This coming November’s presidential election is generally considered to be one of the most important in the nation’s history. Cuba’s history, that is.
While the election of either incumbent Donald Trump or former vice-president Joe Biden will have a dramatic impact on the direction of the hyper-partisan United States for the next four years, it could have as much influence on Cuba and the relationship with its difficult neighbor to the north.
The dramatic choice between the continuation of hostilities or the possibility of a return to the move towards normal relations between the two nations is what’s at stake for Cuba when Americans go to the polls next month. For a vast majority of Cubans, the hope is that Biden will emerge victorious and end the heightened economic damage Trump has inflicted on their island nation, made worse by the COVID pandemic.
For the past two years Trump has taken an increasingly hostile stance against Havana, led on by Marco Rubio, the extreme right-wing Republican from Florida. The state remains a key to electoral victory, and Rubio and other anti-revolutionaries in Congress have convinced the malleable president that Florida can be won through a return to hostility.
Trump had a different attitude prior to his presidential victory. In 2014 he publicly expressed support for President Obama’s efforts towards normalization. He questioned the continued use of the punishing economic embargo and verbalized his desire to open up Cuba to his own business acumen. Once president, however, that tone changed, and since then he’s turned back Obama’s normalization policies. Trump shut down most American tourism to the island, forbidding the cruise lines to continue to operate in Cuba, as well as eliminating the majority of all the direct US flights, while forcing American businesses like Marriott to end contractual agreements with Cuban hotels. In late September the president announced further restrictions on sending remittances to Cuba, and then made a mostly symbolic gesture by increasing sanctions on Americans wanting to travel to Cuba for academic or educational conferences. Trump’s augmented economic punishment on Cuba coincided with the ramping up of anti-revolutionary propaganda, to the extent of condemning Cuba’s efforts at sending medical teams around the world to help fight COVID. Currently the administration is considering re-instituting the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program (CMPP), encouraging Cuba doctors and medical staffs working in third countries to defect to the US.
A Trump re-election would undoubtedly mean four more years of progressively hostile regime change measures, including the possibility of shutting down the US embassy in Havana. Trump seems intent on bringing the relationship back to the worst days of the cold war all to appease the hard core anti-revolutionaries in South Florida. It is a strategy that is becoming less and less popular as a majority of polls within the younger Cuban-American community consistently support engagement with their former homeland.
In stark contrast, Joe Biden has made it clear he would return to the normalization process while vice-president under Obama. He officially declared his Cuban policy in an interview with Americas Quarterly, when he said; “as president, I will promptly reverse the failed Trump policies that have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights.” While the sentiment is positive, Biden retains the tired old calculation that Cuba has to change its system in order to be rewarded with an improved relationship. That shop-worn rhetoric only results in the Cuban side’s suspicion of true motives and a reflexive response that the US should clean up its own human rights problems before criticizing anyone else.
American policy since the Cuban Revolution has consistently aimed for regime change, usually through a variety of hostile measures, including economic embargo, corporate media propaganda, extra-territorial imposition of its anti-Cuba laws, and even hundreds of acts of terrorism. Obama’s attempts at normalization changed the dynamic, offering Cuba the carrot instead of the stick. What remained the same, however, was the underlying goal.
Obama’s strategy was the modern version of regime change, calculating that the deluge of American tourists, culture, capitalist attitudes and investment opportunities would provoke the ending of the social experiment on the island. While the Cuban government was well aware of the motive behind Obama’s new-found friendship, the opening did bring great advantages to the island’s economy, particularly in Havana. Expanding private restaurants and homes, increased non-state taxi operators and many other residual benefits from the influx of thousands of American visitors had a positive effect. There was a social component as well, as the Americans who travelled to the island under the relaxed restrictions were able to see for themselves the reality of the revolution, and to understand the Cubans knew a great deal more about their neighbors to the north than the other way around. Many Americans returned questioning of the legitimacy of their government’s hostile policies against Cuba.
Obama, and now Biden realize that Cuba has changed dramatically the past 20 years, and the approach of friendship is the only rationale option, regardless of the risks to both sides. It is infinitely better than Trump’s long-failed strategy of returning to the stick. Biden will also receive support from his vice president. Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) was among 46 bipartisan cosponsors of a bill to end all restrictions on travel to Cuba.
If elected Biden can take several steps towards re-establishing the move towards normalization, including easing of travel restrictions for general tourism and academic interchanges, promoting economic and educational programs and the return to encouraging American businesses to become involved in specific types of investments. The restarting of diplomatic discussions to cover the vast differences that still separate the two nations would also be a positive step towards re-engaging the process that Trump has left in tatters.
The expectation is this election will bring out higher than normal numbers of voters. Partisanship voting may increase following the death of liberal Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her death may not have a direct consequence on Cuba-US relations, but indirectly if it results in more Republicans voting on the issue becoming a factor in helping Trump achieve re-election. The reverse could also easily occur, giving Biden a stronger route to the White House. Trump’s nomination of extreme conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace Bader Ginsburg will only exacerbate that divide among voters.
A further complication to the election process occurred last week when Trump was tested positive for COVID. How it will affect his ability to campaign, or push the Supreme Court nomination through Congress, is still unclear.
While the key remains who becomes the next president, Congress could also have an important part to play in the Cuba-USA relationship during the next few years. Much of Trump’s return to hostility, as was Obama’s policies of normalization, was predicated exclusively on presidential authority. Congress played little part. That could change if, under the best-case scenario for Cuba, Biden wins and the Democratic party controls both the Senate and House. That scenario has the potential to not only re-start the normalization process, but to move towards the legal ending of the embargo, which remains in the hands of Congress.
The worst scenario remains Trump winning re-election, and Congressional control either split as it is now, or under complete Republican control. That means four more years of economic punishment, political pressures and a much harder challenge for Cuba to recover from the effects of COVID and American hostility.
So while Americans will be watching this election closely, Cubans also have a keen interest in who wins the White House. Trump or Biden will have the ability to set the parameters of a relationship between neighbors who have rarely been in agreement the past six decades.
Keith Bolender is the author of Manufacturing the Enemy; The Media War Against Cuba. (2019 Pluto Press). Available on Amazon: