Democrats Are Sticking to Trump’s Cuba Policies

By Aida Chávez* – The Nation

Party leadership blocked an amendment to roll back restrictions on the amount of money people in the US can send to their families in Cuba.

This week, House Democratic leadership killed an attempt to end aspects of former President Donald Trump’s punitive Cuba policies, which have led to severe food and medical shortages during the pandemic. As President Joe Biden doubles down on Trump’s approach, some progressives have been demanding an end to the US stranglehold on Cuba’s economy and trying to find ways to push for relief.

Illinois Representative Chuy García introduced an amendment to roll back Trump’s restrictions on the amount of money people in the United States can send to their families in Cuba, late last week. His amendment would have ended Trump’s $1,000-per-quarter cap on remittances to Cuba, as well as the administration’s decision to blacklist Fincimex, the Cuban financial institution that received and distributed the money.

“The United States has no business preventing Cuban Americans from sending life-saving remittances to their families, especially while so many lack adequate food, water, and medicine,” García told The Nation. “We must end our decades-long blockade against Cuba, which has led to desperation instead of democracy. Restoring remittances is an important first step.”

Though it’s difficult to calculate the exact figure, the Congressional Research Service estimates that remittances to Cuba added up to about $3.7 billion in 2019. This money has been a lifeline for many struggling Cubans; a 2019 study found that about 56 percent of Cuban families rely on money from families abroad.

Getting rid of limits on remittances is also one of the more widely supported Obama-era Cuba reforms—in theory, at least. When the Trump administration announced its remittances cap, nearly every South Florida Democrat came out against the move, saying that cutting off remittances in the middle of a pandemic is cruel not only to Cubans but also to their families in the United States.

But on Monday, House Democratic leadership blocked the proposal from advancing to the floor for a vote. The Rules Committee, which is chaired by Representative Jim McGovern, is the mechanism that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi uses “to maintain control of the House floor,” according to the committee’s website. It did not deem the amendment in order for a vote.

The Biden administration has announced “working groups” on remittances and “reviews” of other Trump-era Cuba policies, but hasn’t actually done anything to provide relief for the Cuban people. As a candidate, Biden repeatedly promised to “reverse the failed Trump policies that inflicted harm on Cubans and their families.” His 2020 campaign even criticized Trump’s decision to block remittances, calling his “war on family remittances” a “cruel distraction” that shows the “presumed support of the president for the Cuban people is nothing more than empty rhetoric.”

 “In the midst of a global pandemic in which families are suffering deeply on the island and around the world, President Trump is denying Cuban-Americans the right to help their families,” Biden campaign adviser Christian Ulvert said at the time.

Trump sharply restricted remittances, implemented hundreds of additional sanctions to tighten the United States’ 60-year economic blockade, and barred most travel to the island nation—wiping out Obama’s progress in normalizing relations between the two countries and reverting back to the long-standing cold war. Now, after months of ignoring Cuba, Biden has embraced Trump’s approach, slapping on additional sanctions last week and defying the progressive voices in his party calling for relief.

Biden’s tougher line on Cuba, and congressional Democrats’ complicity, is better understood in the context of domestic politics, not foreign policy. It’s largely driven by the desire to placate Cuban Americans in Florida, who weren’t planning on voting Democratic in the first place. Most Cuban American voters nationwide identify as Republican, a 2020 Pew Research Center study found. And for years now, Republicans have outperformed Democrats in Florida on things like ground game and voter registration. So Democrats hold relief hostage, inflicting pain on countless ordinary Cubans in the process, for political gain that doesn’t actually materialize.

Last year, House Democrats similarly blocked two amendments aimed at providing Cuba relief out of concerns that a Cuba-related vote would affect vulnerable Florida Democrats like Debbie Mucarsel-Powell right before the election. Democratic leadership quietly quashed the effort, as part of their broader strategy of restraining legislation to try to protect House moderates in swing districts. But it made no difference; Florida was a bloodbath for Democrats. Trump drove up his Latino support in Miami-Dade County, and Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala went on to lose their Miami-area congressional seats.

Still, Democrats seem to have learned the wrong lessons from the 2020 election. Just a couple days ago, the Democratic National Committee launched a new ad campaign targeted toward the Cuban American electorate in Florida to highlight “Biden’s commitment to the Cuban people and condemnation of communism as a failed system.”

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*Aída Chávez is The Nation’s D.C. correspondent. She was previously a congressional reporter at The Intercept. Chávez has also written for The Washington Post, The Hill, and Refinery29. She studied journalism and political science at Arizona State University and is currently in a heterodox economics master’s program at the City University of New York.