President Biden is projecting a tougher tone on Cuba as the world watches the government’s violent crackdown on the most widespread and fervent uprisings across the island nation in more than six-decades of communist control.
After a few days of tepid statements on the protests, late last week the president surprised some in his party by labeling Cuba a “failed state” that represses its people and communism “a universally failed system.”
But Biden’s next steps will be far trickier with the Democratic Party split and pushing him in different directions, and his own wildly shifting positions on Cuba policy in recent years providing few clues for a logical path forward.
Biden on Thursday suggested his administration is looking into ways to reinstate Internet access to the people after the Cuban government shut it down, but he didn’t say when or how that would occur and previewed no additional steps.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki put little meat on those bones Friday, noting only that restoring Internet access to Cuba is something “we would love to be a part of” but referring all questions about how and when that might occur to the State Department.
A more forceful U.S. government message came from Julie Chung, the acting assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere. In a tweet Friday, Chung labeled the Cuban government “a dictatorship” that is showing it “wants revenge, not order” with reports of protesters being killed or brutally beaten by police.
She also encouraged party and military apparatchiks there to denounce the violence and turn on the current government.
“It’s not too late to take a stand against violence and repressions,” she added.
The inconsistent signals from the administration has created an opening for Republicans who have pressed Biden for more leadership and called for a variety of actions, from traveling to Miami to deliver a Reagan-esque “tear down that wall” speech to urging immediate meetings of the Organization of American States (a regional forum for policy and decision-making in the Western Hemisphere) and the United Nations.
“[Democrats] could miss a golden opportunity for the president to make history, seize this moment and reject his party’s recent wrong moves on Cuba,” Jason Poblete, president of the Global Liberty Alliance (an international human rights organizationan) and the son of Cuban immigrants, told RealClearPolitics.
Florida two most prominent Republicans, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio, along with several GOP House members last week pressed the Biden administration to quickly deploy a special type of high-altitude communications system that would enable Cuban citizens to access the Internet unfettered by the repressive government.
“We need Biden to step up and make this happen,” DeSantis, a top GOP contender to challenge Biden in the 2024 presidential election, said Thursday. “The one thing that communist regimes fear the most is the truth. … Mr. President, now’s the time to stand up and be counted.”
Others are urging Biden to harness the power of the U.S. presidency to call out the regime and urge the Western world to denounce repression and embrace democratic change. “Biden should lose his fear of his left flank [and] have a ‘Tear-Down-this-Wall’ moment,” tweeted Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“He should really channel his inner Ronald Reagan, if he can,” Gonzalez later told RCP.
Florida Democratic Rep. Val Demings, who is challenging Rubio’s reelection, also expressed solidarity with the Cuban protesters last week and reiterated “the urgent need” for the Biden administration to ensure that the Internet can remain “a lifeline to connect the Cuban people to their families in the U.S.” On Wednesday the Cuban government restored the Internet, but it remained unreliable in some places.
The pressure campaign on Biden to build on his Thursday comments will continue this week. Nearly 300 Cuban Americans departed Florida on six buses Friday, headed to Washington where they will press Biden to more aggressively denounce the regime and encourage an uprising. They plan protests at the Cuban Embassy and the White House over the next few days. The contingent includes several former Cuban political prisoners, among them Jorge Luis García Pérez, known as “Antúnez,” who was a State of the Union guest of then-Speaker John Boehner’s during President Obama’s efforts to normalize relations with Havana.
“We’re not going to allow the Biden administration to laugh at the sacrifice, pain, and tears of the Cuban people,” Antunez told a gathered crowd in Spanish as the group boarded buses, the Miami Herald reported.
Biden is also getting a disjointed earful from congressional Democrats as well. While Demings pushes for efforts to reinstate Internet access, Rep. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, predictably blamed the unrest on the U.S. embargo on Cuba and called on Biden to lift it.
Even the House and Senate committees on foreign relations are pushing Biden in different directions. House Foreign Affairs, chaired by Rep. Gregory Meeks, is calling on the president to send more humanitarian aid and vaccines to Cuba while Sen. Bob Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants who leads the Senate committee counterpart, is arguing that now is not the time to loosen U.S. policy – that the Cuban regime would misuse humanitarian aid.
