On July 11 and 12, Cuba erupted with some of its largest demonstrations in decades. The Cuban government characterized the protest as a form of provocation by dissidents doing the bidding of the U.S., which in recent months had sought to destabilize and weaken Cuba’s economy as part of a policy designed to trigger a massive social implosion and instigate unrest by using social media.
What some Western media described “the largest anti-government protests in decades” seemed to have happened suddenly, but they reflect Cuba’s long-term plight under the challenge of COVID-19 and the extreme pressure of hostile U.S. policies.
Since 2020, Cuba’s main economic pillars have suffered the impact of the pandemic. The tourism industry, on which Cuba depends, has suffered the most. There were only 1.1 million tourists to Cuba throughout the year, a decrease of more than 75 percent year-on-year. Cuba’s foreign exchange income fell precipitously, while the income from trade and medical services exports decreased to varying degrees. Meanwhile, the Trump administration, regardless of the spreading pandemic, continued to increase pressure and impose unprecedented sanctions and blockades on Cuba, and the country’s economy shrank 11 percent in 2020.
The recent protests took place amid Cuba’s worst economic crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union. When the economy is ailing, the livelihoods of average people are also greatly affected. There are shortages of grain, oil, food and energy, and people’s living standards generally decline with rising prices and frequent power cuts. While the people condemned the U.S. blockade and sanctions, overall dissatisfaction has risen in society.
At the same time, Cuba’s external environment has not improved. The U.S. remains the largest external factor restraining the country’s development. During Trump’s tenure, the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. underwent a great setback, and the process of normalization of bilateral relations was reversed. Before leaving office, Trump even returned Cuba to the U.S. list of “state sponsors of terrorism,” a move that complicated any efforts his successor might make to revive Obama-era detente.
Because of political considerations, Biden once made his campaign promise to reverse the failed Trump policies on Cuba, but he hardly mentioned a word on the matter after he took office. The White House spokesperson repeatedly stressed that a Cuba policy shift was not among Biden’s top priorities, and Juan Gonzalez, special assistant to the president and senior director for the Western Hemisphere on the National Security Council bluntly stated that “Joe Biden is not Barack Obama on Cuba policy.” This clearly signaled that the U.S. had no intention of making a difference.
In addition, Biden believes that the initiative in the bilateral relationship lies in the hands of his administration. For the U.S., the longer it drags on, the more difficult it will be for Cuba to improve its domestic situation and the more likely it will be forced to accept U.S. demands for economic reforms and opening-up to the world. And it will move closer to the U.S. goal of changing the communist government of Cuba.
However, some Democrats argue that the demonstrations in Cuba might present a golden opportunity for Biden to act now and regain the support of Hispanic voters in key swing states such as Florida. They believe that if Biden continues to take a passive wait-and-see approach, he might lose an opportunity to win more votes in a future election and instead cement some negative impressions about the Democratic Party.
How to deal with Cuba wisely and transform the situation to Biden’s real political advantage will be far more challenging. After the protests in Cuba, the anti-Cuba forces in Florida, led by Sen. Marco Rubio, became quite excited and demanded that the Biden administration act strongly and immediately on Cuba —mainly restoring internet access and other actions to squeeze “the authoritarian, communist regime that runs Cuba.”
Biden’s Cuba policy has been greatly influenced by domestic anti-Cuba forces, since his position of possible engagement was believed to be one of the key factors that contributed to his defeat in Florida. It dragged down the Democratic Party to lose two seats in South Florida. Biden’s current challenge is to find a balance that can effectively engage Cuba politically without incurring the wrath of a key bloc of voters.
Therefore, during Biden’s four years in power, it is highly likely that U.S. policy toward Cuba will remain tough. At best, the U.S. will use the sticks of “human rights” and “democracy” to force Cuba to have conditional talks, but it will be very much harder for the two sides to return to the old days of the Obama era, when bilateral relations were on a track of normalization. Resuming or even resetting the normalization process will be out of reach in the short term.
Whether it is Obama’s “engagement for change,” Trump’s “change through pressure” or Biden’s “wait-and-see” or “conditional engagement” in the future, the three only have different ways and means but their ultimate policy goal never changes — which is to export American democracy, disrupt Cuban governance and ultimately seek a change of government.