President-elect Joe Biden’s team plans to bring the U.S. closer to normalized relations with Cuba, reversing many of the sanctions and regulations imposed during the Trump administration, according to people familiar with the matter.
That strategy includes reducing restrictions on travel, investment and remittances for the island nation that are perceived to disproportionately hurt Americans and ordinary Cubans, said the people, who requested anonymity because the new administration is still coming together. Other measures that target Cuba for human rights abuses would remain in place, the people said.
The prospect of a détente between Washington and Havana rekindles memories of the thaw that Biden helped champion during the Obama administration, when the two nations restored diplomatic ties that had been broken for decades following Fidel Castro’s rise to power.
But the president-elect is returning to an even messier scene: the Cuban economy is suffering its worst crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union amid fallout from Covid-19 and U.S. sanctions. At the same time, Cuban intelligence officers have helped prop up Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, allowing his regime to consolidate its grip on power in defiance of demands for free and fair elections.
With a packed domestic agenda, it’s unclear how quickly Biden will move on implementing his Cuba policy. Even if some changes happen early, the ongoing Covid-19 lockdown could delay the benefits of any measures that allow for greater travel to the island. It’s also unclear whether Biden will increase staffing at the U.S. embassy in Havana. The Trump administration pared back diplomatic operations after strange illnesses, including brain trauma, afflicted some U.S. diplomats and their families.
Biden said in October that the U.S. needed a new Cuba policy, though his team has been firm in condemning efforts by Havana to silence dissidents, including a recent raid on a house full of activists and artists.
The president-elect has also denounced Venezuela’s Maduro as a dictator. Just as the Trump administration connected Cuba and Venezuela policy, using sanctions as a tool intended to spur political change, Biden’s team may try to leverage a rapprochement in exchange for the Cubans reducing their presence in Venezuela and supporting a diplomatic resolution to the crisis there, according to the people.
Another complicating factor is Florida. While Biden’s advisers have criticized Trump’s Latin American policies for being heavily influenced by electoral politics, particularly the goal of winning the Sunshine State, they still face a sobering reality: The Democratic Party must defend a narrow House majority in 2022. Any policies that are perceived as easing pressure on Cuba and Venezuela without getting significant concessions from their left-wing governments could risk backlash at the polls.
For their part, investors are showing an early vote of confidence in Biden’s potential Cuba policy. The $43 million Herzfeld Caribbean Basin Fund, which is geared toward Cuba and the Caribbean, has surged 40% since the U.S. election.