Can US–Cuba Relations Return to Pre-Trump Years?

The question is how much room Biden has to maneuver and how far he’s willing to go.

By Cubaencuentro

Havana barbershop. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES – Joe Biden’s arrival at the White House opens up a new landscape for US-Cuba relations. It comes after the hostility and increased sanctions under the Trump administration, EFE news agency reports. Will relations thaw again like they did under Obama?

The brief rapprochement disappeared over the past four years with over 200 US sanctions approved. This pushed an already exhausted Cuban economy to the brink of collapse. The US applied these sanctions arguing that Cuba was allegedly providing support to Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. Likewise over the lack of democracy on the island itself.

Trump sanctioned transport, tourism and remittances. He banned business activities with an extensive “blacklist” of companies linked to the Cuban military. He also paralyzed consular services in Havana after US diplomats suffered mysterious health problems. When he was leaving office, he returned Cuba to the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. The island was removed from the list in 2015.

Many saw Trump’s strategy designed to win votes in Florida, the heart of the Cuban exile community.

Biden experienced the “thawing process” of US-Cuba relations firsthand, as vice-president to Barack Obama. During his election campaign, he announced that he would pick up on normalizing relations with the island again. He spoke at least of those measures that strained family relationships on both sides of the Florida Strait.

Just one signature

The question is how much room the new president has to maneuver and how far he’s willing to go. However, it’s also uncertain how open the Cuban government is to a new rapprochement process. While it is the injured party, there is also a hardline group historically more comfortable sitting in the trenches.

“Biden can immediately reverse every one of Trump’s sanctions by using his executive powers, because this was how they were passed,” says William LeoGrande, a professor at the American University School of Public Affairs and author of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.

The bureaucracy needed to take Cuba off the US list of state sponsors of terrorism “could take some months”, but it doesn’t stop him from withdrawing other sanctions, he explained.

“All of the elements needed are there,” professor Arturo Lopez-Levy pointed out, from Holy Names University (California). He listed actions such as Cuba returning some fugitives from the US justice system, even during the Trump administration.

A road map for a new policy

Numerous voices are souunding to convince the Biden to give Cuba priority. These include Democrat congressman Jim McGovern and important foreign policy organizations such as the Washington Office on Latin America and the Center of Democracy for the Americas.

These organizations have published a road map for Biden. The remind him that six decades of an iron fist have blocked matters of mutual interest, made Cubans’ lives difficult and have allowed Russian and Chinese influences to make their way in.

Their reasons for speeding up this rapprochement process include the crisis in Venezuela (Cuba’s main ally) and the celebration of the 9th Summit of the Americas in the US, a good setting for presidents of both countries to sit down and talk.

The third reason is, as LeoGrande himself explains, that doing this is very easy. Biden only needs one signature to reverse all of Trump’s orders.

Cuban political analyst and former ambassador to the EU Carlos Alzugray agrees. He believes some sanctions “will disappear quickly if there’s no need to wait” for removal of the island from the US state sponsors of terrorism list. However, he warned that supporters of keeping these sanctions in place, such as Republican senator Marco Rubio, will argue they only target the Cuban military.

Havana bus. Photo: Juan Suarez

International support

According to LeoGrande, the most convincing reason for Biden to stretch out his hand is that this policy, was not only more effective, but that the majority of US citizens, business owners – especially in the agri-food sector – and allies in Washington support normalizing relations.

There are other issues where bilateral cooperation efforts are essential, such as the war against drugs, immigration and the Venezuelan crisis, he listed.

Alzugaray believes the decision “will be welcomed by many allies and important countries in the region such as Argentina and Mexico.”

He also reminds us that Obama paved the path when he reestablished diplomatic relations. Twenty-two agreements signed are still in force and sealed his legacy. Reinstating these can come with a presidential directive.

“It would send a clear message at very little political expense to say that the US is returning to soft power policies and moving away from Trump’s coercive measures,” the former diplomat said.

According to Lopez-Levy, Washington would also hold “greater influence in the (economic) reforms process that is happening in Cuba.”

Another argument most Cuban-Americans support, is the need to normalize consular services to unhinder migration agreements, visas and family reunification programs.

Health cooperation efforts to tackle COVID-19 would also be a point in favor. This considering Cuba’s history of collaboration in Africa to fight Ebola, Alzugaray reminds us.

Votes in Florida

Factors against this rapprochement come down to powerful politicians  that systematically oppose normalizing relations while the island makes no progress in democracy and the field of human rights, conditions that “the US perfectly knows Cuba will reject”, LeoGrande pointed out.

