Before this weekend, President Biden’s lieutenants had been signaling to journalists that revising Washington’s policy toward Havana was not high up on their agenda. “We have an entire world and a region in disarray,” a senior administration official told my colleague Karen DeYoung last month, 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.”
Now, circumstances are compelling the White House to speak out. On Monday, Biden described the scenes in Cuba as a “clarion call for freedom and relief” following “decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba’s authoritarian regime.” He later warned Cuban authorities against “attempts to silence the voice of the people of Cuba.”
“The protests were among the largest since the Cuban revolution of 1959 and appeared broader based than the 1994 Maleconazo protest in Havana that precipitated Fidel Castro, the father of the Cuban revolution and then-leader, to allow thousands of Cubans to flee the country by boats and rafts,” my colleague Anthony Faiola wrote.
The demonstrations were spurred by mounting frustrations over the Cuban regime’s mismanagement amid a spiking coronavirus outbreak. Recent power outages and food shortages led to outpourings of anger in various cities in the island country, which were amplified over social media. The country’s Communist rulers responded with heavy-handed crackdowns, Internet blackouts and calls for loyal “revolutionaries” to reclaim the streets from demonstrators. They cast the protests as the product of U.S. machinations.
In the digital age, that’s a harder line to sell. “Cubans have moved on from complaining in whispers inside their own houses and nodding in disapproval in the streets to taking real action,” wrote Abraham Jiménez Enoa, a Havana-based journalist. “The protests have shaken up the regime. I don’t think things will be the same in Cuba anymore: The game has changed, and a new set of rules could change our future.”
The question for the White House is what should be done next. In a Monday briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that administration officials are “assessing how we can be helpful directly to the people of Cuba.”
“There’s every indication that yesterday’s protests were spontaneous expressions of people who are exhausted with the Cuban government’s economic mismanagement and repression,” Psaki added, gesturing to the Cuban narrative that the uprising was engineered by U.S. agents. “And these are protests inspired by the harsh reality of everyday life in Cuba, not people in another country.”
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a hawk on the Cuban regime, called it an “opportunity for us to change the course of events in Cuba” that could benefit the administration.
But Biden’s domestic adversaries, who share Menendez’s demand for tougher action on Havana, are sensing an opportunity to cast the administration as weak. In right-wing media, talking heads lambasted the administration for its supposed passivity, while framing the Cuban protests as a revolt against the totalitarian socialism they caricature the Democrats as embracing. It’s the sort of politics that arguably tilted Florida, home to a significant Cuban American community, toward the Republicans in recent election cycles.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), an influential critic of the regime in Havana, advised the Biden administration in a Monday letter to pursue a series of steps “to support the Cuban people in their fight for freedom.” These include helping open up satellite Internet access to Cubans, imposing sanctions on Cuban officials directly responsible for orders and actions that lead to violence against protesters, and, most conspicuously, to “issue a clear and unambiguous statement that the current U.S. policies towards the regime implemented by the Trump Administration will remain in place.”
The irony is that up till this week, Biden was drawing arguably greater ire from the left on his Cuba policy than from the right. In March, 80 Democratic lawmakers sent Biden a letter urging that he revoke some of Trump’s “cruel” sanctions, including ending restrictions on travel and the payment of remittances. “With the stroke of a pen, you can assist struggling Cuban families and promote a more constructive approach,” they wrote.
Biden on the campaign trail had decried Trump’s “maximum pressure” tactics with Cuba, which he said “have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights.” But the Biden camp is wary of restarting the Obama-era thaw that saw new trade contacts develop between the countries and the glimmer of a detente. Domestic politics and the electoral significance of Florida make such overtures now a non-starter. The scope for a policy shift will narrow even further as the 2022 midterm elections approach.
Instead, Biden presides over a Cold War status quo that leaves the asphyxiating U.S. embargo on Cuba in place — a decades-long blockade that has for years hobbled the country’s economy and given the regime an external excuse for its travails. Last month, the United States found itself once more virtually alone at the United Nations, as the General Assembly voted almost unanimously — as it does annually — against the continuation of the economic embargo.
Advocates of a change in direction argue that the United States can decry the failings and abuses of the Cuban regime even as it takes calibrated steps to open up trade and economic contacts that could benefit broader Cuban society. “Strident denunciations of the failures of communism and absolutist conditions for sanctions relief are feeble substitutes for robust diplomacy,” noted a policy memo from the Cuba Study Group published earlier this year. But for now, those “feeble substitutes” are holding sway in Washington.
The Cubans “are disappointed, obviously,” William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert at American University, told my colleagues. “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.”
The White House has made no secret of its position. “Joe Biden is not Barack Obama on policy toward Cuba,” Juan Gonzalez, senior director for the Western Hemisphere at the National Security Council, told CNN en Español in April.
And a Cuban regime that already has little incentive to heed American warnings got the message. “President Biden’s administration, turning its back on the overwhelming majority of US and Cuban people, enforces Trump’s measures,” Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez tweeted in May. “There’s a growing gap between words and reality.”