After a Cuba policy review, President Biden has announced the easing of some sanctions that his predecessor, Donald Trump, imposed to punish the communist nation’s government for its human rights violations and support of a similar dictatorship in Venezuela. Mr. Trump’s actions had partially reversed a broader engagement initiated in the waning days of the Obama administration. Mr. Biden is now nudging policy back toward the Obama approach — very modestly. A $1,000-per-quarter cap on remittances to Cubans from family in the United States will end; nonfamily remittances will also be modified to allow payments to independent small businesses. Direct flights, by both charters and scheduled airlines, will be expanded and group educational travel reinstated. The U.S. Embassy will resume issuing family reunification immigrant visa applications, to clear a backlog of 22,000 applications. This might help channel Cuban migration through legal processes rather than the risky illegal path thousands are taking across the southern border.
The plan met with criticism from supporters of tough sanctions who — understandably — question the wisdom of enabling more cash to flow to Cuba, given that much of it will be siphoned off by the regime. Nor did Mr. Biden’s small-bore changes entirely please those who still believe greater engagement is the key to changing Cuba. It might help if all sides in this repetitive debate would acknowledge that U.S. policy does not have decisive influence on Cuba. The essential problem is the repressive conduct of the Havana regime, and its root cause is that regime’s unbending will to power.
Certainly that uncompromising attitude was on display on July 11, 2021, when President Miguel Díaz-Canel suppressed a spontaneous wave of street protests with overwhelming force. Hundreds were arrested. Estimates vary as to how many political prisoners have been put in Cuban prisons over the past 10 months, but Cubalex, a Miami-based nongovernmental organization, puts the count at more than 700. Like his close ally and patron, President Vladimir Putin of Russia — whose Ukraine invasion Cuba has not condemned but officially attributed to NATO’s alleged provocations — Mr. Díaz-Canel believes that popular protests result from U.S. meddling and must be crushed.
This is what Cuban communists have always believed, in times of rapprochement with Washington and in times of tension. On the day before the Biden policy changes were announced, the rubber-stamp Cuban national assembly adopted a “modernized” penal code. Among other repressive new features, it threatens three years in prison for “insulting” high government officials. It targets independent journalists, who often receive support from abroad, by prescribing 10 years in prison for those who accept foreign funding “with the purpose of engaging in activities against the State or its constitutional order.”
Mr. Biden’s policy tweak might help Cubans who have access to foreign remittances withstand the harsh economic privation on the island, which is laudable as far as it goes. Meanwhile, the most important thing those outside the island can do for its people is to maintain unwavering, vocal solidarity with them — and moral clarity about the true source of their poverty and oppression.