President Joe Biden’s review of former President Donald Trump’s restrictive Cuba policies is still underway, two senior administration officials tell CNN.
Several months after taking office, Biden has yet to fulfill his campaign pledge to reverse his predecessor’s policies and “go back” to the full diplomatic relations put in place by former President Barack Obama.
Biden's White House
The lack of action by the Biden administration on Cuba was highlighted this week after the communist-run island witnessed its largest protests in decades. An administration official confirmed there are no changes on the horizon as the policy is still under review.
Biden promised in September 2020, during the campaign, that he would “try to reverse the failed Trump policies that inflicted harm on Cubans and their families,” but the review currently underway is unlikely to result in a return to the Obama-era policy of normalized relations with Havana, according to people familiar with the discussions.
The thinking is that the Cuban government has shown no signs, in more than five years, of easing its political and economic repression of the Cuban people, which has severely narrowed the Biden administration’s options for normalizing ties again – especially given Biden’s emphasis on human rights as a cornerstone of his foreign policy. Biden’s team is also wary of the political implications of making concessions to Havana, as Obama did, without getting anything in return.
“Joe Biden is not Barack Obama in policy towards Cuba,” Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council’s senior director for the western hemisphere, told Andres Oppenheimer in April. “The political moment has changed in an important way, the political space has closed a lot, because the Cuban government has not responded in any way, and in fact the oppression against Cubans is even worse today than perhaps it was during the Bush administration.”
Gonzalez added that “human rights will be a key factor in any conversation that we may have with the regime.”
To that end, Biden’s team has focused on incremental steps like easing restrictions on remittances that Americans can send to relatives on the island – which were all but banned under Trump – and potentially opening up travel again as a way to expose Cubans to American ideals. Other forms of more immediate relief and humanitarian assistance to the Cuban people are also being weighed, as the administration tries to find ways to “let some of the air out of the pressure cooker” and defuse the situation before it becomes violent, said one person familiar with the thinking.
A second senior administration official said the administration has “been reviewing our Cuba policy with an eye towards its impact on the political and economic well-being of the Cuban people. Democracy and human rights are central to that assessment.” This official added that “we are watching the Cuban government’s response to the protests very closely, and call on them to refrain from violence and repression against peaceful protesters; and to serve their people rather than enrich themselves.”
A congressional aide said discussions have been underway with the administration about opening lines of communication with Cuban protesters and with members of the Cuban military to try to defuse the situation, and to build a coalition of international allies who can send a united message that there will be repercussions if the government reacts violently to the protests. There have also been discussions about how the US can help restore and expand internet access to Cubans, as the regime continues its blackouts, the aide said.
“The Biden administration has been consistent in its calls for the promotion of democracy and human rights in Cuba,” the second senior administration official said, “including denouncing abuses by Cuba’s authoritarian regime and pushing for reforms. This is not new.”
Juan Cruz, who served as NSC senior director for the western hemisphere under Trump, said the US risks getting “beat over the head by the Cubans” if it rushes to return to the Obama-era policies amid the protests. There are hopes by some in the administration that this new wave of dissent could create a split within the regime that the US could then capitalize on, Cruz said. But American involvement could backfire and exacerbate tensions even further.
“This is not going to be a ‘Cuban spring,’” he said. “The administration is not going to go back to the Obama era on this.”
Whether Biden will ultimately follow through on his campaign promises remains to be seen. New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who is a strong opponent of Obama’s policies and the powerful chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, hinted Monday that he thinks Biden may not.
“I think the President has had a time to review the actual policies under President Obama and all of the openings that President Obama made, which were one-sided, unilateral in terms of concessions, showed themselves to create absolutely no change inside of Cuba,” Menendez told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “So the result of that, I think, is the Biden administration looked and said, ‘Wait a minute. That didn’t seem to work.’”
On Monday, Menendez and Biden spoke during a brief phone call, according to an official.
Biden also told reporters he would talk more publicly about the ongoing crises in Cuba and Haiti later this week. A senior official says he has no formal speech planned but he will likely discuss it more as the US gathers intelligence.
How Biden navigates Cuba could carry political implications, given he lost Florida to Trump in the 2020 election after the former President repeatedly claimed Biden would turn the US into a “socialist country” if he won, a message that resonated with Cuban Americans.
While changing Cuba policy was not among his “top foreign policy priorities,” according to top aides, the recent protests have sparked fresh conversations about it inside the West Wing.
Thousands of Cubans took to the streets this weekend to protest a lack of food and medicine as the country undergoes a grave economic crisis aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic and US sanctions.
“I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this protest in a long, long time – quite frankly, ever,” Biden told reporters at the White House on Monday.
The President said the US “stands firmly with the people of Cuba as they assert their universal rights,” and said the Cuban people “are demanding their freedom from an authoritarian regime.”
He called on the Cuban government to “refrain from violence or attempts to silence the voice of the people of Cuba.”
Biden also told reporters at the White House on Monday that his team was closely monitoring the developments in Haiti in the wake of the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. He was killed last week on his private residence in the capital of Port-au-Prince, and Haiti’s first lady, Martine Moïse, was also shot in the attack and evacuated to a hospital in Miami for treatment.
Biden on Monday indicated that the US is “ready to provide assistance” to both Cuba and Haiti, but it is unclear what form that will take.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.