Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On The United States and Cuba

I want to speak briefly about a topic that I have spoken about before, which is U.S. policy toward Cuba. 

The recent press reports of Cubans protesting in the streets, demanding greater freedom and economic opportunity, graphically illustrate the widespread hardship and hunger, and the need for fundamental change in Cuba.  Human rights are universal, and the Cuban people are no different from people everywhere who want to be able to speak freely without fear of retribution.

We have been told that the Biden administration is conducting a review of the Trump administration’s policy, which still remains in effect.  There is nothing unusual about that.   New administrations regularly conduct such reviews.  But it is now mid-July, and the key question that needs to be answered is not complicated. 

It is axiomatic that we have profound disagreements with the Cuban government, which has held power since 1959 by outlawing opposition political parties. 

Dissent is punished with physical abuse and imprisonment.  The government’s crackdown on the recent protests, calling the protesters counter-revolutionaries and blaming the U.S. for Cuba’s ills, is predictable.  There is no doubt that the Cuban people, many of whom I have met and who struggle from day to day to make ends meet, want greater freedom and a better life.

But the question is how should we respond?  It comes down to whether you believe that we should continue a policy of unilateral sanctions, which have been in effect for decades, have completely failed to achieve their objectives, and have contributed to the daily misery of the Cuba people, or that we should pursue a policy of engagement.

I believe President Obama got it right.  One definition of insanity is to keep doing what has repeatedly and demonstrably failed.  In Cuba it is worse than that.  Our policy has emboldened Cuba’s hardliners, and it provides an excuse for Cuba’s authorities to crack down on those who dare to protest. 

It has created a vacuum that the Russians and Chinese are exploiting, and undercut the Cuban private sector.  By any objective measure, it is time for President Biden to act on his pledge to “reverse the failed Trump policies” that have “inflicted harm on Cubans and their families” and “done nothing to advance democracy and human rights.”

Allowing the Trump sanctions to persist only undermines these principles.  They restrict the freedom of movement and economic autonomy of the Cuban people, and compound the suffering caused by the Cuban government’s own repressive policies and economic mismanagement.  In fact, repression increased in Cuba during the Trump administration.

Biden administration officials have repeatedly said that “democracy and human rights” will be at the core of our policy toward Cuba.  I have been a defender of those principles for 50 years, and human rights and political freedom should be a key element not just of our policy, but also of our engagement with Cuba. 

Again, the question is how best to support the Cuban people who seek greater freedom and a better life?  Is it to continue a policy that has achieved neither, and which is likely to be used as an excuse by those in power to further stifle dissent?

In fact, engagement with Cuba will honor our commitment to human rights and the recognition that American presence can be a positive force in closed societies.  This is the argument Secretary Blinken and others, Democrats and Republicans, have rightly made in defense of diplomacy and engagement throughout the world.    

Neither engagement nor continuation of the Trump sanctions can guarantee Cuba’s political transformation.  That is ultimately a decision for the Cuban people.  But engagement stands a far greater chance of creating a new dynamic beneficial to the Cuban people.

President Obama’s engagement with Cuba showed that U.S. travel, exchanges, remittances, and business ties expand opportunities, information, and income for Cubans, boosting the private sector and increasing economic independence.

It also initiated working level discussions on a wide range of issues, from law enforcement to property claims, public health and environmental protection. 

Raul Castro and his generation are in the process of handing over power to the next generation.  The current leadership is rooted in the past, but they are also deep in a debate about how to reform the economy, how to regulate the private sector, and how to navigate citizen demands for pluralism.  American citizens and diplomats alike should participate in that debate, and not from a distance.

Cuba’s private sector offers a particular opportunity because Cuba’s economic policies are changing in ways that enable U.S. engagement to have greater impact than was possible even during the Obama years. 

  • A new law will soon greatly expand the legal scope for private business activity, and another is expected to give entrepreneurs legal status that will permit them to receive foreign investment.
  • The government is enabling private businesses to import supplies and export products.
  • For the first time, the government is calling for foreign investment in private farm cooperatives.

For U.S. citizens and businesses to be able to engage, several steps are needed:

  • Remove restrictions that limit the flow of remittances – both family assistance and “donative” remittances mainly used to pay and support private entrepreneurs.
  • Restore the travel regulations in effect when the Obama-Biden administration left office.  This includes eliminating or significantly reducing the “Cuba Restricted List” of business entities, ending the prohibition on lodging in Cuban hotels, and allowing U.S. airlines to service provincial airports.
  • Reverse the frivolous “state sponsor of terrorism” designation that former Secretary Pompeo announced nine days before leaving office.
  • Suspend Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, as all Presidents did from 1996 to 2019.

These regulatory changes would permit the private sector to activate with no burden on the U.S. government.

No grand diplomacy is needed.  Dialogue with Cuba can resume at the working level.  Human rights advocacy, at whatever level, should be a key part of any engagement policy, as it is in our relations with other autocratic governments.

A return to engagement would be widely welcomed.  There would be vocal support from U.S. agriculture, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, many Cuban Americans, and many in Cuba whose lives have become immeasurably worse due to the COVID pandemic.

And given time to work, engagement policies would expand the constituency for engagement in Miami as more Cuban Americans travel and build economic ties.

This is also how you make progress with Cuba on cases of political prisoners and other violations of human rights.  It isn’t by making ultimatums or threats, or by repeating slogans that achieve nothing in practice. 

It can’t be by conditioning U.S. aid, because we don’t give aid to Cuba the way we do to some military dictatorships, like Egypt.  It can’t be by cancelling sales of U.S. weapons, because we don’t sell weapons to Cuba the way we do to some other repressive governments, like Saudi Arabia.

It is through building relations by making progress on issues where we share interests, which can create the conditions for progress on issues where we differ, like human rights and property claims.

I hope the Biden administration will be guided first and foremost by what is in our national interest and in the interests of the Cuban and American people.  Candidate Biden was right, when he pledged, and I repeat:  to “reverse the failed Trump policies” that have “inflicted harm on Cubans and their families” and “done nothing to advance democracy and human rights.”  It is time to act on that pledge. 

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