How Biden Can Manage Cuba
By John McAuliff
Five years ago I stood in a mostly Cuban crowd outside of the US embassy in Havana, excitedly watching our flag be raised for the first time in 54 years. Two hours later I was at a celebratory party at the US Ambassador’s residence, a beautiful building designed but never used as a Winter White House for FDR. Scores of official and non-official Americans who had worked for normalization were there, along with diplomats from other countries. No one from the Cuban government attended because the embassy chose to invite a few prominent dissidents.
The path to this day had not been easy because of political distrust on both sides and was a tribute to the determination of both Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro. None of us expected the future would be simple. However we never anticipated that virtually everything would be undone by the election of Donald Trump.
Cuba relations will hardly be the largest problem or the first priority of a Biden Administration, but it is low hanging fruit. While special interests are loudly in favor or against US engagement with the island, two thirds of Americans, including a majority of Cuban-Americans, were quietly supportive of President Obama’s normalization path and ready to go further to completely open travel.
Biden can rapidly and effectively build on Obama’s opening. He will do at least as well with personally affected Florida voters by convincing them his goal is a positive relationship with the homeland of their parents, children and other family members. He can counteract the narrow minded regression of President Trump for whom Cuba policies were little more than a favor to Marco Rubio and to Vladimir Putin.
Biden will be able to signal his concern for the well-being of the people of both nations, his desire to strengthen in practice pro-market reforms and the need to effectively displace growing Russian and Chinese influence. His Administration could solidify a historic new chapter of post Monroe Doctrine, post Platt Amendment US partnership with the hemisphere.
Biden’s campaign is already publicly critical of the latest punitive pettiness toward Cuba by the Trump Administration, prohibition of rare private charter flights. He has told Americas Quarterly, “as president, I will promptly reverse the failed Trump policies that have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights”. https://cubapeopletopeople.blogspot.com/2020/08/joe-biden-and-kamala-harris-on-cuba.html
Biden will certainly receive support from his Vice President. Senator Kamala Harris is among 46 bipartisan cosponsors of the Leahy bill to end all restrictions on travel to Cuba.
He can also expect an abrazo, a hug, from the new First Lady whose moving cultural visit to Camaguey and Havana was portrayed in an Obama White House video. https://youtu.be/hc6NiDbVepI
Biden has four stages of opportunity that will cut the Gordian knot of six decades of intractable mutually destructive US-Cuba relations.
1) During the campaign or right after election: Announce that immediately upon taking office he will restore Obama policies on individual and group travel licenses, cruises, flights to regional cities, remittances, import of agricultural products, international shipping, specific types of investments and banking and as well as facilitation of visas for educational and cultural exchange. Clarify that Cubans granted visas for family and professional visits and for study in the US will be deemed ineligible to claim status under the Cuban Adjustment Act. (Depending on US success in controlling Covid-19, an announcement of intention allows planning for the winter season and spring semester by the travel sector and universities.)
2) Within the first year: Fully restaff an embassy gutted by a Secretary of State and President who opportunistically exploited inexplicable health problems of US personnel (or just turned tail and ran). Reopen consular authority and restore visa authority for immigration and family reunion visits. Support Leahy/McGovern legislation to totally end restrictions on travel and other bills for comparable initiatives in agricultural and medical sales as well as on related financial transactions. Enable collaboration in medicine and science, including on anti-Covid research, treatment and international humanitarian assistance. Return to abstention on the virtually unanimous UN vote against the unilateral US embargo. Resuspend Title III of Helms-Burton to stop annoyance suits by Cuban Americans for property they lost before they had any claim as US citizens.
ground. To test and support economic reforms, terminate application
of the embargo to privately owned small and medium Cuban enterprises,
permitting their exports, imports and US investments. Cooperate with
Cuba to confirm Canadian research that chemical toxins not illusive sound waves
caused illness of embassy personnel and to discover who was responsible. Stop
all US government funding of projects within Cuba that are not vetted through
normal diplomatic channels with the host government.
3) Within the first two years: Align with Hemispheric and European goals by achieving through comprehensive negotiations a political settlement in Venezuela and an end to the unilateral US embargo of Cuba. Open consulates in at least one Cuban and one US city. Allow ferry service between US and Cuban ports. Support with governmental, corporate and foundation funds wide ranging cultural, educational, professional and business exchanges. Seek reciprocal dampening of interventionist hostility by state funded publications, broadcasts and social media, replaced by ongoing multi sectoral dialog about conflicting values and ideologies.
4) Within the first term: Follow the road map to restore full Cuban sovereignty of the Guantanamo base that was developed by Ben Rhodes and Alejandro Castro during the Obama Administration’s normalization discussions. Explore transforming the military outpost and prison into a free trade zone, hemispheric medical research center and cruise port.
Cuba is the most immediate opportunity for the Biden Administration to creatively and positively roll back Russian advances. The Senate Intelligence Committee report on Russia's active measure campaigns is limited to the election period. It does not connect dots to the through line of President Trump's policies that have appeared to benefit President Putin. Frequently noted with suspicion are his pro-Russian dispensations with NATO, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Ukraine, European allies, nuclear weapons, international institutions and climate change, not to mention his frequent secretive meetings and calls. Also fitting that pattern was his abrupt barely noticed worldwide withdrawal of all Peace Corps volunteers (excused by Covid) and his constant efforts to discredit governmental norms and practices at home.
Cuba is seldom discussed in this context although it's hard to imagine greater Trump Administration help for Russian interests. Because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia's role of protector against US threats and subsidizer disappeared resulting in the national calamity of the Special Period of the 1990s. While many Cubans had ideological and personal ties to Russia as it had been, distrust and distancing grew with Russia as it was becoming, a center of oligarchic capitalism.
As the result of the Obama-Castro opening real differences were emerging in Cuba about whether reconciliation and mutual respect with the US was truly possible or a Trojan Horse. Had a path become available to sustained sovereign development, at variance with the choice of 60 years of total dependence followed by 60 years of total resistance? If that were the case, would Cuba still need a big foreign friend for security and economic development?
Barter of doctors and teachers for Venezuelan oil and trade with China had filled some of the gap. Funds from Cuban American family remittances, visits and investments and the growth of cruises, tour groups and independent travelers were building the national economy and expanding the role of private business and entrepreneurs. The natural propensity of economic and cultural relationships between neighbors with linked populations was beginning to take hold and the space for the Russians was declining.
President Trump's harsh renewal of cold war era hostility foreclosed the discussion. Cuba again needed a friend and Russia was only too happy to reenter with naval visits and leadership exchanges, even discussion of reopening its Cuba based center for electronic surveillance of the US. Did Russia just accept what fate and Donald Trump delivered or did it help things along? The scientific evidence from Canadian researchers that chemical toxins were responsible for the medical problems suffered by their diplomats requires rigorous investigation of whether the Americans were similarly targeted. The question naturally arises whether the Russians applied their notorious skills in this field. The Cubans may be able to help eliminate the problem by recognizing and controlling Russian behavior based on private collaboration with US scientists, doctors and security officials. However, they cannot be expected to publicly acknowledge a Russian role until it is undebatable that the US has truly abandoned its regime change agenda, even in a soft power mode.
The policies I have suggested for the Biden administration move us in the right direction, but real trust is impossible as long as the US maintains a devastating unilateral embargo and refuses to restore the Guantanamo base to national sovereignty, consistent with US principles elsewhere in the world.