U.S. Policy toward Cuba: What Should the Biden Administration Do?

What is the U.S. national interest regarding Cuba? Take a quiz. Is it:

· To deter, block, and punish transnational criminal organizations that seek to cross Cuba’s land, sea, or air space to enter the United States?

· To secure an orderly and unbreachable land border along the periphery of the U.S. base near Guantánamo, Cuba?

· To enlist Cuban government cooperation in preventing undocumented migration across the Straits of Florida?

· To prevent and stop terrorist attacks in their respective air, land, and sea?

· To cooperate with Cuban weather bureaus and scientists to anticipate killer hurricanes that are on course to hit southern United States?

If you answer yes, then you support the U.S. and Cuban agreements from late 2016 and January 2017. They built on a long record of reliable formal and informal cooperation. Weather bureaus have cooperated even during the 1962 missile crisis. The world’s longest-lasting effective anti-air hijacking agreement dates from 1973. Since the 1990s, U.S. and Cuban forces have had a constructive professional relationship around the U.S. base, the two governments have jointly reduced undocumented migration flows, while informal counterdrug cooperation developed. The 2016–17 agreements made cooperation easier and more effective.

A key question is whether other U.S. objectives that pertain to Cuba’s domestic political regime may be advanced through a return to the 2014 policies of the Obama-Biden administration. Let us examine, then, the policy options that the U.S. government has chosen over the years, notwithstanding a nearly-unbroken record of repeated failure, as well as the reasons why the art of the deal succeeded in 2014 but not under Trump.

The U.S. temptation to choose bad policy options

The Biden administration may wonder whether to sustain sanctions, given economic reforms that the Cuban government announced in 2020. Are these Trump administration sanctions successes? Not likely. The Cuban government made market-conforming economic policy changes in the early 1970s, the early 1990s, the early 2010s, and in 2020–21. An economic collapse preceded and propelled the change in all but 2010. However, new sanctions mattered only in the first case; in 1967–68, the Soviet Union imposed mild but targeted sanctions on Cuba while ill-conceived Cuban policies deepened its economic crisis. In the early 1990s, the Cuban government reacted to the Soviet Union’s collapse; a minor ratcheting of U.S. sanctions had limited impact. No new sanctions were imposed in the early 2010s.

The Trump administration sanctioned repeatedly. The Cuban government did not budge. Its 2020 economic reform announcements followed and responded to the crash resulting from Cuba’s shutting down international tourism to stop the Covid-19 epidemic. Trump sanctions hurt ordinary Cubans without accomplishing any U.S. interests; reducing the flow of U.S. visitors and capping remittances pummeled Cuba’s nascent private sector, which had financed its investments from remittances and relied on U.S. travelers as customers.

Instead, the Cuban government implemented its key economic reforms only following Trump’s election defeat, namely, the shift toward a single currency and the substantial expansion of authorized private sector activities. Acting in its own interest, yet anticipating improved bilateral relations, the Cuban government provided the incoming Biden administration with evidence of a willingness to go beyond where matters stood at the end of the Obama presidency.

The Biden administration may also be tempted to pursue a quid pro quo approach in its negotiations with Cuba. That transactional strategy was central to the Ford, Carter, Clinton, and early Obama administrations; it failed repeatedly. The breakthroughs during 2014–2016 occurred because each government, for its own reasons, chose to cooperate to advance its own interests. Each expected the other to abide by the new commitments, but neither set quid pro quo negotiations pre-conditions.

Why the cooperation in 2014, why its interruption after 2017

In 2014–16, the Cuban government cooperated with the U.S. government because it was in its interest. It had long urged the United States to end U.S. policy incentives to undocumented migration by Cubans, fought criminal drug trafficking since the early 1990s, and promoted formal bilateral cooperation. The two governments signed agreements on these topics in January 2017. Cuba also had economic, scientific, and environmental cooperation interests and in facilitating bilateral cultural exchanges. Neither side set pre-conditions or a quid pro quo.

The Trump administration impaired effective U.S.-Cuban bilateral cooperation because it sought to undermine Cuba’s political regime at the expense of advancing these U.S. interests. In seeking to punish Cuban security agencies, in early 2018 it cut to a minimum its coordination with Cuban law enforcement. Nevertheless, the 2020 U.S. International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Tab-1-INCSR-Vol.-I-Final-for-Printing-1-29-20-508-4.pdf) indicates: “Cuba is not a major consumer, producer, or transit point of illicit drugs… Cuba’s intensive security presence and interdiction efforts have kept supplies of illicit drugs down and prevented traffickers from establishing a foothold… preventing smuggling through its territorial waters, … and conducting thorough airport searches. Cuba dedicates significant resources to prevent illicit drugs and their use from spreading, and regional traffickers typically avoid Cuba.” Cuba has been a reliable U.S. partner to counter criminal drug traffickers.

