Biden rapprochement with Cuba faces difficult hurdles

Battered by their worst economic crisis in decades, ordinary Cubans are hoping that US president-elect Joe Biden will bring them better times, remembering his role in Barack Obama’s administration which eased sanctions and restored full diplomatic relations.

But last week move’s by the outgoing Trump administration to designate Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism has thrown another obstacle along what already promised to be a long and difficult path towards rapprochement.

Mike Pompeo, in his final few days as US secretary of state, accused Havana of aiding murderers, bombmakers and hijackers when announcing the designation, triggering a furious reaction from Cuba. The other countries labelled by the US as state sponsors of terrorism are Syria, North Korea and Iran.

The US decision was the result of an inter-agency process and typically takes several months, meaning it cannot be swiftly reversed. Other hurdles to better relations include unhelpful domestic politics in both countries, Cuba’s solid backing for Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela and a continuing row over the sickness of US diplomats stationed in Havana.

“It will be difficult for even a more modest Biden-led detente to advance meaningfully without greater reciprocity from Cuba,” Nicholas Watson of consultancy Teneo wrote in a note to clients.

Cuba’s long-suffering citizens, currently mired in their worst economic crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union, are nonetheless pinning their hopes on Mr Biden.

Speaking from her modest home in a small town in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountains of eastern Cuba, Kety Pulgar, 45, said Mr Biden would “do things Trump did not want to do”.

“Everyone is waiting to see how things develop, but we think they’ll be positive because of his links to Obama,” she told the Financial Times. “The people look favourably, not unfavourably on him.”

Rolando Matos, who runs a burger restaurant in Havana, said small businesses such as his enjoyed a boom during Mr Obama’s presidency as US tourists began visiting Cuba. This ended when Mr Trump blocked travel to the island. “Undoubtedly, having a Democratic president and follower of Obama will be very favourable for Cuba and businesses are hoping to recover,” Mr Matos said.

Such optimism may be premature. In the first months of the Biden administration, incremental steps to improve relations are more likely than a major thaw, say experts.

Joe Garcia, a former Democratic congressman from Miami who recently made an exploratory trip to the island, said of the Cuban government: “They think happy days are here again. I tried to disabuse them of the idea that it all goes back now to Obama 2.0.”

Mr Garcia said he expected the Biden administration to first focus on scrapping limits imposed by the Trump administration of $1,000 per quarter on remittances, dismantling a few travel restrictions and lifting a ban on US flights to Cuban airports outside Havana.

John Kavulich, president of the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said resolving the crisis in Venezuela was far more important to Mr Biden. “As for adding unfettered visits to help the Cuban tourism industry . . . why would Biden choose to remove that leverage?”

Officials in Mr Biden’s transition team declined to comment on Cuba policies, saying they could only speak after the January 20 presidential inauguration.

The Havana government has so far been cautious. Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuban president, did not congratulate Mr Biden or mention his name in public after the US election. Cuba is in the throes of a delicate political transition to a younger generation, with Raúl Castro, the former president who leads the Communist party, due to step down in April.

In his year-end address to the nation, Mr Diaz-Canel said it was possible to build a “respectful and lasting relationship” with the US but added: “What we are not willing to negotiate and what we will not give in one iota is the revolution, socialism and our sovereignty.”

Carlos Alzugaray, a retired Cuban diplomat, said Havana was ready to return to the detente blown up by Mr Trump but added: “They expect reason to prevail on the other side.”

This, US experts say, is a problem: Cuban officials see their country as a victim of unfair measures and do not believe they need to take steps themselves to improve relations.

Further complicating matters is the unresolved issue of sickness among US and Canadian diplomats in Havana in 2016-17, leading to reductions in staff and the US closing most consular services. A US government report found the most likely cause was directed microwave radiation.

But perhaps the biggest obstacle is US electoral politics. Mr Trump’s hard line against Cuba and Venezuela proved popular among Latino voters in Florida, helping the Republicans win the state by a bigger margin than in 2016.

Influential Florida Republican Marco Rubio, one of three Cuban-Americans in the US Senate, has already warned against relaxing US sanctions on Cuba, citing a recent crackdown by Havana on dissidents. 

“We can already see how the Cuban regime responds when it thinks relief may be on the way,” Mr Rubio wrote in the Miami Herald last month. “More innocent Cubans will pay the price if we return to a one-sided Cuba policy — and throw a lifeline to Raúl Castro’s dictatorial regime.” 


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