Florida Democrats remain quiet about Biden’s proposal to lift certain Cuba sanctions

In a Cuban freedom rally that took place on July 26, 2021, activists and supporters marched from the White House to the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C. A photo captured during the event shows the crowd in motion, with the Cuban flag waving high above them. Drew Angerer, a Getty Images photographer, was on hand to document the demonstration.

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Florida congressional Republicans are up in arms over the Biden administration’s decision to ease financial sanctions against Cuba to support entrepreneurship on the island. However, Democrats have remained reticent on the matter.

It’s evident from the responses that the push to restore relations between the United States and Cuba, which reached its peak during Barack Obama’s visit to the island nation eight years ago, has considerably lost its steam.

Last Tuesday, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the Department of Treasury announced that it will now permit independent private sector entrepreneurs who are Cuban nationals (referred to as “pymes” in Spanish, which stands for “pequeña y mediana empresa”) to establish, manage, and remotely access U.S. bank accounts. This marks the first time that this privilege has been granted to them. In addition, they will be able to engage in remote online transactions, and OFAC is authorizing “U-turn transactions,” which involves sending money from one country to another but routing it through the United States.

According to State Department officials, Cuba now has over 11,000 registered private businesses, with the private sector accounting for almost one-third of the island’s total employment. Although self-employed proprietorships, known as “cuentapropistas,” have been legal in Cuba for some time, this recent surge in private enterprise is a significant development.

Florida advocates who are advocating for the private sector in Cuba have been championing the move.

According to Elio Muller, a Cuban native based in Tampa who served in the Bill Clinton administration, any initiative that encourages the formation of independent micro-enterprises in Cuba is a positive step. He believes that the rise of these microenterprises is providing valuable lessons in entrepreneurship, self-sufficiency, and capitalism. Muller argues that this type of economic growth is essential for the future of Cuba, as it opens up the possibilities of a free and independent market economy.

Former Democratic U.S. Representative from Miami, Joe Garcia, expressed his appreciation for the U.S. State Department’s efforts in promoting the private sector in Cuba, despite the delay in its execution. He believes that such initiatives can bring about positive changes that support Cuba’s civil society, paving the way for a more prosperous future for its people.

GOP complaints

During a congressional hearing in January, Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar had inquired from a State Department official whether the Biden administration would allow independent Cuban businesses access to the U.S. banking system. She believes that the confirmation of her suspicions came in the form of the recent announcement made last week.

U.S. Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart expressed his concern about the recent decision to grant licenses only to the regime’s favored “entrepreneurs,” which further enriches the Communist Party in power and poses serious national security risks. Diaz-Balart stated that the licenses have created an incestuous network of party members, and it is shameful that the Biden Administration has decided to provide sanctions relief, thereby rewarding those close to the regime with extensions of credit or other financial support. This move does nothing to help the Cuban people.

The Biden administration has firmly refuted the allegation. According to a State Department official, the updated definition of independent private sector entrepreneurship does not include restricted officials of the Cuban government, along with individuals affiliated with the Cuban military, intelligence, and security services.

‘Ostrich strategy’

The Phoenix’s inquiries about the policy change were not responded by Florida’s eight congressional Democrats, who curiously remained absent from any public discussion.

According to Eduardo Gamarra, a political science professor at Florida International University, the approach being taken can be described as an ostrich strategy. He explains that this strategy involves hiding away and hoping that the problem will eventually blow over and be forgotten by people.

For years, Gamarra has been observing a trend in South Florida where Republicans have managed to sway Hispanic voters towards their party by labeling Democrats as “socialists” and unfavorably comparing them with the governments of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. This tactic has been particularly successful among residents who fled these countries and has led to a significant shift in the political leanings of the Hispanic community in the region.

According to him, though he feels at ease with the recent announcement made by the Biden administration regarding the utilization of U.S. banks by independent businesses in Cuba, he believes that it would have been better to hold off on making this announcement until the upcoming November election.

