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MIAMI - For four years Donald Trump wielded a big stick and issued imposed a dizzying numbers of sanctions on the socialist rulers of Cuba and Venezuela, but to no avail.
While most of those sanctions will likely remain in place, experts say they expect a change of tone in foreign policy under the incoming administration of Joe Biden.
“You are not going to see the more bombastic and frankly unrealistic rhetoric we have heard from Trump officials,” said Michael Camilleri, a Venezuela analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
But don’t expect Biden to be a pussy cat either when it comes to defending democracy and human rights. “I expect Biden to be every bit as vociferous and tough as the Trump administration,” Camilleri said.
Instead, the new administration is expected to take a more diplomatic and humanitarian approach, working closely to rebuild trust with the U.S.’s international allies who were disconcerted by Trump’s more belligerent, ‘America First’ strategy.
“The era of ‘maximum pressure’ is over. The era of all ‘options are the table’ is over,” said Phil Gunson, the Caracas-based representative for the International Crisis Group, which seeks to find peaceful solutions to international disputes.
“It worked for Trump in Florida. It just didn’t work for Venezuela,” he added, noting how the Republican party scored major political gains in the November elections among Cuban and Venezuelan exiles in South Florida.
The oldest man to be elected president in U.S. history, Biden also has the advantage of a wealth of foreign policy experience, dating back to the early 1970s including two decades of service on the foreign policy committee in the U.S. Senate, and as vice president under President Barack Obama.
As Biden has begun to assemble his national security team, some clues have begun to emerge about the policies his will pursue. Not surprisingly, among the early appointees are several former officials who he worked with in the Senate and the White House.
His choice for Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, was deeply involved in the normalization of relations with Cuba in 2014, while his National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, helped negotiate a 2015 deal with Iran to stop developing nuclear weapons. Both agreements won widespread international praise but were excoriated by Republicans and quickly scrapped by Trump.
Biden will be so preoccupied by domestic issues such as the roll-out of the covid-19 vaccine and financial relief for struggling Americans, that he will have to rely heavily on Blinken and Sullivan as he will have little time himself for foreign policy.
Not a priority
Biden’s knowledge of Latin America and his personal involvement in Obama’s Cuba policy, mean that he is also acutely aware of how foreign policy can spill over into domestic politics. As a result, he may be in no hurry to go back to the way thing were under Obama.
“Biden will have to be cautious. It’s not going to be a priority. We all saw the way Cuban-Americans in South Florida voted a month ago,” said Brian Latell, a former longtime Cuba analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Trump won the election in Florida comfortably, receiving a boost in South Florida from Cuban Americans who fervently embraced Trump’s policies to bring about regime change in Cuba and Venezuela.
While Biden has never visited Cuba, his wife Jill Biden, took a trip there in 2016, and made a White House video in which she highlighted the cultural relations between Cuba and the United States through the arts and baseball.
During the campaign Biden slammed Trump’s policies on Cuba and Venezuela, saying he would return to the Obama-era policy of greater engagement with Cuba. Biden said he would ease travel restrictions to the island and limits on remittances that Cuban Americans send their families.
At the same time, he emphasized human rights and said the “crackdown on Cubans by the regime has gotten worse under Trump, not better.”
Biden could consider lifting the sanctions on Americans wishing to travel to Cuba, said Mark Feierstein, former senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs in the Obama White House.
Trump shut the door for all travel except Cuban-Americans with relatives on the island. In so doing he cut off a vital source of revenue for Cuba’s independent private sector. “In order to flourish the private sector needs U.S. customers,” said Feierstein.
Allowing Florida-based cruise ships to resume sailing to Cuba could also be one way to help one of the industries most affected by covid-19. Biden could also reinstate an agreement between Cuba and Major League Baseball to allow the island’s most talent players to be drafted, rather than smuggle their way out via third countries.
But any additional steps would likely require some form of reciprocity on the part of the Cuban government, said Feierstein.
On Venezuela, Biden argued during the campaign that Trump's over-heated rhetoric had created false expectations of military intervention or internal rebellion to topple the regime of Nicolas Maduro. Instead, “Maduro has gotten stronger,” he said.
But experts also warn that Biden’s options in Cuba and Venezuela are limited by major obstacles on the ground, such as Chinese and Russian interests in Venezuela’s oil industry, and the Cuban Communist party’s 60-year-long grip on power in Cuba.
Hanging over U.S.-Cuba relations is also the unresolved issue of a mysterious series of “sonic attacks” in late 2016 that caused serious health issues for nearly two dozen diplomats in Havana. What caused the dangerous, high-pitched acoustic sounds, and who is to blame, remains unclear.
The incident helped fuel the rapid deterioration in relations between the two countries, prompting the Trump administration to reduce staffing at the U.S. embassy and effectively shutting down consular services such as visa processing.
“An awful lot of people were damaged. Until we get some kind of clarification on that it’s hard to see a way forward. But the Cubans are not going to admit any kind of responsibility,” said Latell.
The Cuban government has strongly denied any involvement, and rejects the idea that the diplomats were attacked, suggesting instead it was some sort of psychosomatic illness.
