US-CUBA RELATIONS

Cuba and the US return to the era of confrontation

Almost five months after he took office, President Joe Biden has made no move to lift sanctions or open dialogue, while diplomacy has given way to the acrimonious rhetoric of the Trump era

A protest in Havana against the US trade embargo.
A protest in Havana against the US trade embargo.Ismael Francisco / AP

It was already evident that Joe Biden was not going to be Barack Obama where Cuba is concerned and that lifting the sanctions imposed by Donald Trump and revisiting the policy of rapprochement under his Democratic predecessor was likely to take time. But nobody could have imagined that things could have taken such a twist. Almost five months after Biden moved into the Oval Office, not one of the 240 measures adopted by Trump to toughen the embargo on Cuba have been rescinded. Washington’s reproaches over the island’s human rights record are on the rise and the new White House administration recently stated that Havana has not been fully cooperative in the fight against terrorism, and as such it remains on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism to which it was added during the final days of the Trump presidency.

The Cuban government was swift to respond: “These accusations are entirely without basis and are being used for political ends in an attempt to justify attacks against Cuba, including the inhumane economic, commercial and financial embargo our people are suffering under.” Of the initial expectations following Biden’s election win, few remain. Day by day there is a shift back toward the acrimonious rhetoric of the Trump era and Obama’s attempts to normalize relations are no longer spoken about. For Biden, Cuba is the present and the past.

Over the past few weeks, the diplomatic war of words between the two nations has intensified. On May 4, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during the 51st Conference of the Council of the Americas that Washington “will condemn the repression of human rights on the island” and will defend “the human rights of the Cuban people, including the right to freedom of speech and assembly.” Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodríguez responded just hours later: “If Secretary Blinken was interested in the human rights of the Cuban people, he would lift the embargo and the 243 measures adopted by the previous government, which remain in force today in the midst of Covid-19. He would restore consular services and family reunification.”

An effective policy toward Cuba requires a realist mentality that recognizes, once and for all, Washington’s inability to impose its will
William LeoGrande, American University

Last week, as a result of artist and dissident activist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara’s hunger strike and his forced transfer to a Havana hospital – where he has spent almost four weeks in isolation – and the subsequent arrest of opposition rapper Maykel Osorbo, Acting Assistant Secretary for the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Julie Chung, said the US rejected “the detention of artists for exercising their right to freedom of speech.”

“The Cuban government cannot silence its critics by means of violating their human rights,” Chung added, calling for the “immediate release” of Alcántara and Osorbo, both members of the opposition San Isidro Movement. On this occasion the deputy director general for the US at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, Johana Tablada, responded by terming Chung’s remarks “openly demagogic and interfering” and accusing the diplomat of “feigning concern for human rights while disguising the true purposes of the US government.”

“The United States does not care about the Cuban people and neither does it concern itself with those Cuban citizens it systematically finances, directs and promotes in broad daylight to carry out illegal actions of destabilization and creating a false image of Cuba, pretexts with which it attempts to justify its criminal policy of economic embargo,” Tablada said.

To make matters worse, Washington has designated Cuba, along with Iran, North Korea, Syria and Venezuela, as a country that “does not cooperate” fully with US anti-terrorism efforts, thereby justifying the decision to keep Cuba on the state sponsors of terrorism list, where it was placed by Trump nine days before he left office as a final parting shot designed to hamper any possible future rapprochement with Havana. “The slander is both surprising and irritating, as is the [Biden administration] applying Donald Trump’s policy,” countered Rodríguez.

US academic William LeoGrande, of the Washington-based American University, has noted that Biden supported Obama’s attempts to restore diplomacy with Cuba when he was vice-president and that he made a campaign promise in 2020 to adopt a similar approach. “But the early signs from administration officials indicate that there is an internal debate among those who are in favor of returning to the policy of Obama and those who wish to continue with a policy of pressure, while leaving many of the sanctions imposed by Trump in place,” LeoGrande said in a recent work.

Over the past few months several members of the House and Senate on both sides of the political divide have put forward legislative initiatives, in favor of and against a relaxation of the embargo. Lobbying is intensifying and the stance of Democratic New Jersey Senator Bob Menéndez is key, as the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is a committed hardliner on Cuba. Menéndez and Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a staunch supporter of Trump’s policy of sanctions toward the island, have submitted a proposal that would prohibit US courts from recognizing the rights of a person or company to a trademark that has been “confiscated by the Cuban regime.” At the same time, the non-profit group Oxfam has asked the US to “act as soon as possible to normalize relations with Cuba” and to lift the embargo on humanitarian grounds, noting that of the 243 measures adopted by Trump, 55 were enforced during the coronavirus pandemic.

The debate as to what Biden should do regarding Cuba is an open one in the US. Various leading think tanks, including the Council for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Cuba Study Group (CSG), have asked the new administration to make the Cuba issue a priority and to restore Obama’s policy of rapprochement and critical engagement. But so far their requests have been met with silence. In the delicate balancing act of power in Washington, notes LeoGrande, “it is possible that internal political benefits can be obtained by maintaining the status quo,” even if this will achieve nothing “positive” in terms of foreign policy. “An effective policy toward Cuba requires a realist mentality that recognizes, once and for all, Washington’s inability to impose its will on Cuba. Political leaders should abandon the illusion that sanctions will produce victory and roll up their sleeves to work with a regime that maybe they don’t approve of, but which is not going to disappear any time soon,” the scholar says.

The other option is to continue with a six-decade-long policy of pressure that has demonstrably failed and that only serves to fuel the Cuban government’s siege mentality. In the meantime, as always, it is ordinary Cubans who are paying the price.

English version by Rob Train.

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