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Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman July 12, 2021

Biden’s promise to restore Cuba engagement stalls

Nearly half a year into his presidency, Joe Biden's campaign promise to reengage with Cuba has fallen toward the bottom of his foreign policy priorities. And a new wave of unrest against the Cuban regime makes it politically difficult for him to make any moves now to restore the Obama-era policy.

Thousands of Cubans demonstrated in multiple towns and cities across the island in mid-July to protest against the dictatorship and call for access to food and medicine. The government of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel has been struggling to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak amid low vaccination rates and the economic impact of sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. Human rights experts say that the Cuban government has continued to repress dissent and freedom of expression.

Biden called for solidarity with the protesters without committing to any action by his administration.

"We stand with the Cuban people and their clarion call for freedom and relief from the tragic grip of the pandemic and from the decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba's authoritarian regime," Biden said in a July 12 statement. "The Cuban people are bravely asserting fundamental and universal rights. Those rights, including the right of peaceful protest and the right to freely determine their own future, must be respected. The United States calls on the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves."

During the campaign, Biden told CBS Miami's Jim DeFede that he would restore President Barack Obama's policies that granted Americans unrestricted rights to visit family and send money to Cuba.

President Donald Trump had reversed that policy and made it harder for Americans to visit the island. He also tightened financial and banking restrictions against the regime. 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in March that "a Cuba policy shift is not currently among President Biden's top priorities." When asked by a reporter July 12 if the protests changed that position, Psaki pointed back to Biden's statement. Other administration spokespersons wouldn't provide a timeline for potential future action. 

Experts on Cuba-U.S. relations said acting on his promise now would put Biden in a tricky spot as he looks toward the 2022 elections in Florida, home to a large population of Cuban Americans who leaned toward Trump in 2020. Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Ron DeSantis, both Florida Republicans, face reelection next year, and Democrats hope to win back two Miami-Dade congressional seats. 

The vote of Cuban Americans and other Hispanic immigrant groups could play a critical role in close elections in Florida. 

"An unpopular move on Cuba could push even more of those votes to the Republican side," said Sebastian Arcos, associate director at the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. 

Biden also doesn't want to antagonize Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman and son of Cuban immigrants, who wants the U.S. to avoid engaging with Cuba until its government improves its human rights record. 

Biden could resume Obama's policy of engagement tomorrow if he wanted to, said William M. LeoGrande, an American University government professor who specializes in U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America. 

"All the sanctions Trump imposed were by executive authority and could be reversed the same way," LeoGrande said. "The main challenge is whether or not he has the political will to do it."

LeoGrande said that the State Department has reached out to a wide variety of stakeholders asking their views on Cuba and that he was included in one meeting.

The protests in Cuba are driven by economic desperation that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. New COVID-19 cases have been on the rise, and most Cubans remain unvaccinated. 

"U.S. sanctions by President Trump blocked remittances of $3.5 billion annually, and the pandemic has closed the tourism industry," LeoGrande said. "As a result, the government doesn't have the foreign exchange currency it needs to import food and medicine, which are now in short supply. On top of these hardships, the pandemic has broken out into community spread, stretching the ability of the heath-care system to cope."

Ada Ferrer, a New York University professor of Latin American history, said videos from inside overcrowded hospitals have spread on social media.

"According to Cuban independent journalists, some of the chants among the protesters have been about wanting vaccines, though most were about the government more directly," Ferrer said. 

Experts said that if Biden fulfills his campaign promise now, he could be denounced as rewarding the Cuban government. 

 To restore engagement with Cuba, "there needs to be some gesture or olive branch from the Cuban government for that to happen, and that seems not forthcoming based on Diaz-Canel's fiercely nationalistic and violence-inciting speech yesterday," said Ted Henken, an expert on Latin America at Baruch College in New York.

Diaz-Canel blamed the unrest on the U.S. and said protesters were manipulated by social media.

Our ruling

There's plenty of debate whether Biden's promise to reengage with Cuba would be good policy. But there's little dispute that Biden hasn't done anything to fulfill his promise. For now, we rate this promise Stalled. 

RELATED: Biden Promise Tracker

Our Sources

White House, Statement by President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. on Protests in Cuba, July 12, 2021

White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki and Deputy Director of the National Economic Council Bharat Ramamurti, March 9, 2021

Miami Herald, 'Freedom!' Thousands of Cubans take to the streets to demand the end of dictatorship, July 11, 2021

Miami Herald, Cuba policy shift 'not a top priority' for Biden, White House says, March 10, 2021

McClatchy, Biden says U.S. stands with Cuban people, protests are a 'clarion call for freedom' July 12, 2021

New York Times, Cubans Denounce 'Misery' in Biggest Protests in Decades, July 11, 2021

Washington Post, New Cuba policy on hold while Biden deals with bigger problems, June 27, 2021

Politico, How Miami Cubans disrupted Biden's path to a Florida win, Nov. 4, 2021

Ministerio de Salud Pública de Cuba, Tweets, Jul 11, 2021

CBS4, Joe Biden Confident He'll Turn Florida Blue, Says He'll Restore Obama-Era Cuba Policies In Exclusive CBS4 Interview, April 27, 2020

Florida International University, Cuba poll, 2020

On Cuba News, Bob Menéndez says he feels better with the Biden administration than with Obama's in terms of its stance towards Cuba, March 17, 2021

Reuters, Cuba sees biggest protests for decades as pandemic adds to woes, July 12, 2021

Human Rights Watch, Cuba Events of 2020

Trump-O-Meter, Trump has largely kept promise to reverse Obama's Cuba policy, July 15, 2020

PolitiFact, Scott's misleading attack on Biden about Castro, Maduro, July 1, 2020

Statement from White House senior administration official to PolitiFact, July 12, 2021

Email interview, William LeoGrande, American University professor of government and specialist in Latin American politics, July 12, 2021

Email interview, Ada Ferrer, New York University professor of Latin American history, July 12, 2021

Email interview, Sebastian Arcos, associate director at the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, July 12, 2021

Email interview, Ted Henken, associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Baruch College, City University of New York (CUNY), July 12, 2021

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