Biden's Cuba Conundrum | Opinion

Cuba is a perennial thorn in America's side. U.S. presidents going back to Dwight D. Eisenhower have been vexed about the island ever since the revolution inspired by the late Fidel Castro overthrew Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. With the exception of President Barack Obama, who normalized diplomatic relations with Havana and began loosening trade and travel restrictions, U.S. policy on Cuba has generally followed a state of inertia—consisting of economic sanctions on the Cuban government, rhetorical support for the Cuban people and sympathetic immigration procedures for Cubans who escape.

In an ideal world, President Joe Biden wouldn't have to pay much attention to Cuba. It certainly wasn't his top foreign policy priority upon entering office, nor would it have made much sense to elevate Cuba to a top-tier level given the more significant issues on his plate. But the thousands of Cubans demonstrating in cities across the island have thrusted Cuba policy back on the Biden administration's front-burner. Biden is now trying to find a sufficient response on an issue that has galvanized Washington, D.C., for decades.

The commentariat tends to portray Cuba as a simple but pivotal struggle between good and evil, where the good (the Cuban people) are constantly victimized and villainized. In a way, it's a sympathetic interpretation. The vast majority of Cubans are tired of living in a state of deprivation, where business is slow, public services are poor and the cost of basic staples is getting more expensive. The Cuban regime is intensely paranoid about any indication of internal dissent, often arresting journalists and locking up or confiding high-profile anti-government activists to their homes.

The Cuba issue, however, is also an extremely difficult one for the United States to parse. The fact that Cubans have been chanting in the streets in the largest anti-government protests in a quarter-century doesn't make U.S. policy options any easier.

Sanctions, of course, will be a tool of first resort in any U.S. response. This week, Biden himself released a statement announcing sanctions on key Cuban security officials for Havana's crackdown on the protests, stressing that more could be in the pipeline if the Cuban government didn't release imprisoned protesters. But let's face it: while satisfying from an emotional perspective, there is next to no chance of Havana changing its behavior as a result of these economic measures. After all, Cuba has been under a full trade embargo since February 1962, when President John F. Kennedy barred U.S. imports and exports to starve the Castro regime of funds.

President Bill Clinton toughened sanctions considerably in 1996, signing comprehensive legislation that codified the embargo and required the Cuban government to fulfill a series of concessions before the trade restrictions could be removed. After a short stint at U.S.-Cuba reconciliation during the Obama administration, President Donald Trump reimposed many of the economic sanctions that were previously lifted. Family remittances to the island are now limited to $1,000 per quarter, while the number of U.S. commercial flights to Cuba are capped and restricted to Havana. Western Union, the primary money transfer service for Cubans seeking to send funds to their relatives back home, was forced to terminate those operations after the U.S. blacklisted Fincimex, a Cuban military-controlled financial firm.

A man wearing a face mask
A man wearing a face mask crosses a street in Havana, on July 14, 2021. YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images

If U.S. economic pressure over the last 60 years hasn't forced the Cuban government to reform itself, it's hard to imagine additional U.S. sanctions doing much to change the situation.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez wants to go beyond sanctions, advocating for some sort of U.S. military intervention. To be honest, it wouldn't be surprising if the Pentagon had a Cuba contingency plan stored in a drawer somewhere. But just because an option is technically possible doesn't mean it's smart, feasible, or even worthy of a conversation. U.S. military action would provide a huge propaganda boon for the Cuban government, which already blames Washington for every sin under the sun. From the standpoint of the Cuban demonstrators, a U.S. military operation would be totally counterproductive to their cause of a Cuban-led and Cuban-owned movement striving for change from the ground up. This says nothing of the humanitarian consequences an option like this would produce, including a massive exodus of Cuban refugees across the Florida Straits.

Some officials in the Miami area are advocating for more technologically-based solutions on behalf of the protesters, most prominently improving internet service so protesters on the ground have greater access to information and more reliable ways of communicating. The Biden administration is reviewing the feasibility of providing more internet access to Cuba, which in contrast to sanctions would actually help the Cuban people.

But the practicalities of implementing this option aren't as simple as proponents make them out to be. Using the U.S. Embassy in Havana as a launch point would likely compel the Cuban government to shutter the facility, limiting the ability of U.S. diplomats to connect with the Cuban population. One internet expert called the notion of using high-flying balloons off the Florida coast to beam internet 90 miles south "a Hollywood scenario."

This isn't to suggest the U.S. shouldn't be on the record publicly supporting Cubans who are bravely seeking to change their own country. What we should acknowledge, however, is that there is only so much the U.S. can do in a situation like this. Whatever decision the U.S. takes, the Cuban people will write their own story.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank, columnist at the Washington Examiner and a contributor to The National Interest.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.