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Cuba, desperate for US thaw, files formal note of protest

Cuba, desperate for US thaw, files formal note of protest

Cuban officials are pushing every button at their disposal to get the Biden administration’s attention, offering talks on previously off-the-table issues such as human rights amid internal protests over the country’s worst economic crisis since the end of the Cold War.

Havana is also lighting diplomatic fires, ratcheting up accusations of U.S. interventionism and callousness in the face of human suffering on the island.

Cuban Vice Minister of Foreign Relations Carlos Fernández de Cossío called U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Benjamin Ziff on Monday to deliver a diplomatic note of protest rejecting “the interventionist conduct and slanderous messages of the United States government and its embassy in Cuba regarding internal affairs of the Cuban reality.”

State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters Monday that “the United States is not behind these protests in Cuba, and the accusation of that is absurd.”

The communist government, once hopeful President Biden would reverse some of former President Trump’s most stringent restrictions on Cuba — namely the state sponsor of terror designation — is now playing formerly withheld cards, but Cuban officials say the U.S. is not picking up the phone.

“There’s not a lack of interest; what’s lacking is political will. And further, even on the issues that the U.S. government says are their priorities toward Cuba, I can responsibly tell you that there have been public and private offerings from Cuba: ‘Let’s sit down and discuss topics that they say are their priorities, like the issue of human rights,’” Johana Tablada, the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s top official in the General Division for the United States, told The Hill in a recent interview.

“But when we say, ‘Let’s go, we’ll sit down this week in Havana, in Washington or wherever and you can explain to us your concerns,’ there is no answer. There is no answer.”

Cuban officials are receiving plenty of input, however, from Florida Republicans such as Rep. María Elvira Salazar who openly call for regime change, the remaining red line for Cuban officials to sit at the table.

“The Cuban regime has no interest in talking genuinely about human rights. Only the regime has it in its own power to restore human rights to the Cuban people — the United States cannot give rights to anyone in Cuba. I hope this crisis and the protests in Santiago de Cuba expose the failures of communism and lead to an end of the dictatorship,” Salazar told The Hill.

Rep. Carlos A. Giménez (R-Fla.), the only current Cuba-born member of Congress, called on the Biden administration Sunday to provide satellite internet to protesters.

“On July 11, 2021, thousands of Cubans took to the streets demanding freedom,” Giménez said in a statement.

“Today, on March 17, thousands of Cubans have taken to the streets again to protest the murderous Castro dictatorship and demand freedom, power, and food. In response, the regime shut down the internet to prevent protesters from organizing and mobilized its secret police to brutalize and jail the opposition.”

Others including Reps. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and Salazar took to X to repost protest videos and support the demonstrators.

In a press conference posted Monday to Facebook by activist Rosa María Payá with the caption, “the end of the dictatorship is the only exit to our crisis,” Giménez accused the Cuban government of shutting down the internet after previous mass protests on July 11, 2021.

“Why? Because they fear their own people. And when a government fears its own people, that should be an indication to you that maybe it’s time to change the government,” Giménez said.

In a statement to The Hill, a State Department spokesperson said, “U.S. regulations allow for certain internet-based services to support the Cuban people.”

“The Administration supports the Cuban people’s access to an open, interoperable, secure, and reliable Internet, and we are constantly reviewing practical options to support Cubans’ ability to communicate freely,” the spokesperson said.

The GOP lawmakers’ appeal for regime change angered Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who on Sunday had blamed the array of U.S. sanctions for economic conditions on the island.

“The infamous troupe wanted to go out yesterday to dance with the pain of the Cubans. Mediocre politicians and online terrorists lined up from South Florida to heat up the streets of #Cuba with interventionist messages and calls for chaos. They were left wanting,” Díaz-Canel wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

In a press release announcing Monday’s diplomatic note, the Foreign Ministry accused the United States of conducting a “destabilizing plan [whose] execution is evident in plain sight. It rests in the reinforcement of a merciless economic war to provoke and exploit the natural irritation of the population.”

“It enjoys the complicity of important media outlets of the American and international big press, and the mercenary support of people who mainly live in the south of the State of Florida in the United States, whose only livelihood is the industry of aggression against Cuba,” read the release, where Cuba’s inclusion in the list of state sponsors of terrorism was highlighted as the most egregious element of U.S. sanctions.

Cuba was added to the list by Trump a week before Biden took office, leaving the Democrat with a hot potato: He could either keep Cuba on the list, dealing a blow to the island’s economy and spurring migration, or he could remove it, exposing himself to accusations of sympathizing with the communist regime.

Biden chose the former, leaving Cuba — a country that has close collaboration with the U.S. on an array of issues, including law enforcement — in the same category as Iran, North Korea and Syria.

The administration’s inaction on that point has frustrated its allies, who otherwise see a marked improvement in Biden’s approach when compared to Trump’s.

“The Biden administration has taken important steps to improve dialogue with Cuba, including by reopening the Havana embassy and renewing funding for Cuban democracy programs,” Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) said.

“However, the decision not to reverse harmful Trump-era policies — including the State Sponsor of Terror designation — is a serious missed opportunity that has worsened the lives of everyday Cubans. I hope the administration will continue to welcome productive avenues for engagement that support economic growth and the democratic aspirations of the Cuban people,” added Castro, the top Democrat in the House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere subcommittee.

The lingering designation has frustrated Cuban officials, who routinely point to U.S. relations with Vietnam as a model to follow and an example of how the United States can engage diplomatically and commercially with a communist country.

That comparison has not been lost on Cuba moderates in Congress.

“Remember, when we think about the argument that we’re … dealing with a communist country and so forth: China is one of the largest trading partners of the United States. Vietnam is a strong trading partner of the United States, a country with whom we have a strong prosperous relationship,” Castro said at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Biden policy toward Cuba in January.

Cuban anger over the terrorist list has specific economic reasons: Though other U.S. economic sanctions discouraged third-party foreign investment, inclusion on the list forces foreign companies and individuals to choose between the United States and Cuba.

At an investment scale, companies that decide to do business with Cuba can essentially be locked out of U.S. financial markets, potentially rendering them unable to operate anywhere but Cuba and other countries that don’t collaborate with the United States on terrorist financing rules.

At an individual scale, the terrorist list has cost Cuba’s tourism industry, because European Union citizens who travel to Cuba lose their U.S. visa exemption.

The sanctions have left Cuba and the United States at an impasse over the current economic crisis: Cuban officials say their economic woes are entirely a result of the “blockade,” while the country’s stateside critics blame communism, corruption and economic mismanagement.

Moderates on the issue are far from supportive of Cuba’s human rights record but do see opportunities in engagement.

“The Cuban government is the most repressive regime in the Western Hemisphere. If it is genuine about engaging in talks with the United States on its human rights record, without preconditions, I believe that is a positive development that the Biden administration should capitalize on,” Castro said.

Cuban officials, meanwhile, have publicly stepped back from previous red lines, such as a demand for holistic talks rather than issue-based conversations, particularly on human rights.

“We have taken unilateral steps to make our position from a year ago more flexible. We would say to the United States when they talked to us about human rights, we said, ‘No, not human rights, let’s talk about everything.’ Now we are saying, ‘Yes, all right, let’s talk about human rights,'” Tablada said.

Still, the Cuban government is not waiting breathlessly for a call.

“The prevailing design today is regime change. The prevailing design today is the pressure cooker. The prevailing design today is to treat the Cuban people like we were rabbits or lab rats in an unconventional warfare laboratory, and we see no relief on any of the issues that are our priority,” Tablada said.

—Updated at 9:56 a.m.

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