Biden Goes Trump on Cuba

December 18th, 2023 - by Ryan Grim / The Intercept

In a Major Snub to Obama, Biden
Is Sticking with Trump’s Cuba Policy
Ryan Grim / The Intercept

(December 16, 2023) — If there was any issue that dominated more air time during the Trump administration than immigration, I don’t remember what it was. From The Wall, to the Muslim ban, to the kids in cages, there was universal recognition within the Democratic coalition that Trump’s nativist approach, fueled by the maniacal advisor Stephen Miller, was beyond the pale.

Trump also fueled a migration crisis, sanctioning Venezuela after a failed coup, relisting Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terror after Obama had moved toward normalization, and otherwise destabilizing countries in the Western Hemisphere – destabilization that then drove people northward. He would then weaponize that migration in the service of tighter crackdowns.

What little difference a new president makes. Though rhetoric toward migrants is more humane coming from President Biden, the White House is now signaling it is on board for draconian, GOP-backed immigration restrictions and border security efforts.

Putting my pundit hat on, I’ve been saying for more than a year that Democrats have been sending signals that they’d actually quite appreciate if their hand was forced on immigration, and Republicans forced a crackdown. The hoped-for benefits of their support for immigration reform haven’t translated into gains among Hispanic voters – in fact, they’ve lost ground instead – and the chaos at the border is a political headache they’d like to see go away.

Republicans, meanwhile, face their own political conflict of interest: reducing the chaotic situation at the border would deprive them of a major political talking point. What do they want more? Their policy to be implemented, or the ability to point fingers at Democrats? Not an easy call. (They’ll probably choose both – take the policy win and still attack Democrats on the border – but you get the point.)

If Democrats do cave on the border, they’re pledging to do so in exchange for more money for the war in Ukraine. Dave Dayen has a good rundown of the latest on the negotiations, the policy, and the politics.

Putting my reporter hat back on, I have a new scoop related to the migration crisis: As one of his final foreign policy acts as president, in January 2021 Donald Trump added Cuba to the list of “State Sponsors of Terror,” reversing the Obama administration’s 2015 determination that the designation was no longer appropriate.

The incoming Biden administration pledged to Congress it would start the process of overturning Trump’s redesignation, which by statute requires a six-month review process. Yet in a private briefing last week on Capitol Hill, State Department official Eric Jacobstein stunned members of Congress by telling them that the department has not even begun the review process, according to three sources in the room.

(I’ve started going to State Department press briefings, and asked them about this. You can see their response here.)

In the briefing, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., inquired as to the status of the review. In order to remove Cuba from the list, statute requires at least a six-month review period. The news that the State Department had not even launched the review came as a surprise to McGovern and others in the room, and meant that the delisting couldn’t occur before mid-2024 at the earliest. McGovern pressed Jacobstein, noting that Congress had previously been assured that a review was underway. Jacobstein, according to sources in the room, said that perhaps there had been some misunderstanding around a different review of sanctions policies that State was undertaking.

“I don’t think they were prepared to respond to how upset members were,” said one Democrat, who was granted anonymity to discuss the private meeting. “They were furious.”

Vedant Patel, a spokesperson for the State Department, declined to comment on a closed-door meeting in Congress, and additionally declined to directly confirm or deny whether a review was ongoing. “We’re not going to comment on the deliberative process as it relates to the status of any designation,” said Patel. “Any review of Cuba’s status on the SST list — should one ever happen — would be based on the law and criteria established by Congress.”

McGovern, however, had already been told that such a review was ongoing, according to multiple sources who heard directly from McGovern about the State Department’s messaging.

Biden’s refusal to even review Cuba’s status marks a strong rebuke of one of the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy achievements, the move toward normalizing relations with Cuba.

The Trump administration’s rationale for redesignating Cuba as a sponsor of terror relied heavily on the country having hosted representatives from FARC and ELN, two armed guerrilla movements designated by the U.S. as terror groups. But in October 2022, Colombian President Gustavo Petro, in a joint press conference with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, noted that Colombia itself, in cooperation with the Obama administration, had asked Cuba to host the FARC and ELN members as part of peace talks. The move by the Trump administration was “an injustice,” he said, and ought to be undone. “It is not us [Colombia] who must correct it, but it does need to be corrected,” added Petro, himself a onetime guerrilla.

“When it comes to Cuba,” Blinken said at the press conference, “and when it comes to the state sponsor of terrorism designation, we have clear laws, clear criteria, clear requirements, and we will continue as necessary to revisit those to see if Cuba continues to merit that designation.” Blinken’s public claim — “we will continue as necessary to revisit” the designation — coupled with private assurances from the State Department left members of Congress certain that a review was underway.

Blinken was also asked about Cuba’s status in a hearing in March 2023 and said that Cuba had yet to meet the requirements to be removed from the list. “In both of these instances the Secretary was reiterating what we’ve said previously — should there be rescission of the SST status, it would need to be consistent with specific statutory criteria for rescinding a SST determination,” Patel said.

The terror designation makes it difficult for Cubans to do international business, crushing an already fragile economy. The U.S. hard-line approach to Cuba has coincided with a surge in desperate migration, with Cubans now making up a substantial portion of the migrants arriving at the southern border.

Nearly 425,000 Cubans have fled for the United States in fiscal years 2022 and 2023, shattering previous records. Instead of moving to stem the flow by focusing on root causes in Cuba, the Biden White House has been signaling support in recent days for Republican-backed border policies.

Hopes for a shift on Cuba policy have not just been fueled by the State Department’s misleading pledges about a review, but also by a semi-public moment picked up by a hot mic ahead of the previous State of the Union, in which Biden approached New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, one of the chamber’s leading Cuba hawks, and told him the two needed to chat. “Bob, I gotta talk to you about Cuba,” Biden told him. Menendez has since been indicted as an alleged intelligence asset of Egypt, and there is no indication the two have talked about Cuba.

Ryan Grim’s new book, The Squad: AOC and the Hope of a Political Revolution, is now available.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.