Friday, September 22, 2023

Biden’s rapprochement with Cuba faces tough obstacles

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Beaten by their worst economic crisis in decades, ordinary Cubans hope US President-elect Joe Biden will bring them better times, remembering his role in Barack Obama’s administration which relaxed sanctions and restored full diplomatic relations .

But last week, the outgoing Trump administration decided to designate Cuba as State sponsor of terrorism threw another obstacle on what was already shaping up to be a long and difficult road to rapprochement.

Mike Pompeo, in his last days as US Secretary of State, accused Havana of aiding murderers, bombers and hijackers when the appointment was announced, sparking a furious backlash from Cuba. Other countries labeled by the United States as sponsor states of terrorism are Syria, North Korea, and Iran.

The US decision is the result of an interagency process and typically takes several months, meaning it cannot be overturned quickly. Other obstacles to better relations include unnecessary domestic politics in both countries, Cuba’s strong support for the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela and an ongoing row over the illness of US diplomats stationed in Havana.

“It will be difficult for even more modest Biden-led detente to progress significantly without greater reciprocity on Cuba’s part,” wrote Nicholas Watson of consultancy Teneo in a note to clients.

Long-suffering Cuban citizens, currently mired in their worst economic crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union, nevertheless place their hopes on Mr. Biden.

Speaking from his modest home in a small town at the foot of the Sierra Maestra mountains in eastern Cuba, Kety Pulgar, 45, said Mr. Biden “would do things Trump didn’t want to do.”

“Everyone is waiting to see how things turn out, but we think they will be positive thanks to her ties to Obama,” she told the Financial Times. “People look at him favorably, not unfavorably.”

Rolando Matos, who runs a hamburger restaurant in Havana, said small businesses like his boomed during Mr. Obama’s presidency as American tourists began to visit Cuba. It ended when Mr. Trump blocked the trip to the island. “There is no doubt that having a Democratic president and an Obama follower will be very favorable for Cuba and businesses hope to recover,” said Mr. Matos.

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

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

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

John Kavulich, president of the US-Cuban Trade and Economic Council, said resolving the crisis in Venezuela was much more important to Mr Biden. “As for the addition of free tours to help the Cuban tourism industry. . . why would Biden choose to remove this leverage? “

Officials for Mr. Biden’s transition team declined to comment on Cuba’s policy, saying they could not speak until after the January 20 presidential inauguration.

The Havana government has so far been cautious. Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel did not congratulate 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 leading 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 United States, but added: “What we are not ready to negotiate and what we will not give an iota is revolution, socialism and our sovereignty.

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

This, according to US experts, is a problem: Cuban officials view their country as a victim of unfair measures and do not feel they have to take steps themselves to improve relations.

Complicating matters further is the unresolved illness issue among U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Havana in 2016-2017, resulting in staff cuts and the shutdown of most consular services in the United States. A US government report found the most likely cause to be directed microwave radiation.

But perhaps the biggest hurdle is American electoral politics. Mr. Trump’s hard line against Cuba and Venezuela has proven popular among Latino voters in Florida, helping Republicans win the state by a larger margin than in 2016.

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

“We can already see how the Cuban regime reacts when it thinks relief is on its way,” Rubio wrote in the Miami Herald last month. “More innocent Cubans will pay the price if we revert to a unilateral Cuban policy – and throw a lifeline to the dictatorial regime of Raúl Castro.”

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