Man hangs clothes from balcony in La Habana, Cuba. January 2021. Photo credit: Ricardo Tamayo IV

A tale of two islands: Biden caught between lifting Cuban sanctions or strengthening them to satisfy conservative Cuban-Americans. Part 2

6 mins read

With midterm elections around the corner, Biden’s decision abroad can ultimately cost him a second term domestically.

July 11 saw thousands of Cubans demanding President Miguel Diaz-Canal’s resignation while protesting medicines and basic supply shortages. Almost immediately, many Cuban-Americans urged President Biden to impose harsher sanctions on Cuba. Yet, the more than 60-year-old embargo against the island has been the “norm” for U.S. policy toward its southern neighbor.

“We know this cruel action. We’ve seen it before,” said Adeyemi Bandele, education coordinator of SEIU 1199, speaking at a demonstration near the White House this past July. He said U.S. economic sanctions and the embargo have harmed the people in Cuba, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Repeated U.S. administrations have carried forward this repressive policy. Why deny Cuba food and essential supplies, then blame the people for the shortages?”  questioned Bandele.   

The U.S. exerts control of Cuba 

Bandele argued that U.S. interference with Cuba’s right to national sovereignty and independence dates back to The Monroe Doctrine of 1823. Named after President James Monroe, it stated that European countries could not colonize nations in the Western Hemisphere. If they tried, the U.S. would consider such actions as hostile, and threatening to its national security. 

Under the cover of the doctrine, the U.S. sent troops to numerous Latin American countries it decided were ruled by “foreign” influences. The occupations directly or indirectly exerted its control.

 “The Monroe Doctrine should go the way of the General Robert E. Lee Confederate statues, and be permanently removed,” Bandele asserted.

As with Haiti, U.S. relations with Cuba are based on the former’s political and business interests. After defeating Spain, the U.S. took control of Cuba in the 1898 Spanish-American War. Until 1902, U.S. troops occupied Cuba. The U.S. granted Cuba independence as long as it adhered to the terms of the Platt Amendment, which allowed U.S. authority over Cuba, but prohibited other nations from such.

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In 1933, Cuba’s government was ousted by career military leader Fulgencio Batista. He ran the country behind a succession of leaders over which he held sway. Batista was elected president from 1940 to 1944, returning to power in 1952 as the result of a military coup. Despite his suspending Cuba’s constitution and the right to strike, the American government recognized Batista’s rule. 

Batista opened Cuba to the influences of U.S. organized crime, establishing widespread gambling and drug trafficking in the nation. As hotels and casinos were built, Batista and his allies became rich from revenues. In addition, building contractors had to pay Batista before proceeding with construction projects.

In 1959, rebel leader Fidel Castro and his small guerrilla army overthrew Batista. The Soviet Union recognized Cuba under Castro and aided the new ally. Rodrigo Acuna, a freelance journalist at Macquarie University in Australia and a Latin America expert, has written that Cuba under Castro had greatly improved after Batista was ousted. 

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Cuban vintage cars, which are older American classics, are still used as popular means of transportation. Because of the trade restrictions after the Cuban revolution, cars were not imported into the country, thus creating an industry to maintain older vehicles. Photo credit: Yerson Olivares of Unsplash

Under Batista, Acuna wrote, Cuban families “survived on $6 a day.” Also, Acuna claimed that Castro’s efforts to make life better for Cubans were difficult due to the constant threat of war with the U.S. and the embargo’s impact. “The level of aggression by the United States against Castro after the 1959 revolution is rarely seriously discussed, despite it helping to explain why the island’s leadership developed a siege mentality, and why it aligned the country with the Soviet bloc during the Cold War,” Acuna stated. 

Following the revolution, thousands of Cubans left for the U.S. Subsequently, this severed diplomatic ties with the nation; and imposed economic sanctions and a trade embargo on Cuba. Once the Cold War ended, the former Soviet Union broke up. Due to its disbandment, it could no longer finance Cuba and other Soviet bloc countries.

