How Biden should respond to the crisis in Cuba
The greatest threat to U.S. national interests in Cuba is the possibility, however slim, that U.S. policy there will succeed.
Sixty-two years ago this month, the Eisenhower administration concluded that Fidel Castro’s revolutionary regime was incompatible with the national interests of the United States. Washington has been actively trying to destabilize it ever since. Even during the two-year hiatus from 2014 to 2016 when President Obama began normalizing relations, the U.S. government spent millions of dollars on “democracy promotion” programs to bolster the Cuban opposition.
But fostering misery and chaos in Cuba in pursuit of regime change is not cost-free for Washington. Although the Cuban government is not on the verge of collapse, the economic situation on the island is desperate — as bad it has been since the deep depression of the “Special Period” in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The recent anti-government demonstrations in Havana and a dozen other cities, some of which involved violence and looting, are a reminder that many Cubans are deeply discontented with the economic and political status quo. The possibility of further social unrest is real.
In Washington, the protests have given new life to the pipedream that the Cuban regime is on its last legs, prompting calls from various quarters for the Biden administration to administer the coup de grâce. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) called on Biden to “challenge” the Cuban regime by appealing to the Cuban military to overthrow it. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) warned of a “horrific bloodbath” unless Biden toughens his policy toward the island.
The last time the Cuban economy was in such bad shape, regime collapse seemed imminent. An August 1993, a CIA National Intelligence Estimate predicted “a better than even chance that Fidel Castro’s government will fall within the next few years.” But this was no cause for celebration, as the intelligence report explained: “If Cuban authorities lose control, massive, panicky illegal emigration toward the United States will occur,” it warned. “There would also be pressure for US or international military intervention, especially if a large number of exiles became involved on the island.”
The CIA’s dire warning led Rick Nuccio to sound the alarm in a memo to his boss, Assistant Secretary of State Alec Watson. “The fundamental security threat facing the United States in Cuba is a societal crisis that leads to widespread violence. Such a development is the most likely to produce either significant outflows of refugees, or active involvement of U.S. forces and/or Cuban Americans in Cuba.” Another of Watson’s advisers, Phil Peters, tried to jolt the administration into action, writing, “Given the situation on the island, I would argue that policy continuity, or even marginal change, is not the low-risk option. It’s positively scary.”
Nuccio and Peters had different ideas about what ought to be done; Nuccio wanted to focus on building Cuban civil society to promote a peaceful transition to democracy, whereas Peters favored relaxing some sanctions and engaging with the Cuban government. Other State Department officials argued for turning up the heat to accelerate regime collapse.
President Bill Clinton, however, was more focused on politics in Miami than on developments in Havana, so months went by without any coordinated U.S. policy response to the deepening crisis on the island. By the summer of 1994, it was too late. A riot on the Havana waterfront, not unlike some of the demonstrations last weekend, was followed by the “rafters” migration crisis.
Echoes of these dangers can be heard today. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez has called for U.S. intervention in response to the protests on the island, while Cuban American demonstrators blocked the Palmetto Expressway demanding an end to the Cuban regime. (They were not arrested, despite violating Gov. DeSantis’ new anti-riot law). Social media spread proposals to open a “humanitarian corridor” into Cuba, even though the Cuban government is already accepting humanitarian assistance. At sea, the U.S. Coast Guard is intercepting a growing number of Cubans trying to reach the United States in small boats and rafts.
Another cost of the sanctions President Trump imposed on Cuba — sanctions Biden has left in place — is a deterioration in counter-narcotics cooperation. Until 1998, Cuban air space and territorial waters were a blind spot that traffickers could exploit to evade the U.S. Coast Guard. But a Clinton era agreement establishing cooperation was so effective that traffickers shifted to routes through Mexico.
For the past decade the U.S. Southern Command, in its annual Posture Statement, has cited transnational crime, especially drug trafficking, as one of the top threats to U.S. security in the Hemisphere. Yet the Trump administration halted consultations between the Coast Guard and Cuban Border Guards, and U.S. sanctions have left the Cubans without the fuel they need to patrol their coasts.
The steps President Biden could take to reduce the danger of worse social unrest in Cuba and to safeguard U.S. security interests would not require any radical new initiatives. The United States and Cuba already have bilateral cooperation agreements on law enforcement, narcotics interdiction, and migration. Biden simply has to reactivate them and hold up Washington’s end of the bargain, especially the U.S. obligation to give Cubans a minimum of 20,000 immigrant visas annually so Cubans have a safe, legal way to emigrate rather than risking their lives at sea.
Cuban Americans have been able to send remittances to family on the island ever since Jimmy Carter was in the White House — until Donald Trump cut them off as one of his final acts in office. President Biden could restore the ability to send remittances with a stroke of the pen, sending urgently needed relief to millions of Cuban families.
The rapid spread of COVID in Cuba is a natural disaster worse than the hurricanes that periodically ravage the island. Previous U.S. presidents, including George W. Bush, who could not be accused of being soft on Cuban communism, have offered Cuba humanitarian aid in the face of such disasters — aid channeled both through non-governmental organizations and to the government directly.
There is no reason President Biden’s pledge to combat COVID globally should exclude Cuba. “This is about our responsibility,” he said in June, “our humanitarian obligation to save as many lives as we can — and our responsibility to our values.” Four U.S. Catholic bishops recently called upon international governments to provide Cuba with the medical supplies they need to cope with COVID, calling it “a moral imperative.” Private humanitarian relief efforts to have been heroic but inadequate. Rather than spending millions to subvert the Cuban government, USAID should be spending the money to help vaccinate the Cuban people.
President Obama made the point succinctly on December 17, 2014 when he announced his decision to shift from a policy of regime change to one of engagement: “It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse,” he argued. “Even if that worked – and it hasn’t for 50 years – we know from hard-earned experience that countries are more likely to enjoy lasting transformation if their people are not subjected to chaos.”