Biden administration eases some economic restrictions on Cuba

<p>The Biden administration amended and clarified a number of existing sanctions against Cuba on Tuesday to allow private entrepreneurs and businesses on the island to open U.S. bank accounts and access online banking as part of its effort “increase support for the Cuban people” while avoiding any assistance to the government.</p> <p>The actions were allowed by the administration’s lifting of Cuba’s designation as a country that was not “fully cooperating” with the United States on counterterrorism earlier this month, according to senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the White House.</p> <p>Lifting of the designation and other sanctions-easing measures came as Cuba has seen the largest exodus in the country’s history over the past three years. More than 500,000 migrants - roughly five percent of the population - have crossed into the United States along the southern border since 2021.</p> <p>In view of what one administration official called the “dire straits” of Cuba’s economy, with growing shortages of fuel, electricity and food, “it’s clear the communist experiment in Cuba has failed and the government is no longer able to provide for its citizens’ most basic needs in a country where there are no free elections.”</p> <p>By relaxing sanctions, the administration also seeks to stem recent outreach by the Cuban government to both Russia and China for economic and other assistance.</p> <p>“We believe the organic expansion of the private sector and evolution of the digital economy on the island, led by the Cuban people themselves and not by any foreign government, is critical,” a second official said.</p> <p>Since the communist government in Havana legalized the creation of small and medium-size private enterprises in 2021, the Biden administration says, 11,000 private businesses have registered in Cuba, accounting for one-third of all employment there, in sectors from tourism to agriculture to car repair.</p> <p>The new U.S. Treasury Department regulations, which exclude any business with ties to Cuba’s government or its security and intelligence services, will allow direct transactions with U.S. banks, facilitating the procurement of supplies to keep private enterprises alive, the officials said.</p> <p>In addition to the banking access, U.S. companies will be able to provide private businesses in Cuba with videoconferencing, online learning and cloud-based services.</p> <p>Still in place is the 1960s economic embargo and several subsequent legislative expansions, and the U.S. designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism - along with Syria, North Korea and Iran.</p> <p>That designation was first made in 1982 because of Cuba’s support at the time for revolutionary and guerrilla groups in Latin America and beyond. It was lifted in 2015 by the Obama administration as part of its diplomatic normalization with Havana, but reimposed by President Donald Trump just a week before he left office in January 2021.</p> <p>During his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden vowed to roll back Trump’s Cuba policy. But the administration has hesitated to make major moves in that direction amid other international crises and strong opposition from some in Congress and Cuban American voters in Florida.</p> <p>Trump’s justification was Cuba’s failure to comply with an extradition request by Colombia’s right-wing government for leaders of a militant group who were in Havana to participate in U.S.-backed peace negotiations. Iván Duque, then Colombia’s president, issued arrest warrants for the leaders after the group’s members attacked a Colombian military base in early 2019.</p> <p>A decision by Colombia’s new left-wing government in 2022 to drop the extradition request eventually led to the Biden administration’s suspension of the noncooperation agreement but not the state-sponsor designation,<b> </b>although the State Department’s written justification for both listings of Cuba are the same.</p> <p>The state-sponsor designation has had profound effects on Cuba’s tourism industry, as European and other visitors have resisted travel there for fear of running afoul of the U.S.-visa and other sanctions it authorizes.</p> <p>The Cuban government’s eased restrictions on private enterprise were designed not only to improve tourism and other aspects of the economy, but to stem the brain drain from the island.</p> <p>After illegal border crossings to the United States surged in 2021 and 2022, the Biden administration expanded opportunities for Cuban migrants and asylum seekers to enter the country legally. Since the beginning of 2023, illegal entries have fallen sharply, and the administration is allowing about 20,000 Cubans per month to enter the country legally, according to the latest U.S. data.</p>