Bob Menendez and Biden’s Cuba policy

By Robert Kuttner / The American Prospect

Supporters of ending the U.S.-imposed embargo on Cuba rally in front of the United Nations headquarters, October 29, 2022, in New York.

The fall of Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the now-suspended chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will produce many benefits, including the likely replacement of the corrupt Menendez with progressive Congressman Andy Kim, who won the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat. But one benefit that has not gotten much notice is that Menendez’s ouster will remove a prime obstacle to normalization of relations with Cuba.

With Democrats having the narrowest of Senate majorities, Menendez, whose family emigrated from Cuba in 1953 before Fidel Castro’s revolution, has repeatedly used his power to warn Biden against any normalization. He bragged in a November 2021 interview with Telemundo that he had blocked the administration from liberalization of Cuba policy. “On the contrary,” he said, “President Biden has tightened our policy against the regime.” And in a recent documentary film called Hardliner on the Hudson, Menendez described himself as the enforcer of a policy of zero liberalization. “If you want my support, I don’t want you making any policy changes on Cuba without consulting me,” he said of Biden.

What would normalization look like? We have been here before, under President Barack Obama.

As a candidate for president, Obama courageously argued that the U.S. policy of isolating and impoverishing Cuba with an economic embargo had failed. Obama appreciated that the sanctions were not hurting the regime; they only increased suffering on the part of ordinary Cubans. They also had driven Cuba further into the arms of the Russians as their protectors and had not compelled any political or economic liberalization.

As president, Obama delivered. Just weeks into his new administration in 2009, he relaxed restrictions on remittances and travel. The Cuban government, now under Raúl Castro, reciprocated by liberalizing Cuba’s state-controlled economy.

A new private sector prospered and Cuba enjoyed a boom. The number of self-employed workers tripled between 2009 and 2013.

Then in 2014, Obama and Castro announced the restoration of full diplomatic relations including the reopening of embassies, culminating a 15-month process of secret negotiations brokered by Pope Francis. The agreement included an exchange of prisoners, including intelligence officers. Cubans were permitted to travel abroad, and commercial air service between the U.S. and Cuba was restored.

The embargo against commerce with Cuba, a policy dating to the Kennedy administration, was written into law by the Helms-Burton Act of 1996. But Obama found ways to permit increased commerce to Cuba consistent with the law. He had an ally in the farm lobby, which benefited from increased agricultural exports. Obama also ended the designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, which had made it extremely difficult for Cuba to have normal banking relationships to finance imports and exports.

The embargo against commerce with Cuba was written into law by the Helms-Burton Act of 1996.

In 2016, Obama traveled to Cuba, the first U.S. president to visit the island since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. In a major address, with Raúl Castro sitting in the audience, Obama urged both countries to pursue further liberalization and normalization.

It all added up to a stunning reversal of a self-defeating policy. Some in the hardline Cuban American community were outraged, but others were supportive, since the policy allowed them to visit relatives and send remittances, and generally improved the lives of those in Cuba.

But all of this was undone by President Trump. The embargo is now tightly enforced; open travel to Cuba has ended, diplomatic relations are frozen, and Cuba is back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The Cuban economy has suffered accordingly. Since 2021, the number of Cubans seeking refuge in the U.S. has increased to some 500,000 migrants. They have no special status and most have to join the flow of other refugees, paying smugglers to help them get to Central America and then to the Mexican border. The Trump reversion has exacerbated the increased flow of migrants and the attendant problems from that.

In 2020, campaigning for president, Biden promised to restore the Obama policies. But only token reversals have been forthcoming. Cuba is still branded a state sponsor of terrorism; normal diplomatic relations are still suspended, and the economic blockade continues to be fully enforced.

Only in May did the Biden administration make some token adjustments to allow Cuban private entrepreneurs with no connection to the regime to open U.S. bank accounts and to do online banking. Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez called the new measures “limited” and said they “do not reverse the cruel impact and economic strangulation imposed on Cuban families by the genocidal blockade and inclusion in the list of state sponsors of terrorism.”

With Bob Menendez having lost his influence, one major obstacle to Biden carrying out his campaign pledge on Cuba is now presumably gone. So what is Biden waiting for?

My sources suggest two explanations. In the 2022 midterms, some Biden campaign strategists thought the Senate seat of Marco Rubio, another ultra-hard-liner on Cuba, might be vulnerable, and they didn’t want to give Rubio any ammunition. As it turned out, Rubio won handily. There are some who think Florida might be in play this year, so why rock the boat. That also seems wishful.

But the more disappointing explanation is that Biden is of the generation who saw the Castro regime as implacable enemies, and the policy of diplomatic isolation and economic blockade as necessary realpolitik. The same Biden who fondly recalls the labor-Zionist Israel of his youth recalls the Castro of the 1962 missile crisis.

Obama had it right, and Menendez’s displeasure is no longer an excuse. It’s time to resume normalization of Cuba relations.

Robert Kuttner is co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect, and professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School.
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