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Joe Biden Should Talk to Cuba Again

The Trump administration reinstated the embargo, but America can't afford to send Havana into China's open arms.

Children walk to school in Havana, on January 13, 2021. (Photo by YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images)

Joe Biden has settled in at the Oval Office, ready to grapple with many pressing national and international issues. One of these is the U.S. relationship with Cuba. Having long since lost its Soviet partner and still subject to an extensive trade embargo by the United States, Havana finds itself in dire straits. Moreover, America’s continued demonization of its island neighbor is pushing it into the arms of geostrategic competitors such as China. The Trump administration’s very recent and highly questionable decision to re-designate the country as a state sponsor of terrorism will only worsen the situation.

Given the economic, humanitarian, and national security implications, there is a strong case for a U.S.-Cuban rapprochement. With the Biden administration, America has the opportunity to reverse the damage inflicted by the Trump administration, normalize ties with Havana, and establish a renewed presence on the island.

The nearly six-decade trade embargo, along with more recent targeted sanctions, has failed to advance the cause of representative democracy in Cuba. Furthermore, if the goal of the embargo and sanctions regime is to change elite behavior, then not only have they not worked, they’ve only served to deprive the very people they are ostensibly supposed to help. America’s economic measures have constrained the nation’s development and devastated ordinary Cubans, while the ruling communist elite lives comfortably by extracting whatever surplus value the island’s inhabitants produce.

A United Nations report from 2018 estimates the total cost of the embargo on Cuba to be $130 billion since its imposition. Sanctions have served to scare away a number of potential Western investors and have damaged Cuba’s energy sector, causing repeated blackouts. Moreover, a study by the American Journal of Public Health found that “the embargo is shown to make the supply of essential goods more costly, more difficult, and more time consuming to procure and maintain.” Both an ongoing economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic make the procurement of goods such as food, fuel, and medicine all the more challenging. Additionally, recent sanctions by the Trump administration have cut off Havana’s third largest source of hard currency by prohibiting most remittances from Cubans residing overseas. While this damages Gaesa, a Cuban military/regime-controlled conglomerate, it also hurts elderly citizens and deprives the state of revenue necessary to import food and medicine.

If, however, economic restrictions were to be rolled back (as the Biden administration has promised) and ties with Havana normalized, it would lead to mutual benefit. A 2017 report on the embargo by the Engage Cuba advocacy group concluded the total loss in annual export revenue by U.S. firms to be $5.9 billion. Thousands of potential American jobs, including in manufacturing, have been lost due to the embargo. Moreover, at a time when American farmers are suffering, Cuba could become an over $1 billion export market for the U.S. agricultural sector. The island imports much of its food and constantly faces shortages. With the island reliant on food imports from faraway countries, the proximity of the United States puts American farmers in an excellent position to profit from reduced trade restrictions. Congress could pass legislation such as the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act, which would eliminate barriers to U.S. agricultural export financing. Increased trade would also benefit private Cuban farmers, who constitute a major segment of Cuba’s entrepreneurial class.

Furthermore, engagement between Washington and Havana would help to alleviate Cuba’s humanitarian crises. As illustrated above, America’s sanctions regime has obstructed medical supplies from reaching the island, including during the coronavirus pandemic. Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, has stated that the embargo is “the main obstacle to purchase the medicines, equipment and material required to confront the pandemic.” A similar sentiment was expressed in a UN condemnation of the embargo, claiming that U.S. restrictions “[prevent] financing the purchase of medicine, medical equipment, food and other essential goods.” The Biden administration could not only reverse these restrictions, allowing much needed medical supplies to be imported, but could also end restrictions on travel and tourism, which prevent humanitarian aid from reaching the island.

Economic and humanitarian considerations aside, there are also geopolitical and strategic reasons why Washington should pursue a détente with Havana. With the demise of the USSR in 1991, Cuba was left without an economic and military patron. Without Soviet backing, the island became far from a threat—a 1997 Defense Intelligence Agency report found that “Cuba does not pose a significant military threat to the U.S. or to other countries in the region.” Long gone are the days when Cuba could mount a military intervention as far away as Angola.

Despite this, the United States continues its row with Cuba, even though any serious justifiable national security threat has long since faded. This has pushed Havana to seek foreign support once more, resulting in China stepping into the gaping void to become Cuba’s new main trading partner.

Havana signed on to Beijing’s Belt and Road global infrastructure project in 2019, opening the door for increased Chinese investment on the island. Among other initiatives, Chinese companies have helped Cuba explore oil deposits in the Caribbean and renovated the island’s railway system. Huawei—a Chinese telecommunications company known to assist authoritarian regimes in surveilling their populations and regarded by Washington as a national security threat—holds a significant market share in Cuba. So far, China has avoided expanding its military presence into Cuba out of fear of alarming the U.S. Nevertheless, Beijing and Havana have pledged to strengthen defense cooperation, and Chinese warships have visited the island. It is also possible that China could expand its intelligence operations into Cuba, as Russia did when it reopened a signals intelligence facility near Havana. It’s ironic: Washington’s refusal to constructively engage Havana by maintaining the long-expired embargo is creating the very same conditions that led to the embargo in the first place.

There are a number of measures Washington can take to rekindle U.S.-Cuba relations. First, Joe Biden should immediately undo his predecessor’s naming of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism. There is no proof the Cuban government is supporting terrorists, nor does it have any incentive to do so. Second, Biden should follow through on his promises to reverse the economic sanctions and restrictions on travel and remittances imposed on Havana by the Trump administration. And third, the administration should restaff the U.S. embassy in Havana to allow Washington to more effectively engage Cuba. In addition, Congress can help by pushing legislation, like the Agricultural Exports Act, that signals a sincere desire to reengage with Cuba and pursue productive relations.

Doing this would put the United States in a better position to normalize ties with Cuba and to one day lift the embargo entirely. With so much at stake, it is imperative that Washington begin the process of restoring a relationship shattered in 1959.

Jack Erickson is an undergraduate studying political science at Emory University.

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