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A waiter serves customers at a private restaurant in Havana. A waiter serves customers at a private restaurant in Havana, Jan. 31, 2018 (AP photo by Ramon Espinosa). Economic reforms that allow some private enterprise could be jeopardized by worsening U.S.-Cuba relations.

Trump Was Cuba’s Perfect Storm. What Will Biden Bring?

Friday, Feb. 12, 2021

In April 2018, Cuba experienced a watershed moment when Miguel Diaz-Canel was inaugurated as president. That marked the first time in nearly six decades that a Castro had not led the country. Diaz-Canel slowly moved to put his stamp on the nation, beginning with the adoption of a new constitution in April 2019 that includes some structural reforms, including the creation of a prime ministerial position, and some attempts to embed market economics within Cuba’s socialist state. But the deterioration of U.S.-Cuba relations under former President Donald Trump have jeopardized that effort.

Cuba enjoyed a surge in tourism when Trump’s predecessor, former U.S. President Barack Obama, normalized relations between the two countries, but more systemic reforms were necessary even then to unleash the younger generation of Cuban entrepreneurs. But after his election in 2016, Trump reversed many of the steps Obama took to relax U.S. policy on Cuba, tightening restrictions on commerce with military-owned businesses and on remittances and travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens.

Trump also reversed a long-standing U.S. policy toward Cuba by allowing Cuban Americans whose property was seized during the island’s revolution to sue not only the Cuban government, but also foreign companies operating on that property. The move came over the objection of European countries, who worry that their businesses might be sued, and also the Cuban government, which must now deal with the economic fallout from the decision. But Trump’s policies delighted critics of Cuba, who point to the regime’s ongoing human rights violations as justifying a harder line.

Meanwhile Venezuela’s ongoing disintegration, as well as U.S. sanctions against Venezuela’s oil industry, have forced Cuba to seek new options for trade and investment, after having benefitted from long-standing financial support in the form of subsidized oil from Caracas since the beginning of Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution there. The loss of those subsidies, combined with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, particularly in Cuba’s already hard-hit tourism sector, is putting strains on the Cuban economy not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union.

President Joe Biden is expected to try to return to the Obama-era normalization process with Cuba that he contributed to as vice president. But putting U.S.-Cuba relations on a sustainable footing will also depend on how much Havana delivers on protecting human rights and opening up space for political dissent. Absent progress on those fronts, U.S. policy will continue to be vulnerable to pressure from hard-line voices among Cuban American voters in Florida, who play an outsized role in American presidential politics.

WPR has covered Cuba in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. What changes will President-elect Joe Biden make to U.S. policy toward Cuba? Will Cuba’s economic reform agenda survive the coronavirus pandemic? Can Cuba’s new leadership meet popular expectations for reform while maintaining the regime’s grip on power? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Our Most Recent Coverage

A Simple Reset Won’t Make U.S.-Cuba Ties More Sustainable

President Joe Biden has pledged to reverse Donald Trump’s policies that he said “have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights.” Biden could relieve the pressure that some Cubans felt from Trump’s measures and resume the process of normalization with Cuba. But to make relations between the U.S. and Cuba more sustainable, Havana will have to do its part as well.


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Economy and Reforms

The Cuban economy continues to struggle, despite the regime’s efforts to open the island to investment. Though there is evidence of a small, private economy developing, the broader macroeconomic situation has caused Cubans, particularly young, educated Cubans, to flee in search of opportunities elsewhere. A serious energy crisis resulting from the loss of subsidized Venezuelan oil exacerbated the problem. Now the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on tourism has pushed Cuba’s economy into its deepest recession since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Politics and Human Rights

Though the arrest and detention of political opponents, activists and journalists has decreased lately, the number of incidents remains high, according to human rights groups. As that would indicate, there is very little room for political activity outside of the ruling Communist Party. Within the party, though, there is some room for reformers to push a more liberal agenda, including advances on rights for women and the LGBT community.

U.S.-Cuba Relations

The détente between the U.S. and Cuba during Obama’s presidency disappeared under Trump, whose administration introduced new limits on remittances and non-family travel to the island from the United States. Exactly what changes Joe Biden’s presidency will bring remain to be seen.

Regional Relations

Cuba’s relations with its regional neighbors had been warming over the past decade, so it came as no surprise that the region rallied behind Obama’s decision to normalize ties with Havana. But the country’s communist government is decidedly in the minority after the return to power of center-right governments across much of Latin America. And the crisis in Venezuela is only solidifying that division, with Cuba one of very few countries still supporting President Nicolas Maduro’s administration.


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WPR is increasing its focus on how U.S. foreign policy is likely to change under the Biden administration. While Biden would undoubtedly repudiate Trump’s approach, which was itself a radical break from U.S. foreign policy traditions, it’s unclear whether a restoration of the United States global role is even possible. What immediate challenges will the Biden administration confront? And how will he successfully pivot policy in key areas? This report is just a sampling of our coverage so far of U.S. foreign policy under Biden. Download your FREE copy of U.S. Foreign Policy Under Biden to learn more today.

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As the Biden administration takes over, the world is experiencing a sort of whiplash, as the United States performs a second about-face in its posture toward multilateralism in only four years. Although the U.S. has oscillated through cycles of internationalism and isolationism before, it has never executed such a swift and dramatic double-reverse. The Biden administration will repudiate the “America First” platform on which Donald Trump won the White House in 2016, and the hyper-nationalist, unilateralist and sovereigntist mindset that undergirds it. Such a stunning shift in America’s global orientation would have major implications for global cooperation on everything from climate change, health and nuclear proliferation to trade and human rights, as well as for U.S. relations with its Western allies.

The stage is set, in other words, for a massive reorientation in U.S. foreign policy. It remains to be seen if Trumpism will remain a potent political force, shaping Republican attitudes around foreign policy for years to come.

Download U.S. Foreign Policy Under Biden today to take a deeper look at these trends and get a glimpse at what the future may hold.

In this report, you will learn:

  • What Biden's presidency will mean for the future of multilateralism
  • What is in store for U.S. policy on human rights
  • How the new Nuclear Weapons Ban treaty will be an early trial for Biden
  • What Biden's policy toward North Korea is likely to look like
  • Whether Turkey's frayed ties with the West are likely to improve under Biden
  • How the Biden administration may try to clean up the mess in Afghanistan
  • And more . . .

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2019 and is regularly updated.

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