Joe Biden Has Continued Donald Trump’s Policy of Strangling Cuba

When Joe Biden became US president, many Cubans hoped he would loosen some of the restrictions on trade and travel imposed by Donald Trump. But Biden has increased the pressure on Cuba, greatly worsening the island’s economic difficulties.

Joe Biden speaking outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, May 15, 2024. (Mandel NGAN / AFP via Getty Images)

In early 2021, Cubans faced a triple crisis. Since 2017, Donald Trump had decreed 243 presidential measures to make the long-standing US embargo tighter than at any time since the mid 1960s. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem by closing Cuba’s borders to tourism, a major source of hard currency. Meanwhile, in January 2021, the long-awaited fusion of Cuba’s challenging dual currency system generated worrying uncertainties and rising prices for many.

Three years on, the crisis seems to have gotten worse rather than better. Despite early hopes, Joe Biden never repealed Trump’s measures. Instead, he has increased pressure on Cuba’s economy.

Most damagingly, Washington has upheld Trump’s farewell gift to Cubans before leaving office: his move to place Cuba on the list of “state sponsors of terrorism.” This is a status that most governments reject but one that is increasingly recognized de facto by European banks and insurance companies wary of US sanctions.

Other factors worsening the crisis include rising oil prices, seriously affecting transport and energy production, and the recent US decision to deny the ESTA visa waiver for any Europeans who have visited Cuba in the preceding six months, immediately affecting bookings for package tours and cruises.

After Raúl Castro

Meanwhile, Raúl Castro’s 2021 retirement from his remaining post as the Communist Party’s first secretary left Cuba in the hands of a new generation and a president (Miguel Díaz-Canel) who lacked the historical legitimacy, experience, and popular authority of the Castros. It was therefore no coincidence that in July 2021, unrest erupted within weeks of Raúl leaving the political scene, with a partially orchestrated campaign of open (and often violent) dissent, capitalizing on the government’s perceived weakness.

Moreover, Raúl was the (perhaps unwitting) cause of Cuba’s most worrying new phenomenon: the dramatic rise in the numbers (over five hundred thousand) of young Cubans emigrating. In 2012, he had lifted restrictions on Cubans leaving, hoping to end a running sore of youth frustration.

However, Cuba’s historic educational successes increasingly led young Cubans to use their qualifications for more lucrative employment abroad. This tendency was aided substantially by the 1966 US Cuban Adjustment Act, which, to encourage a “brain drain,” uniquely gave Cuban immigrants the right to seek US residence and then US citizenship. The latest exodus worries many Cubans, threatening to create an ageing population and an insufficient workforce.

Beyond simply the desire to move to a far more developed country, the push factors behind this emigration remain unclear. However, some evidence suggests that it arises less from outright rejection of “the Revolution” as such than simple apathy about a system that no longer inspires people as it once did. This reflects a worrying ideological drift away from past patterns of commitment or acceptance among a generation that often lacks the political imperatives or awareness of those that came before them.

Support for the System

That introduces the vexed question of Cuban support for the postrevolutionary system. In 1994, I suggested a pattern that, based on analysis of electoral statistics, corresponded closely to what one leading dissident, Elizardo Sánchez, subsequently asserted. It argued that, at any one time, 20-30 percent of adults were unquestionably supportive of the system, its leadership, and the values of the revolution, while an equal percentage range were always opposed or actively disenchanted.

That left an estimated 40-60 percent who were passively tolerant and acceptant of the system and its leaders and values. What determined the range in each case was the scale of any current crisis, making the “mixed middle” into the crucial element of passive support sustaining overall popularity.

If that was true then, any rise in apathy suggests a dangerously high degree of disenchantment. Raúl may have calculated that cultural patterns and inherent nationalism would eventually bring emigrants to return. But as things stand, that looks less likely than he imagined. Moreover, apathy seems to have affected older generations, creating a curious tendency to deny the reality of the embargo and blame the actions of a post-Castro government.

That brings us to the embargo itself. It is worth remembering that, over the course of six and a half decades, US policy toward Cuba has changed its character and justification, adapting to different agendas. However, its impact should never be underestimated. The embargo undermined the new government’s long-term strategy of postcolonial development via some form of socialism, after just eighteen months of the revolution, and its continuation has always determined, distorted, and limited Cuba’s autonomous plans and capacities.

Moreover, the embargo remains in clear breach of international law. This is a point that successive, overwhelming UN votes have determined since the early 1990s, usually with only the United States and Israel dissenting.

Shifting Justifications

Initially, the limited sanctions on exports to the US market were a punitive response to Cuba’s “insufficient” compensation for US-owned properties that had been expropriated in response to the US cut in Cuba’s annual sugar quota. By early 1962, when the Organization of American States (OAS) expelled Cuba as a member, the justification became a perceived threat from communism, enlisting all of Latin America (with the exception of Mexico) in a hemispheric embargo.

Although the aftermath of the 1962 Missile Crisis demonstrated that the “threat” was minimal and that Cuba’s communism was quite different from Soviet models or strictures, the rationale for the embargo now shifted to the perceived threat to the security of the Americas from Cuba’s active support for armed revolution. In the early 1970s, Richard Nixon’s administration eased the stranglehold by allowing Latin American countries to recognize and trade with Cuba, while Moscow finally allowed Cuba to join the socialist bloc’s trading network, Comecon.

In 1977, Jimmy Carter decided to partially recognize Cuba, establishing “interest sections” in third-party embassies in preparation for eventual full recognition. This was followed by unprecedented permission for US-based Cubans (but still no other US citizens) to visit their families back home.

