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US sidelined amid historic mass protests for Cuban freedom

America's long-standing policy of trade embargoes and isolation of Cuba leaves Washington few options to encourage dissent on the island

A demonstrator gathers outside the White House with others in solidarity with protests in Cuba on July 18.
A demonstrator gathers outside the White House with others in solidarity with protests in Cuba on July 18. (Getty Images)

Amid a wave of unprecedented mass protests by the Cuban people against their communist government, U.S. lawmakers have been left to grapple with the uncomfortable reality that after decades of diplomatic and economic isolation of the island, Washington has relatively little leverage left to try to capitalize on this window of opportunity in Cuba.

The United States is the only country in the world with a trade embargo on Cuba, and no other country shares Washington’s longtime policy — excepting for a brief relaxation during the final Obama years —  of diplomatic isolation of the Caribbean nation.

So when thousands of Cubans took to the streets last week in an outpouring of outrage over the failed policies of the Cuban regime, the Biden administration and U.S. lawmakers were left with little else to do but issue statements of solidarity with the Cuban people while calling on Europe, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean to use their influence with Havana to press for democratic reforms.

“The only one that is isolated from Cuba is the U.S.,” said José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas Division, at a Tuesday hearing about the Cuba protests before the House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere subcommittee. “The only one that is isolated in this debate at the global level from the Cuban affairs is the U.S. Why? Because the policy of isolation made the position of the U.S., actually, kind of impotent with regard to the debate on Cuba.”

But lawmakers remain bitterly divided over the wisdom of the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, which was first imposed in the early 1960s and strengthened over time. Virtually all Republicans support maintaining the embargo, which is codified by statute, as do many moderate Democrats.

However, some prominent progressive Democrats have called for lifting or easing the trade and financial transactions ban. Emblematic of that intra-Democrat debate was an exchange on Twitter last week by two of the party’s most prominent voices on human rights concerns.

“What if the suffering of the Cuban people is caused by BOTH a cruel, backwards, dictatorial regime AND really bad U.S. policy. It can be both, right?” wrote Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., a leading voice for progressives on foreign policy matters.

To which Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., who served as a senior State Department official for human rights during the Obama years, responded: “The embargo is bad policy because it lets Cuba’s communist dictators falsely blame America for Cuba’s problems. But lifting it would not end Cubans’ poverty, which is caused by those leaders denying them the most basic freedoms.”

After six months in power, the Biden administration has yet to reverse course on the Trump administration’s isolationist policies toward Cuba, which President Joe Biden as a candidate said he would relax and return to the Obama-era policy of engagement. The administration says it is still conducting a review of the Trump administration’s Cuba policies.

Notably, the Biden administration last month opposed a U.N. General Assembly resolution, which was approved by a near-unanimous vote, urging the United States to end its embargo on Cuba. In 2016, the last year of the Obama administration, the United States abstained from voting on the annual measure.

“Even conservative governments from Europe and Latin America have never agreed with the policy of the embargo because it imposed indiscriminate sanctions against the people of Cuba and it has showed to be absolutely ineffective,” Vivanco said. “If you want to bring change to Cuba, a transition from dictatorship to democracy, you need to create a multilateral approach, a new type of approach to create the right kind of incentives and pressure for the Cuban [regime] to take those steps.”

For fiscal 2022, the Biden administration requested $20 million for Cuba democracy and human rights-related activities, in line with recent annual appropriations.

Though strong public health measures managed to keep coronavirus infections low on the island for most of 2020, the case count in recent weeks has surged there, adding to the already serious economic woes that the global pandemic exacerbated.

A nonbinding bipartisan, bicameral resolution offering support to Cuban protesters while condemning Havana’s repressive crackdown was introduced last week by leading Cuban American lawmakers, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., and Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J. It is expected to easily pass both chambers.

Push for internet access

“I believe we can still do much more to address this issue by working with private companies and civil society to expand internet access to help Cubans use VPN and other circumvention tools,” said Sires, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere subcommittee, referring to virtual private networks aimed at securing communications.

Testifying before the subcommittee, Rosa María Payá Acevedo, director of Cuba Decide, a pro-democracy, Cuban citizen-led initiative, also called on the U.S. government to find a way to ensure internet access for Cubans.

“We ask the United States to move quickly and to enable the Cuban citizens with a way of communication that in this moment has the capacity to save lives,” said Payá, the daughter of a prominent Cuban political activist who was killed nearly a decade ago in a car crash that his family believes was premeditated.

Last week, Rubio wrote to Biden, urging him to “immediately” allocate funding to a proposed effort to work with U.S. companies to stand up “fiber-less” solutions that can be dispatched to remote regions of Cuba fairly quickly.

“American technical capacity, coupled with the physical proximity of Cuba to the United States and its interests, make providing unrestricted access to the island an attainable and morally imperative goal,” Rubio said. “U.S. companies stand ready and willing to support this effort with the support of the federal government.”

At a Tuesday press briefing, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. government was exploring ways to boost internet access in Cuba. “We will be actively collaborating with our private sector partners to identify ways that may in fact be creative to ensure the Cuban people have access to the free flow of information on the internet,” Price said.

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