Biden wants to re-thaw relations with Cuba


HAVANA, Nov. 26th Stirred by breathless warnings of a socialist menace, Cuban Americans turned out for President Trump in massive numbers.

Now those voters are presenting a new challenge for President-elect Joe Biden: How to reembrace the historic Obama-era opening with Cuba without ceding Florida to the Republicans in 2024.

On a few countries is U.S. foreign policy driven more by domestic politics than Cuba and, to a lesser degree, Venezuela. Exiles and Americans of Cuban and Venezuelan descent who harbour deep antipathy for the governments in those leftist police states helped Trump win this key swing state this month.

Trump’s net gains in South Florida’s Cuban community alone, experts say, accounted for as much as a third of the 372,000 votes that cost Biden the state.

But Biden is gambling that a focus on the restoration of flights and remittance privileges removed under Trump — which Miami Cubans have griped about over steaming cups of cafecito — will allow his administration to re-engage Havana without enraging a pivotal electorate.

Ultimately, the failure of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaigns against leftist authoritarians in Havana and Caracas to provoke significant change could help Biden swing the pendulum back toward detente.

On Venezuela, Biden has signalled no change in sanctions or indictments of top officials, but he has said he plans to focus more on the humanitarian plight of a people suffering under a harsh autocracy. At least in the short term, President Nicolás Maduro is unlikely to enjoy a major break in his international isolation.

Biden wants to re-thaw relations with Cuba

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, hosts Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in Moscow last year.

But the president-elect has signalled more movement on Cuba, tilting back toward former President Barack Obama’s landmark thaw in relations that inspired hopes on the island of a new economic future for struggling Cubans. During the Obama administration, a new crop of restaurateurs, IT entrepreneurs, artists and fashion designers tapped into a short-lived boom in American visitors.

During the nearly two years before Trump effectively shut it down, Obama’s diplomatic outreach to Cuba failed to achieve many of its goals, including the release of political prisoners and increased openings for private enterprise.

Yet Biden has said his goal is to quickly change what he called “the failed Trump policies that inflicted harm on Cubans and their families,” and allow Americans to travel there as “the best ambassadors for freedom” on the island.

Graffiti on Havana’s waterfront depicts the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro with the Spanish words for “Revolution” and “Trump unblock Venezuela.”

Biden wants to re-thaw relations with Cuba

The chance of a return to more open days is already reigniting hope on the island, where food lines and the scarcity of goods have grown more severe in recent years, and where fears have escalated over a recent move by the Trump administration to increase already sharp restrictions on remittances to Cuban islanders from their U.S.-based relatives.

“We are so happy and hopeful that things could change for us,” said Nidialys Acosta. The Havana entrepreneur rents out classic cars. She saw a 50 percent drop in business under the Trump-era curbs on American visitors even before the coronavirus pandemic paralyzed tourism. “The day [Biden was declared the winner], we put on some music and fixed ourselves a little drink,” she said. “We were all celebrating.”

A family rides a motorcycle in Havana.

Biden wants to re-thaw relations with Cuba

Some Cuban entrepreneurs, frustrated with the glacial pace of change in a country still far more economically closed than communist peers like Vietnam, say Biden should leverage U.S. clout to help formalize rights for business owners. Cuban officials are contemplating the idea in draft legislation to be laid out next year.

“Under Trump, we saw them obliged to move toward a small- and medium-business law because things had gotten so bad,” said Oscar Casanella, 45, who runs a classic-car taxi service in Havana. “Sadly, it’s only when you see outside pressure that you see internal change.”

Obama expanded the categories of U.S. nationals who are allowed to visit Cuba, sending tens of thousands of Americans pouring into Havana. That came to a halt under Trump, who reinstated barriers on flights and cruise ships.

Trump’s Cuba policy, guided by Miami Cuban Americans, including Republican Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and former National Security Council senior director Mauricio Claver-Carone, also limited the number of Cubans allowed to visit the United States.

A health worker at Havana’s airport administers a coronavirus test to a tourist arriving from Mexico this month.

Biden wants to re-thaw relations with Cuba

In 2017, Trump blamed Cuba for a string of cases in which U.S. diplomats and their families in Havana suffered brain trauma, typically after hearing loud, mysterious noises. He winnowed the embassy staff down to a skeleton crew. One impact was that Cubans who wanted U.S. visas now flew to third countries. Trump also expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from Washington.

