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Top Dem senator assails Biden on Cuba policy

The president promised during the campaign to reverse Trump's failing sanctions policies and so far has yet to follow through.

Analysis | Latin America

In a blistering critique of the Biden administration’s failure to roll back former President Trump’s sanctions against Cuba, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy Monday described the current situation between the two countries as “bewildering, tragic, and exasperating.”

“Exasperating,” he declared, “because anyone who understands Cuba could have predicted what has happened since the Trump administration reversed the Obama administration’s policy of engagement and would have taken steps to mitigate it. Instead, the current policy is making the situation worse.”

Leahy blasted the administration for not taking action in the 10 months of its existence, noting that Trump’s policy of “trying to bludgeon the Cuban authorities into submission” has failed.

“I have asked, but I have no idea what the administration’s practical objectives are in Cuba, or how it proposes to achieve them,” said Leahy, who has long headed the Foreign Operations subcommittee of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. “After being told six months ago that the State Department was conducting a review of its policy, we have yet to see any change from the policy it inherited from the Trump administration a year ago. What happened to the review? What did it say?”

When Biden took office, expectations were high that he would quickly reverse sanctions imposed by executive order by Trump, not just on Cuba, but on Iran and several other nations as well, and return to Obama’s efforts to build on his 2014 normalization of diplomatic ties to the Caribbean island and his own visit there two years later.

Trump had tried to roll back that normalization effort as much as he could, by, among other steps, reimposing restrictions on remittances from Cuban Americans to their families on the island, banning commerce with businesses controlled by the Cuban military and security services, prohibiting U.S. cruise ships to Cuba, restricting educational tours there, curtailing cultural and scientific exchanges, and allowing U.S. nationals to sue entities that allegedly benefited from expropriations made by Havana after the revolution there 60 years ago.

In a final move, just nine days before Biden took office, Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, re-designated Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” on the grounds that it had refused to extradite aging American fugitives, as well as a small group of Colombian guerrilla commanders, to the United States and that it had continued to support Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro whose regime was itself a target of “maximum pressure,” if not “regime change,” during the Trump administration.

Despite Biden’s campaign promises to relax or repeal most of these sanctions, all of them remain in place.

In his remarks, Leahy charged that the administration’s policy to date “has been dictated by a tiny but vocal constituency in this country that has always opposed U.S. engagement” — an apparent reference to hardline anti-communist Republicans and several Democrats with large Cuban and Venezuelan exile constituencies in districts and states, such as Florida, that can influence the outcome of key elections.

Although Leahy did not mention him by name, those hardliners include the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, who has long opposed any normalization with Havana but whose vote the administration needs on a whole gamut of foreign policy issues, including ambassadorial and other key State Department nominations, in an evenly split and increasingly partisan upper chamber.

Opponents of normalization, such as Menendez, gained some ammunition in July when Cuba experienced an unprecedented outbreak of popular protests in Havana other cities across the island over power outages, shortage of medicine, and soaring inflation resulting from the impact the sanctions and a COVID-related collapse in tourism, as well as the slow pace of economic and political reform. The demonstrations were dispersed using stronger measures than usual, and scores of dissidents were rounded up. The Biden administration responded by imposing new sanctions on several senior officials deemed responsible for the crackdown.

Since then, several administration officials have justified the continuation of Trump’s sanctions by insisting that the crackdown made it much more politically difficult to relax the sanctions.

But Leahy, whose effectiveness in imposing human rights conditions on U.S. foreign military and economic aid over the last three-plus decades is unmatched in the Senate, insisted that the continuation of a punitive approach to Havana was counter-productive.

“Cuba is changing,” he declared. “Access to social media and cell phones has dramatically increased. Attitudes among the younger generation are changing. The Cuban government is making historic, albeit hesitant, reforms to relax restrictions on private businesses. President Obama’s opening to Cuba, which lasted only two years, was instrumental in helping to bring about these changes. 

“Rather than acknowledge the unprecedented progress during that short period, those who defend a policy of sanctions say Obama’s policy of openness failed because Cuba remains a repressive, one-party state. They completely ignore that the same was true for 50 years before Obama, and for the five years since Obama. When it comes to helping to bring positive changes to the people of Cuba, President Obama wins hands down.”

The Vermont Democrat added that U.S. Cuba policy “is replete with contradictions, hypocrisy, arrogance, and missed opportunities. Cuba is an impoverished country that poses no threat to the United States, yet we treat it as if it does largely because of our own actions. While we maintain an intricate web of unilateral sanctions that every nation in this hemisphere opposes, the Russians and Chinese are aggressively filling the vacuum as anyone who visits Cuba today can readily see.”

It is right to “condemn” the kinds of abuses of civil and political rights that the Cuban government has committed, he said, adding, however, that such abuses and worse are “common to many countries,” including those strongly supported by Washington, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Responsible Statecraft asked the State Department if it had any comment on Leahy’s remarks, but it had not replied by late Tuesday afternoon.

“Senator Leahy has obviously gotten tired of waiting for President Biden to keep his campaign promise re-engage with Cuba and lift the Trump sanctions that hurt Cuban families,” William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert at American University and co-author of the award-winning “Back Channel to Cuba” (2015) on relations between the two countries, told Responsible Statecraft. “He’s not pulling any punches holding the administration accountable for an ill-defined policy based on domestic politics rather than the national interest, a policy that punishes the Cuban people for the bad behavior of their government and pretends that this somehow promotes democracy.”

U.S. President Barack Obama sits with Cuban President Raul Castro at the Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana, Cuba, as he members of a U.S. delegation including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry attend an exhibition game on March 22, 2016, between the Cuban National Baseball Team and the Tampa Bay Rays. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]
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