“This is the moment that could change the course of history,” the New Jersey Democrat told CNN earlier this week. “We support the people of Cuba in their quest for freedom.”
Eric Farnsworth, who has led the Washington office of the Council of the Americas and the Americas Society since 2003, views this moment as the “opportunity of a lifetime” to push for change in Cuba. But while he believes the administration needs to wholeheartedly back the Cuban people, Farnsworth argues the United States cannot inject itself too strongly into the unrest because the matter must be viewed by the world as “an issue between the Cuban people and their oppressors.”
Others say Biden’s messaging needs to become more coherent and persuasive to key allies – after an easily avoidable bungling of the U.S. response for most of the critical first days of the protests.
“The messaging on this has been terrible – and it’s shocking to people like myself because it’s not as if what you’re seeing play out in Cuba was unexpected,” said Poblete. “This is a scenario that the U.S. government has studied for years, and there’s been numerous contingency plans crafted for just this moment.”
For instance, during the Trump administration, some at the State Department were pushing to assemble humanitarian aid at the U.S. Guantanamo Bay military base to respond to any type of uprising, according to a former senior official. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo never signed off on positioning the aid but was aware of the push as part of a Cuba-contingency plan if such an uprising — which the world is watching now — were to take place.
The U.S. government should be proactively airlifting “massive amounts of aid” and positioning it at Guantanamo Bay for distribution, Poblete argued.
Tracking Biden’s Stance
Just how far Biden will be willing to go to support a move to democracy is difficult to say considering his shifting stances in recent years.
During his decades-long Senate career, Biden supported tightening the U.S. embargo on Cuba by voting in favor of the Helms-Burton Act, but then changed directions while vice president by supporting Obama’s second-term rapprochement with Cuba.
On the campaign trail, he promised to unwind the Trump administration’s tighter restrictions on trade and travel to Cuba but then reconsidered after losing the Florida vote in the 2020 election. Trump won the electoral-vote-heavy state for a second time with big gains in the Miami area, a traditionally Democratic stronghold where roughly seven in 10 residents are Latino and a vocal contingent of Cuban American voters condemned the Democratic Party’s leftward lurch toward socialism.
Instead of immediately ending Trump’s policies upon taking office, Biden kept them in place while launching a months-long review expected to end in August.
Back in April, Juan Gonzalez, Biden’s National Security Council director of Western Hemisphere affairs, was asserting that the president’s policy on Cuba would not duplicate Obama’s, that a process of rapprochement would be gradual.
“Joe Biden is not Barack Obama in policy towards Cuba,” he said, pointing to the Cuban government’s ongoing oppression, which he argued has grown worse over the last 20 years.
By the end of June, however, Gonzalez, speaking in Spanish, said that the administration planned to renew remittances – the practice of Americans transferring money to their Cuban relatives -- and allow Americans to once again travel to Cuba.
Farnsworth observed that “when Democrats got the results in [Florida] in November, they were sobering – and it was Democrats in Florida who were asking the president to be careful not to throw open the doors to full liberalization, which I don’t think the president’s instincts would take in that direction any way.”
Washington learned a lot of lessons during the Obama years about Cuba – including placing too much trust in the Cuban government to make reforms. Former Secretary of State John Kerry last year expressed disappointment in the regime’s failure to improve its record on human rights after Obama’s rapprochement. That record became frighteningly worse when the U.S. discovered in early 2017 that its diplomats in Cuba were experiencing sonic attacks.
“That is a huge impediment to our changing any sort of our posture toward the island,” Farnsworth said.
The ground has now shifted far more dramatically on Cuba with Biden last week ruling out renewing remittances – at least in the short term – because of what he said was the high likelihood of the regime confiscating them or taking “big chunks” while the nation remains in turmoil.
As the administration continues to evaluate its next steps, Psaki on Thursday said it’s important that “we are not doing anything to pad the pockets of the authoritarian regime.” This is a big shift from the Obama administration’s policies because “many of us make the argument that a lot of Obama policy did pad the pockets of the regime,” said Eddy Acevedo, a veteran Republican foreign-policy hand in Washington.