He explained that the timing was critical. Admitting that he had always believed that the US policy towards Cuba was flawed for the past 65 years, he expressed his opinion that sanctions had not been effective in most cases. However, as it stands, sanctions remain the only policy the US has towards Cuba. He emphasized that it would be unwise to lift the sanctions in the midst of a highly contested election. Drawing from his experience of working on presidential campaigns across Latin America, he stressed that making such decisions during a heated election, even if Florida was not a factor, would be unreasonable.

Call for monitoring

Former South Florida Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who is the party’s top candidate for challenging Rick Scott in the upcoming U.S. Senate re-election, made a public comment, unlike other Democrats.

“It’s crucial for the United States to stand by legitimate private enterprises and small businesses in the battle against the oppressive communist dictatorship of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel. Along with maintaining robust sanctions against the regime and their allies, the Biden Administration must keep a close eye on the situation to prevent any exploitation. Additionally, Cuba must be put back on the list of nations that do not cooperate with anti-terrorism efforts.” These were the words of a concerned individual who is committed to fighting against human rights abuses.

Over the past decade, the Tampa Bay area has been at the forefront of advocating for stronger ties between the United States and Cuba. While Republican and Democratic members of Congress from South Florida have largely remained united in their support of the longstanding economic embargo against Cuba, there has been little difference between their stances.

In 2013, Democratic Representative Kathy Castor visited Cuba and created a stir when she advocated for the end of the trade embargo. However, her enthusiasm for bringing the two governments together has decreased over time. In an interview with the Phoenix a year ago, she admitted that her views had changed due to the Cuban government’s increased repression. Unfortunately, her office did not respond to inquiries regarding the recent banking announcement.

According to Patrick Manteiga, the editor and publisher of La Gaceta – a Tampa-based weekly that prides itself on being the only tri-lingual newspaper in the country – Democrats outside of South Florida would likely support the Biden administration’s decision. However, Manteiga does not believe that this move is particularly noteworthy.

Terror list

“He’s not really doing anything to help Cuban private businesses or the Cuban economy,” he stated regarding Biden’s actions. “In terms of reversing Donald Trump’s policies, he promised to do so, but he hasn’t gone far enough. If he truly wants to aid Cuba and its people, he should remove them from the list of terrorist nations.”

In January 2021, Cuba was added to the list of state sponsors of terrorism by the State Department during the final days of former President Donald Trump’s administration. It was included in the list along with North Korea, Iran, and Syria due to its alleged support for acts of international terrorism and providing a safe haven for terrorists.

According to Al Fox, founder of the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, many people, including himself, expected President Joe Biden to undo the policies set by the previous administration and at least return to the Obama-era policies as he had promised during his campaign. However, Fox notes that the Biden administration has not taken any significant actions in this regard.

The State Department recently eliminated Cuba from a condensed roster of countries that are not completely collaborating with the U.S. on counterterrorism initiatives, although it still remains on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Professor Gamarra believes that this move, while it may garner support from those who want the U.S. to establish more liberal relations with Cuba, is a “misguided concession” due to the current political climate in Florida.

In his blog, he expressed that many Cuban Americans perceive this move as a setback to their painful history and fight against a regime that they consider oppressive and terroristic. This perception further widens the gap between the Democratic Party and Cuban Americans, a crucial voter base that remains doubtful of any engagement with the Cuban regime.

Joe Garcia, a former Congressman, believes that the responsibility of reciprocating now lies with the Cuban government.

He stated that there are numerous political prisoners who are currently incarcerated in Cuba.

The Biden administration’s recent steps towards Cuba have been well-received, and the logical next step would be to release some of the political prisoners. Regardless of whether they are truly political prisoners or not, their continued detention is hurting Cuba’s image and ability to communicate its message to the world. By addressing this issue, those of us who are working towards empowering Cuban civil society and improving the country will be able to achieve our goals more quickly and effectively.

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