He further noted that some Democrats fear the electoral cost in Florida. Trump won more Cuban-American votes in 2020 than he did in 2016.

“Democrats will never beat Republicans when it comes to applying an iron fist to Cuba. Instead, they need to appeal to the growing group of Cuban-Americans who support reconciliation,” he weighed in.

Alzugaray also said that this electoral view will harm the rapprochement, if Biden has to “invest political capital to buffer the consequences from sectors within his own party, such as New Jersey senator Bob Menendez, and some Republicans.”

“In the grand scheme of things”, with the new president battling on so many open fronts, “Cuba might not be at the top of the agenda,” he pointed out.

“If he does it on the side, within a context where the US is still head-deep in the COVID-19 pandemic, it could be interpreted as the new president not having his priorities straight,” Lopez-Levy also warned.

Havana photo by Juan Suarez

What does Cuba have to say?

In spite of growing hostility from the US, Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canel repeated his country will always negotiate whenever Washington doesn’t expect political concessions, with relations based upon mutual interests.

However, recent gestures haven’t shown this. The Cuban government has yet to congratulate Biden for his presidential victory (at least publicly). The Cuban and Russian ambassadors spoke on the phone the day after the Democrat came into office, and official media hasn’t been very friendly in its coverage.

“If there hasn’t been any secret contact, many people see Cuba’s response as quite ambiguous. Government-owned media seems to be in post traumatic shock after Trump, They haven’t given Biden the warm welcome other countries have,” Alzugaray pointed out.

On the contrary, a new ambassador, Lianys Torres, has arrived at the Cuban Embassy in Washington. Praised by political experts on the island she is a diplomat with vast experience.

The never-ending embargo

While Democrats have taken their seats in the White House and the two houses of Congress, the chance of Biden lifting the embargo in effect since 1962 and encoded in the Helms-Burton Act (1996) are remote.

LeoGrande believes that Biden will be risking a lot of political capital on an issue that won’t only face opposition from the Republicans, but also from members within his own party such as Menendez or congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, to name a few.

“Revoking the embargo would require the vote from two thirds of both houses, and that’s almost impossible,” Alzugaray agrees. He suggests that an alternative would be to approve a law that grants US citizens the freedom to travel to Cuba.

According to Lopez-Levy, “the most logical thing would be for the president to seek out ways to give licenses and weaken the embargo. He could target audiences interested in dismantling it, to apply pressure on legislators like Obama did.”

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.

12 thoughts on “Can US–Cuba Relations Return to Pre-Trump Years?

  • P.S. The Republicans in the House of Representatives voted 145-61 on Wednesday to keep Cheney in her leadership post. Now we’ll see what they do about looney tunes Marjorie Taylor Greene.

  • >>Whilst the victory of the eminently decent President Biden should be welcomed, no-one can
    >>be certain that things won’t flip back toward the extreme right in another few years.
    >>And make no mistake – it could be far worse next time around.

    It’s already started. There was a brief moment where the country awoke to the insanity of the trump’s version of America but memories are already fading. Now we see the republican party condemning the wiser among them (Cheney, etc.) for speaking out against the attempted coup– and it’s only been one month since the attempted take over. The long term outlook for the United States is not good. We can hope for the nutjobs to splinter the republican party so a united democratic party will win in 4 years (fingers crossed) but this still leaves the cancer alive and growing. This is trump’s legacy– letting the racist wackos out of their cages and giving them a voice on the national level.

  • The problem in Cuba are Cubans.No one else to blame.

  • Little man trump put Cuba on the list of sponsors of terrorism. Was this a clerical error?
    Did he really mean to put himself on that list?
    I note that The Glorious Democracy of Canada is putting the ‘proud boys’ (trump’s right wing extremist buddies) on their list of terrorist groups.
    I think the whole world is now wary regarding the potential for instability within the USA. Whilst the victory of the eminently decent President Biden should be welcomed, no-one can be certain that things won’t flip back toward the extreme right in another few years.
    And make no mistake – it could be far worse next time around.
    Given this concern, countries are starting to be wary as to whether the USA can be trusted in the medium to long term.
    Is the USA capable of ever sticking to deals or do these deals only last until the next extremist sh*t-for-brains off the extremist sh*t-for-brains rank takes control of the white house?
    If the Cuban Government had any common sense they would look toward far greater food self-sufficiency and try to reinforce deals and relationships with countries that have the potential for more long to medium term stability than the USA seems to.
    But the problem is, the Cuban Government doesn’t actually seem to have much common sense.