Lack of trust
“The Cubans feel they have been bamboozled. They took a historic leap and left themselves over-exposed,” said Juan Cruz, a former National Security Council director for Latin America in the Trump administration, who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
“They look at the Americans as being untrustworthy. They are only good for four years, what’s the use of doing anything,” he added, noting a widespread concern that the polarization of U.S. politics - and the outcome of U.S. elections - makes building long term policy more difficult.
As a result, “both sides need to go back to confidence building. They will be making baby steps,” said Cruz.
With the death of Fidel Castro and the retirement of his 89-year-old brother Raul Castro, the day-to-day running of the country is also now in the hands of President Miguel Díaz-Canel, a relatively unknown and untested leader.
He acknowledged Biden’s victory on Nov 8, tweeting that he believed in “the possibility of constructive bilateral relations respecting one another’s differences.”
At the same time, Cuba’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism, and needs to rebuild relations with the U.S. after covid-19 left its hotels empty for the last eight months. Reformists say the island has no choice but to open its communist-run economy more to the private sector to boost productivity and create jobs. But the government, dominated by an old guard of orthodox Marxists, is nervous of opening up and losing control after 60 years of revolutionary rule.
Increased dissent among local artists seeking to exercise greater freedom of expression, could be just the tip of the iceberg. The government cracked down hard last week on a group of artists, known as the San Isidro Project, prompting an unprecedented protest outside the Ministry of Culture.
“The country is a powder keg,” said Emilio Morales, president of the Havana Consulting Group, based in Miami. “People are upset. It's red hot,” he added, warning that the Cuban government was acutely aware of its dire economic predicament and pent-up frustration on the streets.
Venezuela is unlikely to be much higher on the Biden agenda than Cuba, and certainly nowhere near the heights it achieved under Trump when it became a target for some of the toughest sanctions reserved for the U.S.’s deadliest enemies.
Early on the Trump administration sought to encourage a popular uprising against Maduro and hinted at a military option as being “on the table.” But street protests were crushed by brutal repression, and the U.S. came to rely more on a policy of attrition though tightening of economic sanctions.
“From members of the [Biden] administration you will hear a more grounded and realistic assessment of what’s happening in Venezuela. We have been sold a lot of magical thinking frankly by the current administration, and a lot of that was for political benefit domestically,” said Camilleri.
Meanwhile, Maduro remains entrenched in power and the economic situation for ordinary Venezuela has turned into a humanitarian disaster, with shortages of food and medicines and spiraling inflation. This year the country recorded the world’s highest inflation rate, rising over 3,000 percent annually, which its domestic production has fallen by two-thirds since maduro took power in 2013.
In recognition of that, Biden has apledged to give temporary protection from deportation (TPS) to undocumented Venezuelans living in the United States as part of a more humanitarian approach to the crisis there.
That would also likely include more U.S. funding for the refugee crisis on Venezuela's borders, said Feierstein.
Despite the political differences in Washington over Venezuela, experts say Biden was unlikely to make any radical policy changes, like lifting sanctions or the $15 million bounty announced by the Trump administration in March for information leading to Maduro's capture or conviction.
“I wouldn’t expect a whole lot of changes. The approach over time may be more multilateral,” Gunson said.
As in Cuba, the U.S. faces major obstacles on the ground, including support for Maduro from China, Russia and Iran. “It’s no longer just a question of Venezuela, it’s causing a regional geo-political crisis. It’s become impossible to separate it from global politics,” said Gunson.
One possible option was the creation of a United Nations special envoy to Venezuela to try and find ways to ease the humanitarian crisis, and to reopen negotiations for a political transition.
What happens to sanctions
Sanctions remain necessary to keep pressure on Maduro, most experts agree. “I don’t see diplomacy working as long as Maduro is not afraid for his life,” said Russ Dallen, a Miami-based lawyer who closely monitors the Venezuelan oil industry.
Dallen noted that the sanctions regime against Maduro was in fact begun during the Obama administration. But he added that sanctions have only worked when they have enjoyed strong international backing, as in the case of South Africa where the end of apartheid rule only came after the U.S. joined a united international effort.
Biden’s election also coincides with a critical moment for Venezuela’s opposition movement and Juan Guaido, the National Assembly president who is considered the country’s legitimate ‘interim’ president by much of the world.
Venezuela is due to hold National Assembly elections this weekend which are being boycotted by the opposition, leaving the future of Guaido, unclear after his term ends January 5.
“Guaido doesn’t have a sell-by date, but he doesn’t have an indefinite shelf life either,” said Gunson.
While the world was unlikely to turn its back on Guaido after January 5, the opposition faces fresh challenges, according to Camilleri. “The opposition will need to push forward a legal argument that it’s deserving of continued recognition but also a political strategy that the international community can get behind,” he said.
If anything could be learned from the last two years in Venezuela, it was that hopes of a quick solution proved overly optimistic or entirely misplaced, whether by opposition street protests, an internal military rebellion or outside military intervention.
“So, we are left with a different set of options,” said Camilleri. “The only solution is a political one. This is going to take a lot of time and effort to put in place.”