As protests roil Cuba, Biden faces pressure to keep Trump policies despite campaign pledge

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden has not taken steps to reverse the Trump administration's hard-line policy toward Cuba, despite promises during the campaign that he would move to loosen travel restrictions, lift sanctions and ease limits on remittances. 

Now, with the Cuban government seemingly on the defensive amid historic street protests over high prices and food shortages, Biden may find it increasingly difficult to enact sweeping changes in U.S.-Cuba policy.

"It would be rather unthinkable for the U.S. government to lift pressure mechanisms on the Cuban regime right as its security apparatus is bearing down on the Cuban people, who are expressing their desire for an end to more than 70 years of repression," said Ryan C. Berg, an expert on Latin American at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. 

July 12, 2021:  Riot police walk the streets after a demonstration against the government of President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Arroyo Naranjo Municipality, Havana. 
Cuba on Monday blamed a "policy of economic suffocation" of United States for unprecedented anti-government protests, as President Joe Biden backed calls to end "decades of repression" on the communist island.  Thousands of Cubans participated in Sunday's demonstrations, chanting "Down with the dictatorship," as President Miguel Díaz-Canel urged supporters to confront the protesters.

"The Cuban regime under President (Miguel) Diaz-Canel will likely sharpen its response at some point, complicating any sort of opening to Cuba on which Biden campaigned," he said. "At the very least, these protests – their size, scope, and their organic nature – will force the Biden administration to think more deeply about Cuba, which was a back burner issue for the administration."

The rare protests – with thousands of Cubans taking to the streets in defiance of the Communist government's intolerance for dissent – have stirred hope of a revolution among Cuban Americans in Florida, a pivotal political constituency that decidedly favored Trump in 2020

Daniela Ferrera, a Cuban immigrant who lives in Florida and supported Biden's 2020 campaign, said she wants to see the president make good on his promises to ease remittances and sanctions so she can help her family members who are suffering amid Cuba's botched pandemic response.

"It seems like this is the real catalyst for change that we've been yearning for all these years," said Ferrera, co-founder of Cubanos Pa'lante, a group that seeks to send aid to Cubans. 

"What many in our community would like to see is for this not to become a political football between Republicans and Democrats, but rather to take it as a humanitarian crisis, which is ultimately what it is," she said.

But Biden faces "countervailing winds" on Cuba that make the path forward politically difficult no matter which way he tries to go, said Susan MacManus, a political science professor emeritus at the University of South Florida. Any moves by the White House that are perceived as soft on the island's Communist government would likely spark "a big backlash," MacManus said,  and Cuba policy would become all the more fraught as the 2022 elections draw closer.

In Congress, a key Biden ally – Sen. Bob Menendez, a Cuban American and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee – suggested the U.S. could use this moment to foment change in Cuba.

"I don't think the administration should just return to the Obama policies (on Cuba), which showed themselves not to succeed in the aspirations that they had," Menendez told the Hill newspaper on Monday. "It's time for the United States ... to create an opportunity for (Cubans) to realize change in their own country." 

Cuba is suffering its worst economic crisis in decades, with food shortages and high prices exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. The island has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases and has a low vaccination rate.

“We are fed up with the queues, the shortage. That’s why I’m here,” one middle-aged protester told The Associated Press. He declined to identify himself for fear of being arrested.

US-Cuba policy: Economic sanctions, travel restrictions 

Biden's advisers have said the administration was reviewing its Cuba policy and signaled that no changes were imminent. 

"We are going to be taking a close look at what has and has not worked in the past," State Department spokesman Ned Price said at a briefing Tuesday. "Unfortunately in the case of Cuba, there may be more that has not worked than has."

On Monday, Biden expressed support for the protesters, saying the Cuban people "are demanding their freedom from an authoritarian regime” and warning the country's leaders against trying to stifle the demonstrations.

During the campaign, Biden vowed to reverse former President Donald Trump's crackdown on trade and travel with Cuba. Among other steps, Trump banned flights to all Cuban cities except Havana, reimposed economic sanctions on the island, and limited remittances that Cuban Americans could send to family members in their home country.

“The administration’s approach is not working. Cuba is no closer to democracy than it was four years ago,” Biden said in an October campaign swing through Florida.

In March, a band of progressive Democrats pushed Biden to make good on his promises, arguing that Trump's policies were increasing the economic misery on the island.   

“With the stroke of a pen, you can assist struggling Cuban families and promote a more constructive approach," Rep. Bobby Rush and more than 70 other House Democrats wrote in a letter to the president March 2. 

Richard Feinberg, a national security adviser in the Clinton administration, said Biden could spark a "large-scale immigration crisis" if he takes the politically expeditious path of maintaining a hard line. 

"If the goal is to continue to strangle the economy to create discontent on the island, we keep up the pressure. Then what happens?" said Feinberg, now a professor of international political economy at the University of California, San Diego. "Do you think the Cuban government is going to say 'We agree, we give up'?"

Already, the government has limited internet access, arrested protesters and deployed a heavy police presence in response to the weekend's widespread demonstrations.

Feinberg said that if the U.S. doesn't ease its economic stranglehold on Cuba, it could lead to violent confrontations and desperate attempts to leave the country – fueled by "a flotilla of yachts departing South Florida" with Cuban Americans vowing to pick up their fleeing countrymen. 

He faulted the White House for failing to prioritize Cuba policy from the outset and agreed that Biden is now boxed in politically, particularly because of Menendez's power to stymie Biden's foreign policy agenda. 

"He has the power to hold up a lot of legislation and nominations," Feinberg said.

Menendez's spokesman did not respond to a request for an interview. But in an interview with MSNBC on Tuesday, the New Jersey Democrat urged the Biden administration to look for ways to expand internet access via satellite feeds and work to prevent a crackdown on the protesters:

"I think we should be messaging to the Cuban military ... 'There is a place for you in a democratic Cuba – as long as you don’t have blood on your hands.'" 

Contributing: Matthew Brown, The Associated Press