In dramatically reducing immigration visas, the Trump administration increased the risk of undocumented migration, given Cuba’s ongoing deep economic recession. Undocumented Cubans trekked up to the U.S.-Mexican border; their number may increase so long as the U.S. government fails to honor its obligations under bilateral U.S.-Cuban migration agreements. New obstacles to scientific exchanges interrupted collaborations that would have mitigate health and environmental catastrophes in Florida. The Trump administration’s sacrifice of those U.S. interests gained the United States nothing. Cuba’s political regime remains authoritarian.

Human rights and democracy

The United States has had a national interest in continued authoritarian rule in Cuba. No imaginable democratic government in Cuba would control the physical movements of its people as Cuba’s authoritarian rulers have done since the 1995 U.S.-Cuban migration agreement. Criminal thugs penetrate governments whose presidents have been chosen in competitive elections (Guatemala, Honduras) or who govern autocratically (Maduro’s Venezuela). The U.S. government during the Trump administration is a credible witness that Cuba’s authoritarian rulers have been effective against criminal drug traffickers. Regime change will not improve Cuba’s shield against transnational crime.

Nevertheless, President Biden and his twelve predecessors have affirmed a U.S. interest in propelling Cuba’s democratization. How may such goals be achieved without jeopardizing other salient U.S. interests? The Biden administration may note past U.S. facilitation of such changes in Cuba. During the bilateral thaw under the Ford and Carter administrations, the Cuban government liberalized its policies toward intellectuals and culture, released thousands of political prisoners, and permitted Cuban-American travel. In 2015, President Raúl Castro widened permissible public debate regarding political and economic changes. During 2014–16, U.S. policy change facilitated the spread of Internet access in Cuba, with the consequent rise of critical online media blogs. The private sector boomed, catering to U.S. visitors, including Cuban-Americans. These changes widened transnational civil society contacts.

In contrast, in the early 2000s coercive Bush administration policies induced a Cuban government retreat from the modest economic reforms enacted in the 1990s. Coercive Trump administration policies provided the only Cuban government alibi for economic policy failures. Cuban private entrepreneurs blame Trump policies for the loss of their U.S. clients. In general, U.S. policies have always had limited effects on democratizing Cuba, but they have been more likely to have beneficent effects during moments of cooperation than coercion.

The Biden administration may place an implicit bet akin to the one between Barack Obama and Raúl Castro. If bilateral relations improve, will that strengthen Cuba’s authoritarian regime, or will it edge it toward economic, social, and political openings? By early 2016, Raúl Castro was losing the bet. Hence, Cuba’s officialdom anticipated a loss of control and, before Obama’s visit to Havana, curtailed its openings. It had gained too little and risked too much.

A Biden administration may emphasize joint gains. Cooperation with Cuban law enforcement against transnational crime may prevent the victimization of people in both countries. Compliance with the U.S.-Cuban migration agreement, and reinstituting the legal immigration process, may disincentivize undocumented migration. Sustaining cooperation with Cuban security forces around the perimeter of the U.S. base serves both sides. These steps also require reciprocal professional respect.

Reopening the U.S. Consulate at its Embassy in Havana to issue visas for Cuban travel, and travel and remittances from the United States, would revive the private sector, freeing Cubans from economic dependence on the State and rebuilding a transnational civil society. Reopening scientific, cultural, and academic cooperation facilitates the transnational flow of ideas. Authorizing U.S. technology companies to invest and widen Cuban Internet access as well as speeding up permits for bilateral trade and U.S. investments in Cuba may create sufficient economic stakes to deter the Cuban government from stopping its own openings again.

Create multiple stakeholders though cultivating joint interests to induce change. Cooperation on immigration and anti-crime law enforcement serves U.S. and Cuban interests and mitigates the risk that a future democratic transition might adversely impact those U.S. interests. Make possible economic gains to Cuba in specified issue areas to mitigate the risk that, in 2022 as in 2016–17, the Cuban government would reverse course. Give the Cuban government an economic stake in a continued opening to build better for the future.

Currently in retirement, Jorge Dominguez most recently served as the Antonio Madero Professor for the Study of Mexico at Harvard University for 12 years.

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