As Biden eases Trump’s sanctions, Cubans hope for an economic lift

Washington Post photo by Sarah L. Voisin.
The image of Fidel Castro on a government-owned factory in Old Havana.

Perfecta Carvajal was the beloved aunt from Miami, a gentle, gray-haired woman who loved children.

She was also an economic lifeline for her family in Cuba.

Two or three times a year, Aunt “Pepa” would take the hour-long flight from Florida to Santa Clara, nearly 200 miles east of Havana. Her suitcases would be stuffed with gifts: shoes, clothing, coffee and dried beans.

Then the visits stopped. First, President Donald Trump suspended U.S. flights to Cuban cities outside Havana in 2019. Next, the coronavirus struck.

Now, thanks to U.S. policy changes announced last month, the 94-year-old Miami resident is looking forward to returning. “I’m crazy happy about going back,” she said.

Washington Post photo by Sarah L. Voisin.
Cubans wait for hours to enter state stores, where shelves are stocked with odd items or simply empty.

The flights are among a handful of measures introduced by the Biden administration to ease Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against the Communist government. The White House pledged to lift a cap on family remittances and to allow American groups to visit on educational trips. U.S. officials said they were “expanding support for the Cuban people” at a time of desperate shortages and surging migration from the island.

Yet, while the measures are bringing hope to families like Carvajal’s, they fall well short of the normalization of relations under President Barack Obama. Analysts say the recent steps underscore how Washington’s Cuba policy is largely paralyzed, with Biden wary of antagonizing powerful Cuban Americans such as Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., or losing ground before the midterm elections in November.

“The Cubans don’t trust the U.S. at all, and the U.S. clearly doesn’t trust the Cubans at all,” said Scott Hamilton, who served as U.S. chargé d’affaires in Havana during the Obama opening. Rather than reorienting relations, he said, Biden’s measures “are more about addressing the need to get the numbers down on migration.”

The 60-year-old Cuba trade embargo is the longest-running set of U.S. economic sanctions in the world. Trump added scores of prohibitions, saying he was fighting “Communist oppression” and Cuba’s support for the authoritarian government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Biden campaigned on a pledge to “reverse the failed Trump policies,” which he said only hurt families.

Washington Post photo by Sarah L. Voisin.
Pedestrians pass a mural in Havana decrying the U.S. embargo. “The harassment and the measures against Cuba are inhumane and persist,” it reads in Spanish. “This has to stop #NoMoreBlockade.”

“The day that Biden won, people in Cuba celebrated a lot. Both government officials and the population,” Johana Tablada, the deputy director for U.S. affairs at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, said in an interview before the new measures were announced. After the Democrat took office, though, “the Cuban people felt disappointed.”

Biden left Trump’s sanctions in place as the coronavirus pandemic overwhelmed the island’s medical system and strangled tourism, a crucial source of hard currency. The administration’s lengthy Cuba policy review ground to a halt last July when historic nationwide protests erupted over a lack of food, electricity, medicine and democratic freedoms. The government responded to the demonstrations with mass trials and harsh sentences.

The most visible result of Biden’s new measures may be the resumption of U.S. flights to cities outside Havana. They’re a crucial source of cash and goods for families, as Cuban American passengers carry car parts, powdered milk, household cleaning supplies and other items that are difficult to find on the island.

How important is that human supply chain? Cuba received around $3.7 billion in remittances in 2019, before the pandemic closed airports, the Miami-based Havana Consulting Group estimates. Its president, Emilio Morales, calculates that up to $3 billion more arrived in the form of goods jammed into suitcases or the big plastic-wrapped bales that Cuban Americans haul to the island. More than a half-million made the trip that year. In addition, tens of thousands of Cuban residents flew back and forth as paid informal couriers, in a kind of personal shopper system on steroids.

Regular flights from the United States to Havana resumed last fall, but it’s complicated for travelers to continue on to the provinces. Few Cubans have cars, and gas is scarce. A taxi ride from the Cuban capital to Santa Clara costs about $150. Carvajal’s niece, Miladys Puentes, said it would be tough for her aunt to endure the four- or five-hour bus trip. A direct flight to Santa Clara would make it far easier for Carvajal to reunite with her last surviving sister and other relatives. “I’m so happy that I will get to see them again,” she said.

Washington Post photo by Sarah L. Voisin.
Ramón Estrada Casas, 54, center, said he and his son lack money to eat or fix their house. He said medicine that his son needs would not be available even if they could pay.

In 2016, as part of Obama’s thaw in relations, U.S. airlines began the first direct scheduled flights to Cuba in more than 50 years. Soon, around 200 flights a week connected the United States with Cuban cities including Santa Clara, Holguín, Camagüey, Varadero and Santiago. The Biden administration hasn’t yet announced when the flights will be allowed to resume.

Also pending are the new rules on family remittances. Biden plans to scrap the $1,000-a-quarter limit. But he won’t reverse Trump’s blacklisting of Fincimex, a major Cuban foreign-exchange company with ties to the military, and instead is seeking an alternative mechanism, officials say. Trump’s 2020 decision to bar transactions with that firm triggered the shutdown of more than 400 Cuban offices of Western Union, its U.S. partner. A shortage of dollars from remittances and tourism has contributed to Cuba’s raging inflation.

Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, called the announcements “a limited step in the right direction.” But he noted that many of Trump’s sanctions remained in place.

Americans still aren’t allowed to make individual “people to people” cultural trips to Cuba. And most hotels remain off-limits, under U.S. restrictions on patronizing companies linked to Cuba’s military or security services.

“That’s going to be a natural break on the number of people going,” said John S. Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. Organizers of group tours will have to search for space in private homes or Airbnbs. Cruise ships that once disgorged thousands of passengers each week are still prohibited from visiting Cuba.

Washington Post photo by Sarah L. Voisin.
Pedestrians are reflected in the water from a leak in Havana.

Cuba remains on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terror; Trump restored that designation after losing the 2020 election. Many channels of communication between the Cuban and U.S. governments, on issues such as the environment, human trafficking and law enforcement, are dormant.

“What’s striking about these measures is, there’s nothing about reopening the diplomatic dialogues that were ongoing at the end of the Obama administration,” said William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University.

Conservative Cuban Americans and some Democrats have criticized Biden’s expansion of travel to the island, saying there’s no evidence it will foment democracy. Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the president’s announcement “risks sending the wrong message” at a time when the government “continues its ruthless persecution of countless Cubans” for taking part in the July demonstrations.

Menendez did praise one of Biden’s changes: Resumption of a family-reunification program providing 20,000 immigrant visas a year to Cubans. Processing of those visas in Cuba was halted in 2017 as the United States withdrew diplomats because of a mysterious condition dubbed “Havana syndrome,” marked by dizziness and ringing in the ears. Since then, diplomats in many other countries have reported similar symptoms. The CIA concluded this year that it was unlikely a foreign power was targeting U.S. officials globally.

The Biden administration is hoping the new measures will reduce soaring irregular migration. Apprehensions of Cubans on the U.S.-Mexico border have rocketed to more than 113,000 in the first seven months of this fiscal year, nearly three times as many as in all of 2021. Alarmed by the numbers, Washington recently resumed direct bilateral migration talks for the first time in four years.