce before the end of this year, include a reauthorization of remittances and U.S. citizen travel to Cuba. In both cases, they are more than the paltry amount Trump allowed but less than under Obama. A promise from Biden in July to guarantee Internet connectivity on the island, and avoiding government shutdowns of social media, ran into technological and legal problems.

Cuba moves are slow to win support among key allies

Although only Congress can reverse the economic embargo, Biden could change the rules on remittances and travel, and loosen implementation rules on aid and trade, by himself. But change appears unlikely this year.

Asked Thursday about Cuba’s continued presence on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, the State Department’s acting coordinator for counterterrorism John T. Godfrey said “the Cuba policy and the designation” are “under review.” He spoke to reporters after the State Department’s 2020 Country Report on Terrorism.

Although Obama removed Cuba from the list of state sponsors, Trump added it back just days before leaving office, a move many experts said was unwarranted by Cuban behavior that bore little resemblance to that of other countries on the list

They include Iran, Syria and North Korea, which was taken off the list in 2008, and added back in 2017. Unlike the other three, Thursday’s latest terrorism report provided no information regarding Cuba’s listing.

“I’m afraid that I don’t have anything that I can share in terms of sort of an end date or an anticipated end date with respect to [the Cuba] review,” Godfrey said.

U.S. law outlines two paths to reverse the terror designation. In the first, the president must certify to Congress that there has been “a fundamental change in the leadership and policies of the government of the country concerned,” and that “government is not supporting acts of international terrorism,” and will not in the future.

For the second, the president must notify Congress, 45 days before a rescission takes place, that the government in question has not provided support for acts of international terrorism over the previous six months, and that it promises it will not.

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