For the past seven years, Washington’s Cuba agenda has been as much pendulum as policy. In 2014, President Barack Obama reversed 53 years of the United States’ isolation of Cuba and re-established ties with Havana.
“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to serve our interests,” he said.
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Three years later, President Donald Trump reversed many of Obama’s Cuba policies. He especially restricted U.S. travel and money sent back to the island.
“I am cancelling the last administration’s complete one-sided deal with Cuba,” Trump said in Little Havana to loud applause from Cuban exiles who favor stepped-up pressure on the regime.
But in Miami last year, now President-elect Joe Biden promised to reverse Trump’s policies and restore Obama’s course of engagement with Cuba.
“The [Trump] Administration’s approach is not working,” Biden argued. “Cuba is no closer to freedom and democracy than it was four years ago.”
Biden will be sworn in as President on Wednesday. Most Cuban-Americans in South Florida favored engagement with Cuba under Obama. Now polls show most of them prefer more isolation – and they voted for Trump. So politics will likely compel Biden to also consult anti-engagement exiles like Orlando Gutierrez-Boronat, who heads the Directorio Cubano Democrático, or Cuban Democratic Directorate, a leading exile group in Miami.
“We can’t reject everything Trump did simply because there’s opposition to Trump,” Gutierrez said. “His policies towards Cuba make sense.”
Gutierrez and his parents fled Cuba’s revolution in 1971 when he was five. He says one of his last memories of the island was his communist kindergarten teacher’s political indoctrination methods.
“My parents told me, ‘Don’t tell anyone in the school you’re leaving the country,’” Gutierrez recalled.
“So one day the teacher says, ‘I love you all so much I want to know who’s going to leave the country so that I prepare my heart for your absence.’ And I was stupid enough to raise my hand. And the teacher never again let me go to the bathroom. And she would take away my toys.”
There were darker experiences; Gutierrez also says he had cousins who were imprisoned – or executed – by the regime in the 1960s.
He feels all that helps explain why engagement often seemed a one-way street under Obama: the U.S. made concessions, like removing Cuba from its state sponsors of terrorism list, but Cuba gave little in return in critical areas like human rights.
“You have to always remember you’re dealing with a dangerous, totalitarian state that has its own logic, its own view of reality, and plays a game of winner-take-all,” said Gutierrez.
“So the strategy has to be focused on the main issue: End to repression. Release of all political prisoners. Legalization of civil society. And free elections.”
Biden has longstanding ties to the Cuban community that Obama didn’t have, and so I get the impression he is not going to rush into an opening with the communist regime in Cuba.
Last week Trump put Cuba back on the terrorism list. It was widely criticized as a political abuse of a serious foreign policy tool. But Gutierrez supports it and says Biden should use it as leverage to prod democratic change in Cuba — and he believes Biden will listen because he’s worked with Cuban exiles in the past.
“Biden has longstanding ties to the community Obama didn’t have,” Gutierrez said. “I get the impression that President-elect Biden is not going to rush into an opening with the communist regime in Cuba.”
“It’s about being part of the decision-making process,” said Gutierrez’s wife, Silvia Gutierrez-Boronat, the Cuban Democratic Directorate’s communications director.
Gutierrez-Boronat’s grandfather had been mayor of a town outside Havana when Fidel Castro’s communist revolution took power in Cuba in 1959. He got his family out in the 1960s after he’d been imprisoned for being a so-called “counter-revolutionary.” Gutierrez-Boronat was born soon after in Miami.
“He passed away when I was 1 year old,” Gutierrez-Boronat said. “But I always felt a deep connection to him – seeing himself in exile and the humiliation they put him through.”
Gutierrez-Boronat feels Obama was insensitive to that exile pain when he normalized relations with Cuba in 2014 — especially when he freed three Cuban spies from U.S. prison and sent them back to Cuba. They’d been convicted of espionage that led to Cuba shooting down two small, unarmed planes piloted by exiles in 1996, which killed four exiles.
