As President-elect Joe Biden prepares for office, all signals point to a change in US policy towards Cuba. On the campaign, Biden enthusiastically stated that he would seek an opening with the dictatorship in order to reverse the course for four years of sanctions under US President Donald Trump. Trump's policies undermined much of the Obama administration's work to break the longstanding stalemate between the United States and Cuba, such as normalizing relations with the Castro dictatorship, offering concessions, and working closely with Cuban officials to help to resume economic and diplomatic relations.
But Biden's team should reconsider the wisdom of jumping upside down into another slog in order to normalize relations with the longtime US enemy. Over the past four years, Cuba's intransigence over human rights domestically and the destructive role it plays beyond its borders have become undeniable. The region now faces far more pressing challenges than US-Cuba relations, even if the case for the broader diplomatic benefits of showering concessions on showers does not stand the test of time.
In many ways, the Obama administration prioritized its opening with Havana at the expense of addressing more pressing regional crises. When the US negotiators reached agreements with Havana on issues such as protecting the oceans and commercial air travel, the last traces of democracy in Venezuela and Nicaragua dissolved, coca production in Colombia skyrocketed, and widespread corruption festered beneath the surface the apparently most stable region of democracies. In 2015, the first year after US relations with Cuba were announced normalization, nearly a quarter of State Department press releases focused on the Western Hemisphere, while only 6 percent were focused on Venezuela. The island was also the sole destination of one of three trips that Secretary of State John Kerry made to the region that year. The other two were about international conferences.
The Biden government now faces the fallout from these and other pressing challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the worst economic crisis in decades. Add to this broader geopolitical challenges such as increasing Chinese influence, and Latin America is not lacking in urgent issues that require US active engagement. The rationale for prioritizing another round of normalization with Cuba, which would entail a new flurry of negotiations and high-level engagements, is slim, especially after Havana largely disregarded US terms by opening up to the emerging private sector Island undone and resumed its widespread people – abused abuse and increased its support for the authoritarian Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela – all before Trump withdrew most of the major U.S. concessions.
At the same time, the Trump administration's track record in the region belies largely optimistic predictions about the wider benefits of engaging in Cuba. Proponents of normalizing relations with Havana often argue that regional disapproval of United States sanctions against Cuba has prevented Washington from forging closer ties with the rest of Latin America. Biden repeated that sentiment earlier this year, saying that normalization "is more than Cuba, it is about the entire Caribbean and it is about all of our friends and allies in Latin America."
However, the argument that a friendly attitude towards Havana is essential to a productive relationship with Latin America has not worked. Despite mounting pressure on Cuba, the Trump administration actively engaged the region on a number of issues, including coordinated diplomatic efforts to isolate the authoritarian regime in Venezuela. The government even successfully encouraged Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador to cut off Cuba's overseas medical assignments, a major source of income for Havana, which exploits the work of Cuban doctors abroad by forcing them to work under agreements reminiscent of human trafficking.
The government's active engagement with Latin America is not limited to radical right-wing leaders who are already hostile to Havana. Even the Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador, who repeatedly expressed his solidarity and support for the Cuban regime, has little to say on this issue when dealing with the United States. Indeed, Lopéz Obrador has had a very active bilateral relationship with the United States and with Trump personally. In Ecuador, the Trump administration has achieved commendable success in winning President Lenín Moreno, the elected successor and former vice-president of the pro-Cuban left-wing strongman, former President Rafael Correa.
Even before the Trump presidency, the region's leading diplomatic body, the Organization of American States (OAS), was beginning to move to Cuba. There, within less than a decade, the member states have actively paved the way for the restoration of Cuba's restored OAS membership, largely abandoning this initiative and ousting its ally Venezuela from the international organization. General Secretary Luis Almagro is an outspoken critic of the Cuban dictatorship and even accepts human rights awards from Cuban dissident groups – something his predecessors rejected.
These changes in the region are not just the result of Trump's lobbying against Latin American leaders or even the brain drain in the region's political leadership. Rather, Havana's role in supporting the suppression of the Venezuelan regime has severely undermined the region's historical benevolence and tolerance towards Cuba. For many in Latin America, it was not lost that when Washington negotiated anti-drug deals with the Cuban dictatorship, Havana stepped up its support for Venezuela's narco-dictatorship and backed up institutions that violently oppressed the Venezuelan people and sparked an unprecedented refugee crisis last year.
Perhaps the most important factor behind the turn of Latin American leaders towards Cuba, however, is the end of the booming economic times in the region and the emergence of several major crises. For the Latin American political class, it was in many ways a luxury of booming economies to use Cuba as a pretext for limiting engagement in Washington. With the end of the commodity boom, however, these days are drifting further and further away, and with them much of the willingness to discard opportunities for economic and political engagement with the United States.
Simply put, Latin America's leaders, even some friendly to the Cuban dictatorship like those in Mexico and Ecuador, have far too much to fear to jeopardize mutually beneficial US engagement. Of course, some highly ideological leaders in the region will continue to reject the United States, raising the issue of Cuba, but in these cases there is often deeper bilateral irritation. There is no doubt that it is far more urgent for most leaders and the people of the region that the Biden government devote its time and energy to a plan for hemisphere recovery, supply chain convergence, environmental protection and the Facilitating access to investing in an effective COVID-19 vaccine than returning to another string of negotiations and unrequited concessions with the Havana dictatorship.
All of this does not mean that the United States should ignore Cuba or stop pressuring the dictatorship to respect human rights and release its stranglehold on the island's nascent private sector. Instead, it means sending a clear message to Havana that the rest of the Western Hemisphere is moving towards an agenda of shared prosperity and that the United States will not bend back to get Cuba's repressive regime to go along with it.
In the weeks and months ahead, Biden and his team will have to make important decisions about priorities in Latin America. The events of recent years – and 2020 in particular – should make this clear.