Chaos in the Caribbean

It’s been an eventful few weeks for two of the United States’ Caribbean neighbors. On July 7, Haiti’s president was assassinated at his private home in Port-au-Prince, sending the country into a chaotic tailspin. Just days later, on July 11, protesters spilled into the streets of several Cuban cities, calling for the end of the communist regime. The United States has long and complicated histories and relationships with both Haiti and Cuba, marred in intervention and domination as well as “distrust and antagonism.” Thus far in Mr. Biden’s tenure as president, he has done very little in defining his administration’s policies toward Either country. In reality, the recent turmoil in Haiti and Cuba highlights the fact that the Biden administration lacks an overarching policy toward Cuba and has no defined strategy toward Haiti, except for a few recent reactive measures.

Credit: Nick Kenrick

The Mysterious Murder

In the early hours of July 7, a group of assassins shot and killed Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moise, in his home in Port-au-Prince. Haitian officials claim that two Americans and nearly two dozen Colombian nationals were part of the assassination plot, an event that sent Haiti into a spiral of chaos and confusion. After the assassination, Prime Minister Claude Joseph took power. However, there was no clear transition of power as the late president had appointed Ariel Henry as the new prime minister just days before he died. Further compounding the issue is the fact that the country has two conflicting constitutions with varying instructions for this type of situation, and the head of Haiti’s highest court, who may have settled the confusion, died of COVID-19 in June; The position remains unfilled. Moreover, violent gangs are also competing for power. Haiti is indeed in dire straits.

A History of Intervention

The current situation in Haiti presents an interesting challenge for the Biden administration, likely one that was not anticipated. As the poorest country in the hemisphere, Haiti is not typically considered to be a geopolitically important country. However, Haiti has historically been of strategic interest to the United States. U.S. involvement in Haiti began in the late eighteenth century with the Americans supporting French colonists’ efforts to squash revolts perpetrated by groups of enslaved Haitians. In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson sent U.S. Marines into Haiti to restore stability after the Haitian president was assassinated. U.S. intervention in Haiti did not end there; nearly eight decades later, the U.S. under the Clinton administration again sent troops into Haiti in 1994 to restore the presidency of Jean-Bertrand Astride.

Today, Haiti is again erupting into the chaos and violence. Because of Haiti’s geographic proximity to the United States and the tendency for Haitian nationals fleeing the economically devastated and politically unstable country to head towards their wealthier and more stable neighbor to the north, the Biden administration is in desperate need of defined strategy toward Haiti. However, it has become increasingly clear that the United States under the Biden administration does not have a defined strategy for how to handle the instability erupting approximately 800 miles off its southern coast.

Cuba Not So Libre?

On July 11, Cubans took to the streets in a wave of unprecedented protests, frustrated by poor living conditions, rising COVID-19 infections, power outages, a strained health system, and a lack of basic goods and services. Above all, protesters are calling for an end to the communist regime that has been in power for more than 60 years. The communist regime, now led by President Miguel Diaz-Canal, moved to quickly quell the protests unlike any others seen in Cuban history, demonstrated in the government’s characteristic autocratic nature. Additionally, President Diaz-Cana quickly blamed America for Cuba’s suffering. Needless to say, all parties in Cuba are struggling in the country’s current situation.

And the Plot Thickens

The United States and Cuba continue to have a tense relationship, rooted in the Cold War. Beginning with the Kennedy administration, the United States has imposed harsh economic penalties against Cuba, escalating into a full-blown economic embargo with strict travel restrictions in the 1960s. In the following decades, Cuba only became more isolated and relations between the United States and Cuba further deteriorated.

Then, it looked like America’s approach to Cuba would finally change when Barack Obama took office in 2009. During his campaign, President Obama noted that “isolating Cuba had failed to advance U.S. interest”; the time had come for a diplomatic strategy. Under the Obama administration, the United States relaxed its policies and relations between the two adversaries normalized. However, when President Donald Trump took office, he reversed much of the progress the Obama administration accomplished.

