WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Monday announced the partial lifting of sanctions against Cuba, including the expansion of flights beyond Havana and the resumption of the Cuban family reunification program in the United States. by his predecessor.
The changes, including the relaxation of the remittance ban, were announced after a long review of Cuban policy. They come into effect at a time when food and medicine shortages are creating new waves of Cubans trying to reach US shores.
While administration officials said the actions would “focus on human rights and empower the Cuban people”, they were immediately denounced by Senator Bob Menendez from New Jersey, a Cuban-American Democrat who is chair of the Committee on Foreign Relations. “Today’s announcement,” he said, “risks sending the wrong message to the wrong people, at the wrong time, and for the wrong reasons.”
The split between Mr Biden and Mr Menendez goes to the heart of the differences in both political parties over how to deal with the Cuban government. The government’s crackdown on the opposition that began in July led Mr Biden to declare largely symbolic sanctions on Cuban police officials and others accused of human rights abuses, including the arrest of protesters. But it has also made it difficult to deliver on the campaign promise to restore the kind of relationship the Obama administration envisioned and endorsed by Mr. Biden as vice president.
But Biden administration officials have concluded that restoring the status quo since the Obama administration stepped down in January 2017 is as complex as in the case of Cuba, as in Iran, where a parallel effort has stalled.
The Biden administration’s policy review concluded that the best way to bring about change in Cuba was to engage directly with its people, not its government; this was the rationale behind President Barack Obama’s opening to Havana. The administration argued that it shipped technology to Cubans to help them avoid government censorship and to help 20,000 people rejoin their family members in the United States.
Mr. Menendez has a very different view: the only way to change the behavior of the Cuban government is to cut their income. He specifically objected to the administration’s decision to allow groups, if not individual tourists, to travel to Cuba.
“I was terrified to learn that the Biden administration would start allowing group travel to Cuba through tourism-like visits,” Menendez said in a statement.
“To be clear, those who still believe that increased travel will foster democracy in Cuba are simply in a state of denial,” he said. “For decades the world has been traveling to Cuba and nothing has changed. The United States foolishly eased travel restrictions for years, arguing that millions of American dollars would bring freedom, and nothing changed.”
The largest program being revived is the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, which allows up to 20,000 immigrant visas to the United States each year. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is expected to announce that it has accelerated visa approval at the embassy in Havana. Officials said there were 22,000 applications in the past five years, with no one taking action.
Management is also relaxing the $1,000-a-quarter family remittance ban to ensure payments go to individuals, not businesses. But it is unclear how the money movement will be carried out: the main financial transaction firm, Fincimex, is run by the Cuban military.
In a conversation with reporters Monday night, White House officials bypassed one of the most thorny issues in the effort to roll back sanctions imposed by President Donald J. Trump: the continuing mystery of whether the Cuban government was responsible for the mysterious ailments affecting diplomats and CIA personnel worldwide.
The ailments, commonly known as Havana syndrome, since it was first described among the US delegation in Cuba, were less likely to be caused by Cuba, Russia or another foreign enemy, the CIA said in January.
The agency argued that the majority of the 1,000 cases reported to the government could be explained by environmental causes, undiagnosed medical conditions or stress rather than a global campaign led by a foreign power. Groups representing the victims were outraged, and the CIA said work was ongoing for about two dozen unexplained cases.
Biden administration officials have recently said that the inconclusive findings have kept them somewhat stuck, unable to solve the mystery of Havana syndrome and therefore unable to do much in diplomatic relations.