Castro’s negotiator waits on Biden to undo ‘cruel’ Trump policy

Donald Trump’s Cuba policies are now Joe Biden’s and they are taking a heavy toll on the Caribbean nation, according to the Cuban diplomat who negotiated the 2015 rapprochement with the US.

Nearly five months into the Biden Administration, officials in Havana are surprised to see the White House stance so far unchanged, Ambassador to Canada Josefina Vidal said in an interview. Citing President Biden’s campaign pledges, she said Cuba expected the US leader to reverse “at least the most cruel measures” imposed by his predecessor.

Cuba’s Ambassador to Canada Josefina Vidal (Photo: Business Insider)

Trump aggressively tightened the screws on Cuba, which his Administration blamed for foiling attempts to topple Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela and continuing to abuse human rights at home. Under Trump, the US banned cruise ships from stopping at the island, restricted flights and curbed American remittances.

Trump also allowed lawsuits to be filed over property seized during the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power and — in his last weeks in office — put Cuba back on the US list of State sponsors of terrorism.

“Since that moment we have seen that everything has become worse,” Vidal said Monday in Ottawa. “We have seen foreign banks closing the accounts of many Cuban entities. We have seen international foreign suppliers suspending their contracts with Cuba.”

Her remarks come with the communist-run nation trying to renegotiate its debt as it reels under both tighter sanctions and the fallout from COVID-19, which has obliterated its vital tourism industry. Vidal, who was Raul Castro’s top negotiator in the lead-up to Barack Obama’s visit to Havana in March 2016, said that while four years of Trump badly damaged the confidence established during that process, Cuba remains “willing to continue building a civilised, respectful relationship with the United States”.

President Barack Obama, right, and Cuban President Raúl Castro shook hands at the start of their meeting at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The Biden Administration is reviewing Trump’s policies toward Havana but has signalled that changing relations with the island isn’t a priority. Trump’s tough approach toward both Cuba and Venezuela helped him win greater support in South Florida’s Latino community, aiding his efforts to hold the state and its 29 Electoral College votes in last year’s election.

‘Gun shy’

Cuba watchers expect that political dynamic, along with Cuban-American hard-liner Bob Menendez’s chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will prevent any bold moves by Biden to discard Trump-era restrictions.

(Photo: Twitter @LinetTopdjian)

“Perceptions in the Democratic Party operation in Florida that the Cuba issue caused electoral harm in the 2020 presidential campaign, along with the outspoken role of a few prominent Democratic senators, will be likely to make the White House gun-shy,” Mark Entwistle, a former Canadian ambassador to Cuba who is now managing director of Toronto-based Acasta Cuba Capital, said Tuesday by e-mail. “At least perhaps until after the midterm House elections, should those manage to provide some additional breathing space.”

Officials at the State Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Biden’s approach toward Cuba.

Developments on the island could also eventually help ease US-Cuba ties.

For the first time since 1959, neither the president of the country nor the head of the Communist Party of Cuba is named Castro. While Vidal said Cuba will continue to perfect its socialist system under the presidency of Miguel Diaz-Canel, “the leadership of the party is now in the hands of a generation that was born after the Cuban revolution”.

Raúl Castro, presents his successor to the presidency of Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel, at the inauguration in 2018 (Photo: Cuba Debate)

Diaz-Canel takes the party reins with Cuba facing its worst economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. His deputy prime minister is in Paris this week for talks with creditors on unpaid foreign-held notes worth US$17.8 billion in 2017, the most recently published Cuban government tally.

Though Vidal is no longer responsible for US relations, she said her Government’s priorities, should Washington come back to the table, would likely be self-evident: In addition to easing up on travel and remittances, deactivating Title III of the Helms-Burton Act — which allows lawsuits over seized property — is key, along with removing Cuba from the “fraudulent and unjust” terror list.

Those will be hard sells in the US Congress, where Republicans and Democrats evenly split the Senate and Democrats hold only a narrow majority in the House.

Cuba also wants to see an end to US attempts to halt oil deliveries to the island by targeting shipping companies, insurance providers and even specific vessels bound for Cuba as priority policies that Havana would like to see changed, Vidal said.

“These are the kinds of measures you do not adopt in normal, peaceful times. It’s like a war-time measure.”

Getting the US to re-engage, however, won’t be easy.

“The Gordian Knot is that the Cubans are consistent in insisting on no preconditions to talks between sovereign equals, while the Americans are traditionally equally insistent on conditionality,” Entwistle said.

“The Cubans could perhaps reiterate to the Biden Administration that, with no prejudice to their sovereignty, they have an open mind to regional and global issues of importance to the United States,” he added.