President Joe Biden has staked his presidency on America’s return — a return to normalcy amid the coronavirus pandemic, a return to the global stage following four years of Trump-era isolationism and, arguably, a return to many of the policy positions adopted by the Obama administration.
But recent incidents in the Caribbean mark a moment in which the Biden administration may be in uncharted territory.
While issues related to Russia, China and the Northern Triangle have been at the forefront of the Biden administration’s foreign policy priorities, violence and demonstrations taking place just off of America’s coast have forced the White House’s response.
First came a presidential assassination in Haiti.
Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was killed during an attack last week on his private residence in the capital of Port-au-Prince. Haiti’s first lady, Martine Moïse, was also shot in the attack and evacuated to a hospital in Miami for treatment.
The assassination has left the nation in deeper turmoil, leaving a power vacuum and coming as Haiti has been dealing with a wave of extreme violence, a growing humanitarian crisis and a worsening Covid-19 pandemic.
Then came rare demonstrations in Cuba.
Thousands of Cubans took to the streets on Sunday to protest a lack of food and medicine as the country undergoes a grave economic crisis aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic and US sanctions.
The dual crises come at a time when the President would rather be focusing his attention on domestic issues like infrastructure and voting rights, a subject on which he’s set to give a major speech on Tuesday. When it comes to foreign affairs the White House has been preoccupied with the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and resetting American foreign policy to focus on powers in the Eastern Hemisphere like Russia and China.
To a certain extent, the dealings with those nations are ones that previous administrations also had to figure out how to handle, but the issues bubbling up in the Caribbean will be among the first unique foreign crises to test Biden and his team.
Biden on Monday indicated that the US is “ready to provide assistance” to both Cuba and Haiti, but it’s unclear exactly what form that help will take.
The Haitian government last week requested US troops to help protect infrastructure, ports, airports and energy systems, Elections Minister Mathias Pierre told CNN. Mathias said the request was for a limited number of around 500 troops and that he anticipated the threat to be “potential mercenaries.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that request is still under review.
A US delegation traveled to Haiti on Sunday at the Haitian government’s request and that delegation briefed Biden on Monday morning after their return. The State Department disclosed Monday that they are aware of a third American citizen detained in Haiti after the assassination. CNN reported Monday evening that several of the men involved in the operation that killed Moïse previously worked as informants for US law enforcement, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, another complication for the US response.
Psaki said the US is assessing how the country can directly aid the Cuban people. She said it is too early to predict any potential policy change when it comes to Cuba. So far, that has come in statements encouraging the Cuban regime to listen to the protesters and words of support for the people of Cuba.
Biden expressed support for the Cuban people on Monday, calling on Cuban President Miguel Diàz-Canel’s regime to “hear their people and serve their needs.”
“Folks, I want to start recognizing remarkable protests taking place in Cuba,” Biden said when speaking to reporters at the White House. “I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this protest in a long, long time — quite frankly, ever.”
Biden said the Cuban people “are demanding their freedom from an authoritarian regime,” and asserting “their universal rights.” He also warned the Cuban government against “attempts to silence the voice of the people of Cuba.”
But earlier this spring, Psaki indicated that Cuba was not among the administration’s top policy priorities.
“A Cuba policy shift or additional steps is currently not among the President’s top foreign policy priorities. But it is an issue, of course, we will remain engaged in and focused on,” Psaki told reporters in April.
Pressed on whether the weekend events in Cuba have changed the administration’s priorities, Psaki said on Monday, “We will be looking to provide support to the people of Cuba. We certainly, you know, support the freedom of speech, the freedom of press, the freedom of — when we believe they deserve to have access to the economic support and medical support, health supplies that many of them are asking for.”
In nationally televised remarks Sunday, Díaz-Canel placed blame for the economic conditions on sanctions from the US.
Under the Obama administration, Cuba oversaw the reopening of embassies and relaxing of many restrictions long in place since the embargo. But the Trump administration enacted some of the toughest economic measures against Cuba in decades, reinstated travel restrictions and before leaving office, named Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism.
The Biden administration has yet to take action, but Cuba’s actions haven’t exactly encouraged the administration to move quickly to change policy.
The country has continued to support oppressive Latin American regimes and crackdown on dissidents. Brain injuries that have appeared to target Americans diplomats abroad have also included many originating in Cuba, leading to the name “Havana Syndrome.”
One major voice of opposition to returning to Obama-era Cuba policies is New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, who told CNN he’s offered a list of policy recommendations to the White House.
Asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper on Monday why Biden had not yet taken action to lift the Trump policies on Cuba, Menendez said on “The Lead,” “I think the President has had time to review the actual policies under President Obama and all of the openings that President Obama made, which were one-sided — unilateral in terms of concessions — showed themselves to create absolutely no change inside of Cuba.”
“The regime enriched itself. The Cuban people never saw any benefit from it. So the result of that, I think, is that the Biden administration looked and said, ‘Wait a minute — that didn’t seem to work. We have to think about what exactly we should do in this regard,’ ” Menendez continued.
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