By Sir Ronald Sanders
All may not be lost in the efforts to improve relations between the government of Cuba and the Biden administration in the US, despite the rhetoric – most of it emanating from the Cuban government in the wake of protests by thousands across the island.
The protests were occasioned by grievances over high prices, food shortages and power outages – due in part to the US trade embargo whose impact has been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic that crippled Cuba’s tourism industry, its biggest foreign exchange earner.
Unlike the former Trump administration, president Biden has not taken a hard line on Cuba. If anything, his administration has been seeking ways to revitalize the eased relationship that the Barack Obama administration promoted in 2015 and 2016.
Finding those ways has not been easy due to internal politics in the US and to insufficient movement by the Cuban government to manage dissent peacefully, rather than clamp down on it by military force. The Cuban government’s harsh response to protestors on 11 and 12 July, fed the desire by influential members from both parties in the US Congress to continue Donald Trump’s tough measures against Cuba, including its designation as a sponsor of terrorism that triggered additional financial and other sanctions.
The Biden administration has been navigating a thin line between wanting to improve relations with Cuba and not dismissing political and human rights concerns.
The most notable advocate of maintaining the Trump administration’s hardline policy on Cuba is the Republican Senator from Florida, Marco Rubio, who wrote to Biden on July 12, saying: “The current protests in Cuba are not just about current economic shortages. They are about the longstanding and deliberate actions taken by the dictatorship to stymy the economic prosperity and political freedom of the Cuban people”.
The Biden administration could be better helped by the Cuban government to resist Rubio and others, and to return to the easing of strained relations between the US and Cuba of which he was a part as vice president in the Obama administration. It has always been well-known, including by the Cubans, that Biden is deeply committed to political and human rights, including the right to protest and dissent. Had the Cuban government responded in a spirit of tolerance and willingness to listen to the protesting voices of 11 and 12 July, it would have aided Biden in being stronger in his efforts to combat hardliners such as Rubio.
The US government regards freedom of expression of artists and freedom of speech by media to be fundamental rights everywhere, including in Cuba. US support for these freedoms are not efforts to subvert Cuba.
Most Caribbean governments also uphold these rights in their own countries. In the almost 60 years of experience of the 13 English-Speaking Caribbean countries as sovereign states, governments have learned to manage dissent and protests and to encourage media freedom as part of their democracies. Had they not done so, the economic progress of these countries, with considerable foreign investment, would not have been accomplished.
The experience in Cuba has been different. Over the last 61 years, trapped by a trade embargo, which causes economic hardship and deprivation, and threatened by repeated attempts to overthrow the government, the Cuban authorities have employed harsh measures to stop dissent and protests. They have not had the room to nurture a culture of tolerance and persuasion.
Ending the trade embargo against Cuba has always been the right thing to do. As Barack Obama famously said in December 2014, “an outdated approach has failed for over 50 years to advance our interests”. In announcing efforts to normalize the relations between the two countries, he stated, “Today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past so as to reach for a better future –- for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere, and for the world”. Those shackles were quickly fastened again by Trump.
Yet, a Cuba, that is released from the chains of the trade embargo and the threats to its security, could quickly become an economic powerhouse, attracting foreign investment, and unleashing the creativity and entrepreneurship of its people that comes from greater freedoms.
There is clearly a need for the US and Cuban administrations to return to the sensible negotiations about their future that started under the Obama-Biden administration. The Cuban government can help that process by changing from a culture of repression to one of tolerance and constructive management of dissent. Such a change would help empower Biden to continue what he helped to start with Obama.
Eyes are already on the US midterm Senate elections to be held in November 2022. Marco Rubio won his Senate seat in 2016 by less than 10 percent of the vote. He relies heavily on the Cuban-exile vote to return to the Senate. Both he and the Republican Party will be heightening the anti-Cuba rhetoric to maintain that seat in a Senate now equally divided between the Republicans and Democrats.
Cuba should be mindful of that reality and ease up on the rhetoric that blames America for all Cuban discontent. The Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel, may have started that process.On July 14 in a televised address, he offered some self-criticism, for the first time, by saying that the government’s shortcomings in handling shortages and other problems played a role in the recent protests.
That’s an important step. It should be followed by a more open dialogue with those who have ideas about how the country should be governed. Thus, Biden would be emboldened to normalise relations, including ending the repressive trade embargo.