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Cuba policy shift not a ‘top priority’ for Biden, White House says

White House press secretary Jen Psaki. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

The Biden administration is not in a rush to change Cuba policy, which is currently under review, the White House said last week.

“A Cuba policy shift is not currently among President Biden’s top priorities,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at a press briefing Tuesday.

She added the administration was committed “to making human rights a core pillar of our U.S. policy” and “to carefully reviewing policy decisions made in the prior administration, including the decision to designate Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.”

The State Department added Cuba to the list just days before former President Donald Trump left office, citing the Cuban government’s harboring of fugitives from U.S. justice and its refusal to extradite members of a Colombian guerrilla group involved in terrorist attacks who were sent to the island for now-suspended peace talks.

Joe Biden promised during his campaign to lift current restrictions on remittances and travel to the island, but it is unclear if he will pursue a new thaw in relations with Havana.

The White House remarks come amid intense lobbying from multiple groups and members of Congress to either reverse the Trump administration’s policies or keep a tough stance on Cuba.

A group of 80 Democratic members from the House of Representatives penned a letter urging Biden to lift Trump’s “cruel” sanctions on Cuba and resume engagement policies promoted by former President Barack Obama, whom Biden served as vice president. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks signed the letter.

But inside the party, there’s also opposition to a new push to normalize relations with Cuba, especially when the government is cracking down not only on dissidents but also young artists and activists voicing opposition.

In an event with Cuban exiles, Sen. Bob Menendez, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, said he wants any negotiations with the Cuban government to deliver results regarding the island’s human rights situation, a position shared by several Miami-Dade mayors, exile organizations and members of the Cuban opposition. Several Cuban intellectuals, artists and academics who support engagement policies have also asked the president to condition any negotiation with the Cuban government on improvements in human rights and political freedoms.

In a letter sent Wednesday, Republican Sens. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rick Scott told Senate leaders Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell they will oppose any attempts to change current U.S. laws toward the communist island.

“For years, members of Congress have tried to weaken the longstanding U.S.-Cuba policy while ignoring the dictatorship’s abysmal human rights record,” the senators wrote in the letter obtained by the Miami Herald. “The Trump Administration took positive steps to further restrict financial transactions to the Cuban military. Undoing that progress now would set our advancements back.”

“In order to support the people of Cuba,” the letter added, “we must continue to promote freedom and democracy in Cuba and hold the Castro-Díaz Canel dictatorship accountable for its egregious human rights record.”

Cuban Americans, who Biden has said “are the best ambassadors for freedom and prosperity in Cuba,” are also divided on the matter. Many supported Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” against the Cuban government and its military. But other groups are also asking the administration to reverse specific measures hurting Cuban families.

A bipartisan group of Cuban-American leaders, including Coral Gables Mayor Raúl J. Valdés-Fauli, sent Biden a letter Tuesday to push for restoring channels for sending remittances that were shut down by Trump because a company controlled by the Cuban military, Fincimex, was involved.

“On both sides of the Florida Straits, whatever one’s opinions of the Cuban government, the sending of remittances has always been about helping the family,” the letter says. “Governments do not get hurt by these policies, nor do big companies, nor will the Cuban military suffer; the real victims are the people.”

In a widely shared memo, the Cuba Study Group advised the administration to reengage with Cuba but take an incremental approach to make changes more durable. The memo also urged the administration to keep advocating for human rights on the island and build crucial support for its Cuba policy in Miami.

The Biden administration signaled this week it is ready to fulfill campaign promises involving less polarizing foreign policy issues by granting temporary protected status to Venezuelan exiles, a measure that carried broad bipartisan support.

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(c) 2021 Miami Herald

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