Biden fails to deliver on expected post-Trump thaw between US and Cuba

Island officials admit to some positive steps, but believe that overall the Democratic president’s policies follow in the footsteps of his Republican predecessor

A vintage car drives past the US Embassy in Havana on November 10, 2021.ALEXANDRE MENEGHINI (REUTERS)

The skies remain overcast in Cuba-US relations. There was a timid and discreet rapprochement between the two countries during the first two years of the Biden administration, and there was an expectation that Washington might take more decisive steps in 2023 in order to return to Obama’s constructive engagement policy, which Donald Trump reversed during his own time in office. But again, something has happened to cool things off and there has been a return to the old rhetoric of confrontation.

Last week, the US government’s decision to grant political asylum to a Cuban citizen who stole a plane to flee to Miami, as well as to keep Cuba on the list of states that sponsor terrorism, triggered an angry response from Havana, which accused Washington of promoting “air piracy” and encouraging illegal migration, in addition to lying “blatantly” on the issue of terrorism in order to justify its policy of economic suffocation against the island. According to the government of Miguel Díaz-Canel, little progress has been made in the bilateral relationship under Biden. “Bilateral ties continue to be marked by the policies of Donald Trump,” said Cuban Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Carlos Fernández de Cossío.

During his presidency (2017-2021), Trump halted the normalization process started by Obama – who unsuccessfully asked Congress to end the embargo – and adopted more than 240 new sanctions against the island. Among them, Washington imposed restrictions on remittances and dismantled Western Union’s offices in Cuba; it also suspended high-level exchanges between officials from both countries; allowed lawsuits to be filed in US courts against foreign companies that “trafficked” with expropriated assets in Cuba (under the Helms-Burton Act); eliminated most direct flights and cruise ships to the island, and made personal travel more difficult for Americans. Trump drew up blacklists of hotels where US citizens could not stay, dismantled the US consulate in Havana for alleged “sonic attacks” against its diplomats; and, before leaving office, he included the Caribbean island on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism (which Obama had removed it from in 2015), which implies various financial sanctions.

Biden came to the White House with the promise of restoring the policies of Obama, who openly wanted normalized relations. But once in power, he proved cautious and constrained in his initiatives towards Cuba, especially after the massive protests of July 11, 2021, in which hundreds of Cubans were detained. In these two years, at a very leisurely pace, the Biden administration ended the restrictions on remittances, authorized direct flights and group trips (but not personal ones), reactivated the consulate and reinitiated high-level contacts on migration issues and collaboration on matters of safety and the environment. After the midterm elections last November, when the Democrats lost the state of Florida resoundingly and it became clear that they could not count on the Cuban-American vote, many analysts believed that Biden would now have a free hand to change his policy towards Cuba. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

“Once again, the predictions that Cuban-American relations would definitely begin to improve at the beginning of 2023 have been disproved by reality,” says Cuban academic Carlos Alzugaray. “Three or four events in the last week have shown that the Biden administration has very little intention of clearly distancing itself from Trump’s cold war policies, which revolve around applying maximum pressure to achieve ‘regime change,’” adds the analyst. Alzugaray also underscores America’s silence regarding the intelligence report on the so-called “Havana syndrome,” which concluded that there was no mediation by a “foreign adversary” in connection with apparent sonic incidents that Trump cited to toughen his policy towards Cuba.

By virtue of those accusations, “the country suffered coercive measures applied by the United States, and up to now no official statement has been made to say that these provisions were unfounded,” says Fernández de Cossío. The alleged health problems were first reported in 2016 among diplomats from the US embassy in Havana and since then at least 1,500 cases have been reported in different countries. Regarding the decision to grant political asylum to the pilot who fled Cuba a few months ago in a fumigation plane, Cossío considers that “the US government has become an accomplice and participant in an act of kidnapping.”

“Slandering the island”

For Havana, however, the most hurtful measure of all is the decision to keep Cuba on the list of states that sponsor terrorism with the argument, among others, that in 2021 Cuba gave shelter to a group of Colombian ELN guerrillas that were being claimed at that time by Colombia. And this, despite the fact that the current president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, revoked the extradition order as soon as he took office and asked the US to remove Cuba from the infamous black list. “The Joe Biden Administration kept the designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism on this spurious list. The true purpose of slandering the island as a terrorist is to justify the illegal blockade of the United States against Cuba,” said the Cuban president on his Twitter account.

“Apparently, the logic of this policy is the one explained by the Director of Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Security Council in the White House, Juan González, which is more or less: we are going to change the policy, but the one that we adopt will not resemble either Trump’s or Obama’s,” says Alzugaray. “Many previous Democratic administrations have tried this third-way formula that does not essentially change the intention of bringing about the overthrow of the Cuban government through a combination of economic pressure and political subversion. If that objective is not clearly repudiated, as Obama did, every US administration will succumb to pressure from the right in Congress.”

On the possible release of prisoners detained during the demonstrations of July 11, 2021 (about 700, according to various NGOs), as a precondition for the US to take measures towards a rapprochement, the minister was blunt, calling it “an absolutely unreasonable demand or claim.”

“All of these are excuses that the United States has historically used when it doesn’t want to act. They make unreasonable claims, claims that they know to be unfounded, whenever they simply have no desire to act to improve relations with a country, in this case Cuba,” said the official, who nevertheless acknowledges that over the last two years the Biden administration has taken some “positive” steps in the right direction. But in essence, he believes, Trump’s policies continue to prevail. “[Biden] has introduced two or three cosmetic changes,” says Alzugaray. Everything seems to indicate that the long-awaited rapprochement has run aground again.

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