Will President Biden Stand With the Cuban People, or Grant the Dictatorship in Havana Legitimacy?
By Marco Rubio
The horrific nature of the communist regime in Cuba is well known. For decades it has terrorized its own people, murdered dissidents, jailed artists and activists, and fomented chaos in the Western Hemisphere by propping up authoritarian regimes as well as terrorist guerilla movements. The key question facing any U.S. administration is how to respond to such a brutal regime.
During his time in office, President Trump and his Administration pushed policies that stood with the long-suffering Cuban people by holding the Castro-Díaz-Canel regime accountable for decades of repression. It marked a much-needed change from the weak Obama-era coddling that President Joseph Biden and many of his closest advisors oversaw, supported, and cheered on.
Now, President Biden must decide whether he will continue the Trump-era policy of siding with the Cuban people or grant Havana international legitimacy at their expense.
His early personnel announcements suggest he will prioritize appeasing the regime, and we will get our first indication very early in the administration.
The Biden Administration will face intense pressure from those who want to profit from Cuba’s dictatorship and sympathizers of the regime, who will advocate using the upcoming Summit of the Americas to signal a reset with Havana by inviting the Cuban regime to the U.S. for the event. Under no circumstances should the Castro-Díaz-Canel regime be handed such a huge public relations victory.
And beyond mere perception — no small matter on the island and across our hemisphere — is a very practical reality: moving to re-open diplomatic channels will inevitably lead to the Biden Administration peeling away restrictions targeted at individual figures known to have committed crimes, like the Castro family and their associates.
There will be other decision points along the way, and it seems certain that President Biden and his team will prioritize a naive policy of “engagement” that effectively rewards the Castro-Díaz-Canel dictatorship for its increased repression.
President Biden’s “engagement” would mean changing current economic policy by asking Congress to end the embargo and opening up trade relations with the dictatorship. That would be mediated through the Cuban military’s puppet organization, the Grupo de Administración Empresarial S.A. (GAESA), a conglomerate currently on the State Department’s list of restricted entities that controls nearly 60 percent of the island’s economy. GAESA is used to repress the Cuban people by managing — and thus limiting access to — commerce on the island. It’s also a nakedly corrupt enterprise, headed by an army general married or once married to one of Raúl Castro’s daughters. Normalizing relations with Havana would mean injecting more cash directly into its coffers.
For Biden’s team, “engagement” will also require constant downplaying of the national security threat that Havana poses. The Cuban regime’s alliances with the world’s leading authoritarians and worst human rights violators — Xi in China, Putin in Russia, the Mullahs in Iran, Kims in North Korea, the Ortegas in Nicaragua, and Maduro in Venezuela — speak for themselves. They also constitute a direct threat to our national security due to arms agreements and Cuba’s geographic proximity to the U.S., which is used to target our nation for intelligence collection.
“Engagement” will also mean turning a blind eye as Cuba continues to support Maduro’s illegitimate narco-regime in Venezuela, prolonging the agony of the Venezuelan people and exacerbating the greatest humanitarian and migration crisis in our region — and therefore straining the capabilities of our allies, as well.
The Cuban dictatorship has repeatedly supported and provided safe harbor for State Department-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations such as those in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), the latter of whom committed last year’s suicide bombing in Bogotá, Colombia against the National Police Academy. Such flagrant support resulted in the Trump Administration formally re-naming Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, a re-designation that President Biden should under no circumstances change.
There is zero reason to delude ourselves into believing that “engagement” will get the tyrants in Havana to change their ways. Nor is there reason to think that the regime will suddenly abandon its long-standing history of repressing political opponents and journalists, human trafficking, and committing other human rights violations within its own borders.
Instead of holding them responsible for such repression, the Biden Administration is likely to elevate Raúl Castro and Miguel Díaz-Canel as credible, equal partners in diplomatic affairs in the Western Hemisphere. Regimes like theirs or that of Maduro have long been able to extend their own grip on power by exploiting international negotiations for their own political benefit. Just look at how Havana was able to exploit the Colombian peace accord in 2016 to build legitimacy — even as it was doubling down on its reign of terror at home.
We can also anticipate that the Biden Administration will try to integrate the dictatorship into the Latin American community through efforts like law enforcement cooperation. Consider how well that has gone for Caracas, where today Maduro is so isolated from the Venezuelan people that he has to keep a Cuban security detail. Similarly, the new administration may try to build more room for cooperation on public health issues. But Cuba’s overseas medical missions are now recognized as human trafficking rackets, exploiting Cuban medical professionals through forced labor to generate goodwill for the regime.
As it ignores the regime’s history, the foreign policy establishment pushing “engagement” is also dangerously out of step with conditions on the ground.
The Castro-Díaz-Canel regime is engaged in a brutal crackdown of the San Isidro Movement, a group of artists, academics, and others engaged in peaceful protests against the regime. And of course the safety of our diplomats cannot be guaranteed. In violation of international treaty obligations, they were targeted by direct energy attacks and suffer from brain injuries. Havana’s denials defy belief.
President Biden’s signaled shift to “re-engage” with Cuba will mean rewarding an authoritarian regime that continues to imprison, punish, censor, and murder dissidents and journalists. Instead, the Biden Administration should stop ignoring the voices of those who know the regime firsthand — Cuban-Americans in our country and abroad — who understand that Havana cannot be rewarded for its evils.
President Biden and his team must take a position. During his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State nominee Tony Blinken suggested he would consult the United States Senate frequently on these issues, and I sincerely hope he actually keeps that promise. Because at this moment, it appears the Biden Administration will end up on the wrong side of history, and the Cuban people will suffer even more as a result.