Cuba is in revolt and Biden does not help

When US President Joe Biden pledged to bring America back to the world stage after four years of isolationism under Donald Trump, the Caribbean was admittedly not a priority. And in the midst of a battle royale with Republicans over domestic spending, the last thing Biden wanted is a foreign policy crisis infected with politics.

The Caribbean had other ideas. After being reeling from a presidential assassination in Haiti that left a power vacuum in addition to extreme violence and a growing humanitarian crisis, Biden now faces historic protests in Cuba that have sparked a chorus of support from American lawmakers, the anger of the Cuban government and a fear of a mass exodus of Cubans to American shores.

When US President Joe Biden pledged to bring America back to the world stage after four years of isolationism under Donald Trump, the Caribbean was admittedly not a priority. And in the midst of a battle royale with Republicans over domestic spending, the last thing Biden wanted is a foreign policy crisis infected with politics.

The Caribbean had other ideas. After being reeling from a presidential assassination in Haiti that left a power vacuum in addition to extreme violence and a growing humanitarian crisis, Biden now faces historic protests in Cuba that have sparked a chorus of support from American lawmakers, the anger of the Cuban government and a fear of a mass exodus of Cubans to American shores.

If Cubans are protesting massively, it is because the island is facing the worst economic crisis in decades, causing hardship for the Cuban people that rival those of the so-called special period of the 1990s, when the collapse of the He Soviet Union devastated the country. Food shortages, skyrocketing inflation that made goods even more expensive, and hour-long power outages have been compounded by the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has dried up the country’s dollars. tourism and remittances from Cubans living abroad which have served as vital sources of currency and income for families on the island. Public anger boiled over during the hot and sweltering summer when the country saw an increase in coronavirus cases. A record number of cases have strained the country’s health system to the point that even basic medicines are no longer available.

The Cuban communist regime has managed to overcome multiple economic and political crises since taking power 60 years ago by accusing the US embargo on the island. But the Cubans’ anger turned against President Miguel Díaz-Canel, the leader of the Communist Party and the first person outside the Castro family to rule the country since the Cuban Revolution. The financial mismanagement of the Cuban economy by Díaz-Canel and the growing difficulties created a growing daring within civil society, pushed by young dissident Cuban artists, to make their demands known. The protests have spread like wildfire to more than 40 locations across the island, a manifestation of almost unprecedented defiance.

At first, the regime called the protests a US-backed uprising, calling on its supporters to take to the streets and warning that the United States risked an exodus of Cuban immigrants. But as the protests have spread and criticism has grown of the muscular response against the protesters, Díaz-Canel has changed his tone. Last week, in tribute to the hardships of the population, the government lifted restrictions on travelers, allowing them to bring food, medicine and other essentials at will without paying customs. With air travel to the island being limited due to COVID-19, the measure may have little effect. But it presents an opportunity for the United States to help.

Biden described the protests as a “bugle call for freedom” from an “authoritarian regime.” His administration is walking a tightrope: expressing its support for the demonstrators and asking the Cuban government to respond to the demands of the people without creating difficulties for the demonstrators and playing into the hands of the regime.

As vice president, Biden was part of President Barack Obama’s opening diplomatic relations with Cuba, which saw an easing of travel restrictions that promised more dollars and remittances for tourism, the opening of embassies and exiting Cuba from the list of US states sponsoring terrorism. . Trump reversed all of that, enacting even tougher sanctions that further strained the economy and hardened the Cuban government’s position. The pandemic has compounded the problems by shutting down tourism, a major source of foreign currency. The government has also suffered the collapse of its closest regional ally, Venezuela, whose government led by socialist leader Nicolás Maduro is also under US sanctions.

As a candidate, Biden pledged to reverse Trump’s hawkish sanctions policies, arguing that “the regime’s crackdown on Cubans has worsened under Trump, not better.” Yet six months into his tenure, as on so many issues ranging from Afghanistan to trade, Biden’s policies are in fact a continuation of those of Trump.

Supporting calls for freedom in Cuba fits well with Biden’s democratic agenda, in which he has divided the world into an existential battle between democracies and authoritarian regimes. There is also a pageantry about some American politicians promoting democracy in Cuba, while it is worrying at best in the United States. But the more the administration is heard, the higher the cost of inaction will become.

The Biden administration is in the midst of a review of the Cuban policy, which the protests have only complicated and even made politically charged, as Cuban-Americans in Florida take to the streets in solidarity with the protesters and Republican leaders like Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who both played major roles in Trump’s harsh Cuba policies, criticized his response. Biden is also trying to appease Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a major voice in opposition to the return to Cuban policies of the Obama era and someone whose administration has need to confirm all of its candidates, in addition to supporting Biden’s national agenda.

Washington’s rhetoric focuses on supporting democracy and human rights in Cuba. But today, unlike past protests, Cubans protest their crushing poverty and lack of food as much, if not more, than their lack of democratic freedoms.

Tackling the serious humanitarian difficulties that have driven the Cuban people to the streets and supporting their desire for freedom do not necessarily have to be mutually exclusive political options. The Cuban government may not accept American aid. But renewing access to remittances and easing travel restrictions to the island would help people meet their basic needs. The United States can also accelerate its efforts to get vaccines to Cuba. Aid agencies and savvy nongovernmental organizations know how to both circumvent US sanctions and circumvent Cuban government restrictions.

In the short term, the United States can help make the Internet work. The internet has exploded in recent years on the island, and social media has been an empowering tool for civil society, thanks in large part to deals with companies like Google and YouTube as a result of Obama’s outreach. U.S. officials are considering a proposal by Rubio to use U.S. satellite technology to provide Internet access, in an effort to overcome Cuban government efforts to shut down the Internet and stop the flow of information and communication between protesters.

Then there is the age-old question of how best to bring long-term change to the island. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said this week: “Americans, especially Cuban Americans, are the best ambassadors for freedom and prosperity in Cuba.” It would suggest the wisdom of a relaxed Obama era. The premise of Obama’s policy was not that the Cuban government was going to democratize overnight, but that the opening of the island would connect Cubans to a flood of American travelers who would not only bring in income and return. life less desperate for Cubans, but would also give them more opportunities to interact with the rest of the world and, ultimately, to pursue political change.

The administration must also be aware of the broader climate in Latin America, where the pendulum swings quite strongly to the left. US policy in Cuba is closely tied to its policies towards Venezuela, Peru, and Nicaragua, all of which are made more difficult by the current US policy in Cuba.

The logic of Rubio, Menendez and others that openness has not created significant change makes sense (although a 60-year embargo either). But Biden’s effort to be a less aggressive version of Rubio is not a winning strategy and only legitimizes tough politics that will make it harder for him, or a future administration, to try a new approach.

It remains to be seen whether the protests will be called off by the Cuban government or represent a larger movement that could ultimately see the long-awaited end of the dictatorship. If the regime ends up falling, Cuban institutions will not be stronger than they are in Haiti, Venezuela or Libya. China and Russia are already visible on the island. If the United States doesn’t step in now, it won’t have any credibility later to help shape the sequel.

This week, Díaz-Canel called on the Biden administration to lift the embargo and said: “We will see what these people… are capable of.” Maybe it’s time for Washington to test the premise.

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