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The Question for Cubans: Rebel or Leave?

By Hon. Richard Holwill, JHCGA's Ambassador in Residence

Cuba is facing its worst financial crisis in 30 years, with major shortages of food and medical supplies. Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden has quietly made some small changes in U.S. Cuba policy, easing many of the restrictions imposed by former President Donald Trump. Although contemporaneous, these U.S. government actions are not related to Cuba’s problems; they are driven by the political problems associated with immigration on the Southern Border.

The U.S.-Cuba dynamic could be described as a barnacle of the Cold War. The primary rationale for the policy was justified by Cuba’s support for Russian aggression in Latin America, but those provocations are over and today Russia is focused on its “near abroad.” I contend that, to understand current U.S. Cuba policy one must first recognize that, essentially, we are looking at an unresolved civil war between Havana and Miami.

The exile community insists on U.S. policies that create shortages in Cuba, with the hope that shortages will prompt a popular uprising against the Cuban government. However, it has never worked quite that way. There were protests in 2021 that continued into 2022. The Cuban government cracked down and implemented policies similar to those that it had used in the past, jailing protesters but also facilitating exits from the Island.

This follows a pattern in Cuban policies that date from the mid-1960’s when Fidel Castro openly supported expatriation of dissidents. Then in 1980, a spike in oil prices created a major economic challenge in Cuba. Thousands tried to enter the Peruvian embassy to seek asylum. President Castro announced free exits from Cuba, saying that anyone who wanted to leave could do so. He opened the port of Mariel as an exit point. More than 125,000 Cubans left in the Mariel boatlift.

Cuba faced another severe economic crisis in the 90’s as the fall of the Soviet Union occurred. By 1994, food and fuel shortages sparked massive protests and significant clashes between protesters and police known as the Maleconazo for a point on the Malecon, or seawall, where the people demanded reforms. They settled instead for the relaxation of police patrols on raft disembarkation points and on Cuban Coast Guard interdiction of rafters leaving Cuba. This raft-bourn exodus resulted in about 35,000 Cubans reaching the United States. The Clinton Administration implemented a “dry-foot/wet-foot” policy, which meant that those Cubans who were able to land in the States could stay but those interdicted at sea could not. About 31,000 of them were sent to Guantanamo.

Biden’s opening to Cuba is being framed as support to the Cuban people. It is not a return to former President Barack Obama’s policy of normalization. The new policies represent a limited, unilateral roll back of the punitive measures taken by former President Donald Trump.

This is the worst economic crisis Cuba has seen in 30 years. Several factors are in play. Coronavirus did what Donald Trump could not do. It stifled Canadian and European tourism. Russians made up the bulk of other visitors but they now find travel to be almost impossible. Venezuela had been supporting Cuba by sending more than 30,000 barrels of crude each month. That amount has now declined precipitously as Venezuela has been struggling to meet its own needs. The confluence of problems – the collapse of tourism, the crisis in Venezuela, the crisis in Ukraine and worldwide inflation – has left Cuba, which imports 70 percent of its food, desperately short of the cash to buy it.

This would seem to be the situation that the Cuban exile community wants – severe shortages and unrest in Cuba. But, as in 1965, 1980, and 1994, Cubans are choosing expatriation over rebellion – no longer by boat but by showing up on the Texas-Mexico border. Cuban asylum seekers have come in droves to the U.S. Mexican border where U.S. officials are on pace to apprehend more than 155,000 Cubans during this year. That is a twelvefold increase over 2020. It compounds the problem of migration from Central America and Ukraine.

If nothing else, this pattern of crisis and exodus exposes the problem with the strategy advocated by much of the Cuban-exile community. To be fair, not all members of the Cuban exile community want to continue this “war” against the Cuban government. Much to the surprise of the Cuban government, a group of senior Cuban exiles worked closely with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2015 and 2016 in an effort to reestablish solid relations with the Cuban government and build toward a productive future.

Cuba’s Minister of External Affairs told me that they were surprised that this group could be their best advocates in Washington. He was eager to establish a formal dialogue between these senior members of the Cuban-exile community and Cuban officials. Many of us saw this as a promising development. After all, this on-going civil war can only be resolved if the two parties can come to an accommodation over the future.

That dialogue never got off the ground once Donald Trump won the presidency and reversed President Obama’s opening to Cuba. It can be reestablished only when President Biden signals his endorsement of it. That will not happen before the mid-term elections, if then. As with President Obama, an opening to Cuba may be a project for Biden’s second term, if there is one.


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