Biden’s Cuba Policy Changes: Too Little, Too Slow

Photo taken in Havana by Cate Henning. "Cuba vive y celebra" means "Cuba lives and celebrates."

by Cate Henning 

For more than 60 years, the United States has been imposing sanctions on Cuba in an effort to suppress and defeat the Cuban Revolution and the country’s socialist government. This embargo restricts sales to Cuba from the United States and many other countries, severely limiting Cubans’ access to food, medical supplies, and other critical resources. These policies are deadly, and early on in his presidential campaign Biden promised to lift some of the restrictions that are worsening the economic and humanitarian crisis in Cuba. Now, more than a year into his presidency, Biden’s administration has announced changes to the United States’ sanctions on Cuba that promise progress.

The May 16th announcement included four key updates to the United States’ restrictions on Cuba:

  1. Reinstatement of the Cuba Family Reunification Parole Program and increasing visa processing
  2. Lifting of the Trump administration’s $1,000/quarter cap on family remittances
  3. Expansion of flights from the United States to additional cities in Cuba beyond Havana
  4. Increasing independent Cuban entrepreneurs’ access to e-commerce, payment options, and other technology to support their success

There is some good that will come from the May 16th update. For example, in a June 1st briefing, Adriana Herrere, a Cuban entrepreneur in Havana, explained that expanded access to e-commerce tools will benefit small businesses. However, much of the other promised progress embedded within the May 16th changes will not be realized without additional policy updates, three of which this article will discuss.

Many liberals and progressives in the United States have declared Biden’s update “a step in the right direction” based on partially inaccurate promises associated with the policy changes. There are assumptions that reinstating the Cuba Family Reunification Parole Program will accelerate visa processing and family reunification, that lifting the cap on remittances will allow Cubans to receive more money from their family members living in the United States, and that flight expansions to additional airports will ease travel for family members and groups coming from the United States. Overall, the Biden administration’s announcement expresses a promise to expand travel and financial exchange with Cuba.

Unfortunately, the policy changes will not bring about this progress towards civil relations between the two countries and freedom for Cuba unless the Biden administration takes three additional key actions: open the United States embassy in Cuba; remove Cuba from the United States’ list of State Sponsors of Terrorism; and unblock financial transactions with Cuban banks, hotels, and other entities.

As we push to end the blockade in its entirety, we must advocate for these three specific changes now so that Biden’s recent announcements can truly be a step in the right direction.

Biden: Completely open the United States Embassy in Cuba

On March 3, 2022, the United States government announced that it would begin processing a limited number of immigrant visas at the US Embassy in Havana. Then, on May 16th the government announced that it would reinstate the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, which gives beneficiaries the right to join their families in the United States before their visas are available. The administration also announced that it would increase visa processing and other consular services in Havana. These policy updates promise to make it easier for Cubans to be with their families in the United States.

However, the US Embassy in Cuba will remain only partially open and partially staffed, meaning that visa processing will be slow and limited, and most Cubans will need to travel to the US Embassy in Georgetown, Guyana to obtain their visas. This is an expensive and time-consuming process that will restrict access to family reunification for many Cubans. To address these obstacles and limitations, the Biden administration must fully staff the US Embassy in Havana and open it for all visa transactions.

Biden: Remove Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism

In 1982, the United States government designated Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism because Cuba was active in supporting Latin American and African socialist revolutions that threatened the United States’ imperialist intervention in these areas. In 2015, the Obama administration removed Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism to move towards better relations between the two countries. In 2021, the Trump administration reinstated the designation and the Biden administration has not taken any action to undo this harm.

Designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism means that many groups are not able to travel to Cuba because their universities and organizations do not permit travel to countries on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. According to Biden, his May 16 policy changes aim to expand travel and “make it easier for authorized U.S. travelers to engage with the Cuban people, attend meetings, and conduct research.” Without removing Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, travel to Cuba will remain limited.

Inclusion on the US State Sponsors of Terrorism list also means that most countries cannot or will not trade with Cuba. This inhibits financial exchange with Cuba, which the Biden administration promised to open and expand with the recent policy changes. Effectively increasing financial exchange to benefit families and entrepreneurs requires removing Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.

Biden: Unblock Cuban travel and financial institutions

Increasing travel and financial exchange from the United States to Cuba also requires removing Cuban travel and financial institutions from the Cuba Restricted List, a list of entities blocked by the United States’ sanctions. The embargo is so comprehensive and repressive that it accomplishes most of the State Sponsors of Terrorism designation restrictions on its own. 

Regarding travel, the new commitment to expand flights to other airports across Cuba is good. It means that people will be able to get to their destinations and visit family members more quickly and less expensively. However, many Cuban hotels, restaurants, and other services needed for travel are blocked by the embargo for use by people from the United States. This makes travel challenging, and in some cases, impossible. Until these entities are removed from the Cuba Restricted List, the Biden administration’s promise for expanded travel will be only marginally met.

One of the major changes promised in the May 16th announcement was a lift on the Trump administration’s $1,000/quarter cap on family remittances. This means people living in the United States will be allowed to send their family members in Cuba more money. However, this may not actually be possible because of US sanctions. Most foreign credit card companies and money transfer service companies, including Western Union, partner with Fincimex in Cuba. Exchange through Fincimex is how people in the United States are able to send money to their families in Cuba. However, Fincimex is one of the entities blocked by the United States. The Cuban Central Bank has said that finding banks willing to receive and convert United States currency is nearly impossible because of the repercussions the banks would face from the United States and its embargo. This economic strangulation means that there is a scarcity of foreign currency in Cuba and exchange rates are expensive, further limiting Cubans’ access to money from the United States. Unless the Biden administration removes Fincimex and other financial institutions from the Cuba Restricted List, his lift of the $1,000 cap on family remittances will not result in significant change. Increased remittances cannot be sent without giving processing permission to banking entities like Fincimex.

Biden: End the Blockade

The Biden Administration’s May 16th commitment to lift a few sanctions on Cuba is promising on the surface, but it fails to address some of the most restrictive policies of the embargo. Such slow progress, if progress at all, is impermissible. Cubans are struggling and dying from the intentional scarcity imposed by the United States. We must urge the US government to truly support the Cuban people by fully staffing the US Consulate in Havana and opening it for all visa transactions, removing Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, and releasing hotels, banks, and other facilities required for successful exchanges from the list of blocked entities. The blockade on Cuba must be opposed and defeated.

— Cate Henning studies health science and environmental studies at Northeastern University, and is an intern at MAPA.