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Biden's missed opportunity in Cuba

When US President Joe Biden promised to bring America back to the global stage after four years of isolationism under Donald Trump, the Caribbean was admittedly not a priority. And amid a royal battle with Republicans over domestic spending, the last thing Biden wanted is a politics-infected foreign policy crisis.

The Caribbean had other ideas. After an assassination attempt on the president in Haiti, which left a power vacuum alongside extreme violence and a growing humanitarian crisis, Biden now faces historic protests in Cuba that sparked a chorus of support from American lawmakers, the anger of the Cuban government and other fear before a mass exodus of Cubans to the US coast.

When US President Joe Biden promised to bring America back to the global stage after four years of isolationism under Donald Trump, the Caribbean was admittedly not a priority. And amid a royal battle with Republicans over domestic spending, the last thing Biden wanted is a politics-infected foreign policy crisis.

The Caribbean had other ideas. After an assassination attempt on the president in Haiti, which left a power vacuum alongside extreme violence and a growing humanitarian crisis, Biden now faces historic protests in Cuba that sparked a chorus of support from American lawmakers, the anger of the Cuban government and other fear before a mass exodus of Cubans to the US coast.

If Cubans protest massively, it is because the island is facing the worst economic crisis in decades, causing hardships for the Cuban people that rivaled those during the so-called special period in the 1990s when the collapse of the Soviet Union devastated the country . Food shortages, skyrocketing inflation that made goods even more expensive, and hours of blackouts were exacerbated by the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, which dried up tourism dollars and remittances from overseas Cubans, which have served as vital sources of foreign currency and money Income for families on the island. Public anger boiled over during the hot, humid summer as the country saw a surge in coronavirus cases. Record numbers of cases have put such a strain on the country's health system that even basic medicines are no longer available.

Cuba's communist regime has weathered several economic and political crises since it came to power about 60 years ago by blaming the US embargo on the island. But Cuban anger has turned against President Miguel Díaz-Canel, the leader of the Communist Party and the first person outside the Castro family to lead the country since the Cuban Revolution. Díaz-Canel's financial mismanagement of the Cuban economy and mounting hardship led to a growing audacity in civil society, driven by younger dissident Cuban artists to make their demands known. The protests have spread like wildfire in more than 40 locations across the island – an almost unprecedented display of defiance.

Initially, the regime dismissed the demonstrations as a US-backed insurrection, urged supporters to pull back the streets and warned that the United States would risk an exodus of Cuban immigrants. But as the protests spread and criticism of the clumsy reaction against the demonstrators grew, Díaz-Canel changed his mind. Last week, alluding to the needs of the people, the government lifted restrictions on travelers so they can bring unlimited food, medicine and other essentials without paying customs. Since air traffic to the island is restricted due to COVID-19, the measure may have little impact. But it offers the United States a chance to help.

Biden has described the protests as a “Klaron call for freedom” from an “authoritarian regime”. His government is on a tightrope: it expresses support for the demonstrators and calls on the Cuban government to respond to the demands of the people without causing difficulties for the demonstrators and without playing into the hands of the regime.

As Vice President, Biden was part of President Barack Obama's opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba, which saw the easing of travel restrictions, promising more tourism dollars and remittances, an opening of embassies and Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in the United States. Trump rolled it all back and imposed even tougher sanctions, which further weighed on the economy and hardened the position of the Cuban government. The pandemic exacerbated problems by closing down tourism, a major source of foreign exchange. The government has also suffered the collapse of its closest regional ally, Venezuela, whose government under socialist leader Nicolás Maduro is also under US sanctions.

As a candidate, Biden pledged to reverse Trump's restrictive sanctions policy, arguing that "the regime's crackdown on Cubans has gotten worse, not better, under Trump." But after half a year of his tenure, as with so many topics from Afghanistan to trade, Biden's policies are practically a continuation of Trump's.

Support for demands for freedom in Cuba fits well with Biden's democracy agenda, in which he divided the world into an existential struggle between democracies and authoritarian regimes. There is also pageantry about certain US politicians promoting democracy in Cuba when the United States is stormy at best. But the louder the administration, the higher the cost of inaction.

The Biden government is in the midst of a political review of Cuba that has been complicated and even politically charged by the protests as Cuban Americans in Florida in solidarity with protesters and Republican leaders like Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted. Cruz, both of whom played an important role in Trump's tough Cuban policies, took to the streets, criticizing his reaction. Biden also seeks to appease Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee – an important voice in the opposition to the return to Obama-era Cuban policies and someone the government has in addition to Biden's support domestic agenda.

Washington rhetoric focuses on supporting democracy and human rights in Cuba. But today, unlike previous protests, Cubans protest their crushing poverty and lack of food as much, if not more, than their lack of democratic freedoms.

Dealing with the acute humanitarian emergencies that have brought the Cuban people to the streets and supporting their desire for freedom need not be mutually exclusive policy options. It is possible that the Cuban government will not accept US aid. But renewing access to remittances and easing travel restrictions to the island would help people meet their basic needs. The United States can also accelerate efforts to bring vaccines to Cuba. Savvy humanitarian and non-governmental organizations know how to deal with both US sanctions and the restrictions imposed by the Cuban government.

In the short term, the United States can help keep the Internet going. The internet has exploded on the island in recent years, and social media is an empowering tool for civil society, largely thanks to agreements with companies like Google and YouTube that stem from Obama's reach. US officials are considering a proposal from Rubio to use US satellite technology for internet access in order to overcome efforts by the Cuban government to disrupt the internet and stop the flow of information and communication between protesters.

Then the age-old question arises of how best to change the island sustainably. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week, "Americans, especially Cubans, are the best ambassadors for freedom and prosperity in Cuba." That would suggest the wisdom of returning to the détente of the Obama era. The premise of Obama's policy was not that the Cuban government would democratize overnight, but that opening up the island would connect Cubans with a flood of American travelers who not only generate some revenue and make Cuban lives less desperate, but also would give them more opportunities to interact with the rest of the world and ultimately seek political change.

The administration also needs to be aware of the larger climate in Latin America, where the pendulum swings fairly sharply to the left. US policy in Cuba is intertwined with its policy towards Venezuela, Peru, and Nicaragua, all of which are made more difficult by current US-Cuba policy.

The logic of Rubio, Menendez, and others that the opening didn't bring about any meaningful change makes sense (though neither did 60 years of embargo). But Biden's quest to be a less aggressive version of Rubio is not a strategy for success and only legitimizes a hard line that will make it difficult for him or any future government to try a new approach.

It remains to be seen whether the protests will be quashed by the Cuban government or represent a larger movement that could ultimately see the long-awaited end of the dictatorship. Should the regime ultimately fall, Cuba's institutions will not be stronger than those in Haiti, Venezuela or Libya. China and Russia can already be seen on the island. If the United States doesn't step in now, it won't have credibility later to help shape what's next.

This week, Díaz-Canel called on the Biden government to lift the embargo, saying, "We shall see what this people … is capable of." Perhaps it is time for Washington to test the premise.

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