By Luis Brizuela (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.
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.
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.”