AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
Last week, the Biden administration announced that the U.S. would be lifting a number of Trump-era restrictions on the Cuban regime, returning to the Obama policy of trying to forge closer ties with the Communist dictatorship. The news came as a major blow to dissidents on the ground in Cuba and highlighted a glaring inconsistency in the Biden administration’s policy toward assisting those fighting for freedom from oppression.
In a statement last Tuesday, the White House said that it would allow for expanded flights and group travel to Cuba, which opponents say will result in increased tourism revenues for the regime. The White House also said that it would restart a family unification program to allow more Cuban immigrants to enter the U.S., and would relax the ban on remittances – another policy which some lawmakers fear the regime will use to collect revenue from Cuban workers in the United States.
Notably, Biden couldn’t even get every Congressional Democrat on board with the decision to remove the restrictions. Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, a Cuban-American Democrat and Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the announcement “risks sending the wrong message to the wrong people, at the wrong time and for all the wrong reasons.”
The opposition movement in Cuba also voiced their dismay with the decision, deeming it a double-blow which will not only strengthens the regime but hampers their own efforts to force through reforms.
Cuban dissidents have watched closely the ongoing situation in Ukraine, seeing in the Ukrainian peoples’ fight for freedom a reflection of their own decades-long struggle. On the day Russian forces stormed across the border, a dissident from Santiago de Cuba, who wished to only be identified as Fernan, told of how he held a self-made Ukrainian flag and protested the invasion with a small group of people. Twenty minutes later, a police officer was on his street threatening to arrest him. He was fined for public disorder.
Fernan, who is an engineer, did not coordinate his actions with anybody, and is not officially associated with any opposition group. His protest was spontaneous, and as he started other pedestrians joined him.
Similar protests took place in Havana, San Cristobal, Santa Clara, Trinidad, Marti, Santa Cruz del Sur and Guantanamo. Jose Daniel Ferrer, a leader of UNPACU, one of the largest opposition groups, openly called for demonstrations, invoking a famous motto of Polish Solidarity movement “For your freedom and ours.”
Mr. Ferrer, building on a historic parallel of Putin and Hitler, criticized Cuban supporters of the Russian war. “Whomever today justifies and applauds Vladimir Putin and Russia in the midst of the invasion against Ukraine, is like those who defended the invasion of Poland by Hitler’s troops and their subsequent world war,” he stated.
During the Sunday masses, many Cuban priests spontaneously added Ukraine and Ukrainian people to their prayers, emphasizing that fighting for freedom is one of the noblest forms of expressing the second greatest commandment, loving thy neighbor as thyself.
There seems to be an innate understanding among the Cuban people of their shared struggle with the Ukrainian people, and the importance of showing resolve against injustice everywhere, not just in their own country. They are not fighting against just a corrupt government or set of harmful policies, but against evil itself – an experience all too similar for millions in Ukraine today.
But instead of responding with the same resounding denunciation, sanctions, and even veiled threats of open military conflict as it has in Ukraine, the Biden administration has effectively empowered the Cuban regime to continue their reign of terror.
Following mass anti-regime demonstrations last year which led to the arrest, beating, and torture of hundreds of protestors, the government is more committed than ever to clamping down on any dissent. Now, Biden is rewarding them by lifting sanctions, a move opposition leaders say will only benefit the regime and will do nothing for the Cuban people. According to dissident Amir Walle, the biggest benefactor of the relaxed travel restrictions will be the state-run conglomerate which dominates 80% of the tourism industry.
Major General Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, for example, Raúl Castro’s son-in-law, runs an empire which controls 83 hotel facilities (29,000 rooms in agreements with about 14 international chains); has an effective monopoly over the national network of retail stores (TRD Caribe) and is the owner of shipping companies (Melfi Marine Corp and Servinaves Panamá S.A).
The military-operated GAESA also owns construction firms, car dealerships (Havanautos and Havanatour), real estate companies (Almest), banks, and import and export companies (Tecnotex and Tecnoimport). By the very nature of a Communist economy, there is no way for the lifting of any restrictions to benefit anyone but those responsible for blatant human rights abuses against the Cuban people.
This has led to widespread disappointment and even anger among the dissident community in Cuba. One Catholic priest said the opposition feels punished and even betrayed by the Biden administration. Cousins Jorge and Nadir Martín Perdomo, who are currently imprisoned for protesting last year, said they would’ve wanted nothing more than new sanctions, rather than reversing old ones. They also pointed out the deep irony of uniting Cuban families in the United States while political prisoners are denied any contact with their families in Cuba. Another Cuban opposition leader who wished to remain anonymous said that he fears this may prove to be another catastrophic mistake by President Biden.
The White House has yet to make any comment explaining the apparent incongruity between their support for the Ukrainian people in their struggle against Russia and their passivity when it comes to the Cuban regime’s oppression of its own people. For many Cuban freedom fighters, they may now find themselves desperately hoping for the return of a Republican – and perhaps Donald Trump – to the White House in 2024, following so many years of disappointment at the hands of successive Democratic administrations.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian and researcher.