WASHINGTON — Amid a wave of unprecedented mass protests by the Cuban people against their communist government, U.S. lawmakers have been left to grapple with the uncomfortable reality that after decades of diplomatic and economic isolation of the island, Washington has relatively little leverage left to try to capitalize on this window of opportunity in Cuba.
The United States is the only country in the world with a trade embargo on Cuba, and no other country shares Washington’s longtime policy — excepting for a brief relaxation during the final Obama years — of diplomatic isolation of the Caribbean nation.
So when thousands of Cubans took to the streets last week in an outpouring of outrage over the failed policies of the Cuban regime, the Biden administration and U.S. lawmakers were left with little else to do but issue statements of solidarity with the Cuban people while calling on Europe, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean to use their influence with Havana to press for democratic reforms.
“The only one that is isolated from Cuba is the U.S.,” said José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas Division, at a Tuesday hearing about the Cuba protests before the House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere subcommittee. “The only one that is isolated in this debate at the global level from the Cuban affairs is the U.S. Why? Because the policy of isolation made the position of the U.S., actually, kind of impotent with regard to the debate on Cuba.”
But lawmakers remain bitterly divided over the wisdom of the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba — first imposed in the early 1960s and strengthened over time. Virtually all Republicans support maintaining the embargo, which is codified by statute, as do many moderate Democrats. However, some prominent progressive Democrats have called for lifting or easing the trade and financial transactions ban.
Emblematic of that intra-Democrat debate was an exchange on Twitter last week by two of the party’s most prominent voices on human rights concerns.
“What if the suffering of the Cuban people is caused by BOTH a cruel, backwards, dictatorial regime AND really bad U.S. policy. It can be both, right?” wrote Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., a leading voice for progressives on foreign policy matters.
To which Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., who served as a senior State Department official for human rights during the Obama years, responded: “The embargo is bad policy because it lets Cuba’s communist dictators falsely blame America for Cuba’s problems. But lifting it would not end Cubans’ poverty, which is caused by those leaders denying them the most basic freedoms.”
After six months in power, the Biden administration has yet to reverse course on the Trump administration’s isolationist policies toward Cuba, which President Joe Biden as a candidate said he would relax and return to the Obama-era policy of engagement. The administration says it is still conducting a review of the Trump administration’s Cuba polices.
Notably, the Biden administration last month opposed a U.N. General Assembly resolution, which was approved by a near-unanimous vote, urging the United States to end its embargo on Cuba. In 2016, the last year of the Obama administration, the United States abstained from voting on the annual measure.