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Biden shows little desire to reverse Trump's Cuba policies

The Hill logo The Hill 6/1/2021 Rebecca Beitsch
a person standing in front of a building: Biden shows little desire to reverse Trump's Cuba policies © Getty Images Biden shows little desire to reverse Trump's Cuba policies

The Biden administration's first major move on Cuba is the strongest signal yet it has little appetite to reverse Trump-era policies toward the island nation.

The State Department this past week listed Cuba as among those "not cooperating fully with United States antiterrorism efforts," renewing a determination first made in 2020.

For those in favor of normalizing U.S. ties with Cuba, the move was seen as a purely political decision, but one that suggests the Biden administration may continue with the hardline approach taken by former President Trump.

"It's a political determination, and a signal they're trying to give the right wing that they're going to stick with the status quo," said Fulton Armstrong, an American University professor and director of Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.

"These determinations are B-O-G-U-S," he added, criticizing the State Department for offering little insight into what factored into its decision.

The determination was made under the Arms Export Control Act, which requires a report every May listing countries barred from defense exports and sales with the U.S. Obama had removed Cuba from the list in 2015.

But the statute is also one of the three laws weighed when adding countries to the state sponsors of terrorism list - something Trump added Cuba to in the final days of his presidency.

While the Biden team has pledged to review Trump's state sponsor of terror listing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters in March that "a Cuba policy shift is not currently among President Biden's top priorities."

To Cubans, the latest determination looks like a continuation of the Trump era.

"The U.S. changed presidents, but it's more of the same," Alejandro Gil Fernández, Cuba's deputy prime minister and top economic policy minister, wrote on Twitter.

The State Department said the decision was made after "a review of a country's overall level of cooperation in our efforts to fight terrorism, taking into account our counterterrorism objectives with that country, and a realistic assessment of its capabilities."

Iran, North Korea, Syria and Venezuela are among the other countries on the list.

The decision earned praise from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has blasted Cuba for remaining close with Venezuela. He called the move "a positive step that follows four productive years of the Trump Administration's efforts to end Havana's destructive and destabilizing efforts."

But others see little fodder for the determination beyond Cuba agreeing to let Colombian National Liberation Army members stay in the country after negotiations it hosted on behalf of the nation in 2018 fell apart, and the Colombian government refused safe passage for the group to return.

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"It's hard to have cooperation on counterterrorism or anything else if you're not talking with one another," Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) a longtime proponent of normalizing ties with Cuba, told The Hill, noting the limited diplomatic relations between the two countries.

"And it's hard to get cooperation when the United States has not moved forward with any kind of genuine reengagement with Cuba," he added.

The hesitancy to do anything similar to the Obama-era thawing of Cuban relations follows significant losses for Democrats in Florida. Trump won the state in November, while Democrats also lost two South Florida districts in an election that underscored the party's struggles to win over more Latino voters.

The designation is the latest move from an administration that has publicly sought to distance itself from the Obama administration - not its predecessor - when it comes to Cuba.

"Joe Biden is not Barack Obama on policy toward Cuba," Juan Gonzalez, senior director for the Western Hemisphere at the National Security Council, told CNN en Español in April.

Geoff Thale, president of the Washington Office on Latin America, described Cuba and Venezuela as the center of the GOP's successful messaging in Florida before they gained the two House seats in November, including the district encompassing Miami's Little Havana neighborhood.

"It wasn't really saying, 'You don't want to end the embargo on Cuba,' it was a campaign that said 'Democrats are all socialists and socialism will ruin your life.' And is that a wild distortion of Democrats' policies and the Democratic party? Yes, it is. But as a media hit it was fairly effective," he said.

"The easy answer is to say, 'We won't do anything about Cuba or Venezuela, and if we do, we'll do it as quietly as possible,' " he said.

But Thale doesn't think that's the smart strategy.

"Say 'We are making challenges in Cuba policy, and those changes actually benefit Cubans in America and their families in Cuba that will overtime lead to greater freedom in Cuba,' " he said.

"[Democrats] will probably get painted as socialists no matter what they do, so it seems to me they need to think smarter about what they can do on strategy," he added.

But some see Biden's approach toward Cuba as part of a broader strategy of taking a tough stance on other communist countries.

"They are returning to the Cold War with practically everyone - with Russia, with China, with Cuba - and I don't know that that is very smart right now," said Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat and ambassador.

"But he won't admit the Obama option is the only option. Because what other option is there? Continue pressuring the government of Cuba? First, that doesn't get done what you think it gets done," he said, arguing that Cubans are not going to overthrow their government because of the U.S. embargo, which has been in place in some form since 1958.

"But secondly, it makes the United States look bad. It makes the U.S. look mean and vindictive with a small neighbor."

Still, not all proponents of normalizing ties are worried the carryover determination means the U.S. policy toward Cuba has been settled.

"I'm choosing to look at this as not that big of a deal," McGovern said. "My understanding is there is a review going on in the administration of what our Cuba policy should be. And my hope is that if it is done objectively and rationally, he will conclude that we need to reengage."

But Armstrong said the lack of an appetite to reverse even on the Arms Control Export Act list doesn't signal an administration seriously considering sweeping change.

At the Cuba Communist Party's eighth party congress in April, the nation for the first time established a government without a single Castro on its roster. Still, the theme was "continuidad," a nod to continuity of its plans to slowly loosen the government's grip on the economy as Raúl Castro stepped down from his post.

"There is more continuidad on Cuba policy in Washington than there is in Havana," Armstrong said.

"They've continued the Trump policy without public debate, without evidence, and without the normal government processes of looking at the facts."


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