Members Only | July 30, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
On Cuba, Biden must keep his promise
Lift sanctions. End the embargo. Empower the Cuban people.
Talk is cheap. For President Biden’s words “The US stands firmly with the people of Cuba” to mean something, America must take a monumental step, and kick-start the process of lifting the embargo imposed on the Caribbean island nation once and for all. But, of course, given the fragile electoral coalition the president is holding together, and with the midterms just around the corner, he is unlikely to do so. Playing politics will take precedence over what is actually needed for the Cuban people.
The scenes over the last few weeks caught the world’s attention, and Biden as leader of the so-called free world had little choice but to offer some sort of statement, which was never going to square with the decades’ old stance the US has taken toward Cuba.
Far from offering a break from damaging policies of the Trump era, President Biden is in danger of becoming a legacy of it, writes Editorial Board member Richard Sudan.
To be clear, there needs to be some nuance when examining the cause of the protests. Because the mass demonstrations that we have seen likely reflect a plethora of views with multiple origins, as is the case with many protests all over the world. And for sure, there are anti-government protesters. Others would have assembled, not necessarily with an agenda, but rather gathered en masse out of necessity in reaction to everyday hardships experienced in the form of food, medicine and water shortages. Anti-government middle-class white-collar workers were no doubt in the fray, too. And you can also be certain of the presence of counter-revolutionaries, no doubt backed by the US government, likely yielding a disproportionate measure of influence.
But regardless of the makeup of the protesters, including the staunchly anti-government ones, and even the reactionaries, by no stretch can we deduce that they represent the entirety of the 11 million population. Millions of Cubans, too, from all walks of life, are critical but also supportive of the government and the revolution.
This is not to say the Cuban leadership, like any government, is beyond reproach. But the Cuban people, much like the majority of people around the world, and certainly most member states of the United Nations, clearly see the elephant in the room, which cannot be avoided. The inhumane embargoes imposed by the US are a form of longstanding economic warfare. Without it, Cuba would look very different.
Whatever your analysis of the Cuban government, the United States maintains an economic heavyweight’s choke-hold on the country that has been thoroughly exacerbated by covid, considering Cuba’s heavy reliance on tourism. Cubans need dollars. But under Donald Trump’s leadership, restrictions on financial institutions, including Western Union, and on the diaspora’s ability to send money home, has had a devastating effect. Studies suggest that more than half of Cubans rely on money sent from abroad. That’s a lot of families from across a broad church of society.
Trump’s punitive measures and sanctions against Cuba resulted in the closure of more than 400 Western Union locations across the island, which for many was the sole means of receiving funds. Some might say that despite sanctions, Barack Obama at least gestured toward the potential for a different tone toward Cuba when he became the first president in 88 years to visit. He didn’t get Guantanamo closed. But the symbolism of him setting foot on Cuban soil was not lost on the global stage.
But here’s the thing. At the time of this writing, the Democratic House leadership has just stifled an amendment designed to reverse the previous administration’s restriction on the amount of money Cuban émigrés in the United States can send back to Cuba.
So let’s be clear. The president has the opportunity and even the responsibility to use his bully pulpit to press for changes that would ease the suffering of the Cuban people. Biden promised to reverse Trump’s measures of which he himself was critical. But in much the same way as he is in many ways echoing Trump’s archaic policies on immigration, the president is pretty well continuing Trump’s restrictions on Cuba.
He doesn’t want to poke the hornet’s nest in Congress by softening the tone toward Cuba, but he does have the power to do it. And he might well be mindful of bygone fears—that the perception of a better stance on Cuba will reignite old fantasies about pandering to the imagined threat of Communism, the red dog in the backyard.
But Biden cannot claim he stands with the people of Cuba while continuing to back sanctions and measures inflicting misery on them. And the entire world is acutely aware of this paradox. Whatever problems Cuba might be dealing with, the Cuban government puts the United States to shame with free health care and education, and higher rates of literacy and life expectancy than many American citizens possess.
Cuban doctors around the world alleviating suffering among those living in some of the worst conditions imaginable command global respect. One can only wonder what else Cuba might have achieved, without the constant hostility from the US, both overt and covert. Millions worldwide demand sanctions against Cuba be lifted and Trump-era measures reversed. Most member states of the United Nations demand it, too.
At a time when the United States is under the spotlight for human rights abuses against Black people within its own borders, it is simply not enough for Biden’s government to express concern for the human rights of Cubans while doubling down on the very policies that deny them a means of survival. Far from offering a break from the Trump era, Biden is in danger of becoming a legacy of it. Lifting the sanction against Cuba is the only way the US can support freedom for the Cuban people. And the US government certainly cannot talk about human rights and solidarity while Guantanamo Bay remains open. If the paradox is clear, the hypocrisy is laid bare, too.
As of late July, Cuba reportedly has more than 300,000 Covid-19 cases. It has received humanitarian aid from Nicaragua and Bolivia, among others. Now is not the time to play politics. Now is the time to save lives. History will record this moment. Biden has to decide if he wants to be remembered as the president who took steps to reverse damage done under previous administrations or as a weak president who broke his promise on Cuba and maintained the status quo for the sake of his own skin.
Journalist Richard Sudan is based in London. His reporting and writing have appeared in The Guardian, Independent and others. His reporting has taken him across Europe and to Palestine. He focuses on racism, police brutality and human rights. Find him @richardsudan.
Published in cooperation with Alternet.
Richard Sudan covers human rights and American foreign affairs for the Editorial Board. Based in London, his reporting has appeared in The Guardian, Independent and others. Find him @richardsudan.