President Joe Biden can immediately take at least four steps to improve the lives of everyday Cubans without having to rely on Congress or face significant backlash at the ballot, a senior diplomat from the Caribbean island nation told Newsweek.
As the United Nations General Assembly high-level week concluded in New York, Cuban Vice Foreign Minister Carlos Fernández de Cossío Domínguez issued an appeal to the White House on the sidelines of an international gathering that has regularly condemned Washington’s long-running sanctions against Havana with rare unanimity.
But the White House continues to defend its position, one the Biden administration sees as a necessary response to a long record of alleged human rights abuses committed by the Cuban government, which regularly denies such accusations.
“It’s an unfair policy and it’s an unjustified policy, and it’s also a very asymmetric policy,” de Cossío told Newsweek. “It’s the most powerful nation on Earth against a very small country that has no quarrel with any country around the world.”
“In fact, it has very good relations with the rest of the world,” he added. “It only suffers hostility from the United States, and it’s a policy that is rejected by the international community.”
At home, de Cossío said that that the U.S. policy “hurts the livelihood of every Cuban, of the nation as a whole.”
“It hurts their standard of living, their wellbeing, their capacity to provide for their families, their capacity to plan for the future, to have plans and prosperity, to sometimes take care of and ensure healthcare for their families in a country that has a robust and effective health care system but that today is lacking in resources and technology,” he said.
Now, just weeks after Biden boosted ties with Vietnam, another Communist-led country that harbors a far bloodier history with the U.S., de Cossío offered four actions the president could take on his own, arguing that “doesn’t need the permission of Congress to remove some of the most damaging measures put in place by his predecessor.”
The first would be “to correct the mistake of putting Cuba on an arbitrary list of the State Department of countries that sponsor terrorists, something that has tremendous economic impact in Cuba,” de Cossío said.
Cuba was first added to the list in 1982, when it was accused of aiding and abetting left-wing insurgent movements across Latin America. But it was removed in 2015 amid a historic thaw in relations under President Barack Obama, whom Biden served as vice president. Obama’s successor, President Donald Trump, hardened Washington’s policy toward Havana and restored Cuba’s designation in the last week of his administration, putting it alongside Iran, North Korea and Syria.
The move was one of many taken under Trump to reverse the burgeoning U.S.-Cuba detente that occurred late in Obama’s presidency. Although Biden had been supportive of improving ties with Cuba during his tenure as vice president, with his wife, Jill, now the first lady, traveling to Cuba in the final weeks of the Obama administration, he has largely maintained Trump-era policies targeting Havana since taking office.
The second action de Cossío recommended that Biden take would be to “stop a measure taken by the U.S. government of trying to deprive Cuba of supplies of fuel by sanctioning shipping companies that provide fuel to Cuba, or threatening them to be sanctioned.”
Given its lack of robust refining capabilities, Cuba is largely dependent on foreign imports to fully meet the energy demands of its roughly 11 million people. As a result of U.S. sanctions, de Cossío said that Cuba must spend an additional 15 to 25 percent in premiums to secure shipments needed to cover the risk companies feel from potential U.S. retaliation.
The third action De Cossío suggested was for Biden to “stop the policy of going after Cuban medical cooperation around the world.” Such cooperation, which takes place in the form of offering free medical education and training to international students and sending medical brigades to developing nations, has long been a hallmark of Cuba’s foreign policy.
Washington has alleged that the latter practice amounted to a form of modern slavery as medical staff were said to be left unpaid and forced into expeditionary missions, accusations denied by Cuba. The Trump administration called on countries across the globe, including poorer African nations, to reject such cooperation, and de Cossío said the U.S. has continued to raise concerns and even threaten to reduce foreign aid to those who receive Cuban medical assistance.
His fourth and final recommendation was for Biden to “suspend the possibility of courts taking action on demands placed for people that claim property in Cuba against investors.” Such action is codified in Title III of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, but Trump took the unprecedented move of allowing lawsuits to proceed for those claiming their property was confiscated during the Cuban Revolution that took place nearly 65 years ago.
“Trump was the first one who allowed it, and Biden, with a surprising loyalty, has followed what Trump decided in that moment,” de Cossío said. “It’s in [Biden’s] hands to change that and stop putting such a deterrent effect on people who want to do business with Cuba, not only investors but in the business of buying and selling [various goods].”
With an election looming next year that could potentially see Biden in a rematch with Trump, de Cossío said all four points could be addressed in short order without incurring substantial political risk.
“None of them we believe will cost him votes,” de Cossío said. “And we believe that he has not gained any votes—the ones that he’s concerned about at present—by keeping the policy put in place by the Republican government.”
Domestic politics have nonetheless played an influential factor in the U.S. policy towards Cuba.
A vocal Cuban diaspora community in the U.S. has helped push the formerly contested state of Florida firmly into Republican hands. Among Democrats, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez, himself the son of Cuban immigrants who fled prior to the revolution, has proven to be among the most powerful opponents within Biden’s own party of any easing of restrictions against Cuba.
But with Democrats’ hopes of winning Florida back fading with each election cycle and Menendez’s political future in question as he faces federal charges of allegedly accepting bribes in exchange for advancing Egyptian government interests, an opportunity may emerge for Biden to soften the hardline U.S. policy—should he see fit to do so.
Cautious opportunities for dialogue have emerged over the past year in the form of the resumption of visa and consular services offered by U.S. in Cuba, as well as law enforcement and migration talks held between the two countries. Progress on other more substantive issues, however, remains stalled, even after high-level talks attended by de Cossío himself last month.
Reached for comment, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council stated that the current the Biden administration’s approach to Cuba was rooted in a number of important factors, including the interests of the Cuban people.
“Protecting the human rights of the Cuban people is at the core of President Biden’s policy toward Cuba,” the NSC spokesperson told Newsweek. “Our approach to Cuba, and any other country, takes into account various current political, economic, and security factors.”
“We continue to look for ways to support the people of Cuba,” the spokesperson added, “while at the same time maintaining restrictions on the Cuban government and its military, intelligence, and security services.”