Along with more trade and travel restrictions that Trump put in place, Acevedo recalls that the previous administration carefully dedicated funds and prioritized pro-democracy efforts in Cuba. During this time, the U.S. Agency for International Development directed an additional $3 million to help more families of Cuban political prisoners and to counter human rights abuses, including human trafficking and exploitation of Cuban doctors.
“The message here is that we can support Cuban civil society, and they need this kind of support now more than ever,” Acevedo said. “The Biden administration also could use the help of other countries to confront the different challenges in the region. … We need that regional leadership. We need the Canadians with us, the Brazilians, the Chileans, the Colombians. We need regional leadership and solidarity with the Cuban people.”
Getting Canada and Spain to take a stronger stand in support of the Cuban people should be a goal, but trying to rally Latin America countries is a taller order, Farnsworth said. Mexico last week threw its support behind the Cuba government amid the first few days of protests and called for an end to the U.S. trade embargo with Havana.
“There’s a history here of using Cuba as a foil to the United States – there’s fear of organizing the left-wing supporters in your own country against your government,” he said.
Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, a New York Republican and daughter of Cuban immigrants, said on “Fox News Sunday” that blaming the embargo for the island’s problems is an old communist trick that only “sympathizers,” such as Ocasio-Cortez, are buying into now. She pointed out that Cuba trades with the rest of the world, and that even though there’s an exemption from the U.S. embargo for agriculture, the Cuban government does not fully utilize that exemption.
“The reality is they use everything that they get when they do business with other countries for the regime; they use it to reward the people in the ruling class. It never gets to the people,” she said.
During the George W. Bush years, the U.S. government flooded the island with cellphones, providing them directly to Cuban citizens without getting approval from the Castros, knowledgeable sources told RCP. When the Obama administration came in, officials were trying to work with the regime to greatly expand Internet access – but doing so likely allowed the Cuban government more control to shut it down during uprisings such as the unprecedented protests now taking place.
One very specific thing Biden can do, as the White House last week promoted its role in flagging COVID vaccine misinformation on Facebook and Twitter, is to compel social media companies to shut down the Cuban government’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.
“Why is [Cuban President] Miguel Diaz-Canel still on Twitter?” Farnsworth asked. “Why can’t we use these regulatory actions to compel these companies to shut down these accounts?”
Doing nothing but condemning communism is not a good option either for Biden.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla already has hinted that the U.S. could risk another mass exodus of Cuban migrants by making its recent statements in solidarity with the protesters. A senior White House official quickly pushed back on that, saying the U.S. is preparing for such a migration and slamming Rodriguez for even suggesting it. “That statement of the Cuban foreign minister … threatening a mass migration reflects a lack of care for Cubans who would risk their lives to come to the United States,” the official said.
But with the level of illegal crossings at the southern U.S. border at a 21-year high, there is real concern about the chaos such a boatlift could create. The least Biden can do is try to engage diplomatically with major U.S. allies to get everyone to sing from the same song sheet in denouncing the government’s violent crackdown on the protesters, observers say.
“If the international community is clear and speaks with a loud voice that this behavior from the Cuban regime is not just unacceptable but will not be tolerated, even by the friends and others who have traditionally run interference for Cuban internationally, then the regime is at least going to take notice and presumably will trim itself at least until the lights are turned down and the temperature has receded a little bit,” Farnsworth said.
But other advocates, including Rubio and Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, would like to see regime change in Havana. Both lawmakers are of Cuban descent, and they argue that pushing for shifts around the edges in Cuba would be missing the seminal moment taking place just 90 miles from our shore right now.
“America has a unique role in the world, a role to provide leadership, a role to speak the truth at times of inflection,” Cruz said last week. “At times when people are risking their lives for freedom, the leadership of America matters.”
An earlier version of this article contained a misattributed quote about President Obama possibly going to Cuba for a state visit in 2015. The comment was from Jeb Bush, not then-Vice President Joe Biden. It has been removed from the story.