The United States and Cuba share a long, complex history—from allies to enemies when, in 1959, Fidel Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista, President of Cuba’s then U.S.-backed government, in the establishment of a socialist state. During the half-century that followed, successive U.S. administrations economically and diplomatically isolated the island country, most notably through the imposition of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, effectively preventing American businesses from conducting trade with Cuban interests. Under the Obama administration, the alliance was finally renewed in what has become known as “the Cuban thaw.” Then, under the Trump administration, these initiatives were immediately undone. Now, under the Biden administration, it remains to be seen whether President Biden will follow through on his campaign promises to “reverse the failed Trump policies.” However, one thing is certain: “Cuba remains . . . a thorn in the side of US foreign policy.”
Upon taking office, President Biden’s commitment to foreign policy was evident, but his commitment to U.S.-Cuba policy less so. Given then-Vice President Biden’s foreign policy achievements under the Cuban thaw and the subsequent “warm[ing] up [of] one of the Cold War’s last icy spots in the Western Hemisphere,” and given then-presidential candidate Biden’s aforementioned campaign promises, some shift in U.S.-Cuba policy was to be expected. However, the newly-troubled relationship between the United States and Cuba—the fact that former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo moved to place Cuba on the list of countries supporting terrorism, and that Cuba would also be expected to show that it is prepared to make concessions on human rights issues to the United States—only made matters worse.
Later that year, neither the historic resignation of the Castro regime, “ending more than six decades of rule by either Fidel or Raul Castro,” nor the historic anti-regime protests in Havana, “the country’s largest demonstrations in nearly three decades,” sparked the Biden administration to action. In response to the resignation, former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, “A Cuba policy shift or additional steps is currently not among the President’s top foreign policy priorities,” and, to the protests, President Biden stated, “The United States calls on the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves,” with no policies or practices in place to enact any meaningful change in U.S.-Cuba relations.
Finally, after over one year in office, on May 16, 2022, the Biden administration took the first step in renewing “support [for] the Cuban people, providing them additional tools to pursue a life free from Cuban government oppression and to seek greater economic opportunities,” with measures which included reinstating the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, restoring U.S. flights to airports other than Havana, and removing the $1,000 quarterly limit on family remittances. However, this progress was tainted after just one month when the Biden administration announced it would bar Cuba from the Summit of the Americas, where heads of state and government from throughout the Western Hemisphere come together to discuss and advance solutions to common policy issues, citing “the challenges that the . . . regime pose[s] to some of the central tenets of the Summit,” like democratic governance and values, despite also referencing “the United States[’] . . . excite[ment] to invite and amplify diverse voices into the hemispheric dialogue.”
In the face of these inconsistent steps towards reconciliation, reporters pushed back and, each time, the Biden administration’s usual political jargon followed. In one such instance, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was asked, “If the U.S. is treating other dictatorships the same way, why treat Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua in one way and China and Saudi Arabia in a different way?” Secretary Blinken pointed to certain “underlying principles,” including “the principle that we need to be standing up for the rights of people when they’re being repressed in one way or another.” The Biden administration’s Department of State Press Briefings since then have been equally vague. In response to another reporter’s characterization of U.S.-Cuba relations as “a case of a big state trying to dominate a smaller state,” Department of State Spokesperson Ned Price instead characterized it as “a case of the United States seeking to help advance the democratic aspirations of the people of Cuba.”
The Biden administration has faced further criticism in regards to its relationship with Cuba across both sides of the aisle. Some, like Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez, have denounced the Biden administration’s measures as excessive, saying that “[May 16, 2022’s] announcement risks sending the wrong message to the wrong people, at the wrong time and for all the wrong reasons,” essentially characterizing these measures as a gift to Cuban communism. Others, like former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, have criticized the Biden administration’s measures as insufficient, saying that “his administration is ‘gaslighting’ Havana by maintaining and even expanding harsh sanctions imposed by former President Trump.” At the international level, similar criticism has been leveraged. On November 3, 2022, 185 countries voted in favor of U.N. General Assembly Draft Resolution A/77/L.5, “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba,” for the thirtieth consecutive year, with only the United States and Israel voting against.
But as history shows, “decades of U.S. isolation of Cuba have failed to accomplish our objective of empowering Cubans to build an open and democratic country.” Acknowledging that certain long-term issues may remain unresolved during the Biden administration, like closing Guantánamo Bay detention camp, which the Obama administration could not do, there are several areas where President Biden could move relatively quickly. First, President Biden could reopen diplomatic channels—having already restaffed the U.S. embassy in Havana, the Biden administration could revive constructive bilateral dialogues on security issues, especially those related to “the Havana syndrome,” which, during the Trump administration, “set off a chain of events that led to a reversal of Obama’s policy . . . but which U.S. officials no longer endorse.” Second, following in his former boss’ footsteps, President Biden could return the United States to a policy of engagement with Cuba by encouraging government-to-government interaction and people-to-people linkages, whether at institutionalized gatherings, like the Summit, or educational and cultural affairs. Third, in what would be the most meaningful change to ensconcing the policy of normalization, President Biden could encourage Congress to fully or partially repeal the U.S. embargo against Cuba, implementing those changes if granted or executive actions to further ease the embargo himself if refused.
While reviving and fine-tuning engagement with Cuba, the Biden administration may continue to face entrenched opposition at home. The FIU Cuba Poll, “the longest-running research project tracking opinions of the Cuban-American community in South Florida,” found that “the community’s . . . overall tendency is to maintain a strong hold on the ‘stick’ policies that promote sanctions and isolation.” Nevertheless, the Poll also found that “the community’s isolationist views have softened a bit among the young and newest arrivals,” a good indication that times are changing. Cuba, too, is ripe for change in light of “crippling COVID-19 challenges and the mounting global food, fuel, and inflation crises.” Charting a new course in U.S. relations with Cuba—one not dissimilar to the Obama administration’s—is the only way toward a U.S.-Cuba détente. After all, the future of the Cuban people depends on it.
Sasha Brigante is a second-year student at Cornell Law School, where, in addition to her involvement with the Farmworker Legal Assistance Clinic, she also serves as President of Cornell’s Cuban American Bar Association and Co-Director of Cornell’s International Refugee Assistance Project.
Suggested Citation: Sasha Brigante, Toward a U.S.-Cuba Détente, Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y, The Issue Spotter (November 17, 2022), http://jlpp.org/blogzine/toward-a-u-s-cuba-detente.