With regard to U.S.-Cuba policy, President Joe Biden should act decisively — even to the point of signing an executive order suspending all sanctions on Cuba unilaterally. Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead!
Of course the GOP and the Cuban American conservatives, and even some in the Democratic Party, such as Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, will oppose him, citing that the Cuban embargo is the prerogative of Congress under the Helms/Burton legislation from 1996, but Biden must test his authority on this issue from the start. Relations with Russia and China, not to mention Latin America, would be helped enormously if the president were to take this bull by the horns.
The main reason Cuba still features in presidential politics in Florida is that neither Presidents Clinton nor Obama acted with vision when they had the opportunity to do so in 1993 and 2009, respectively. In 1993 it would have been relatively easy for Clinton to end the embargo — a mere stroke of the presidential pen would have done it — but with Cuba weak and down from the Soviet collapse, the conservative exiles chose to bring down the hammer and Clinton went along against his better judgment.
Resentment and hatred of the revolution got the best of the exiles. Under the leadership of Jorge Mas Canosa, the then-powerful Cuban American National Foundation pressed George H.W. Bush and then Clinton to tighten the grip of sanctions instead of a softer, conciliatory approach, missing an opportunity of historic proportions to set the tone for reconciliation and disposition of old grudges. By the time they cooked up the “Bacardi Bill” (Helms/Burton Act) in 1996, Fidel Castro was determined to resist to the death to preserve Cuban sovereignty. The result was a tremendous amount of shortages and downright deprivation which would cause over 300,000 Cubans to leave the island over the next 20 years.
Ironically, most of those who left between 1996 and 2016 were its young professional class, trained by the revolution — the best and brightest, if you will — who are now U.S. citizens with many supporting Donald Trump’s policies. This in the face of their own families being hurt by additional sanctions. So convoluted and irrational has the U.S.-Cuba quarrel become!
Obama could have also opened things up in 2009, but in my opinion, he allowed powerful members of Congress in both Houses to hold him from pursuing what he knew in his heart was the right thing to do. To be sure, President Obama’s brief opening to Cuba in 2014 had a very positive effect for the average Cuban family. The quasi-normalization of relations allowed for numerous exchanges between the two nations, in addition to purposeful travel and cruise ship visits, all of which brought significant amounts of dollars to a cash-stripped economy. Many Cubans opened new businesses and hired workers at a time when the government wanted to reduce its bureaucratic payroll. The evidence of these improvements was everywhere: homes were being fixed up, people dressed better, more items were found in stores, transportation improved, and a sense of well-being was felt among the population.
Had Hillary Clinton won the presidency in 2016, I have no doubt that this process of normalization would have continued. But Trump’s election put an end to that. Sen. Marco Rubio was successful in convincing Trump that the Miami exiles played a decisive role in his carrying Florida and, together with his desire to roll back Obama’s legacies, the new president doubled down on the failed policies of the past.
That’s the history in a nutshell. Now we are faced again with a great opportunity, as Cuba is experiencing hard economic times due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the increased sanctions and the Cuban system’s inherent failures. President Biden can cut this proverbial Gordian knot with one swift measure: he can issue an executive order suspending all sanctions and come to the negotiating table in a strong position.
There can be no real normalization of relations as long as the embargo is in place. No other country in the world has been subjected to the constant and systemic efforts at destabilization as Cuba has endured from the U.S. for over 60 years.
A bold and imaginative approach to U.S.-Cuba policy will work for Joe Biden, pave the way to dealing with the crisis in Venezuela and bring about peace and security in the region.
Ricardo Gonzalez is a former Madison alder and founder of the Madison-Camaguey (Cuba) Sister City project. He has led countless groups of Americans to Cuba over the past 40 years.
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