United States: Biden rules out re-engagement with Cuba, for now

Former US president Barack Obama with former Cuban president Raul Castro at a baseball game in Havana, Cuba in 2016, during Obama's visit. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

United States President Joe Biden will not — in the short-term — return to former president Barack Obama’s policy of engagement with Cuba.

Obama and then Cuban leader Raul Castro announced the beginning of a process of normalisation of relations between the US and Cuba in December, 2014. Six months later, the US and Cuban interests sections in Washington and Havana were upgraded to embassies.

However, with Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016, US sanctions against Cuba increased immeasurably, culminating in Washington redesignating Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism just nine days before the end of Trump’s presidency.

During his presidential campaign, Biden — who was Obama’s vice president — gave some indications that he wanted to improve US relations with Cuba. He alluded to removing the Trump imposed limits on remittances that Cuban Americans can send to their relatives on the island and restoring money-wiring services, such as Western Union. Biden also alluded to making it easier for US citizens to travel to Cuba.

Eighty Democratic members of the US Congress urged Biden in March to repeal Trump’s “cruel” sanctions on Cuba and renew engagement with the Caribbean nation.

The congress members urged Biden to restart diplomatic engagement on areas of mutual interest including migration, disaster response, environment, counter-narcotics and money laundering and to restaff the US embassy in Havana, which, under Trump, was reduced to skeletal staffing. The congress members also said engagement on medical cooperation should be a top priority in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A number of political and civic leaders from South Florida — Democrats and Republicans — strongly petitioned Biden in March to remove the limits on remittances to Cuba, pointing out the significant human cost to Cubans caused by Trump’s measure.

Flows of money to Cuba had been taking place for more than 20 years and are extremely important in light of the economic hardship resulting from COVID-19.

However, White House National Security Council member and Biden’s adviser on Latin America Juan González said recently that a process of rapprochement with the Cuban government would be gradual. “Joe Biden is not Barack Obama in policy towards Cuba.” said González.

González said the Biden administration is “very focused on various crises around the world, and also on the domestic situation”.

“I believe that those who think that the United States is now going to enter a dialogue of multiple years with Cuba don’t understand the political moment and the situation in which we are living or frankly, I would say, the disorder we inherited from the [Trump] administration” he said.

However, Biden’s reluctance to make any immediate changes in US policy toward Cuba is more than anything the result of internal US politics. In key US states such as Florida, US policy toward Cuba is, and has been for some time, a deeply polarising issue and increasingly the Democrats are on the defensive.

Sadly, it appears the Biden administration does not regard re-engaging with Cuba as a matter of priority in the short or medium term.