Cubans are suffering, Biden needs to end the embargo

Biden should reverse Trump’s sanctions and call an end to 60 years of brutal economic warfare.

The anti-government protests that erupted in various Cuban cities this July received enormous coverage in the U.S. press. But most of the coverage either underplayed or failed to mention the critical role played by the U.S. embargo in creating the blackouts and shortages of food and medicines that fueled those protests.

The U.S. government has waged a brutal economic war against Cuba for more than 60 years.

Little has changed since 1960, when U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Lestor D. Mallory explicitly called for “denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation, and overthrow of government”—and to do so in a manner as “inconspicuous as possible.”

But the complete failure of this policy led President Obama to change tack. Obama began the process of normalizing relations with Cuba and eased restrictions on travel and trade. This strategy was a boon to small business on the island and to the Cuban people in general. The majority of Cuban Americans supported Obama’s Cuba policy, too.

But unfortunately, four years of Trump eroded that progress.

Trump not only reversed Obama’s openings, but ordered 243 new sanctions that devastated key economic sectors in Cuba, like tourism and energy. Trump even restricted the amount of money Cuban Americans could send home and forced Western Union—the main vehicle for sending remittances—to close its dealings with Cuba.

The Trump sanctions had a disastrous impact on the Cuban economy, especially when coupled with the pandemic shutdown of the tourist industry, which deprived the island of billions of dollars and thousands of jobs.

During his campaign, President Joe Biden criticized Trump’s Cuba policy and pledged to go back to the Obama position of engagement. Just five months ago, the White House said it would lift limits on remittances and restore wire services.

But now the administration appears to be torn between factions in the Democratic Party that want a tough stance on Cuba for electoral purposes in Florida and those pushing for re-engagement.

This latter group includes 80 members of the House of Representatives, who sent a letter to President Biden in March urging him to end restrictions on travel and remittances without delay. In response to the protests, several representatives have maintained their support for such a policy, including Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who called the embargo “absurdly cruel.”

However, the administration has been slow to act on Cuba. Now the narrative is shifting, with some Republicans calling for more sanctions or even military intervention.

Biden recently backtracked on his campaign pledge and said he will not lift restrictions on remittances. He caved to right-wing pressure, putting the crass political calculations of domestic politics ahead of the well-being of 11 million Cubans.

By continuing the sanctions, however, Biden may end up with a Cuban migration crisis.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, himself of Cuban descent, recently told Cubans: Do not come. Yet even before the protests, there was a nearly tenfold increase this year in the number of would-be migrants returned by U.S. authorities to the island compared to last year. As long as Cubans continue to be battered by U.S. sanctions, more will attempt the treacherous overseas journey.

Biden has a way out of this dilemma: Reverse the Trump sanctions and engage with Cuban Americans like Carlos Lazo, a veteran and teacher walking from Miami to D.C. to call an end to the embargo.

Biden shouldn’t listen to right-wing voters who will never support Democrats anyway. He, and millions of Cubans, will be much better off if he follows Obama’s path of normalizing relations.

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the peace group CODEPINK and author of books on the Middle East and Latin America, is in Peru with an election observer delegation organized by Progressive International.

Leonardo Flores is a Latin American policy expert and campaigner with CODEPINK.

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