Decades later, President Obama normalized relations by restoring diplomacy with Cuba in 2015. Yet, in a drastic change, President Trump returned to tightening the embargo and sanctions. But in a flip in the house of cards, during Biden’s presidential campaign, he said he would restore relations. However, he did the opposite by imposing penalties on Cuba’s Ministries of Armed forces and Intelligence after the July 11 protests. 

“This is just the beginning – the United States will continue to sanction individuals responsible for the oppression of the Cuban people,” President Biden said in a statement.  

The Washington Office on Latin America in D.C. characterized Biden’s remarks as political rhetoric. As per their press statement, “Focusing only on the protests, with language that describes them as ‘clarion calls for freedom,’ while politically popular in some communities, is one-sided, and casts a shadow on what’s most important: alleviating the suffering of the Cuban people.”

Economic destruction as foreign policy 

As far back as March, a group of Congressmembers sent President Biden a letter asking to suspend the economic restraints against Cuba. “Executive orders implemented by the Trump administration tightened sanctions to levels not seen in decades, at a time when Cubans are facing acute shortages of food and medicine exacerbated by their preventative economic shutdown which has helped to limit the spread of SARS-CoV2 virus,” the letter stated.

Erik Sperling, Executive Director of Just Foreign Policy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan independent organization dedicated to reforming U.S. policies toward foreign countries, questions whether a majority participated in the July 11 protest demonstrations in Cuba.

“I’ve seen the videos coming out of Cuba, and I didn’t see any evidence that the maximum number of demonstrators went beyond 10,000 people on the entire island,” Sperling told The Ark. Sperling speculated that demonstrations would not lead to another revolution ending the  communist government. 

“It is important to recognize that very few protestors were anti-government; the demonstrators were angry about government policies,” said professor emeritus at American University Philip Brenner in an interview. ”A small number did call for a change in the government, but it’s not clear what kind of government they want instead.” 

What Cuban-Americans want

According to a 2020 Florida International University opinion poll, 70 percent of Cuban-Americans in South Florida believe the U.S. embargo has not worked. Although, many support its continuation. Another result of the study showed that 61 percent of Cuban-Americans support temporary sanction suspensions during the pandemic.

The U.S. should also lift the embargo, according to Sperling, because Cuba recently broadened its private sector. This allowed citizens to legally operate and own small, private businesses in more than 2,000 professions. Yet and still, 124 professions will still be owned and controlled in whole or in part by the government. In a Financial Times article, Cuban  economist and reform advocate Ricardo Torres claimed economic reform could result in more jobs and inflation control. 

 “It gives authorities a greater margin of freedom to advance in the restructuring of state companies and reduces the discretion of the bureaucracy,” explained Torres.

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On July 30, the Biden administration announced additional sanctions against Cuba the same day Biden met with Cuban-American opposition groups at the White House. Reportedly, the Administration is exploring ways to provide Wi-Fi access to residents after the Cuban government restricted social media and the internet as conduits of protest-related information. They are also considering remittance restoration in a way that ensures all funds go to families and not to Cuban government officials, as some Cuban-Americans allege.

In a recent Dissent magazine op-ed, University of Wisconsin Latin American and Caribbean history scholar Andres Pertierra contends that Biden siding with conservative Cuban-Americans is far from helpful to those in Cuba. Although there are many economic and social problems in Cuba that its government should address, Pertierra writes that the embargo will not force change on the island.

“There is no doubt that sanctions imposed mid-pandemic have contributed to the crisis,” Pertierra asserted. “American politicians and Cuban-American hardliners that supported them bear partial responsibility for COVID-19-related deaths of Cuban citizens.” 

Pertierra says the protests are part of the island’s 200-year struggle for self-determination where the outcome is only for Cubans to decide. “The job for those of us outside of Cuba is to give them the space to make these choices for themselves.”

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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