Biden and Cuba, What’s First, What’s Next?

By Luis Brizuela (IPS)

Today’s first lady, Jill Biden, with a bunch of flowers, upon her arrival at Jose Marti Airport in Havana, on October 6th 2016. Officials and people close to Joe Biden know the Cuban situation really well and are in favor of normalizing relations with Cuba, as his wife is.
Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

The former US administration, led by republican Donald Trump, didn’t recognize twenty-something agreements made between both countries and returned to a language of conflict and sanctions against Cuba, as well as tightening down on the embargo that has been in force since 1962.

HAVANA TIMES – Ever since Joe Biden became president in the US, on January 20th, political figures and civic organizations have renewed their pleas for the White House to pick up on the rapprochement process and dialogue with Cuba, which was abandoned four years ago.

The new Democrat administration has said that it is analyzing extremely deteriorated relations with Cuba. However the question remains: when will this study be complete, and how far-reaching will the initial changes be to begin unravelling the Gordian knot that is the disagreement between both countries.

The Cuban government had a restrained response to Biden’s electoral win, but says it remains open to a dialogue.

Political analysts argue that the subject of Cuba is low on the new US administration’s agenda, having to face more pressing domestic and global problems such as the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the urgent need to get the economy back on its feet and to rebuild ties with its main allies, to name a few.

Nevertheless, betting on scientific cooperation efforts and the war against drugs, for example, would be beneficial for both countries separated by just the 90 nautical miles (167 kms) that constitute the Florida Strait.

When IPS consulted experts, they said that US relations with Cuba might gain a spotlight as part of the Biden administration’s plans for the hemisphere, when the 9th Summit of the Americas draws near, which should take place in the second semester of this year (if it isn’t rescheduled), and will in fact be hosted by the US.

“Biden announced previously that he is up for continuing former president Barack Obama’s (2009-2017) policy, when he was vice-president. He just has to follow this path. He doesn’t have to invent anything new,” Cuban political expert Esteban Morales told IPS.

According to Morales, in US-Cuba relations, “Obama took his time to reestablish relations – at the end of his second term in office. But when he did, he didn’t impose any conditions. He had been convinced for a long time that US policy towards Cuba had failed.”

Biden just has “to put his willingness to reestablish relations on the table, picking up on the path that former president Donald Trump’s (2017-2021) administration thwarted,” Morales stressed.

The Republican government didn’t recognize twenty-something agreements made between both countries. Instead, it returned to a language of conflict and sanctions against Cuba. This included tightening down on the embargo in force since 1962.

The breakdown of relations reached its peak on January 11, 2021, when Trump included Cuba on the US’ State Sponsors of Terrorism list. It had been removed in 2015, as part of the rapprochement process that began in late 2014.

John Kerry, US Secretary of State at the time, leads the ceremony for the US Embassy’s inauguration in Havana, on August 14, 2015. The rapprochement process between December 2014 and January 2017, created a favorable climate for twenty-something bilateral agreements to be signed, including reestablishing diplomatic ties.

Political analysts say that decision sought to delay a potential rapprochement. Removing any country from this list, which implies sanctions and financial restrictions, requires a long bureaucratic process.

On January 28, at the end of Biden’s first week in office, the White House’s press secretary, Jen Psaki confirmed that the government would review US policy towards Cuba and gave some hints at what possible measures lay on the horizon.

The spokeswoman said that “support for democracy and human rights” would be one of the main guiding principles of US strategy towards the island.

Psaki said that US citizens and especially Cuban-Americans “are the best ambassadors of freedom in Cuba,” adding “we’ll make sure that this is our focus. We’ll forge our own path.”

The human rights issue is the source of bitter disagreements between Havana and Washington at international forums.

During Obama administration’s time in power, mediated talks took place in 2015 and 2016. These exposed the clear difference in focus in terms of an issue that the Cuban government agreed to discuss in conditions of equality and without any ouside conditions.

Other political analysts believe that Biden could reinstate certain measures without almost any political cost. These include authorizing direct commercial flights and cruise ships mooring again, extending licenses for US flights and eliminating the limit on remittances being sent to Cuba.

Voices in the US defend a rapprochement

In recent weeks, recommendations about how to focus the road map for normalizing relations have increased significantly, coming from a wide political spectrum.

On January 19th, Democrat congressman James McGovern sent a letter to Biden, urging him to restore full services at the US Embassy and Consulate in Havana, with an experienced and highly-qualified ambassador.

A family awaits the arrival of a plane flying in from Miami, at Jose Marti International Airport, in Havana. Washington banned commercial flights to Cuba in 2019, with the exception of some flights to the capital. One of president Joe Biden’s first measures in regard to Cuba, could be to authorize direct commercial flights and extending licenses for US citizens to travel to Cuba again, which would boost the tourism sector.

