One of the principal reasons Joe Biden lost the state of Florida in the 2020 presidential election was a palpable sense among Latinos, particularly those of Cuban and Venezuelan backgrounds, that the Democratic Party’s aggressive shift to the left meant he could not be trusted to promote freedom and democracy in either of those countries. As a crucial swing state that often determines the outcome of presidential races, the Biden campaign did make efforts to try and win back that trust by expressing firm opposition to the degradation of Venezuela at the hands of the Maduro dictatorship. Ultimately, Floridians remained unconvinced.
However, a topic on which he made less noise was the question of Cuba. This is perhaps because of the inevitable accusations of hypocrisy. During the Obama administration, Biden oversaw the restoration of ties between Washington and Havana, known as the “Cuban Thaw,” much to the dismay of island’s expat community. Now, he will face the challenge of whether to restore those ties, or maintain the relatively hardline approach employed by the Trump administration that involved the rolling back of practically all diplomatic engagement. There are even reports that the White House will designate the country as a state sponsor of terrorism, undoing Obama’s reversal of this policy back in 2015 days before Trump leaves office.
Since Trump’s victory in 2016, life for ordinary Cuban has not shown any signs of improvement. Although Fidel Castro died less than a month after Trump’s election and his brother Raul stepped down in 2018 to make way for Miguel Diaz-Canel, the country still remains a despotic dictatorship whose citizens live on just a few dollars a month. Political repression remains widespread and human rights violations are a way of life.
During his campaign, Biden’s only major pledge on Cuba was to reverse Trump’s travel restrictions on travel and remittances to the communist island. However, Bloomberg reported last month that the Biden transition is considering a “reset” in its relations as a rebuke to Donald Trump, although specific details were not provided.
In their recent editorial on the matter, The Miami Herald warned Biden that it would be a “serious mistake to resume more-cordial relations” as it would undermine the efforts of the country’s pro-democracy opposition. “His support would all but destroy the work of those San Isidro artists, the Ladies in White and so many others fighting from within to change the regime. Cuba would use that support from the United States to quash the demands of the opposition — that’s the Cuban government for you,” the paper noted. “This is why our new president should not reward the regime in advance of real reform.”
Ana Rosa Quintana, a Latin American analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C., argued that Biden will need to outline his objectives before embarking on any form of engagement. “It’s going to be Obama 2.0 except they’re trying to convince the world they’re not going to get taken advantage of,” Quintana told El American. “But they will be. Look at Biden’s state landing team. Emily Mendrala who led the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a big pro-Cuba normalization outfit, previously worked in the Obama admin on Cuba normalization.”
“They’re reassembling the Western Hemisphere and Cuba team. They haven’t learned their lessons [from the Obama administration],” she continued. “Sure they’ve said the context is different and they won’t return to a strategy of unilateral engagement, but they have yet to outline what exactly is their objective. That’s problematic.”
Biden framed himself as the candidate of decency who would restore America’s reputation as a beacon of freedom and democracy around the world. Making any friendly overtures to the Cuban regime without the cast iron guarantee of significant reforms in return would not undermine this image, but that of the United States as a whole.