During his campaign, now President Biden promised to reverse Trump’s antagonistic and detrimental approach to Cuba. However, the Biden administration has made it clear that Cuba is not among his highest priorities. This became increasingly apparent during the protests. The Biden administration made nothing but reactive statements, declaring the United States’ support for the Cuban people and taken noncommittal actions like considering initiatives to make the internet more accessible or allowing more remittances to the Cuban people. Yet, these actions fail to illustrate the administration’s overarching policy on Cuba. In fact, what is clear is that the Biden administration does not have an overarching policy toward Cuba and is in no hurry to design one.

Conclusion

Recent events in Cuba are unprecedented while the situation in Haiti is par for the course. Each country’s situation presents a unique challenge to U.S. foreign policy. However, the assassination of Haiti’s president and protests breaking out in Cuban cities have highlighted that the Biden administration has no overarching policy for Cuba or any defined strategy for handling the Haitian political crisis.

It’s Time to End the Embargo

The United States and Cuba have been engaged in a diplomatic stalemate since 1960. Under President John F. Kennedy, the U.S. imposed an embargo on Cuba to encourage free markets and democratic governance. Over a half-century later, President Barack Obama normalized relations with the island nation. These were later rolled back by the Trump administration, including the imposition of sanctions and suspending most embassy services.

Credit: flippinyank

During the campaign, President Biden pledged to return to the Obama administration’s policy of engagement with Cuba. However, the Biden administration has done very little in the way of defining its Cuba policy. President Biden should follow in his former boss’s footsteps and seek improved relations with Cuba.

Working with Congress to lift the archaic and ineffective embargo would be an ideal first step, and would go a long way toward strengthening relations and helping the Cuban people, who recently have taken to the streets to protest Cuba’s six decade autocratic rule. It is imperative that the United States lift the embargo if there is any chance of normalizing relations with Cuba or improving conditions within that country.

The embargo is an outdated policy, coming into effect during the beginning stages of the Cold War when the United States was at the height of its fear of communism,  especially in the Western Hemisphere. A “product of the Cold War,” rooted in an antiquated preoccupation with the spread of communism, the policy does not belong in the twenty-first century.

Now, the United States must create policies and take actions, like lifting the embargo, that are relevant to the new century. The United States has been able to move beyond Cold War fears and establish normal ties with countries just as or more authoritarian than Cuba. If those relationships were able to move successfully into the twenty-first century, then it is time for America and Cuba to do the same.

Additionally, the embargo has blemished the United States’ image around the world and has been particularly damaging to its relations in the Western Hemisphere. This especially true at a time when the Biden administration is working to restore American leadership in the world and bring multilateralism back to the forefront of American foreign policy. Moreover, the United States’ strongest allies in the region criticize this ill-fated policy.

More broadly, outside the Western Hemisphere, nearly all of Washington’s allies disagree on this issue. One of President Biden’s overarching foreign policy objectives is restoring relationships with its closest allies. Repairing its relationship with Cuba  and working with Congress to remove the embargo would be the first step to improving its reputation, restoring its global leadership, and mending some of its most important relationships, both within the Western Hemisphere and around the world.

Further, the embargo is ineffective; it is actually counterproductive to the United States’ goals in Cuba. The United States maintains this obsolete policy, originally seeking to depose Fidel Castro, for fear that Cuba is incapable of any reforms. The embargo, however, failed to dislodge Castro. Instead, it has solidified empathy and support for Cuba abroad, served to justify its perpetual authoritarianism, and fostered Cuba’s close relationships with U.S. adversaries like Russia, China, and Venezuela. Fidel Castrol is no longer in power in Cuba, which is now run by Miguel Diaz-Canel, the first non-Castro to lead Cuba in the nation’s history. Yet, the embargo is still in place.

President Obama took the correct action with Cuba to open embassies and begin normalizing relations. This shifted under the Trump administration but can be corrected under the Biden administration. The time is right for President Biden to follow through on his campaign pledge to reengage with Cuba and take the necessary political steps toward building a normal relationship with its island neighbor.