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‘The White House is finally paying attention’: Cuba’s protests force Biden’s hand

Asked in March whether President Joe Biden intended to lift his predecessor’s last-minute designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters: “A Cuba policy shift is not currently among President Biden’s top priorities.”

She gave an almost identical response a month later when pressed for reaction to Raul Castro stepping down as head of Cuba’s Communist Party.

Six months in, that refrain makes one thing clear: Amid burgeoning foreign crises from Nicaragua to Afghanistan, Biden’s team wasn’t ready to turn its attention to Cuba.

But over the weekend, the communist-run island nation became an unavoidable subject. Thousands of Cubans took to the streets on Sunday to protest food and medicine shortages amid a worsening economic crisis, while calling for an end to the 62-year-old dictatorship. And while Biden voiced support for the protesters, describing the protests as a “clarion call for freedom,” much of his policy toward Cuba remains a mystery.

Will Biden encourage more demonstrations? Does his team support adding new sanctions or keeping in place Trump-era sanctions? Is the idea of bolstering diplomatic and trade ties now out of the question? The White House’s painstaking review of Cuba policy now risks being overtaken by current events.

“The easy political thing to do is to issue demands for freedom from America while doing nothing,” said Ben Rhodes, who served as a senior aide to former President Barack Obama and helped craft the Obama administration’s diplomatic opening to Cuba. “I just don’t think that’s the approach that’s going to be constructive here.”

The protests in Cuba were another example of the Biden administration being forced by realities on the ground to grapple with an issue after trying to deprioritize it. Earlier this year, Biden and his aides found themselves scrambling to deal with clashes between Israel and Palestinian militants after signaling a desire to minimize U.S. engagement in that long-running conflict.

The questions on Cuba policy come as Biden has left largely intact Trump’s high-pressure, sanctions-heavy campaign against Cuba’s regime, despite campaign promises to the contrary.

And they come as concerns within the White House about Cuba have grown in recent days, according to two people in touch with administration officials. Before the protests, U.S. officials were looking at what they could do to ease the Cuban people’s suffering, one of the people, a Cuba analyst, told POLITICO. That included possibly easing travel restrictions as well as limits on people’s ability to send money to relatives and others on the island — changes Biden himself discussed on the campaign trail.

“They are concerned about the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Cuba and the possibility that it could spill over into a migratory crisis,” said the analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive conversations. “I know that the White House is finally paying attention.”

In recent months, the number of Cuban migrants coming by land and sea has grown significantly. More than 500 Cuban migrants have been intercepted and repatriated this fiscal year, up from 49 in 2020 and 313 in 2019, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Some Republicans, including Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio, have expressed concern that the Cuban government will begin to encourage mass migration to the United States, as it did in 1994 when Cuba last saw large-scale protests. However, U.S.-Cuba experts say that level of migration by sea is less likely to happen this time around, given that Washington no longer has an immigration policy in place that welcomes Cubans when they reach U.S. soil.

So far, some of Biden’s biggest allies on Capitol Hill have been supportive of his move to keep Trump-era sanctions and restrictions in place.

“The regime needs to understand that change [in Cuba] will bring about a change in sanctions” — not change in who occupies the U.S. presidency, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said, adding that it’s important that Biden has not weakened the sanctions.

Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, defended the administration for not making Cuba a foreign policy priority, saying it’s “understandable” given ongoing challenges with China, Russia and Iran.

“But now that the Cuban people have taken to the streets, I think the administration will have to look at options they can exercise in support of the Cuban people,” Menendez said, noting that he has been in touch with administration officials and they already have a list of his policy suggestions that are under consideration.

Others closely following the situation worry that the protests will only make it less likely that the Biden administration rolls back Trump-era restrictions. They say Biden’s ability to maneuver on Cuba policy will only get more restricted as the 2022 midterm elections get closer.

“They’re just not going to make themselves politically vulnerable by lifting the sanctions, rolling back the Trump policies, when the Republicans will immediately hammer away at it and say it is a gift to the Cuban regime,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue.

The domestic considerations for Biden were on display Sunday as hundreds of Cuban Americans took to the streets in Miami to protest in solidarity with the Cuban people. Meanwhile, Republican leaders like Rubio, who played a major role in the Trump administration’s hardline Cuba policy, were already hammering Biden for not having an immediate response to the protests.

“President Biden’s lack of comment yesterday made clear that he has no interest in standing with the Cuban people as they rise up against the authoritarian regime,” Rubio said in a written statement to POLITICO. “The Biden Administration’s decision to remain silent during decisive hours harms the protesters bravely demonstrating for their God-given rights.”