The 1980s saw both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, whose administrations were focused on the Soviet Union and the bloc it led, leave both the embargo and Carter’s partial recognition more or less intact. Although Reagan showed greater hostility to what he defined as the source of Central America’s new rebelliousness, he shifted responsibility for Cuba to the newly powerful Cuban American lobby, especially the Cuban American National Foundation, and funded the new propaganda war via Radio and TV Martí.

As the Soviet-led bloc collapsed in 1989–91, Cuba moved back to center stage. With the island descending into a seemingly terminal existential crisis, immediately losing 80 percent of its trade along with Soviet protection, the new lobby engineered the 1992 Torricelli Act, seeking to extend the embargo’s reach to the relations of other countries with Cuba. Clearly, they now envisaged the end of “Castro’s Cuba” — there was always an obsessive focus on the Cuban leader as the only factor explaining the revolution’s survival — as the last communist domino to fall.

In 1996, we saw the passage of the Helms-Burton Act. Bill Clinton, who had once vaguely considered easing relations with Cuba, was forced to sign the act by the furor when Cuba shot down two Cuban American planes that deliberately entered Cuban airspace. Aware of angry global opposition to the act’s extraterritorial aims, which threatened the freedom of other countries to trade with and invest in Cuba, Clinton began a pattern of six-monthly presidential waivers of the most contentious element (Title III).

Nonetheless, Helms-Burton brought something new. The embargo could now only be repealed by an unlikely two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress, and only when a member of the Castro family was no longer in power.

The Florida Lobby

By 1992, with the Cold War over, the embargo’s old justifications had lost their force; instead, its continuation was now linked to Cuba’s human rights record. Yet the real explanation for its persistence was clear: Florida’s growing significance in every national election gave the Cuban American lobby in the state real power.

The embargo reflected Florida’s political importance rather than any real US desire to end the Cuban system. That power would be seen in 2000, when the state’s electoral machinery determined George W. Bush’s victory.

That power seemed to fade under Barack Obama, who knew that Florida’s black and (non-Cuban) Hispanic voters would back him, bypassing the entrenched Cuban American vote. However, that impression was misleading. Since the 1996 legislation had locked the embargo into long-term permanence, Obama could easily raise the level of Carter’s limited 1977 recognition, converting the Interest Sections into fully-fledged embassies, but could not affect the embargo itself.

While easing some restrictions, such as those on travel to Cuba or remittance levels, and changing the mood, Obama left the embargo intact. Indeed, the US Treasury continued to fine major European banks heavily for embargo breaches. It now seems likely that Obama took those limitations fully into consideration in a new approach to “regime change.”

Knowing that better relations would raise expectations unrealistically among ordinary Cubans, only for those expectations to be frustrated, he hoped to undermine the Cuban system more subtly, in a similar way to the “twin-track” approach that Clinton had sought to follow between 1992 and 2000. This involved keeping the embargo in place while promoting increased contacts with civil society and person-to-person exchanges. The cycle of expectations and frustration was yet another factor helping generate a crisis after 2017.

From Trump to Biden

The year 2017 brought Trump and his many measures, this time lacking any clear justification but encouraging the Cuban American lobby to flex their muscles. Trump’s move also gave renewed licence for US intelligence agencies to sow and fund discord, diffuse false news, orchestrate culture wars, and seek to sabotage the economy and Cuba’s financial arrangements. More than ever, Cuba was in the eye of a perfect storm, designed to end the system.

Of those measures, the most significant was Trump’s decision in 2019 to end the Title III waiver, immediately dissuading would-be investors, frightening non-Cuban trading entities into withdrawal, and worrying European banks and financial institutions. The fall in Cuban imports was soon palpable, with increasing shortages of grain, food, and medicines.

The only hope of Cubans for relief seemed to lie in the election of Joe Biden in 2020. As Obama’s former vice president, the new president was expected to reverse most of Trump’s measures. However, Biden seriously disappointed those hopes: as well as adding his own constrictions, he returned to the old human rights justification for the embargo.

Why Biden refused to repeal Trump’s changes remains a subject of debate. It may reflect the assumption that, as Cuba was simply not an important issue, it could be left in the hands of entrenched elements in the State Department and Congress’s foreign relations committees.

If that is true, many Cubans are hoping for a repeat of the earlier pattern with Obama. In this scenario, just as Obama judged that Cuba could be left until his last year and then easily “solved” by a politically cheap form of détente, a second Biden presidential term, with no worries about reelection, might also lead to an easing of relations.

However, it would be advisable for Cubans not to hold their breath in anticipation of this outcome. Cuban government officials now publicly recognize that, with the end of the embargo nowhere in sight, they must construct policies for economic survival on the basis that it will remain a permanent fact of life. That pessimistic acceptance now adds to the growing sense of apathy and gloom.

We repeatedly hear the cliché that Cuba is “at a crossroads,” but in truth the revolution has always been at a crossroads, its direction always shaped, determined, or limited by having to react to external pressures. That was true in 1959 and remains true today, as the leadership in Havana struggles to square the circle of urgent economic reform while keeping the faith in a constantly redefined socialism.

While we should not read too much into recent expressions of public protest, which are often not as widespread and spontaneous as they seem, frustration is real, and the underlying sense that Cubans face the prospect of “yet more of the same” risks being corrosive. Loyal Cubans urgently need some good news, to tap into the reservoir of support that still seems to survive, despite everything.