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Biden seizes on protests with tougher tone toward Cuba

President Biden on July 12 called on the Cuban government to refrain from violence after thousands of protesters held anti-government demonstrations. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Stefani Reynolds/The Washington Post)
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In sharply warning Cuba’s leaders Monday against repressing a wave of anti-government protesters, President Biden signaled a more muscular approach toward a communist regime that he had previously pledged to engage, taking a step toward shifting a Democratic message that some in the party feel has been politically costly.

A day after the island’s biggest demonstrations in decades, Biden praised Cubans’ “clarion call for freedom” following “decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba’s authoritarian regime” — rhetoric that has often been more typical of conservative Republicans in Florida. Later, Biden warned Havana against “attempts to silence the voice of the people of Cuba.”

Cubans hold biggest anti-government protests in decades

By siding so starkly with the dissidents, Biden seized on what some Democrats see as an unexpected opening for their party to chart a course correction on Cuba and rebrand its strategy after years of being seen by some voters — particularly in Florida — as too accommodating of the authoritarian regime and perhaps too soft on communism in general.

“It is an opportunity for us to change the course of events in Cuba,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the son of Cuban immigrants and a vocal critic of prior Democratic efforts to forge closer relations with the Cuban government.

“If we can help change the course of events in Cuba and give echo to the cries of the Cuban people, that will inure to the benefit of this administration,” Menendez said, adding that he and Biden were scheduled to speak late Monday.

Democrats’ political struggles on the issue have been especially acute in Florida, where a large population of Cuban Americans and exiles live. A series of disappointing elections in the nation’s largest swing state was punctuated by Biden’s defeat there last fall — a loss driven by a surprisingly dismal showing in Miami-Dade County, normally a Democratic stronghold.

One Florida Democratic strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid, groused that the party has “no idea how to engage on this issue” and keeps “stubbing their foot.”

White House spokesman Andrew Bates said Biden has always been critical of Cuba’s human rights abuses, including in his years in the Senate. “He’s committed to forming his policies toward Cuba based on two principles: That standing up for democracy and human rights is paramount, and that Americans — especially Cuban Americans — are the best ambassadors for freedom and prosperity in Cuba,” Bates said.

Biden ran on a promise of largely restoring the more open relations with Cuba that President Barack Obama enacted and were later rolled back by the Trump administration. Obama moved toward normalizing relations, a move welcomed by some in both parties who argued that a decades-long embargo had accomplished little.

The party’s struggles with Cuban Americans were compounded by the growing influence of self-described democratic socialists in their ranks such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Sanders, the runner-up to Biden in the Democratic primary, had some positive things to say about the Castro regime during his run.

Republicans were quick to seize on these vulnerabilities Monday, with former president Donald Trump issuing a statement that noted Biden’s campaign pledge to reverse his anti-Cuba policies and Cuban American GOP lawmakers slamming Biden for not explicitly criticizing communism in his initial statement on the protests.

“He fails to understand the root problem here,” said Rep. Carlos A. Gimenez (R-Fla.).

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was more biting, tweeting a screenshot of Biden’s written statement and with a hand-scrawled notation substituting “socialist and communist” for “authoritarian” in describing the regime, adding, “you forgot something.”

In effect, the strife in Cuba has thrust both parties into a competition to present themselves as beacons of democracy and global freedom, even as elected leaders in the two parties were essentially united in their support for the protests.

But the political terrain may be trickier for Democrats. For much of this year, administration officials did not make Cuba a priority, in part because of the potential political backlash and in part because of other global priorities.

However, on Sunday, thousands of people chanting “freedom” and “yes, we can” took to the streets in cities from Havana to Santiago de Cuba in a major new challenge to an authoritarian government struggling to cope with increasingly severe blackouts, food shortages and a spiking coronavirus outbreak.

Scenes of angry confrontation

The uprising comes as the administration has said it is conducting a Cuba policy review, which has largely consisted of talking with stakeholders and experts, including opposition leaders inside Cuba, about what its policy should be. While Biden pledged during his campaign to “go back” to the Obama policy of engagement with the communist government, officials have also made clear that human rights will weigh heavily in any decisions they make.