On February 5th, Ron Wyden, president of the US Senate Committee on Finance, introduced a draft 2021 Trade Act between Cuba and the US, to revoke sanctions and establish full commercial ties with the island.

It is a similar initiative to one the senator presented in 2017. However, experts say it has very slim chances of making any headway right now in Congress.

On February 16th, the Cuba Study Group presented the document “US-Cuba Relations in the Biden Era”, which provides guidelines on how bilateral relations can be focused in the next few years.

Comprised of Cuban-American business leaders and young professionals, the NGO recommended “the re-engagement of a diplomatic dialogue and cooperation on practical matters that are of mutual interest to the Cuban government.”

In Cuba, the Joven Cuba platform urged for the US president to start “dismantling the system of sanctions that continues to affect the Cuban people”, in an open letter addressed to the leader and with hundreds of signatures, on February 9th.

In the meantime, congress members, mayors and members of the Cuban-American community have urged the White House not to go soft on its policy towards Cuba without first verifying that the island is making progress in concrete issues such as human rights.

In Morales’ opinion, other indicators of a possible path US-Cuba relations could take can be seen in the appointment of two high–ranking officials, Alejandro Mayorkas and Emily Mendrala.

Cuban-born Mayorkas is now the US Secretary of Homeland Security, and played a key role in important agreements being signed with the island. He traveled to Cuba in 2015, as Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security during Obama’s second term in office.

Mendrala, Deputy Assistant Secretary Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, in an expert in Cuban current affairs and defended the normalization of relations when she was the executive director of the Center of Democracy for the Americas.

“In recent years, a lot of interest in maintaining relations with Cuba has been sparked within the Cuban community in the US. The spirit of family exchanges prevails. If Biden reestablishes relations, he will run into even less obstacles than Obama,” notes Esteban Morales.

He believes the sonic attacks reported publicly for the first time in August 2017, could still be a possible obstacle.

Such events were used by the US government to justify the withdrawal of most of its diplomatic personnel. Likewise, to suspend consular services in the Cuban capital, affecting visa applications and family reunification programs.

A secret report by the US State Department leaked in early February, stated that the Trump administration’s response to health symptoms reported by diplomats was “dominated by a lack of leadership, inefficient communication and systemic disorganization.”

“What in fact happened and what didn’t happen will be cleared up one day,” said Cuban foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, on February 12th. He called for serious disclosure of information about the alleged health problems, so as to know just how far the Trump administration went “to artificially justify a deterioration in bilateral relations.”

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.


13 thoughts on “Biden and Cuba, What’s First, What’s Next?

  • March 4, 2021 at 2:10 am
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    Activists Oswaldo Payá and fellow Cuban democracy activist Harold Cepero were rammed off the road by the Cuban regime.

    Grave rights violations against anti-government protesters in Venezuela, “amounted to crimes against humanity”, UN-appointed rights investigators said.
    And who are the bodyguards for dictator Maduro? The Castro regime.

    United Nations (UN) investigators say Venezuela’s government has “committed egregious violations” amounting to crimes against humanity.
    Cases of killings, torture, violence and disappearances were investigated in a fact-finding mission for the UN Human Rights Council.
    The UN team said President Nicolás Maduro and other top officials were implicated.

  • March 3, 2021 at 10:58 am
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    Micheal – You sound like you are as connected to reality as a USA! chanting Q-anon drone. Check out how many activists are murdered (as in, it doesn’t happen in Cuba, murdered) by the governments of Colombia and Honduras…

  • March 1, 2021 at 8:16 am
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    “Things will change in Cuba, only when the US respects Cuba’s sovereignty.”

    False
    The dictatorship in Cuba has no intention of ever giving up the communist tyranny.
    No matter how bad it gets.

  • March 1, 2021 at 1:24 am
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    FYI Eclectic, Hugo Chavez has been dead for 8 years. Cuba has been bullied by the US since 1959. They don’t like the US telling them what to do. The “pre conditions” method hasn’t worked. Things will change in Cuba, only when the US respects Cuba’s sovereignty. Cuba should not have to be held to a higher standard on human rights than other countries with more repressive regimes that the US has normal relations with.

  • February 28, 2021 at 6:09 pm
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    Forget about governments, this is what Cuban people wish, the citizens, the people that works everyday, the kids, the elderlies . If only people would think about each other as human beings, forget about the differences that separates us, and think about the common ground that join us.
    I can assure you that Cubans would like, just as Americans, to have a fair life, where you can work and bring food to your family, where if you are sick can go to a doctor, where you can enjoy life and have friends in every country of this world.
    Cuban do not pursuit war with any country, they are willing to share vaccines, doctors, teachers.

    https://puentesdeamor.com/carta-urgente-al-presidente-biden/

  • February 28, 2021 at 5:03 pm
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    Mr. Putterman:

    You seem to have fully vented your hate for the United States.

