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The Biden administration is in no rush to return to a full normalization of relations with Cuba, despite pressure from the Democratic Party’s far-left wing — at least judging from what President Biden’s top adviser on Latin American affairs told me in an interview,
Juan S. Gonzalez, the White House National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere, told me on April 27 that the administration would have to see “concrete steps” toward an economic or political opening in Cuba before deciding to fully return to the Obama-era normalization of ties with the island.
Gonzalez says that Biden will go ahead with his campaign promises to relax restrictions on U.S. travel and remittances to Cuba and seek to grant 20,000 visas a year to Cuban migrants.
But the decision on whether to relax the embargo is “up to the U.S. Congress,” he said. The fact that General Raul Castro recently retired from his job as leader of Cuba’s Communist Party — the most powerful position in the one-party country — does not by itself mean a whole lot, Gonzalez suggested.
“Look, we are prepared to talk with the Cubans,” Gonzalez said, noting that the United States has diplomatic relations with Cuba. “But the most important thing is that the president’s policy will be one in which Americans, especially Cuban-Americans, will be the best ambassadors of U.S. diplomacy.”
And, he added, “Human rights will be a key factor in any conversation that we may have with the regime.”
Gonzalez concluded that the Biden administration has “no major urgency to invest a lot of time” on Cuba “unless we see concrete things” on the island. Translation: The ball is in Cuba’s court.
The way I see it, Biden is doing the right thing by resisting the pressures from his party’s left wing on Cuba.
In March, 80 Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed a letter to the president urging him to pursue “a more constructive approach” toward Cuba “by promptly returning to the Obama-Biden administration policy of engagement and normalization of relations.” The majority of House Democrats did not sign the letter.
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, who was the architect of the former president’s normalization of ties with Cuba, tweeted disapprovingly on April 23 that, “So far, Biden has been completely indistinguishable from Trump on Cuba policy and messaging.”
But the fact is that none of the 80 House Democrats who signed that letter are from Florida or — in most cases — don’t know much about Cuba. And Rhodes has a personal investment in seeing his policy continued by Biden.
But the administration would be committing political suicide in Florida — a key state in the 2022 mid-term and the 2024 presidential elections — if it made friendly gestures toward Cuba, barring any steps toward an economic or political opening on the island.
The Democrats lost two seemingly solid House seats in Miami in the November elections, both taken by Republicans who won a majority of Cuban-American votes and who were helped by Trump’s claims that Biden was a “socialist” who would restore full ties with Cuba.
If Biden wants to keep control of the House and pass his ambitious government plans, he should fight to recover those two seats in Congress, and try to keep Florida from becoming a solidly Republican state.
Relaxing some of the travel and remittances restrictions put in place by Trump is a good idea, as long as it’s done under rules that would keep U.S. dollars from going into the Cuban military’s pockets.
U.S. tourists, for instance, should not be allowed to go to Cuban military-owned hotels. Making sure that they stay at private guest houses would help create a stronger private sector in Cuba.
But a bigger U.S. opening toward Cuba would be a kiss of death for the president’s party in Florida and would be totally inconsistent with Biden’s vow to restore human rights and democracy as cornerstones of America’s foreign policy.
It wouldn’t make sense for Biden to make an exception with Cuba, a 63-year-old dictatorship that is one of the world’s worst police states. Right now, Biden is doing the right thing by not rewarding its repressive regime.
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