Cuba seeks to thaw Biden administration’s cold shoulder

By Rafael Bernal / The Hill

Cuban officials are megaphoning their intent to open wide-ranging negotiations with the Biden administration amid persistent economic pain and growing emigration from the island.

The public relations offensive is a new tack for the communist government, frustrated with a stagnated bilateral relationship.

“We are open and willing for more cooperation. We want to turn this relation into a relation not of aggression, but to a relation of respect, respect, cooperation. And also I don’t think it’s too much to ask the U.S. what they ask of every country: The United States will not even dream and Americans will not ever dream of another country intervening in their domestic affairs,” said Johana Tablada, the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s top official in the General Division for the United States.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Hill at the Cuban Embassy in Washington, Tablada laid out the official Cuban perspective on U.S. attitudes toward the island and why their appeals for formal talks have been met with deaf ears.

“We always say, ‘OK, let’s talk about it seriously. Let’s put everything on the table with no exception.’ But it is very clear that the limit — in our opinion — is political will and electoral politics,” said Tablada.

Cuba’s top priority is no secret: For the past three years, the island’s officials have publicly urged the Biden administration to remove the country from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Cuba was included in the list in the waning days of the Trump administration, raising the bureaucratic and political barriers the Biden administration would have to overcome to return to the Obama administration’s policy of rapprochement.

So far, the Biden administration has shown no willingness to open that political can of worms.

But Cuban officials say inclusion on the list also bears political costs for the administration.

“It triggered, immediately, a disproportional flow of migrants to the U.S.,” said Tablada.

She said including Cuba on the list also hurt the country’s social services network and is “a discredit to the commitment of the United States to fight terrorism,” given existing cooperation between Washington and Havana on law enforcement and terrorism.

The Hill has reached out to the Biden administration for comment.

While the Trump administration’s Cuba policy was intended to reverse the Obama administration’s rapprochement, it only pulled the trigger on the terrorism list 10 days before President Biden took office.

“The inclusion of Cuba — fraudulent — in the terrorist list failed in its main object because the logic was the logic of [former Trump adviser] Mauricio Claver-Carone that the blockade is not working because it’s not perfect,” said Tablada.

“So if you twisted and twisted enough to make the economic siege and financial siege perfect, the Cuban economy will collapse.”

The Cuban economy took a hit — on top of preexisting economic troubles — especially as foreign banks withdrew from the island rather than risk U.S. sanctions. The economic collapse did play a part in triggering massive protests on July 11, 2021, which Cuban officials say were allowed to take place, though international observers such as Amnesty International say “authorities responded with repression and criminalization.”

The degree of repression and the nature of the protests — economic, political or both — are debated, but the aftermath of economic collapse is not.

“So they failed in toppling down the Cuban government, but they were very successful and effective in harming the Cuban population. Results: More than 200,000 people emigrated from Cuba in just one year,” said Tablada.

Another factor in increased emigration from Cuba was the country’s reform two decades ago to liberalize who could get a passport in the country, essentially dropping Cold War-era restrictions on Cubans leaving the island.

“Since the 1960s the migratory issue has been highly politicized, so I think that the change occurred 20 years ago, precisely as a sign of maturity — because it was the right thing to do,” said Tablada.

“And also because I think it was a sign of the many things that we’ve been changing in Cuba for the last 20 years as part of our national debate,” she added, pointing to other popular reforms on the island, including the 2022 referendum to legalize gay marriage.

But Cuba’s system of government has been, since 1959, a barrier for U.S. presidents — with the exception of former President Obama — to directly negotiate with the island.

That notion frustrates Cuban officials, who note the United States carries on formal political and trade relations with other Marxist-Leninist one-party states and former Cold War rivals such as Vietnam, and even with current U.S. rivals.

“China. Because the U.S. has a better relationship with China than with Cuba. Honestly,” said Tablada.

And from the Cuban perspective, a one-party state willing to discuss human rights, prisoners, migration and trade but not regime change would make a more suitable partner to the United States than other countries.

“[The] U.S. has political, diplomatic, economic relations with countries that are far, far, far away in their standards of human rights [from] where Cuba is right now. And I don’t want to mention any names, because we probably also have good relations with them.”

“But you can easily realize that that’s not the real object. If the real object of the United States toward Cuba priority would be human rights, the blockade would be removed because it’s hurting us too badly,” added Tablada.

Though Cuban officials meet with their U.S. counterparts on a number of issues ranging from patrolling the Straits of Florida to the environment, those meetings are restricted to specific topics

“What we have is just the [tip of the] iceberg of multilateral cooperation. This week, I visited different entities of the U.S. government or Justice Department. And I’ve met with other departments — I won’t mention which ones because I don’t want them to be subpoenaed to Congress,” said Tablada.

She said that light touch, added to the historical distrust between the two governments, amounts to a dysfunctional relationship between close neighbors.

“U.S.-Cuba relations are completely out of control; [they] are completely far away from the national interest of the two people, and as a signal today of distinction, a huge flow of migrants and a state of denial of the United States government that does not like to accept that there is a direct link between this,” said Tablada.

“I’m not talking about the 60 years of the embargo. I’m talking of the brand-new 200-and-something unilateral, coercive measures during Trump and Biden that trigger the highest emigration away from Cuba to the U.S., which is painful for us.”