Castro’s Negotiator Waits on Biden to Undo ‘Cruel’ Trump Policy

Donald Trump’s Cuba policies are now Joe Biden’s and they are taking a heavy toll on the Caribbean nation, according to the Cuban diplomat who negotiated the 2015 rapprochement with the U.S.

Nearly five months into the Biden administration, officials in Havana are surprised to see the White House stance so far unchanged, Ambassador to Canada Josefina Vidal said in an interview. Citing President Biden’s campaign pledges, she said Cuba expected the U.S. leader to reverse “at least the most cruel measures” imposed by his predecessor.

Trump aggressively tightened the screws on Cuba, which his administration blamed for foiling attempts to topple Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela and continuing to abuse human rights at home. Under Trump, the U.S. banned cruise ships from stopping at the island, restricted flights and curbed American remittances.

Castro’s Negotiator Waits on Biden to Undo ‘Cruel’ Trump Policy

Trump also allowed lawsuits to be filed over property seized during the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power and -- in his last weeks in office -- put Cuba back on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

“Since that moment we have seen that everything has become worse,” Vidal said Monday in Ottawa. “We have seen foreign banks closing the accounts of many Cuban entities. We have seen international foreign suppliers suspending their contracts with Cuba.”

Her remarks come with the communist-run nation trying to renegotiate its debt as it reels under both tighter sanctions and the fallout from Covid-19, which has obliterated its vital tourism industry. Vidal, who was Raul Castro’s top negotiator in the lead-up to Barack Obama’s visit to Havana in March 2016, said that while four years of Trump badly damaged the confidence established during that process, Cuba remains “willing to continue building a civilized, respectful relationship with the United States.”

The Biden administration is reviewing Trump’s policies toward Havana, but has signaled that changing relations with the island isn’t a priority. Trump’s tough approach toward both Cuba and Venezuela helped him win greater support in South Florida’s Latino community, aiding his efforts to hold the state and its 29 Electoral College votes in last year’s election.

‘Gun-Shy’

Cuba watchers expect that political dynamic, along with Cuban-American hard-liner Bob Menendez’s chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will prevent any bold moves by Biden to discard Trump-era restrictions.

“Perceptions in the Democratic Party operation in Florida that the Cuba issue caused electoral harm in the 2020 presidential campaign, along with the outspoken role of a few prominent Democratic senators, will be likely to make the White House gun-shy,” Mark Entwistle, a former Canadian ambassador to Cuba who is now managing director of Toronto-based Acasta Cuba Capital, said Tuesday by email. “At least perhaps until after the midterm House elections, should those manage to provide some additional breathing space.”

Biden’s review of Trump-era policy will focus on improving the economic well-being and political empowerment of the Cuban people, according to a State Department official, who flagged the detentions of artists and others for exercising their basic human rights as a particular concern.

Developments on the island could also eventually help ease U.S.-Cuba ties.

For the first time since 1959, neither the president of the country nor the head of the Communist Party of Cuba is named Castro. While Vidal said Havana will continue to perfect its socialist system under the presidency of Miguel Diaz-Canel, “the leadership of the party is now in the hands of a generation that was born after the Cuban revolution.”

Diaz-Canel takes the party reins with Cuba facing its worst economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. His deputy prime minister is in Paris this week for talks with creditors on unpaid foreign-held notes worth $17.8 billion in 2017, the most recently published Cuban government tally.

Castro’s Negotiator Waits on Biden to Undo ‘Cruel’ Trump Policy

Though Vidal is no longer responsible for U.S. relations, she said her government’s priorities should Washington come back to the table would likely be self-evident: In addition to easing up on travel and remittances, deactivating Title III of the Helms-Burton Act -- which allows lawsuits over seized property -- is key, along with removing Cuba from the “fraudulent and unjust” terror list.

Those will be hard sells in the U.S. Congress, where Republicans and Democrats evenly split the Senate and Democrats hold only a narrow majority in the House.

Cuba also wants to see an end to U.S. attempts to halt oil deliveries to the island by targeting shipping companies, insurance providers and even specific vessels bound for Cuba, Vidal said. “These are the kinds of measures you do not adopt in normal, peaceful times. It’s like a war-time measure.”

Getting the U.S. to re-engage, however, won’t be easy.

“The Gordian Knot is that the Cubans are consistent in insisting on no preconditions to talks between sovereign equals, while the Americans are traditionally equally insistent on conditionality,” Entwistle said.

“The Cubans could perhaps reiterate to the Biden administration that, with no prejudice to their sovereignty, they have an open mind to regional and global issues of importance to the United States,” he added.

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