In May 2022, the Biden administration announced it would restore certain areas of engagement with Cuba and provide increased support for Cubans. This included measures such as reauthorizing commercial flights to provinces outside Havana, restarting the Cuban Family Reunification Parole (CFRP) Program, expanding support for entrepreneurs and educational travel, and facilitating the flow of remittances. We commend the administration for these steps, which marked an important moment in the evolving relationship between the United States and Cuba. As organizations committed to advocating for U.S. policies towards Cuba based on human rights, engagement, mutual respect, and dialogue, we call on the Biden administration to take further steps that could contribute to improving the humanitarian situation on the island.
Cuba is grappling with an unprecedented economic and humanitarian crisis characterized by food and resource shortages, continuous blackouts, and limited access to medical supplies. These challenges unfold against a backdrop of ongoing repression, systematic human rights violations, and overwhelming hardships endured by the Cuban population. While the Cuban government bears primary responsibility for the economic mismanagement and oppressive practices that contributed to this crisis, it is important to acknowledge that the U.S. government can play a more constructive role in improving the humanitarian situation on the island.
The urgency of addressing these pressing issues cannot be overstated. In the past two years alone, about 3 percent of Cuba’s population has sought refuge in the United States. This will continue as long as the crisis remains unresolved. U.S. policy towards Cuba should contribute to improving the conditions on the ground and avoid implementing restricting measures that isolate and impose a heavy toll on Cuban families without effectively addressing the situation or promoting democratic reforms.
In light of this, we recommend the following policy actions:
While the Biden administration has already taken some steps to provide legal pathways for migrants from Cuba, such as the introduction of the humanitarian parole program and restarting the CFRP, more can be done. We recommend reopening the U.S. embassy’s refugee section and reinstating five-year multiple-entry non-immigrant visas. The pandemic hit Cuba’s cash-strapped economy hard, and restrictive sanctions have exacerbated shortages and economic despair for many families. A crisis of such depth requires addressing both the deficiencies of current U.S. immigration policy and the promotion of rights-based measures, including access to asylum and expanding other legal migration channels for those with protection needs.
In May 2022, the Biden administration launched a package of policy changes to increase support for Cuba’s private sector, including authorized access to “expanded cloud technology, application programming interfaces, and e-commerce platforms” as well as “additional payment options for Internet-based activities, electronic payments,” “business with independent Cuban entrepreneurs,” and “microfinance and training.” Despite repeated calls by members of Congress, Cuban Americans, and the U.S. private sector eager to support Cuban entrepreneurs, these measures have yet to be implemented. These measures must be enacted in full.
The Cuban government has recently undertaken key economic reforms such as legalizing the creation of private small- and medium-sized enterprises in 2021 and expanding the range of economic activities for independent actors. However, numerous restrictions on relations between U.S. and Cuban businesses remain in place. The U.S. should strengthen economic ties with the Cuban people and support independent entrepreneurs and broader civil society.
To that end, we are also concerned about the U.S.’s decision to keep Cuba on the state sponsors of terrorism (SSOT) list. As documented by CDA and WOLA, the designation creates obstacles for the delivery of humanitarian relief on the island. It can also prevent independent Cuban entrepreneurs from accessing international banking services, and foreign nationals from visiting Cuba without losing their U.S. visa waivers under the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). This limitation affects travelers to Cuba from over 40 countries including Japan and all European Union countries, effectively curbing travel and exchange with the island. The administration has the opportunity to do good on the promise to initiate a timely review of this designation.
The U.S. government can contribute to alleviating the ongoing humanitarian crisis playing out across the Florida Straits. While certain aspects of the administration’s May 16, 2022 announcement on Cuba policy have been implemented, important policy commitments remain unfulfilled. The actions we call for will not only provide immediate relief to Cuban civilians but also empower them to actively participate in exploring reforms and fostering positive change within their society. The achievements of the 2014–2017 thaw under the presidency of Barack Obama demonstrated that the U.S. can address concerns surrounding human rights, humanitarian conditions, and democratic practices while supporting the Cuban people through smart policy, diplomacy, and dialogue.
Center for Democracy in the Americas
Cuba Study Group
The Washington Office on Latin America
Washington, D.C., May 31, 2023