Five years ago, I stood in a mostly Cuban crowd outside of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, excitedly watching our flag raised for the first time in 54 years. Two hours later, I was at a celebratory party at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence, a beautiful building purportedly designed, but never used, as a winter White House for FDR. Scores of official and non-official Americans who had worked for normalization were there, along with diplomats from other countries. No one from the Cuban government attended because the embassy chose to invite a few prominent dissidents.
The path to this day had not been easy due to political distrust on both sides, but its success was a tribute to the determination of both Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro. None of us expected that future relations would be simple. However, we never anticipated that virtually everything would be undone by the election of Donald Trump.
Cuba relations will hardly be the largest problem or the first priority of a Biden administration, but it is low hanging fruit. While special interests are loudly in favor or against U.S. engagement with the island, two-thirds of Americans, including a majority of Cuban-Americans, were quietly supportive of President Obama’s normalization path and ready to go further to completely open travel.
Joe Biden can rapidly and effectively build on Obama’s opening. He will do at least as well with personally affected Florida voters by convincing them his goal is a positive functional relationship with the land that is still the home of their parents, children, and other family members. He can counteract the narrow-minded regression of President Trump for whom Cuba policies were seemingly little more than a favor to Marco Rubio and Vladimir Putin.
Biden will be able to signal his concern for the well-being of the people of both nations, his desire to strengthen in practice pro-market reforms, and the need to effectively compete with growing Russian and Chinese influence. His administration could solidify a historic new chapter of post-Monroe Doctrine, post-Platt Amendment U.S. partnership with the hemisphere.
Biden’s campaign is already publicly critical of the Trump administration’s latest punitive pettiness toward Cuba: prohibition of rare private charter flights. Biden himself has told Americas Quarterly, “as president, I will promptly reverse the failed Trump policies that have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights.”
Biden will certainly receive support from his vice president. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is among 46 bipartisan cosponsors of a bill to end all restrictions on travel to Cuba.
He can also expect an abrazo, a hug, from the new First Lady, whose moving cultural visit to Camaguey and Havana was portrayed in an Obama White House video.
Biden has four stages of opportunity that will cut the Gordian knot of six decades of intractable mutually destructive U,S,-Cuba relations.
First, during the campaign or right after election, he should announce thatimmediately upon taking office he will restore Obama’s policies on individual and group travel licenses, cruises, flights to regional cities, remittances, import of agricultural products, international shipping, specific types of investments, and banking and as well as facilitation of visas for educational and cultural exchange.
He should also clarify that Cubans granted visas for family and professional visits and for study in the United States will be deemed ineligible to claim status under the Cuban Adjustment Act, the law that provides legal status to those Cuban nationals who arrive to the United States illegally. (Depending on U.S. success in controlling COVID-19, an announcement of intention allows planning for the winter season and spring semester by the travel sector and universities.)
Second, within his firstyear in the White House, Biden should fully restaff an embassy gutted by the Trump administration, which opportunistically exploited inexplicable health problems of U.S. personnel to abandon its responsibility .
He should also reopen consular authority and restore visa availability for immigration and family reunion visits. And Biden should support existing legislation to totally end restrictions on travel and other bills for comparable initiatives in agricultural and medical sales as well as on related financial transactions.
Biden should also enable collaboration in medicine and science, including on anti-COVID research, treatment, and international humanitarian assistance. He can also break new ground by testing and supporting economic reforms such as terminating application of the embargo to privately owned small and medium Cuban enterprises — thereby permitting their exports, imports, and U.S. investments.
Third, within his first two years in office, Biden should align with hemispheric and European goals by achieving through comprehensive negotiations a political settlement in Venezuela and an end to the unilateral U.S. embargo of Cuba.
He should open consulates in at least one Cuban and one U.S. city and allow ferry service between U.S. and Cuban ports. On the media front, he can seek reciprocal dampening of interventionist hostility by state funded publications, broadcasts, and social media, replaced by ongoing multi-sectoral dialog about conflicting human rights values and ideologies.
Finally, within his first term, Biden should follow the road map to restore full Cuban sovereignty of the Guantanamo base that was developed during the Obama administration’s normalization discussions by then-deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and Alejandro Castro head of Cuba’s National Security Council and Raul’s son.
As the result of the Obama-Castro opening, real differences were emerging in Cuba about whether reconciliation and mutual respect with the U.S. was truly possible or a Trojan Horse. But President Trump's harsh renewal of Cold War-era hostility foreclosed the discussion.
Closer U.S.-Cuban ties can also help lead to more definitive conclusions about just what happened to American diplomats in Havana regarding the mysterious health issues. The Cubans may be able to help eliminate the problem by identifying and controlling the cause based on Canadian medical and scientific research and private collaboration with U.S. scientists, doctors, and security officials.
A potential Biden administration has an opportunity to move the United States in the right direction, but real trust is impossible as long as the U.S. maintains a devastating unilateral embargo and refuses to restore the Guantanamo base to national sovereignty, consistent with U.S. principles elsewhere in the world.