Biden advisers, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss planned policies, said the safety of diplomats would be a primary concern in staffing the embassy in Havana.

Members of the Biden landing team at the State Department include Roberta Jacobson, who participated as assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere in negotiations with Havana that led the countries to reestablish diplomatic relations in 2015.

Still, Biden aides said measures affecting the Cuban government directly, including lifting any sanctions, would depend on the behaviour of the government. The goal, they said, is to begin a conversation, not simply to return wholesale to Obama’s policy. Reopening a diplomat dialogue, one adviser said, “is not a reward, but an opportunity.

Potential roadblocks run through Miami-Dade County, where Cuban Americans make up almost a third of the electorate. Cuban Americans have long tilted toward the GOP, a trend that has accelerated sharply since 2010: More than 3 in 4 naturalized Cuban immigrants in the past decade have registered Republican.

To win Florida, Democrats must run up massive margins in Miami-Dade to offset redder ground in the northern and western parts of the state. Biden’s failure to do so — he carried the county by only 7.3 percentage points after Hillary Clinton won by nearly 30 points in 2016 — was fueled in large part by a Hispanic vote that broke heavily for Trump.

A cluster of Cuban-dominated precincts tipped 69 percent for Trump, up substantially compared with GOP results in the past three presidential elections.

Alexander Otaola, a social media influencer in Miami, has organized boycotts against artists he sees as too close to the Cuban government. He criticized Trump in 2016 but has become a staunch supporter, arguing Democrats have shifted too far to the left.

“People are saying we should be ashamed of voting for Trump,” he said on his YouTube show “Hola! Ota-Ola.” “We need to be proud and we are proud, and we will remain proud of voting like we did and winning Florida for President Donald Trump.”

Yet the incoming Biden administration’s approach might not be as much of a blow to Democrats’ hopes in Florida as the election results suggest. Two-thirds of Florida’s Cuban American community polled by Florida International University in late summer gave high marks to Trump’s Cuba policy. But dig deeper, and the poll suggests opposition to many of the details.

A majority disagreed with the pullback of U.S. Embassy staff in Havana. Majorities support sales of food and medicine to Cuba, reopening air routes to destinations throughout the island and suspending trade sanctions barring U.S. companies from doing business with Cuba while the island copes with the coronavirus.

Opposition remains to permitting a return of cruise passengers or completely opening the island to American tourism. That’s a step Obama didn’t embrace under the embargo, which only Congress can lift. But the data suggests that Republican gains among Cuban Americans, which cost two Democratic congresswomen their seats this month, had far more to do with the constant messaging on Spanish-language radio stations and social media portraying Democrats as socialists soft on Cuban communism and Venezuela’s Maduro.

“Cubans want to visit their families, they want to send them remittances,” said Guillermo Grenier, principal investigator of FIU’s Cuba Poll. “The Democrats have to create a new story for the Cuban Americans, one that’s not about the Cold War but uses the idea that family can be the change agent.”

There’s little expectation that U.S. dialogue with Cuba will reduce Cuban support for Maduro. Cuba’s intelligence agents provide security to the Venezuelan government in exchange for cheap oil. Under Biden, the United States will continue to seek Maduro’s exit and the establishment of a democratic, U.S.-friendly government free from the influence of Cuba, Russia or China.

Biden has said he will try to address humanitarian concerns for Venezuelans, including those in the United States, where he plans to provide temporary protected status for refugees and stop deportations that have occurred under Trump. Those moves could help him with the increasingly significant Venezuelan American vote. His second priority will be to encourage Venezuela’s fractured opposition to unify, rather than compete for U.S. support.

During the campaign, Trump advocates in Miami warned that Biden would seek a rapprochement with Maduro. But an adviser said the president-elect’s position is unchanged since Maduro approached him during an international gathering in Brazil in 2015, when Biden was vice president.

If Maduro wanted to talk to the United States, Biden said, he needed to meet three conditions: release political prisoners, engage in real dialogue and take emergency economic measures to prevent collapse.

“Until then,” Biden said, according to the adviser, “you need to be talking to your own people, not to us.”

Five years later, Venezuela’s economy has collapsed, millions have fled the country and the number of political prisoners has grown.
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