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