The perils of leaving Cuba out in the cold
It should be a historic opportunity for detente: for the first time in over 60 years, Cuba is no longer run by a Castro. Fidel’s younger brother Raúl handed over the reins of power last month, weeks before his 90th birthday, and departed the politburo along with the remaining gerontocrats from the 1959 revolution which brought them to power.
The passing of the Marxist torch to the next generation follows major economic reforms. Amid dire food shortages and a chronic lack of hard currency, the Cuban government has finally moved on long-delayed plans to scrap a cumbersome dual currency system and devalue the Cuban peso dramatically. A list of permitted private businesses was expanded significantly.
With a new US president in the White House, who promised during his campaign to reverse some of Donald Trump’s harsher measures, hopes had risen of early American humanitarian gestures to ease restrictions on remittances and flights as a prelude to a move back towards the brief thaw of the Obama era, when full diplomatic relations were restored.
For now, those remain just hopes. Washington has made no moves and the White House said last month that Cuba was not a priority amid a myriad of other domestic and foreign policy challenges.
Cuba has not made Biden’s task easier. There has been no discernible glasnost in the island’s politics from Miguel Díaz-Canel, Castro’s anointed successor, to accompany the perestroika of the economic reforms. The Communist party’s grip on Cuban life remains tight. Dissenters continue to be harassed and imprisoned. One of Díaz-Canel’s favourite recent Twitter hashtags was #SomosContinuidad (we are continuity).
In Washington, the chair of the powerful Senate foreign relations committee remains in the hands of Cuban-Americans, having passed in the newly elected Congress from the Republican Marco Rubio to the Democrat Robert Menendez. Biden’s party fears another drubbing in next year’s midterm elections in Florida at the hands of the anti-communist Latinos who cost him two congressional seats last year. It is easy to see the attractions of doing nothing.
Yet American presidents ignore the small Caribbean island just over 100 miles from their coast at their peril. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 was the closest the world has come to nuclear war. Jimmy Carter was caught off-guard by the Mariel boatlift of 1980, when Fidel Castro opened an escape valve for dissenters and allowed 125,000 Cubans to leave for the US in the space of five months (some turned out to be convicted criminals and former inmates of mental institutions). Bill Clinton’s attempts at secret diplomacy with Cuba were doomed when Havana shot down two US civilian aircraft piloted by Cuban-American exiles in 1996, triggering a crisis. This year, the numbers of Cubans attempting to flee across the Florida straits is rising again, even before the peak summer season.
The failures of the six-decades-old US embargo on Cuba to achieve political change are obvious. Republican arguments that the Obama rapprochement failed are bogus: the initiative never had time to produce results. The coronavirus pandemic and the tighter Trump-era restrictions have worsened the humanitarian crisis.
It is time for Joe Biden to face down the Cuban-American lobby and ease restrictions on remittances and direct flights now. This would help improve the lives of ordinary Cubans and create a better atmosphere in which to reopen substantive dialogue with Havana.