HAVANA – The arrival in the White House of Joe Biden could open a new chapter in relations between the United States and Cuba after four years of intensifying acrimony under Donald Trump, who ratcheted up punitive measures toward the Communist-ruled island.
Biden was vice president when Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro announced in December 2014 the resumption of bilateral diplomatic ties after more than decades of mutual hostility.
Obama went on to make a historic visit to Cuba and used the tools of executive power to promote closer links.
Though Biden said during the 2020 election campaign that he would reverse Trump’s move to sharply limit the ability of Cuban-Americans to send remittances to their families on the island, it remains unclear whether he intends to revive Obama’s policy toward Cuba.
Apart from maintaining scaled-back diplomatic relations, Trump largely erased the advances made during the Obama thaw.
The more than 200 actions taken by Trump’s administration to institute new sanctions or amplify existing ones have pushed the already struggling Cuban economy to the brink.
Washington cracked down on remittances, made it virtually impossible for US tourists to visit Cuba and outlawed transactions with enterprises connected to the Cuban military, which has come to play a significant role in the civilian economy.
In his final days as president, Trump returned Cuba to the US government’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, undoing Obama’s 2015 decision to take Havana off the list.
Many saw the move as a bid by Trump to cement the loyalty of Cuban exiles in South Florida with an eye toward a possible presidential bid in 2024.
The new Democratic administration in Washington can be expected to back away from Trump’s confrontational approach, but any effort by Biden to repair the relationship could be limited by US domestic politics.
Also unknown is how Havana might react to an overture from the US, given that Cuba is the aggrieved party and given the continued existence of elements in the Cuban Communist Party who remain wary of closer links with Washington.
All of Trump’s sanctions were imposed by executive order and Biden can “immediately” revoke using the same mechanism, William LeoGrande, a professor at American University in Washington, told EFE.
For bureaucratic reasons, removing Cuba from the terrorism black list could take a few months, but Biden faces no obstacles to reversing the other punitive measures, according to LeoGrande, co-author with Peter Kornbluh of “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana.”
And as pointed out by Arturo Lopez-Levy, professor of international relations at Holy Names University in California, cooperation between the two countries has continued even under Trump, as attested by Cuba’s willingness to hand over fugitives.
A pair of think-tanks, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), have published a roadmap for rebuilding the relationship with Cuba, citing this year’s 9th Summit of the Americas in the US as a perfect occasion for Biden to meet with Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel.
LeoGrande argued that the most important factor in favor of Biden’s seeking a better relationship with Cuba is that a majority of Americans support normalization, as do US allies.
The US business community, especially big agriculture, sees Cuba as a potentially lucrative market.
A decision by Biden to pursue warmer relations with Cuba “would be welcomed by a majority of the allies and key countries in the region such as Argentina and Mexico,” in the view of Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban ambassador to the European Union.
“It would be a clear signal with little political cost that the US is returning to the policies of ‘soft power’ and abandoning the coercion of Trump,” the diplomat said.
And even Cuban-Americans who dislike the government in Havana are likely to embrace a move to restore consular services – suspended by Trump – in the interest of implementing migration accords and facilitating family reunification.
At the same, prominent Republican politicians – and a few Democrats – remain opposed to normalization without concessions from Cuba on issues such as human rights and democratization.
Some Democrats fear that a friendly policy toward Havana will cost the party votes in South Florida, but LeoGrande said that Democrats should focus on the “growing segment” of Cuban-Americans favoring reconciliation instead of pursuing support from hard-liners who will always prefer the Republican stance toward Havana.
Alzugaray wondered whether Biden would will willing to “invest political capital” on Cuba policy as he contends with the COVID-19 pandemic and other domestic crises.
Diaz-Canel has said repeatedly that Cuba is prepared for dialogue with the US on the basis of equality and mutual respect.
Even so, Havana has yet offer congratulations to Biden for his election victory and the discourse about the US in Cuban state media remains critical.
“If there is not some secret contact, many people have the feeling that Cuba’s response is ambiguous” Alzugaray said. “The government-associated media appear to be suffering from post-Trump traumatic shock and are not giving Biden the warm welcome of other countries.”
On the other hand, Cuba recently dispatched one of its most experienced and well-regarded diplomats, Lianys Torres, to serve as chief of mission at the Cuban Embassy in Washington.
The cornerstone of the antagonistic US policy toward Communist Cuba is the economic embargo that was imposed in 1962 and enshrined in law 34 years later with the passage of the Helms-Burton Act.
Helms-Burton included a provision requiring a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress to end the embargo.
Acknowledging the near impossibility of winning that level of support, LeoGrande suggested that proponents of normalization could deal a “lethal blow” to the embargo by passing a law ending all restrictions on US travel to Cuba.
“The logical thing is that the president seeks ways to give licenses to ‘pierce’ the embargo, creating constituencies interested in its dismantling who put pressure on the legislature, as Obama was doing,” Lopez-Levy said.