“When I saw that these three convicted spies had been sent back,” Gutierrez-Boronat recalled, “the first thing I thought about was the family members of the victims. They found out, live on TV, that that little justice they thought they had was gone.”
The spies’ return was in fact part of a swap for a U.S. agent being held in Cuba – as well as the freedom of U.S. aid worker Alan Gross, who’d been jailed there on questionable spying charges.
Still, Gutierrez-Boronat argues the episode is a reminder Biden has to invite anti-engagement exiles to the discussion. She said they can help him avoid what she identifies as the Cuban regime duplicity she thinks Obama underestimated.
“You need people around the table that are going to scratch that surface and say, ‘Hold on a second,’” Gutierrez-Boronat said.
“When he ran for President, Biden stated that when it came to Cuba, he would have a roundtable. And I am very hopeful he meant that.”
KITCHEN TABLE DIPLOMACY
That doesn’t mean pro-engagement Cuban-Americans won’t be at the table. They will – especially since they mostly voted for Biden. Still, they don’t expect Biden to approach engagement exactly as Obama did.
“Engagement as a policy is something we saw giving benefits. You need that bilateral conversation, not just unilateral sanctions, to help a country change,” said Daniel Jimenez, co-founder of CubaOne Foundation, a Miami group that takes young Cuban-Americans on their first visits to Cuba.
“But,” Jimenez added, “it’s also something we saw having failures in some ways, too.”
Jimenez’s father fled the Cuban revolution at the age of nine as part of the Pedro Pan airlift of children off the island in the 1960s. He and his younger sister arrived in Miami alone and didn’t see their parents again until they made it here four years later. Growing up here, Jimenez heard little of that story.
“For a lot of Cuban-Americans in my generation,” said Jimenez, “Cuba was black-and-white photos on your grandparents’ walls or your grandparents’ bookcases.”
We want Americans to see the real Cuba, not the instagram-photo Cuba.
But when Obama re-established ties with Cuba in 2014, Jimenez decided to visit the island for the first time. While prepping for that trip, he began asking older family about their exodus here. It was at times a heartbreaking exercise.
“I remember learning about some things about the decisions my grandfather made,” said Jimenez, “about coming to the United States through Pedro Pan. The decisions that were made to… uh… I’m sorry, my voice is starting to crack just thinking about this stuff.”
Jimenez decided the way to start healing those wounds — and to start influencing political and economic change in Cuba — is engagement.
CubaOne sent Biden a petition letter last week urging him to revive Obama’s people-to-people contact with Cubans. It asks Biden to lift restrictions on U.S. visits and family remittances to Cuba; to restaff the U.S. embassy in Havana; and to resume promoting Cuba’s private entrepreneurs and political dissidents, especially with new Internet tech.
But Jimenez knows things will be different this time.
“I think engagement under the Biden Administration is much more likely to be slow – including a dialogue between the administration and Cuban-Americans,” Jimenez said.
“It’s likely to have a much stronger focus on human rights, including more negotiations on people being detained.”
Many Cuban-Americans also hope the tone of engagement changes. They say under Obama, U.S. travel to Cuba was often a parade of brief cruise-ship stops and gringos looking for cigars, rum, and touristy rides in ’59 Chevy convertibles that did more to fetishize the island’s poverty than engage its populace.
Groups like CubaOne want to steer it back to what Jimenez calls “kitchen-table diplomacy.”
“Staying in private homes, going to private restaurants,” Jimenez said. “We want people to see the real Cuba, not the Instagram-photo Cuba.”
“Travel policies in the Biden Administration should encourage U.S. travelers to support Cuba’s private sector and civil society.”
The Cuban military runs the official tourism sector, and blocking its revenue stream was the main reason Trump halted U.S. travel like cruise ship excursions to Cuba.
Which is perhaps one example of some pro-engagement and anti-engagement common ground. But the two camps are at odds on a lot more — like the question of returning Cuba to the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list, which Jimenez calls “another ill-guided action that’s more a political cudgel than a policy solution.”
It’s a Trump action Biden may well reverse. But that change is not likely until he’s listened to both sides of the Cuban-American street.