Meanwhile in Havana, Cuban leaders sought to crack down on the widespread protests across the island. President Miguel Díaz-Canel on Sunday declared that “the order to combat is given.” Security forces were deployed, government supporters were called on to take back control of the streets and internet access was restricted in an apparent effort to prevent protestors from sharing information. There are numerous reports of beatings and arrests by security forces, including widely known dissidents like Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, leader of the Movimiento San Isidro.

On Monday, Díaz-Canel, who only three months ago took over as head of Cuba’s Communist Party, a job he was being groomed for since becoming president in 2019, blamed U.S. policy toward Cuba as the reason for the unprecedented demonstrations, refusing to acknowledge Cubans’ frustration with his government.

The Cuba protests come amid a political crisis in nearby Haiti that is spurring U.S. concerns of a Haitian exodus as well.

“Neither was on the agenda. But they’ve been forced back on the front burner,” said Shifter. “Biden was caught off guard and [the administration has] to figure out the right narrative for this and get out in front of it.”

It remains to be seen whether the protests are a unique event that will be quashed by Cuba’s authoritarian regime or if they are the start of a meaningful movement. Cuba’s government exercises strict control over its population, but Cubans’ patience has been sorely tested by the coronavirus pandemic, which has added to their existing economic misery.

Biden administration officials did not immediately respond to questions about whether they were surprised by the demonstrations, had been warned they were coming, or what the administration’s Cuba-related plans are in the days ahead.

Speaking Monday, Psaki said she’s not aware of any immediate U.S. policy shift toward Cuba. “We’re assessing how we can be helpful to the people of Cuba,” she said.

In their statements, Biden administration officials appeared to try to walk a fine line: voicing support for the protesters and asking the Cuban government to be responsive to the people’s demands, but stopping far short of encouraging regime change.

At times, it made for a confusing overall message.

On Twitter, for instance, Julie Chung, the acting assistant secretary in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the Department of State, repeatedly called on all sides to refrain from violence and for the Cuban government to “listen to their citizens’ demands.” But at one point, she seemed to channel a revolutionary spirit, writing: “The Cuban people have waited long enough for ¡Libertad!”

Republican lawmakers seized the moment to attack both the Cuban regime and Biden.

“President Biden, freedom in #Cuba needs you now! Don’t be AWOL,” tweeted Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

Chung, who was the first U.S. official to tweet about the situation in Cuba on Sunday, was at the center of Republican criticism over her initial tweet, in which she said the protests were to “express concern about rising COVID cases/deaths & medicine shortages.”

Rep. Carlos Giménez, a Cuban American Republican representing South Florida, on Monday urged Biden, in a letter shared with POLITICO, to remove Chung from her position leading Western Hemisphere affairs at the State Department for what he called a “disjointed and foolish statement.”

Biden “should be sure we stay on the side of the Cuban people against this vicious regime,” said Elliott Abrams, a veteran Latin America watcher and former senior State Department official under President Donald Trump. “That means rhetorical support, support in international organizations, and an absolute refusal to weaken sanctions as the regime brutalizes the population.”

On the left, however, there’s a belief that American sanctions on Cuba are no more likely to succeed now than they have over the past six decades.

The administration should “figure out ways to engage the Cuban people, which necessitate taking off some sanctions both to improve their lives and [deal with] things like Covid,” Rhodes said. “I think ultimately that engaging Cubans is more empowering than thinking you can keep them in this pressure cooker.”

Still, former administration officials and experts on the region say Biden will have to be careful not to get too involved publicly. Díaz-Canel and Cuban leaders have already sought to spin the protests as a product of “Yankee imperialism,” despite protesters emphasizing that they took to the streets over desperation caused by Cuba’s own policies.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken dismissed allegations that the United States orchestrated the protests, saying the demonstrations were a “reflection” of the Cuban people’s exhaustion with government repression and mismanagement.

“It would be a grievous mistake for the Cuban regime to interpret what is happening in dozens of towns and cities across the island as a result or product of anything the United States has done,” Blinken said during a news briefing Monday. “It would show they simply are not hearing the voices and will of the Cuban people.”

“It is a balancing act for Biden in the end,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the think tank Council of the Americas and a former U.S. government official. “You have to come out in support of democracy, in support of respect for peaceful protestors and human rights … without creating difficulties for the protestors.”

“The Cuban regime is very good at painting protesters as stooges of the United States,” Farnsworth added. “They are not. And that is clearly not the case here.”

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