Liberals have strongly favored a more open approach to Cuba, contending that America’s hostile approach has been counterproductive and that more engagement is more likely to spur change. But recent years have seen Florida, a virtual coin-toss state just a few years ago, swing ever more firmly into the Republican camp, and some Democrats blame their party’s less-confrontational stance toward Cuba.

At the same time, Biden is heavily dependent on Menendez, an ardent foe of working with the communist regime, on a number of big-ticket foreign policy issues. “After the Obama administration’s unilateral openings to Cuba, one-sided concessions, the regime did nothing, absolutely nothing, to change its ways,” Menendez said Monday.

The result has been a dilemma for the administration. Although there is no indication that Congress is willing to lift the legislatively imposed economic embargo against Cuba that has been in place for more than a half-century, there are a number of Trump-era measures that Biden could easily reverse — but he has so far chosen not to.

These include lifting restrictions on private and commercial travel to the island; removing caps on remittances by Cuban Americans to family members on the island; easing prohibitions on nonfamily Americans from sending money to virtually anyone there; and reopening the U.S. Consulate and restaffing the U.S. Embassy in Havana that was reduced to a skeleton crew under Trump.

Biden has also made no move to lift the designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, one of Trump’s final acts in office, and declined to remove it from the annual list of countries deemed noncooperative with the United States on counterterrorism. Biden’s fiscal 2022 budget also included $20 million for unspecified democracy promotion projects in Cuba, primarily funding for nongovernmental organizations that work with opposition groupsthere.

The Cuban government has regularly complained, with some evidence, that the embargo is a central contributor to the economic deprivation and electricity blackouts that have led, in part, to the demonstrations. But the regime’s latest crackdown on civil activism seems likely, for the moment at least, to tip the administration’s policy balance toward human rights and away from a renewed rapprochement.

Beyond the geopolitical implications, the White House is also deeply concerned about Florida politics, according to one Democrat with knowledge of the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private talks. Democrats’ struggles in the state have been a source of consternation inside the party, and the protests in Cuba could become an issue in the next year’s marquee Senate race, strategists said.

Fernand Amandi, a Democratic pollster in Florida, said Biden has a chance for a reset that he and his party cannot afford to waste. “Biden has this political opportunity that has just landed into his lap to recalibrate and redefine how the Cuban issue is regarded — not just by voters in Florida, but by all Americans,” he said.

In a sign of how urgently Democrats wanted Biden to speak up, Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), who is challenging Rubio, fired off a tweet practically demanding the president get more involved.

“America stands for freedom. We must stand with the peaceful demonstrators in Cuba as they struggle for theirs,” Demings wrote, adding, “The White House must move swiftly.” On Monday, she issued a subsequent statement echoing Biden’s words.

As turmoil in the Caribbean has expanded with last week’s assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, the administration has been forced to pay more attention to a part of the world that has been on the back burner since Biden took office.

In Haiti, too, Biden has in many ways followed Trump’s policy. The administration has supported the Moïse government, despite congressional calls to take note of the fact that it was far from democratic and allegedly in league with violent gangs that have increasingly ruled the country.

“The people of Haiti deserve peace and security, and Haiti’s political leaders need to come together for the good of their country,” Biden said Monday.

But it was unclear what the administration can or is willing to do to calm the situation. Haiti has been in a state of perpetual upheaval, despite a steady stream of U.S. assistance, for decades, and its recent request for U.S. intervention comes at a time when Biden is calling for U.S. withdrawal from unwinnable foreign incursions and seeks to focus attention on solving domestic problems.

When it comes to Cuba, however, many Democrats see a clearer picture and are already urging Biden not to let up in putting the full weight of his presidency behind the protests.

“The opportunity right now is that he can avoid dangers if he handles it the right way,” Amandi said. “The danger is if he doesn’t appreciate the opportunity in front of him.”

Anthony Faiola in Miami contributed to this report.

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