The unrest on Cuba’s streets is the biggest challenge to the country’s communist government in decades. And it poses a dilemma for the Biden administration, which previously said it wants to ease U.S. sanctions against the Cuban regime.
U.S. President Biden needs a way to maintain pressure on the government while moderating penalties that have unavoidably worsened the economic plight of ordinary Cubans. This will require something of a balancing act.
Discontent has been simmering for months. The Cuban economy shrank 11% in 2020. Dwindling foreign-currency reserves have led to shortages of food and electricity.
Cuba’s homegrown COVID-19 vaccine has reached less than one-third of the population and cases continue to rise, overwhelming the country’s hospitals. Anger at deteriorating living conditions has galvanized a grassroots movement led by artists and musicians demanding freedom of expression, civil rights and an end to one-party rule.
It’s unlikely the protesters will force Cuba’s rulers to liberalize, let alone give up power. The government has a history of violent repression. Since the start of the revolt, Cuba’s military has reportedly arrested over 200 citizens, including journalists and activists, and one protester has died.
The government imposed a blackout on social media and internet messaging, which Cubans have used to organize protests and publicize abuses committed by security forces.
The U.S. should express solidarity with the Cuban people and reiterate America’s support for democracy on the island. Funding for the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which provides news and information to Cubans via satellite and radio, should be increased.
Where possible, the U.S. should bolster financial and technical assistance to civil-society organizations and independent media, and press European allies to do the same.
At the same time, Biden should revisit U.S. policies that have compounded the suffering of the Cuban people. Under former President Donald Trump, the U.S. imposed or re-imposed more than 200 restrictions on trade and travel between the two countries, including bans on people-to-people exchanges and limits on remittances sent from Cuban-Americans to their families.
Aimed at punishing the Cuban government and reversing the Obama administration’s efforts at engagement, the sanctions have mainly hurt ordinary Cubans, handing the regime a propaganda tool to divert attention from its own failures.
Biden should move forward with allowing Americans to travel to the island and lifting caps on family remittances. Allowing more agricultural exports to Cuba, as proposed by a bipartisan group of senators, would lower food prices for Cuban consumers (and by the way help U.S. producers).
Other Trump-era policies, such as visa restrictions on certain Cuban officials, should be kept in place until the regime improves its record on human rights and ceases its crackdown on peaceful protesters.
Admittedly, U.S. efforts to improve the lives of Cubans will also aid members of the government. But isolating the country’s 11 million people in order to squeeze the communist regime into submission has been tried for years without success.
Moderating sanctions as an expression of support for the protesters is the better course.
The Bloomberg Opinion editorial board
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