Make Normalization With Cuba a Priority

Silvia from Miami, Eduardo from Hialeah, Abel from Lakeland. The names pour in on the donations page for “Syringes to Cuba” as Carlos Lazo promotes the campaign on his popular Facebook livestream.

An energetic Cuban American high school teacher in Seattle, Lazo created a group called Puentes de Amor, Bridges of Love, to unite Cuban Americans who want to lift the searing U.S. blockade that is immiserating their loved ones on the island.

The Syringes to Cuba initiative was started by the Saving Lives Campaign and Global Health Partners to help Cuba vaccinate its people against COVID-19. The campaign has raised over $350,000 and ordered 4 million syringes.

Cuba’s economic situation is dire. The economy shrank by 11 percent last year — a result of the pandemic and the tightening of the embargo under former President Trump. Trump added over 200 restrictive measures, including limiting remittances Cuban Americans can send to their families, restricting U.S. flights, and prohibiting cruise ships from docking in Cuban ports.

As a final stab, Trump took the completely bogus step of adding Cuba to the U.S. list of “state sponsors of terrorism,” which discourages investments and limits the entry of foreign currency.

As a candidate, Joe Biden pledged to “promptly reverse the failed Trump policies that have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights.” Since then, however, Biden has not moved an inch.

In April, Press Secretary Jen Psaki callously claimed that changing U.S. policy towards Cuba was not a priority. On May 25, the State Department even announced that it would continue Trump’s determination that Cuba does not cooperate with U.S. anti-terrorism efforts.

On June 23, the UN General Assembly will hold its yearly vote calling for the U.S. to lift its embargo on Cuba. Every year since 1992, the world’s nations overwhelmingly reject the embargo.

In 2016, the Obama administration broke with 25 years of U.S. opposition to the UN resolution by abstaining. A new lobby group, ACERE (Alliance for Cuba Engagement and Respect), with the support of over 100 organizations, is calling on Biden not to oppose this year’s resolution.

Instead, they say, Biden should announce measures to provide relief and a return to diplomacy.

A push for action has also come from the grassroots, through creative and growing anti-blockade car and bicycle caravans held on the last Sunday of every month. The largest of the nation’s caravans winds through the heart of the pro-blockade world: Miami.

In the May 30 Miami caravan, over 200 people participated, most of them Cuban Americans. “We’ve had 10 of these caravans so far,” said organizer Jorge Medina. “Each one is bigger than the last and the energy is fantastic.”

Congress has been pushing Biden as well. This March, 80 representatives, led by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), sent Biden a letter urging him to reverse Trump’s draconian policies and return to the diplomatic path.

On May 21, Senators Jerry Moran (R-KS), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced the bipartisan Freedom to Export to Cuba Act that would eliminate legal barriers to Americans doing business in Cuba, a popular idea with farm and business groups interested in trade and export opportunities.

Biden ignores the crisis in Cuba at his own peril.

The dire food and medicine shortages caused by the pandemic and the blockade may well spark a migration crisis. Cuba expert Bill LeoGrande predicts “a mass exodus of desperate people” if Biden doesn’t act soon.

Biden would do well to heed the warning and, with the stroke of a pen, lift trade and travel restrictions and allow unrestricted remittances. This would infuse money into Cuba’s economy, alleviate needless suffering, and fulfill Biden’s promise to put human rights at the center of his foreign policy.

Medea Benjamin is the co-founder of the peace group CODEPINK and the human right organization Global Exchange. Follow her on twitter at @MedeaBenjamin.

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