Despite promises to lift some Trump sanctions, Biden leaves Cuba in deep freeze

NEW YORK —

One of Cuba’s most senior diplomats switches from Spanish to English when he describes the pace at which many Cubans expected a new President Biden to ease restrictions on the island nation.

“Swiftly,” Carlos Fernandez de Cossio said. Biden campaigned on the promise of a swift rollback of many of President Trump’s harshest policies against Cuba. Nearly nine months into the Biden administration, very little has changed.

To penalize Cuba and win political point in Florida , Trump made steps to reverse a diplomatic thaw initiated by President Obama. Trump stopped sending Cuban Americans money to their relatives and friends in Cuba, and he also made significant cuts to travel to Cuba by U.S citizens. He also placed Cuba on the very limited list of countries that support terrorism.

Far from lifting the sanctions, however, the Biden administration tightened them in July after Cuban authorities’ violent crackdown on rare anti-government demonstrations and the arrest of hundreds.

Despite promises early in Biden’s presidency that limits on remittances — long a key source of income for many Cubans — would be eased, the State Department now says only that it has studied the issue and has sent recommendations to the White House. A senior State Department official declined to discuss the recommendations, but stated that the goal was to provide remittances to the common people and not to the Cuban military or government. Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council’s Latin America official, declined to speak with The Times through a spokeswoman. According to people familiar with the State Department review, the recommendations contain solid ideas such as electronic wallets that would meet the stated goals. However, some observers believe that the administration is still at odds internally over what to do regarding remittances as well as broader Cuba policy.

“There is no excuse for the Biden administration not to have done something on remittances,” said Ted Henken, a professor of Latin American studies at Baruch College who has written extensively on U.S. policy regarding Cuba. “They are more afraid to act and make a mistake ” By easing sanctions, Biden may face political fallout from conservative Cuban Americans, who make up a large bloc of voters in Florida’s battleground state. Also, lawmakers like Senator Marco Rubio (R.Fla.) or Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chair of the Senate External Relations Committee.

Cubans, from government officials to ordinary citizens, are frustrated. Many families rely on remittances for their financial security. Officials from the United States claim that a portion of the money sent to Cuba by Americans is being skimmed by the Cuban government. Havana claims this is a false concern.

Anti-government protesters raise their hands as they march in Havana on  July 11.

Antigovernment protesters march July 11 in Havana to protest food shortages.

(Eliana Aponte / Associated Press)

Plainclothes police grab an anti-government protester in Havana.

A protester was detained by police in Havana during large demonstrations in July.

(Ramon Espinosa / Associated Press)

Fernandez de Cossio, who heads the section of the Cuban Foreign Ministry dedicated to U.S. affairs, claimed that coverage of the protest crackdowns, which included images and video of demonstrators being beaten, was exaggerated. He claimed that the fear of domestic reprisals has paralysed the Biden administration.

“They can’t do anything and remain popular with those in Miami,” he said in an interview on the margins of last month’s United Nations General Assembly meeting. “This administration has not been able to find its voice for what it wants to do with Cuba.”

Southern and central Florida are home to thousands of people who fled communist or leftist governments in Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and elsewhere. In the 2020 presidential campaign, Trump capitalized on their dread of the left by falsely portraying Biden and other Democrats as socialists. Trump won the state.

Biden’s lack of action on Cuba, which sits just 90 miles south of the U.S., has served as another example for a small but growing group of foreign policy experts who argue that many of the president’s policies are not so different from Trump’s. Some Cuban Americans believe that the slow pace of remittances does less damage to the communist government and military than it does to average Cubans. People trying to send money to Cuban friends and relatives must go through a lot of hoops and work with third parties. Sometimes they are unsuccessful.

“There is no direct way to do it, and the process is intricate, expensive and cumbersome,” said Maria Isabel Alfonso, a Cuban American who teaches Cuban culture at St. Joseph’s College in New York. While she works with an organization that supports engagement with Cuba, she does not support the government. Citizens facing acute shortages of food, medicine and fuel are suffering the most, she said. Javier Larrondo, who as President of Prisoners Defenders has advocated for scores political prisoners held in Cuba, said that Biden is wise to take time to address the problem because it is difficult to circumvent Cuban government attempts to take a cut from incoming funds. He needs to find a way to balance the two.

State Department officials in July put together a task force with representatives from the Treasury Department and other agencies, who consulted with outside experts for recommendations on remittances. According to government protocol, the goal is “to support Cuban people and hold the regime accountable.” The State Department official spoke on condition of anonymity. One area where the administration is likely to move faster is the repopulation of the U.S. Embassy at Havana.

Obama reopened the embassy in 2015, a major step in ending half a century of Cold War tensions. Trump’s decision not to freeze relations caused a reduction in staff. After diplomats and others reported unspecified medical problems, U.S. personnel were forced to withdraw. This mysterious condition, now called Havana syndrome, has already harmed U.S. diplomats all over the globe.

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In the coming weeks, the U.S. will send more diplomats to Havana and will allow them to bring spouses, a reversal of Trump-era rules. Cuban citizens can’t obtain visas from the U.S. without visiting a third country without a full staff embassy.

The administration insists on Cuban citizens having uncensored internet access. Many claim that frequent cuts to service are a way of suppressing dissidents. The weak system and frequent outages are blamed by the Cuban government.

For some 60 years, since the Cuban Revolution carried Fidel Castro to power, successive U.S. administrations have, in varying degrees, sought changes in Havana, almost always unsuccessfully.

“We’re going to be taking a close look at what has and has not worked in the past, and unfortunately, in the case of Cuba, there may be more that has not worked than what has worked,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said of the review before recommendations were made to the White House.

Price confirmed last week that the White House had received remittance recommendations “a few weeks ago”, but did not give a time frame for action. “It is an issue that is not uncomplicated,” he said.

U.S. Other countries cannot trade or deal with Cuba because sanctions could complicate their efforts. Washington may be afoul.

Fernandez de Cossio stated that Cubans feel particularly upset at being on the state sponsors of terror list, which also includes Iran, North Korea, and Syria. He said that putting Cuba in this club is unfair and unsupported by facts.

Biden, along with others, criticized Trump’s decision eight days before he resigned. The new administration has not yet taken any action to reverse the decision.

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