Biden Should Return to Engagement With Cuba

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House Democrats are reportedly pressing President Joe Biden to reverse U.S. policy on Cuba once again, returning to the detente that prevailed before Donald Trump took office. Biden should indeed take the first steps toward renewed openness — and put the onus on Cuba’s Communist leaders to respond.

As with so many of his predecessor’s policies, Trump was quick to declare the Obama administration’s rapprochement with Cuba a “bad deal” and began dismantling it wholesale, imposing or re-imposing more than 200 restrictions on travel, trade, and financial and diplomatic ties. The clampdown won Trump votes in southern Florida, but by almost any other measure it failed. Cuba’s Communist regime remains firmly entrenched. If anything, it’s grown even more dependent on U.S. rivals Venezuela, Russia and China. Hardliners in Havana have continued to crack down on dissent. Cuban entrepreneurs flourished when Americans were allowed to visit the island, but the combined impact of revived U.S. restrictions and the pandemic have left them struggling.

None of this serves U.S. interests. Under Obama, the U.S. and Cuba struck more than 20 agreements that addressed U.S. security concerns, on issues ranging from counter-narcotics to the environment. Biden should open the door to renewing such cooperation.

That will require lifting Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, which the Trump administration imposed in its closing days with no real justification. Biden will also need to restore frayed diplomatic ties — appointing an ambassador, staffing up the U.S. embassy (taking additional security precautions while the cause of a mysterious illness that struck U.S. diplomats in recent years remains under investigation), and resuming consular services so Cubans can travel to the U.S. again. The two sides should cooperate on public health to combat the pandemic and restart talks on security issues.

Further opening should focus for now on improving the lives of Cubans on and off the island. The administration should lift restrictions on remittances. And it should allow travel to the island, because American visitors are good for local enterprise. That means permitting flights to cities other than Havana and people-to-people exchanges, while drawing up a shorter “restricted list” of entities with which Americans are forbidden to do business.

Cuba shouldn’t expect the U.S. to lift more targeted sanctions, however, let alone the decades-old embargo — whose provisions are now codified into U.S. law — unless it begins to move, too. Among other things, that means addressing certified claims for property seized after the 1959 revolution, now estimated at nearly $9 billion with interest. Cuba’s leaders should play a constructive role in resolving the Venezuelan crisis and improve their record on human rights at home. The government has recently taken some steps to rationalize the country’s currency system and promote the private sector, but should do more to open the economy to outside investment. The Communist Party transition next month, when 89-year-old Raul Castro is scheduled to step down, offers a moment for the regime to affirm its intention to reform.

Stubborn and suspicious as they may be, Cuba’s leaders should remember two things. First, all these measures are in their nation’s own best interests. Second, any thaw in relations will be temporary unless Biden can point to results. The Cuban regime made a big mistake in failing to build on Obama’s initiative, leading many in the U.S. to conclude that engagement was pointless. The next detente will fail unless it benefits Americans and Cubans alike.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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