Biden Ramps Up Pressure on Cuba, Abandoning Obama’s Approach
President Biden’s presidency has prompted many Cubans to expect a return to the Obama days, when the United States sought to bury the last vestige of the Cold War by restoring diplomatic ties with Havana and calling for an end to the embargo.
Instead, Biden takes an even tougher stance on Cuba than his predecessor, President Donald J. Trump, who tightened restrictions on travel and financial transactions.
The island has become a first foreign policy crisis for the Biden administration after Cubans took to the streets to denounce their authoritarian government and the food and medicine shortages exacerbated by the pandemic. The rare act of rebellion was called off with the biggest crackdown on dissent in a generation.
The White House has imposed new sanctions on Cuban officials in recent weeks in response to the arrest of hundreds of protesters who took to the streets of towns on the island on July 11. Mr. Biden also called on government experts to develop plans for the United States to unilaterally expand Internet access on the island and pledged to increase their support for Cuban dissidents.
“We hear the cries of freedom coming from the island,” Biden said during a recent meeting with American Cubans at the White House. “We hold the regime responsible. “
For many Cubans who saw in the election of a Democratic president reason to hope for a return to normalized relations – with more flights to the island and more channels to send money, medicines and food to loved ones – Mr. Biden’s approach has been a blast.
“The past month has been really, really hard to take,” said Manuel Barcia Paz, a Cuban scholar in the UK, who struggled to send money to his sick parents in Cuba.
Many Cubans at home and abroad expected Mr. Biden and his Cuban counterpart, President Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, to take action to resume the slow and hesitant process of normalizing relations.
The Obama administration embarked on this path in late 2014, after months of secret negotiations including a prisoner swap. Mr. Obama argued that it was easier for Americans to travel to Cuba and invest in its nascent private sector to promote economic and political change on the island than Washington’s policy of regime change. since the 1960s.
Cuban experts and U.S. government officials say Mr. Biden’s change in policy reflects the ascending influence of Senator Robert Menendez, who, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, wields tremendous power over candidates for election. administration and other administration priorities.
Mr Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants who was a vocal critic of Obama’s gamble on the island, appreciated seeing a new Democratic president largely in tune with his stick-on-carrot approach.
“Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the past,” Menendez said in a Senate speech last week, in which he praised Biden and called for an even tougher package. “Let us not fall victim to tired myths.”
The latest rise in tension comes at a time when the United States has skeletal staff at its Embassy in Havana. Most U.S. diplomats were evacuated in 2017 following unexplained illnesses experienced by several staff members, which resulted in severe cognitive problems.
This has created a massive backlog of immigrant visa applications; Currently, Cubans must apply for visas in Guyana, which, in an era of travel restrictions and reduced flights, requires a roundabout route with stops in Russia, Turkey and Panama.
“We thought he would have found a way to deal with it all,” Yaite, a 26-year-old mother of two, said of Mr Biden. She has been waiting for more than a year for a visa appointment and has asked that her last name not be released for fear of reprisal.
“He sanctioned the police, but let’s face it, it won’t get to them,” Yaite said. “It doesn’t affect them at all. Its sanctions do not cross the sea.
Mr. Barcia, the academic, said the past few weeks had infuriated him with the Cuban government for its brutal response to the protests and frustrated with the US response. The result is more keenly felt by ordinary families like his, he said. Her father is recovering from a stroke and needs blood thinners; his mother is hospitalized.
When the United States tightened restrictions on sending money to Cuba to prevent the government from taking a cut and limiting the number of flights, it became difficult for Cubans abroad to help loved ones on the island.
“I am disappointed with Biden because he did nothing,” said Mr Barcia, professor of world history at the University of Leeds. “There must be a way to send money to Cuba without the government taking a big chunk of it.”
Antonio Camacho, owner of Burner Brothers, a bakery in Havana, was part of a new generation of entrepreneurs who thrived amid the torrent of tourism and investment that swept through Cuba after 2014. Now, new restrictions America and the coronavirus pandemic have emptied the tourism industry. , leaving Cubans with little money available to spend on businesses like his.
“It’s disappointing,” Mr. Camacho said of the actions he saw Mr. Biden take. “If he had stayed true to Obama’s plan, it would have been really good to do business, to take advantage of the openness between the two countries.”
Cuban leaders attribute deprivations on the island – where food and medicine shortages worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic – to the embargo, a network of laws and regulations that began in the 1960s. And they say the embargo is why major economic reforms, including the right to own property and run a small business, have been hampered by bureaucracy and state interference.
“The blockade forces you to act as if you are constantly defending yourself and carefully analyzing every step you are going to take, so that they do not destroy you,” Mr Díaz-Canel said in an interview in 2018, explaining the slowness of the changes that the ruling Communist Party had adopted.
Lillian Guerra, a historian at the University of Florida specializing in Cuba, does not believe it. She said Mr. Díaz-Canel, a party loyalist who was handpicked for the presidency by Raúl Castro when he resigned in 2018, has never shown a desire to lead transformational change.
“They are trying to do as little as possible to restructure the power of the company in order to maintain control,” she said, arguing that a new period of tension with Washington gives the government a pretext to suppress. “It allows them to continue to keep Cuba barefoot and pregnant and terrified of what might be next.”
Thousands of Cubans are not sticking around to find out. Between October 2020 and June this year, the border patrol intercepted 21,453 unmarried Cuban adults and 4,718 families attempting to enter the United States along the border with Mexico. These figures represent a significant increase over the 12,502 individuals and 1,440 families detained during the previous fiscal year.
The Coast Guard has arrested 618 Cuban chevrons and returned them to the island so far during the exercise, by far the highest number since 2017.
Hárold Cárdenas, a political analyst who founded La Joven Cuba, a website that hosts articles and commentary on current events in Cuba, is among the thousands of Cubans who have left the island in recent years.
“People of my generation reconsidered the possibility of migrating in December 2014 because the path that Obama offered us allowed us to imagine a future on the island,” said Mr. Cárdenas, who now lives in the region. from Washington. “That hope is now dead.”
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