As Biden eases Trump sanctions, troubled Cubans hope for economic recovery

Lenir López Salazar, 17, left, and Leyani Reyes Chaban, 15, kiss on Guanabo Beach near Havana.
Lenir López Salazar, 17, left, and Leyani Reyes Chaban, 15, kiss on Guanabo Beach near Havana. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Perfecta Carvajal was Miami’s beloved aunt, a sweet, gray-haired woman who loved children.

She was also an economic lifeline for her family in Cuba.

Two or three times a year, Aunt “Pepa” would take the hour-long flight from Florida to Santa Clara, nearly 200 miles east of Havana. Her suitcases would be filled with gifts: shoes, clothes, coffee and dried beans.

Then the visits stopped. First, President Donald Trump suspended US flights to Cuban cities outside of Havana in 2019. Then the coronavirus hit.

Now, thanks to US policy changes announced last month, the 94-year-old Miami resident is eager to return. “I’m insanely happy to be going back,” she said.

The flights are part of a handful of measures introduced by the Biden administration to ease Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against the communist government. The White House has pledged to lift the cap on family remittances and allow US groups to visit educational trips. US officials said they were “extending their support for the Cuban people” at a time of desperate shortages and growing immigration from the island.

In Cuba, a frantic search for milk

Yet while the measures bring hope to families like Carvajal’s, they fall far short of the normalization of relations under President Barack Obama. Analysts say the recent moves underscore how Washington’s Cuba policy is largely crippled, with Biden wary of antagonizing powerful Cuban Americans such as Sen. Robert Menendez (DN.J.), or losing ground ahead of the election. mid-term in November.

“Cubans don’t trust the United States at all, and the United States clearly doesn’t trust Cubans at all,” said Scott Hamilton, who served as U.S. charge d’affaires in Havana during the Obama’s opening. Rather than redirecting the relationship, he said, Biden’s measures “are more about addressing the need to reduce migration numbers.”

Biden to lift some Trump-era sanctions on Cuba

The 60-year-old trade embargo on Cuba is the longest series of US economic sanctions in the world. Trump added dozens of bans, saying he was fighting “communist oppression” and Cuba’s support for the authoritarian government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Biden campaigned on a pledge to “reverse Trump’s failed policies,” which he says only hurt families.

“The day Biden won, Cubans celebrated a lot. Both government officials and the population,” said Johana Tablada, deputy director of American affairs at the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in an interview ahead of the announcement of the new measures. After the Democrat came to power, “the Cuban people felt disappointed”.

Biden left Trump’s sanctions in place as the coronavirus pandemic overwhelmed the island’s medical system and strangled tourism, a crucial source of hard currency. The administration’s lengthy review of Cuban policy ended last July when historic national protests erupted over the lack of food, electricity, medicine and democratic freedoms. The government responded to the protests with mass trials and harsh sentences.

The most visible result of Biden’s new measures may be the resumption of US flights to cities outside of Havana. They are a crucial source of cash and goods for families, as Cuban-American passengers carry car parts, powdered milk, household cleaning supplies and other items that are hard to find on the island.

Cubans who joined July protests now face heavy penalties

How important is this human supply chain? Cuba received around $3.7 billion in remittances in 2019, before the pandemic closed airports, estimates the Miami-based Havana Consulting Group. Its president, Emilio Morales, calculates that up to $3 billion more arrived in the form of goods stuck in suitcases or large plastic-wrapped bales that Cuban-Americans transport to the island. More than half a million made the trip that year. In addition, tens of thousands of Cuban residents have moved back and forth as paid informal couriers, in a kind of personal shopper system on steroids.

Regular flights from the United States to Havana resumed last fall, but it is complicated for travelers to continue to the provinces. Few Cubans have cars and gasoline is scarce. A taxi ride from the Cuban capital to Santa Clara costs around $150. Carvajal’s niece, Miladys Puentes, said it would be difficult for her aunt to endure the four or five hour bus journey. A direct flight to Santa Clara would make it easier for Carvajal to find his last surviving sister and other relatives. “I’m so happy to be able to see them again,” she said.

In 2016, as part of Obama’s thaw in relations, US airlines launched the first direct scheduled flights to Cuba in more than 50 years. Soon, around 200 flights per week were linking the United States with Cuban cities such as Santa Clara, Holguín, Camagüey, Varadero and Santiago. The Biden administration has yet to announce when flights will be allowed to RESUME.

Biden-hosted summit facing possible boycott over invite list

New rules on family remittances are also pending. Biden plans to remove the $1,000 per quarter limit. But he will not reverse Trump’s blacklist of Fincimex, a major military-linked Cuban exchange firm, and is instead seeking an alternative mechanism, officials say. Trump’s decision in 2020 to ban transactions with this company triggered the closure of more than 400 Cuban offices of Western Union, its American partner. A shortage of dollars from remittances and tourism has contributed to Cuba’s runaway inflation.

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Cuba, Bruno Rodríguez, called the ads “a limited step in the right direction.” But he noted that many of Trump’s sanctions remain in place.

Americans are still not allowed to take individual “person-to-person” cultural trips to Cuba. And most hotels remain off-limits, under US restrictions on condescending businesses related to Cuba’s military or security services.

“It’s going to be a natural break on the number of people going there,” said John S. Kavulich, chairman of the Cuban-American Business and Economic Council. Group tour operators will need to look for spaces with private individuals or Airbnbs. Cruise ships that once disgorged thousands of passengers each week are still banned from visiting Cuba.

Cuba remains on US list of state sponsors of terrorism; Trump reinstated that designation after losing the 2020 election. Many channels of communication between the Cuban and U.S. governments, on issues such as the environment, human trafficking, and law enforcement, are inactive.

“What is striking about these measures is that there is nothing to reopen the diplomatic dialogues that were ongoing at the end of the Obama administration,” said William LeoGrande, professor of government at the University. American University.

Cubans arrive in record numbers along the Mexican border

Conservative Cuban-Americans and some Democrats have criticized Biden’s expansion of travel to the island, saying there is no evidence it will promote democracy. Mendezchairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the president’s announcement “risks sending the wrong message” at a time when the government “continues its ruthless persecution of countless Cubans” for participating in the July protests.

Menendez praised one of Biden’s changes: the resumption of a family reunification program offering 20,000 immigrant visas a year to Cubans. The processing of these visas in Cuba was halted in 2017 when the United States withdrew diplomats due to a mysterious illness called “Havana syndrome”, marked by dizziness and ringing in the ears. Since then, diplomats from many other countries have reported similar symptoms. The CIA concluded this year that it was unlikely that any foreign power would target US officials anywhere in the world.

The Biden administration hopes the new measures will reduce the surge in irregular migration. Arrests of Cubans at the US-Mexico border soared to more than 113,000 in the first seven months of this fiscal year, nearly three times more than in 2021. Alarmed by the numbers, Washington recently resumed bilateral talks on migration for the first time in four years.

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