Over 100 Democrats urge Biden to engage with Cuba, lift restrictions

Eliana Aponte

Over 100 Democratic House members signed a letter Thursday urging President Joe Biden to lift restrictions that make it more difficult to send remittances and goods to Cuba, including food and medicine.

“We urge you to take immediate humanitarian actions — as the United Nations has urged repeatedly — to suspend U.S. regulations that prevent food, medicine, and other humanitarian assistance from reaching the Cuban people,” the letter said. “We also support a more comprehensive shift to deepen engagement with Cuba and move towards normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations.”

The letter was signed by 114 Democratic House members, including Barbara Lee of California, the chair of the Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations; Rules Committee Chair James McGovern of Massachusetts; and Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Gregory Meeks of New York.

The country's economy shrunk by 11 percent last year, and the government says it began to grow slowly this year at 2 percent. Cuba’s shortages of food, medicine and other basics have been worsened by decades of U.S. sanctions, which were tightened under former President Donald Trump, as well as the country's Soviet-style centrally planned economy. The coronavirus pandemic aggravated the situation.

Biden promised in his campaign for president to lift restrictions on travel and remittances that were imposed during the Trump years, as well as to restaff the U.S. Embassy, but so far that has not happened.

Trump suspended flights from the U.S. to nine airports in Cuba, allowing travel to Havana’s airport only. Western Union was forced to close its 407 locations throughout Cuba after Trump prohibited remittances through its partner, the military-owned Fincimex.

The Biden administration says Cuba policy has been under review for nearly a year now. After historic protests in July, in which thousands of people took to the streets, the U.S. “hit the pause button,” Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere, said recently.

The Biden administration created a Remittance Working Group after the protests to study how U.S. families could send remittances to their relatives without Cuba’s government and military profiting. The White House was given recommendations for restarting remittances in November but sent some back for further work.

The members of Congress pushed back against the delay.

“We are still waiting for action,” the letter said. “The government captures less revenue from remittances than in the past due to changes initiated in July 2020 and much of the government’s revenue from remittances is channeled to essential food, fuel, and goods imports for Cubans who do not have family abroad, many of them in marginalized communities.”

The letter noted that the U.S. does not restrict remittances to most sanctioned countries and that the Biden administration restarted remittances to Afghanistan through Western Union, “showing you are aware of the importance that remittance channels have for countries facing humanitarian and economic crises.”

The letter also called on Biden to roll back travel restrictions, “since they make it more difficult for Cuban Americans to visit and reunite with family on the island.”

“Allowing travel to Cuba would increase the flow of necessary humanitarian supplies to the island and the amount and distribution of money and goods sent directly into the hands of Cubans,” the letter said.

In Cuba, Rev. Joel Ortega Dopico, President of the Cuban Council of Churches told NBC News “for over sixty years Cuban and North American churches have advocated for the blockade to be lifted,” using the term Cuba’s government uses for the embargo. The Cuban Council of Churches is composed of Protestant churches.

“Maintaining the blockade at this time is a complete genocide that affects the people and families of Cuba,” he added.

The Biden administration says it is taking steps to restart consular processing at the embassy after Trump scaled back its staff in 2017 following health incidents that affected employees and their families.

The letter also asks that the State Department remove Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, which creates more barriers for Cuba to receive goods. The lawmakers also asked Biden to return to the policy of engagement and normalization, including bilateral groups on migration and other areas of mutual interest.

“Protecting human rights in Cuba, including the right to protest, is better served by principled engagement, rather than unilateral isolation, which has proven to be a failed policy,” the letter said.

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