Right after delivering this year’s State of the Union address, President Joe Biden briefly encountered his former Senate colleague, Bob Menendez. The Democratic senator from New Jersey, well-known for his hawkish views on Cuba, was never a fan of the Obama administration’s vaunted opening to the island a decade ago. He continues to stand in the way of a substantial détente.
“Bob, I really have to talk to you about Cuba,” the president said.
“Okay,” the senator responded, bemused.
“I’m serious,” Biden added.
Of course, he’s serious. Last year, an astonishing 2 percent of Cuba’s population decamped for the United States. Over 220,000 Cubans streamed out of the country toward America, many of them through Nicaragua and then across the Mexican border, a dramatic increase from the 39,000 in 2021. Leading the rush to the exit are young people, who represent the future of the country. It’s not quite as large a demographic drop as in Venezuela, which has lost over a quarter of its population since 2015. But combined with a low birth rate and an aging population, the outflow of Cubans threatens the long-term viability of the country.
A massive exodus of Cubans is exactly what the United States has wanted, as long as it’s a prelude to the collapse of the putative communist regime in Havana. The U.S. government has long treated Cuban migrants more favorably than those arriving from other countries. The problem is: the American public has been primed by decades of anti-immigration hysteria to recoil at any hint of lenience, much less gratitude, toward increasing numbers of the “wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
According to the latest polling, dissatisfaction with current levels of immigration is the highest in a decade. Not surprisingly, this dissatisfaction is highly partisan. In 2021, 40 percent of Republicans polled believed that rates of immigration were too high. That number rose this year to an astonishing 71 percent.
Under pressure to “do something” about immigration, the Biden administration is acutely aware of the need to overhaul Cuba policy. But politicians like Menendez are a stumbling block that has become all the more challenging now that the immigration-averse Republican Party controls half of Congress.
Biden’s brief exchange with Menendez may signal that something new is on the horizon. The administration has already prepared the ground by reversing some of Trump’s uber-hostile policies. But a lot will also depend on some stubborn facts on the ground in Cuba itself.
Switch-backing on Cuba
During his administration, Barack Obama broke with decades of official U.S. policy by reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. This ultimately pragmatic decision was prompted by a sea change in Cuban-American opinion and the engagement-friendly lobbying of U.S. companies eager to set up in Havana. In his last year in office, Obama even visited the island and had a sit-down with then-leader Raul Castro.
Donald Trump almost immediately attempted to shut the door on this modest opening. He imposed travel and economic restrictions on Americans, dramatically cut staffing at the U.S. embassy there, and worked to reduce the flow of remittances to a trickle. It was the classic “squeeze ‘em til they drop” policy that the United States has pursued, off and on, since it first imposed an economic embargo in 1961. To add insult to injury, Trump added Cuba to the state sponsors of terrorism list just as he was heading out of office.
Biden has gone part of the way to reestablishing the Obama-era policy. He has allowed more Cuban-Americans to bring family members to the States, made it easier for visits to the island, expanded consular services at the embassy, and lifted some restrictions on remittances. The administration also provided $2 million in humanitarian relief after Hurricane Ian knocked out the island’s power grid. Although the Cuban-American community is not enthusiastic about Biden, they generally support these modest reforms.
Still, it’s not as easy to travel to Cuba or do business with the country as it was back in 2016. And the blockade remains as devastating as ever for the economy.
At the same time, the Biden administration has been desperate to reduce the flow of Cubans across the Mexican border, along with Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, and Haitians. One government tactic has been to disqualify any asylum seekers who hadn’t applied for asylum in the country through which they’d passed on their way to the U.S. border. Implementation of this “transit ban” has dramatically reduced the number of undocumented migrants: Cuban crossings alone were down 85 percent from December to January.
What Biden hasn’t done to date is look more closely at why people are leaving Cuba and what the United States could do to address the root causes.
The Cuban economy has been in chronic distress since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of large-scale external support. The Obama détente was a ray of hope, as an upsurge in U.S. tourism brought in cash and business investments. However, what Trump didn’t manage to snuff out, COVID practically destroyed. In 2020, tourism numbers fell by 75 percent. In 2021, imports and exports declined drastically—by 30 percent and 45 percent respectively—compared to 2018. Inflation, which rose 40 percent over the last year, is stealing from ordinary Cubans a large chunk of what little they earn.
Then there are the shortages of food and medicine. The country lacks the raw materials to make basic drugs, forcng Cubans to seek out alternative medicine. The food situation has gotten so bad that India is helping out by providing financing for Cuba to purchase rice.
Add to that the energy woes that the island has been facing. A blackout in a small city on a broiling hot summer day in July 2021 sparked the country’s largest anti-government protests in decades. More blackouts rolled through the country last fall, prompting another wave of protests. The government, now trying to overhaul its aging infrastructure of oil-fired plants, has announced that periodic rolling blackouts will continue from now until May.
With few other alternatives, Cuba has been moving closer to Russia, from whom it recently welcomed a large shipment of wheat. It is basically pleading to become a full-fledged member of the Eurasian Economic Union, which is anchored by the Kremlin.
Meanwhile, on the domestic front, the government in Havana continues to crack down on protesters, dissidents, and artists. Over a thousand people were detained after the protest last year, and many remain in prison.
It’s no surprise, then, that so many Cubans want out. In 2019, Cuban journalist Abraham Jimenez Enoa wrote in The New York Times:
It’s very difficult to plan for life in a nation where the basic salary is around $30 a month, where the government issues decrees to regulate everything from artistic expression to the number of tables and chairs that a restaurant can have, and where a person is fortunate to find toilet paper at the market.
Yet despite these difficulties, Jimenez decided not to join the exodus. He vowed instead to stay and fight. But the protests that followed led to crackdown not change.
In 2021, because of harassment and censorship, Jimenez left Cuba for Spain, where he lives in exile.
By 2019, Cuba already had the oldest population in Latin America, and around one-third will be over 60 by 2030 (by comparison, about 17 percent of the U.S. population is currently over 60). A fertility rate well below replacement gives the phrase “there is no future in Cuba” a whole different meaning.
What Should Washington Do?
Current U.S. policy isn’t helping anyone, neither the Cubans behind bars nor the Cubans trying so hard to survive in difficult times.
Joe Biden seems to understand the problems with current U.S. policy, which might explain his exchange with Bob Menendez. But Biden has to be as bold as Obama was in laying out a new path forward for U.S.-Cuban relations.
Here’s the kind of deal that the Biden administration should propose to Havana. The president should negotiate a release of prisoners similar to what Nicaragua recently did when it sent 222 oppositionists to the United States. That would begin to address the human rights issue that is a stumbling block for so many opponents of engagement with Cuba.
On the economic front, Biden should enter into a partnership that would replace Cuban dependency on oil with renewable sources of energy, primarily solar. The island’s leadership is indeed interested in such a transformation, having committed to expanding the renewable sector by 37 percent by 2030. Because of financial constraints, however, the country is way behind in reaching this target.
If the United States wants to see young people stay in Cuba in order to change the country, nothing is more important than energy. The country needs energy to transform its economy and to power the new modes of communication that offer hope of a new politics. The Biden administration can do this and reduce fossil fuel use at the same time. Talk about win-win!
Hey, Joe, we really do need to talk about Cuba. Seriously!