WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)

19 May 2022 | Commentary

The Biden Administration Takes Constructive First Steps on Cuba Relations

Restores Flights to Cuba, the Family Reunification Parole Program, and Remittances

On May 15, the Biden administration announced a series of measures that partially reverse former president Trump’s policies towards Cuba, taking long awaited steps that will enable it to pursue a more constructive approach regarding the Caribbean country. By recognizing the unprecedented humanitarian situation on the island, the administration has moved to increase support for the Cuban people while allowing Cuban-Americans to assist their families on the island. 

Although these measures mark the most significant changes in U.S. policy towards Cuba since President Biden took office, they are far cry from the Obama-era level of engagement. They should be seen as modest steps implemented in the context of a dramatic rise in the number of Cuban migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, political pressure from other countries in the region pushing for Cuba to be invited to take part in the upcoming Summit of the Americas, and calls from members of Congress and other stakeholders for more U.S. engagement with Cuba. 

More than 78,000 Cubans have been apprehended in the U.S. border with Mexico since October, the highest number since the Mariel boatlift in 1980. Authorities in the Caribbean nation have also stopped accepting the return of their nationals despite a 2017 agreement. Recently, Mexico (Cuba accepts deportations from Mexico) has agreed to take back more Cuban migrants expelled by the U.S. under Title 42, but the majority of Cubans have been released on an immigration parole or under other supervision after expressing credible fear of prosecution.

Even though this spike in migration seems to have been one of the reasons behind the Biden administration resuming a dialogue with Cuba, the implementation of the U.S.-Cuba migration accords won’t be enough to stop the current influx of Cuban migrants. Most people fleeing the country are escaping an economic and humanitarian crisis that is exacerbated by U.S. isolationist policies. 

Under the new measures, the Biden administration will reinstate the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, which allows Cuban-Americans to apply for permission to bring family members to the United States as legal residents. It will also continue to increase capacity for consular services at the U.S. Embassy in Havana after immigrant visa processing slowly resumed on May 3, 2022. While this will benefit some Cuban-Americans and their families, staffing limitations at the embassy mean most people applying for immigrant and visitor visas will still have to travel to the U.S. Embassy in Georgetown, Guyana, which is the closest country in South America that does not require visas for Cubans. This represents an important barrier for many Cubans. Fully reinstating consular services in Havana could contribute to reducing irregular migration from Cuba to the U.S.

In another move that will primarily benefit Cuban-Americans seeking to visit relatives, the Biden administration will authorize flights from U.S. destinations to cities in Cuba other than Havana.   

It also seeks to facilitate authorized remittance flows by removing the current limit on family remittances of $1,000 per quarter per sender-receiver pair and authorizing donative (non-family) remittances. Allowing remittances to go to non-family members could expand their use for entrepreneurs and for humanitarian assistance. Although this is a positive move, sending remittances through FINCIMEX, the financial entity responsible for receiving these on the Cuban side, will remain prohibited since the military-owned company remains in the Cuba Restricted List. While the Biden administration stated it will engage with electronic payment processors to encourage increased Cuban market accessibility, there are no details yet about what channels Cuban-Americans and other U.S. citizens will be able to use to send remittances, and how convenient (or inconvenient) they will be. Western Union, the main provider of remittance payments from the U.S. to Cuba, closed its offices in the island in November 2020 after a number of Trump-imposed sanctions.

Lifting restrictions on remittances is also part of the Biden administration’s goal to support Cuban entrepreneurs. Other measures to encourage commercial opportunities outside of the state sector include easing independent Cuban entrepreneurs’ access to the Internet as well as to cloud technology, application programming interfaces, and e-commerce platforms. The administration will also expand support of additional payment options for Internet-based activities, support electronic payments, work to expand entrepreneurs’ access to microfinance and training, and facilitate business engagement. While these measures are, on paper, promising, the lack of specific guidelines on how they will be implemented means their full impact is difficult to assess at this time. 

Lastly, reinstating group people-to-people educational travel will facilitate connections for U.S. and Cuban citizens and generate jobs and income for the Cuban people. This is an important step in rebuilding dialogue and understanding, but the Cuba Prohibited Accommodations List (among other executive order-imposed restrictions) will continue to make travel plans for universities and other people-to-people groups extremely challenging. The impact of this announcement will depend on what regulations the Treasury Department establishes to manage group travel. Furthermore, if the goal is to support Cuba’s private sector, the travel expansion should include individual travel, since increased travel to the island can generate an economic boost, amidst the escalating economic crisis the island is facing.

Details are currently scarce on how these new policies will be implemented, and the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) within the Treasury Department will need to issue regulations to clarify the financial aspects of travel, remittances, and support for entrepreneurs.  

Nevertheless, these moves will undoubtedly have a positive impact on the Cuban economy and the daily lives of Cuban families. 

The administration must now work to implement these changes promptly and in ways that most benefit both the U.S. and the Cuban people, and to move forward with a policy of engagement that includes measures such as: 

  • The reinstatement of all forms of travel, both group and individual. The re-establishment of educational people-to-people travel notably excludes cultural and sport exchanges and is centered solely on academic and research purposes, creating further limitations on who gains access to the island. 
  • Ensuring the U.S. Embassy in Havana has full-fledged consular services and staff and that it no longer exports its responsibilities to its embassy in Guyana. It should also reinstate multiple entry visas (viable for up to 5 years) as an incentive for Cubans to remain on the island since they would have the ability to come and go via regular channels without having to choose to migrate completely. This is also an important method to alleviate the workload for an already understaffed embassy since it would lengthen the period of time between visa applications for Cubans. 
  • Revise and remove restrictions on U.S. banks to support the Cuban private sector in a more meaningful way—U.S. banks should have the ability to establish corresponding accounts with Cuban banks not managed by the military in order ease access to remittances and maximize their impact, especially for Cuban entrepreneurs. 
  • Resume conversations around the Memorandums of Understanding signed under the Obama administration. There are a number of high priority issues of common interest to the U.S. and Cuba, including security cooperation and environmental protection efforts among others. This channel for dialogue will also be key in addressing other concerns and making progress on critical issues such as the human rights situation on the island. Following the events of the 2021 protests, the mass trials that ensued, and the future implications of a new penal code in Cuba, the U.S. should prioritize a space to address these human rights concerns in the best interest of the Cuban people. 
  • Remove Cuba from the State Sponsor of Terrorism List which continues to complicate all major aspects of engagement with the island.