The Biden administration on Monday announced a sweeping reversal of Donald Trump’s hard-line approach to Cuba, expanding flights to the island, ramping up visa processing and allowing more support for local businesses and remittances inflows.
The measures will make it easier for families to visit relatives in Cuba, and for authorized US travelers to engage with the Cuban people, attend meetings and conduct research, the State Department said.
President Joe Biden also has ordered the department to increase staffing at the US Embassy in Havana, and the administration has been working in recent months on a plan to do so, and protect employees from an illness known as Havana syndrome that afflicted personnel there, a senior administration official told reporters in a conference call.
The measures include reviving a family-reunification program that would allow more Cubans to immigrate to the US; adding flights to places beyond Havana; and providing more support for Cuban business people, according to the State Department. Limits on US financial remittances to Cubans from family imposed under Trump will also be removed, a senior administration official said.
“With these actions, we aim to support Cubans’ aspirations for freedom and for greater economic opportunities so that they can lead successful lives at home,” the State Department said. “We continue to call on the Cuban government to immediately release political prisoners, to respect the Cuban people’s fundamental freedoms and to allow the Cuban people to determine their own futures.”
Cuba has presented a challenge for US presidents for more than six decades, with the Kennedy administration imposing a trade embargo that has proved enduring. Calls for the easing of sanctions have grown over the years, while many Cuban Americans and their allies have demanded even harsher measures against the Communist regime that has ruled the island since 1959.
The moves come after Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador earlier this month urged Biden to invite Cuba to the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles early next month, and to lift economic sanctions against the island nation.
A senior administration official said that the moves announced on Monday are unrelated to the summit, that no decision has been made about inviting Cuba, and that while the US will may discuss and debate with other countries who gets invited, ultimately it will be the Biden administration that decides whether to invite non-democratic governments.
Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez called the announcement “a limited step in the right direction.”
“The decision doesn’t modify the embargo, our fraudulent inclusion in the state sponsors of terrorism list or the majority of Trump’s coercive maximum pressure tactics that are still affecting the Cuban people,” he wrote on Twitter.
Trump reversed a diplomatic warming that President Barack Obama began with Cuba, when Biden was vice president. Trump cited the Cuban government’s behavior, including support for US antagonists in the Western hemisphere. Biden’s moves aren’t quite a full rollback of the Trump policies, allowing visits by educational groups, but not restoring individual educational travel by Americans that was permitted under Obama, one senior administration official said.
New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants and an outspoken critic of the Cuban regime’s repression of human rights, denounced the changes, particularly the allowance of group travel, saying that they risk “sending the wrong message to the wrong people, at the wrong time and for all the wrong reasons.”
“Those who still believe that increasing travel will breed democracy in Cuba are simply in a state of denial,” he said in a statement. “For decades, the world has been traveling to Cuba and nothing has changed. For years, the United States foolishly eased travel restrictions arguing millions of American dollars would bring about freedom and nothing changed.”
There are also continuing US suspicions about the mysterious ailment that’s plagued American diplomats globally and was first reported among employees of the Havana Embassy. A senior administration official said in the briefing that there is still no conclusion within the US government about the source of the affliction, which caused serious illness among some US diplomats.
The officials asked not to be identified to more candidly discuss the US policy shift.
Last July, Biden held a meeting at the White House with Cuban-American leaders to discuss the Cuban governments harsh response to to widespread demonstrations. The administration announced sanctions against a Cuban police force and its leaders in response to violence against the demonstrators.
The protests posed a political challenge for Biden as Republicans claim that Democrats have been soft toward the communist regime. The issue has long resonated in the key battleground state of Florida because of its large Cuban-American population.