  • I, like many, would like to see large improvements in US – Cuba relations. I communicate with my US elected representatives plus support US organizations who focus on such. However, I look to Havana not Washington DC to be responsible for re-energizing action. The Obama efforts ground to a halt six months before his term ended. After three meetings between Roberta Jacobson, a first class US diplomat and Josefina Vidal, a top notch Cuban equivalent, all that resulted was the US making concessions and Cuba doing nothing except responding “now, end the embargo and give us back Guantanamo”. The primary thing the US wanted was the Cuban people having some free speech and right to dissent. Cuba’s position was that the US had no business telling Cuba what to do and arrested a record number of political dissents (ladies in white) the following weekend. During Obama’s last six months, nothing was accomplished other that Raul insisting Cuba must move slowly. One must concede that Cuba had little interest in improving relations but preferred to have their old time scapegoat.

    Recently Trump stopped US remittances by putting Fincimex, the Cuban receiving entity on the restricted list because it was part of the Cuban military. Cuba could have easily solved the problem but reassigning that responsibility from the military to the Ministry of Finance. Instead the Cuban government denied it citizens over $1.5 billion in US remittances by contending the US was not going to require the Cuban government to do anything.

    I imagine Biden will reverse many of Trump’s administrative actions when Cuba comes up in the priority queue. But moving beyond that will require goodwill participation from the Cuban government.

    Biden is aware that he lost the Florida electoral college vote because of the Cuban-American vote who disapproved of Obama’s many concessions but receiving nothing in return.

    It would be nice to believe that governments would act simply because that was “the right thing to do”. But such is refusal to accept the real world just does not operate that way.

  • Can the United States and Cuba relations return to pre-Trump years? Yes. All Biden needs to do is reverse Trump’s negative Executive Orders towards Cuba and the two countries revert, more or less, back to pre-Trump years.

    However, I believe the gist of the article, and I presume Cubaencuentro’s intentions, is more than just reverting to past historical relations. The more pertinent question is can the United States and Cuba ever reach a political dialogue such that both countries can sit down with mutual respect and discuss common ways to reach common goals. That is very, very tall order at this juncture.

    Both countries in such a scenario, particularly their leaders, have much to lose and very little to gain.

    Biden and the majority of his Democratic Party certainly would like to carry on Obama’s initial détente and bring Cuba into the United States fold in terms of increased economic exchanges and cooperation and have Americans visit the island unheeded. Moreover in doing so he would be interrupting his foes – Russia and China – and what their nefarious intentions are in Venezuela, Cuba’s staunch comrade ally.

    Likewise, Cuba would also like to have those lucrative unhindered economic exchanges with the Americans but may not be willing to forgo it’s unilateral political hegemony on the island. Cuba’s communist leaders have historically, to their advantage, always used the Helms – Burton Law and the blockade as a sword and a shield when the circumstances on the island warrants and the economic situation becomes so severe that their incompetence and mismanagement (like lack of food) must be blamed on the foe 90 some sea kilometers to the north.

    Take away that sword and the regime’s inability to properly function as state government will be fully exposed much to the chagrin of those few political communist elites in power. They know that. No totalitarian regime easily gives up its unilateral power without a state struggle be it violent or otherwise.

    “The question is how much room the new president has to maneuver and how far he’s willing to go.” At the end of the day, political maneuvering is what it’s all about. The Democrats want to ensure they make the right political move so as not to antagonize too many voters for the 2022 Governor elections, and further down the road the United States election in 2024. Granting Cuba what it wants without getting some human rights and political democratic reforms in return will not bode well certainly for voting Republicans and some Democratic politicians and voters as well.

    On the other hand coming down hard on Cuba with ultimatums has never worked in the past and will only antagonize the situation making it a lose proposition for Biden and team and a “win” for Cuban politicians.

    So, as Cubaencuentro’s authors have pointed out Biden has a full plate of domestic and international (China) political storms to deal with now and into the foreseeable future, and Cuba’s communist government has not shown any dove like engagement with their foe therefore aside from a few Executive Order cancellations not much to hope for into the future.

    I hope I am wrong.

  • The sixty year struggle over US relations with a too independent Cuba goes on. The new front is whether Biden-Harris will honor their campaign pledges to “promptly reverse the failed Trump policies that have inflicted harm on the Cuban people” or retreat to limited reforms of direct benefit only to Cuban Americans.

    White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said last week, “Americans, especially Cuban Americans, are the best ambassadors for freedom in Cuba. So we’ll review the Trump administration policies.” That suggests (but does not guarantee) full return to Obama’s policies of engagement and travel.

    As I write, 2,927 Americans, virtually all of whom supported the Biden-Harris campaign, have signed our petition calling for full and rapid restoration. Readers of Havana Times can see it here

    On the whole the Cuba Encuentro article provides a comprehensive and balanced review, but I am puzzled by three things:

    1) “he [Biden] announced that he would pick up on normalizing relations with the island again. He spoke at least of those measures that strained family relationships on both sides of the Florida Strait.”

    As noted above, Biden and Harris went beyond the issues of “strained family relationships” although some wish they hadn’t and have pushed for minimal improvement since the election.

    2) The article reprises an old tune, “it’s also uncertain how open the Cuban government is to a new rapprochement process.” In both countries there is a legacy of distrust and fear, disconcertingly mixed with mutual attraction, that dates from the Spanish-American-Cuban war and was exacerbated by the Revolution. Biden and Diaz-Canel may have the personalities and vision to overcome it–if they have the courage and political strength.

    3) “The Cuban government has yet to congratulate Biden for his presidential victory (at least publicly).” That better applies to Trump and a substantial sector of Republicans.

    Reuters reported on November 8:

    “HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel on Sunday acknowledged Joe Biden’s victory in the U.S. presidential elections, tweeting that his government recognized “the people of the United States has chosen a new direction”.

    “We believe in the possibility of constructive bilateral relations respecting one another’s differences,” his tweet read, reflecting widespread hopes on the Communist-run island for an improvement in U.S.-Cuban relations under President-elect Biden, without naming him.”

    The conservative Washington Times said on December 15th:

    “Intriguingly, Mr. Maduro and Mr. Diaz-Canel were among the very first wave of world leaders to congratulate President-elect Joseph R. Biden when the U.S. networks called the race for him a few days after the Nov. 3 election, with both saying on Twitter they were open to more dialogue with Washington than had been the case the past four years.”

    No one outside the White House really knows what will happen and how soon. We could find out today or tomorrow that we are starting again where we left off when Trump took power. Or we could spend the next year painfully retracing Obama’s steps. Eventually we will get there and Covid will be conquered so Americans will again fill Old Havana’s streets and develop friendships and partnerships with Cuban counterparts in the arts, universities, government institutions and civil society.

    Unless Biden acts rapidly, it will not be possible for independent travelers and specialized agencies to come to Cuba during the spring and summer with great benefit to the local private sector. Job creating cruise lines, commercial tour operators and universities also won’t have enough lead time to program for the fall and winter.

    An engaged public can play a role in making mutually beneficial change happen sooner rather than later.

  • Diplomacy works both ways. The Cuban government need to show that they are willing to sit and at least discuss reforms that will help their people and especially their children’s future and accept the hand of friendship not only from the USA but other countries around the world. Cuba can no longer live in the dark ages, deceased leaders of the revolution would be appalled by the living conditions and food shortages having to be endured by its people. Our world is a small island in a large universe and for god sake and the sake of future generation’s we need to shake the hands of our enemy’s and not just our friends.

  • Moses and Olgasintamales, Tell me why Cuba has to be held to a higher standard on human rights than other countries where human rights are worse than Cuba and we have good diplomatic relations with those countries. Anyone with half a brain knows that this is about Florida’s 29 electoral votes and nothing else. You state that Obama’s diplomatic approach to Cuba did nothing to improve human rights or other problems Cuba had. That is an utter lie! I went there in 2016 and most of the people I met were happy and very optimistic. If you had any common sense, you would notice that repression in Cuba increases when there is an unfriendly US government in power such as the Trump Administration. Just some food for thought!

  • How many presidents of USA and Cuba always the same song and dance. We are willing to talk on everything but our dictatorial , oppressive government. If is not the govt why do so many cubans even recently do so well in America? You have to start the conversation about the govt believe me it’s not so free in the USA number 24 of the freest countries in the world. But nothing at least not yet like the dictatorship in Cuba.

  • I am what is called a yellow dog Democrat. That means that I would rather vote for a yellow dog than throw my vote away on a conservative or a Republican. That said, before Biden softens his policy on Cuba, the Castro dictatorship should do something to deserve a new rapprochement. The regime continues to arrest and detain opposition voices. They continue to deny basic human rights to Cuban citizens. I supported Obama’s willingness to take the first step during the second half of his second term in office. But what did he get for it from the Castros? They spat in his face. I can only hope that Biden, who has nothing to gain by helping Cuba and everything to lose, will tread wisely here. Let Cuba make the first move this time. If they don’t, oh well…

  • Obama gave to the dictatorship of Havana so many things in exchange for nothing the next day Obama left the opposition was arrested along with independent journalists. Enough the dictatorship wants more oxygen to stay in power and keep the people if Cuba in the Darkness.

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