Former top Obama aide accuses Biden of 'gaslighting' Cuba: 'Disappointed doesn't begin to scratch the surface'

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The former Obama White House official who negotiated the reopening of relations with Cuba is sharply criticizing President Biden’s policies toward that country, saying his administration is “gaslighting” Havana by maintaining and even expanding harsh sanctions imposed by former President Trump.

“Disappointed doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of how I feel about the Biden-Cuba policy,” said Ben Rhodes, who served as Obama’s deputy national security adviser, in an interview for the Yahoo News’ “Conspiracyland” podcast. “The Cuban government made an agreement with me based on the idea that they could trust that we would keep our agreement.”

“Granted it was Trump” who initially reversed Obama’s policy of normalizing relations with Cuba, he added. “But then Biden doubles down” on Trump policies, Rhodes said.

“Why would any Cuban official ever, ever negotiate anything with America ever again after this? We had Trump — in the most grotesque, callous way — politicizing this. But then to have a Democratic administration legitimize what Trump did by continuing it — it’s a gaslighting to those people in Cuba, you know?”

Ben Rhodes stands at a podium in front of an American flag.
Ben Rhodes announces that President Barack Obama will be the first U.S. president since Calvin Coolidge in 1928 to visit Cuba, in a daily briefing at the White House on Feb. 18, 2016. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Rhodes’s comments — some of the strongest criticism yet of Biden from a senior Obama official — were disputed by a White House national security spokesperson.

“President Biden’s policy toward Cuba is rooted in supporting the Cuban people and protecting human rights. Our approach to Cuba, just like any other country, takes into account various current political, economic, and security factors,” the spokesperson said.

“Over the past few years, conditions in Cuba and in the region have changed, and we have adapted our Cuba policy accordingly.”

The U.S. and Cuba have been at odds since 1959, when Fidel Castro took control of the island nation and installed a communist government closely aligned with the Soviet Union. In the decades that followed, millions of Cuban refugees settled in the U.S., and Cuban Americans became a key voting bloc in states like Florida.

President Biden sits at a desk in front of an American flag and leans toward a single microphone.
President Biden meets with Cuban American leaders in the State Dining Room at the White House on July 30, 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

The Obama administration normalized relations with Havana, an effort that was overseen by Rhodes and culminated in Obama’s visit to Cuba in March 2016. The thaw was short-lived, however: When Trump entered office in 2017, he quickly reversed many of his predecessor’s policies toward Cuba, citing the emergence of “Havana syndrome” — a collection of odd symptoms, such as dizziness, vertigo, headaches and in some cases brain injuries — originally reported by some U.S. officials in Cuba and later by American diplomats and spies serving all over the world.

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The new three-part podcast from “Conspiracyland,” entitled “The Strange Story of Havana Syndrome,” recounts in its first episode how the reports of Havana syndrome ailments set off a chain of events that led to a reversal of Obama’s policy. After the initial reports of strange health symptoms surfaced in 2017, the Trump administration pulled most U.S. diplomats out of Cuba and accused the country’s government of launching “targeted attacks” against U.S. personnel — charges that were widely reported in the news media but which U.S. officials no longer endorse, as the podcast reveals.

Cuban President Raul Castro lifts up the arm of President Barack Obama for what appears to be a photo-op.
Cuban President Raul Castro, right, lifts up the arm of Obama, at the conclusion of their joint news conference at the Palace of the Revolution, in Havana, Cuba, on March 21, 2016 . (Ramon Espinosa/AP)

Until recently, the Biden administration had maintained many of the tight restrictions Trump had reimposed on Cuba and even expanded some sanctions still in place, targeting the chief of Cuba’s Interior Ministry over his role in cracking down on hundreds of Cubans who protested economic conditions last year. (It also refused to invite Cuba to last June’s Summit of the Americas conference in Los Angeles, hosted by Biden.)

Cuba’s communist government denounced Biden’s moves, saying they had harshly punished the country’s economy during the COVID epidemic and contributed to shortages of food and medicine. There is “no difference” between Biden’s and Trump’s policy toward Cuba, Johana Ruth Tablada de la Torre, the deputy director for U.S. affairs at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, says in an interview for the “Conspiracyland” podcast, adding that what the U.S. is doing to Cuba is “criminal.”

Cuban-American demonstrators hold signs reading: Biden, Cuba demands freedom and Free Cuba.
Cuban-American demonstrators call for the U.S. to support protesters in Cuba during a demonstration in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, in Washington on July 26, 2021. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

Also interviewed in the “Conspiracyland” podcast is Brian Nichols, assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, who blamed the Cuban government for the country’s economic woes. “Until the Cuban regime decides to embrace democracy and free markets, I think it’s gonna be nigh-on-impossible for them to improve the situation there” he said.

Nichols was also asked about the Biden administration’s refusal to invite Cuba to this year’s Summit of the Americas conference, a rebuke that prompted leaders of Mexico, Bolivia and Honduras to boycott the event.

“The host has wide latitude to determine whom they will invite,” said Nichols. Although Cuban leaders have been invited in the past, “since that time, they have made no progress toward increasing their respect for democracy, human rights, or the rule of law. So, clearly, allowing them to participate did not prompt better behavior on their part.”

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters, Jim Bourg/Reuters