    So, what is your position about the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba?

    Do you support the current Cuban government policies? Do you not believe that Cuba should protect the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Do you not believe that Cuba should stop its support for corrupt dictators, such as Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro? Do you not believe Cuba should allow free elections with more than the communists on the ballot? Do you not support freedom of expression and the preservation of human rights in Cuba? Do you not believe there should be compensation for American’s whose property was expropriated by the communists?

    If you approve the existing Cuban government, and don’t believe the above changes are appropriate, just say so.

    If you believe the United States should support the Cuban communist government in the absence of those changes, just say so.

  • February 28, 2021 at 3:30 pm
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    Biden has a challenge in not duplicating Obama’s error of wanting to achieve something so rapidly that he extracted absolutely no concessions from the Cuban government. Obama created a shallow relationship that was beneficial to only the Cuban side, thus making it easy for a subsequent US administration to cancel. Extracting concessions, such as more freedom of speech, from the Cuban government will be a challenge but necessary.

    Biden needs a decisive and inclusive move to restart discussions. Recession of most of Trump’s administrative actions would be a good start. But he then must explain to the Cuban government that the ball is in their court and he is waiting for their move. He must directly remind Cuba that while Raul was saying “we must move slowly”, Trump was elected. Cuba must understand that 1/3 of the US senators are up for election in two years and history indicates the US political dynamic will probably change.

    Basically, Biden must open rapidly and very decisively, immediately followed by conveying farther resolution must be beneficial to both sides. Then he must say in political speak it is time for Cuba to “sh*t or get off the pot” as the US has made two opening actions and a third probably will not happen in our lifetime.

    This will force Cuba to lay their cards on the table and decisively demonstrate if they want improved relations or not. Sadly, I personally believe it is the latter as the current Cuban administration needs the conflict to remain in power.

  • February 28, 2021 at 3:30 pm
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    To answer Eclectic:

    1) The US embassy employees allegedly suffered from sonic attacks in both Havana and China. What is the common denominator? Here’s a clue: the US has consistently attacked its own people to declare war on others.

    2) When will the US stop supporting corrupt war-criminals like Netanyahoo and the Prince of Saudi Arabia?

    3) Are US elections, where the electoral college allows candidates who lose the popular vote, really “democratic?”

    4) Please cite any cases you can of black people shot dead by cops in Cuba? And mass shootings?

    5) Can you detail how many Cubans were robbed of their property by US companies during Batista’s vicious murderous regime? Can you talk please about Batista’s use of the court system in Cuba to support these thefts?

    Asking for a friend who seems to know much more about Cuban US relations than you learned in Miami.

  • February 28, 2021 at 1:49 pm
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    Cuba is the failure and it just keeps getting worse.
    No economy, no freedom of speech, no freedom from communist tyranny.

    And the Cuban tyranny has no interest in improving anything for the people.

  • February 27, 2021 at 6:18 pm
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    The talk of normalizing relations seems to be a one way discussion.
    That is ‘What should the U.S. do to help Cuba?

    Why do we not hear of what Cuba should do to improve relations?

    1. Possibly protect U.S. diplomats that are stationed in Cuba, as required by international law?

    2. Possibly stop its support for corrupt dictators, such as Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro?

    3. Possibly allow free elections….with more than the communists on the ballot?

    4. Possibly allow freedom of expression and the preservation of human rights in Cuba?

    5. Possibly provide compensation for the Cuban American’s whose property was expropriated by the communists?

    If Cuba addressed these issues, which are simple and basic, it could re-establish a productive relationship with the United States, which would truly benefit the Cuban people.

  • February 27, 2021 at 3:50 pm
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    Cuba is not high up on President Biden’s agenda?
    It seems that higher up on his agenda is following spoilt-brat-trump-the-loser’s dirty little example when it comes to brown-nosing the murderous but very rich Saudi regime?
    Come on USA !!
    Don’t worry bout Cuba – Get that powerful American tongue up right up there in between those oil-rich Saudi butt cheeks !!!!

  • February 27, 2021 at 3:33 pm
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    Establishing an undersea Internet cable between Cuba and the US would be a simple act that would benefit Cubans, strengthen the US position relative to the Chinese in the region, and arguably be politically popular in the US. A viable proposal was delayed by the Trump administration for over two years and withdrawn without explanation on October 26, 2020, just before the election. That and other proposals should be evaluated.

    For details, see: https://www.circleid.com/posts/20210223-simple-suggestion-for-president-biden-regarding-the-cuban-internet/

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