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After historic protests, Biden 'hit the pause button' on Cuba policy, senior official says

Biden “feels very strongly about matters of human rights, matters of democracy. He’s not one who feels like change will just come if you let it,” National Security Council Senior Director Juan Gonzalez said.
Protesters shout slogans against the government in Havana on July 11, 2021.
Protesters shout slogans against the government in Havana on July 11, 2021.Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters

MIAMI — Washington's policy toward Cuba, which has been under review for close to a year, “hit the pause button” after the historic protests that rocked the communist-run island July 11, a senior U.S. official said.

“There’s a rule before July 11 and after July 11,” Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere, told NBC News, referring to the historic protests that took place in Cuba over the summer.

He said President Joe Biden “feels very strongly about matters of human rights, matters of democracy. He’s not one who feels like change will just come if you let it.”

Critics of Biden’s Cuba policy say the administration has largely left former President Donald Trump’s policy, that included a barrage of sanctions, intact and has been slow to implement changes.

“After July 11, we hit the pause button," Gonzalez said. "Even those Cuban Americans that were pro-engagement said, ‘We need to wait — we need to look at this moment and figure out how we move forward from here.’”

The July 11 protests were a watershed moment for Cuba that took the world by surprise. Thousands poured into the streets and protested against an array of grievances that included lack of freedom, shortages in food and medicine, as well as the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. The demonstrations were the largest since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution. Authorities responded with a massive crackdown. Over 1,200 arrests were made, according to the human rights group Cubalex. More than 600 are still jailed, including some minors.

Open opposition and criticism of Cuba’s government have grown since July 11. A group of activists planned an islandwide protest Nov. 15 that resulted in police and security agents preventing demonstrators from leaving their homes. About 87 people were arrested and 11 are still detained. The group’s most visible leader went into exile in Spain.

More Cubans have access to the internet than ever before and it has helped them communicate and organize. Many of those calling for change are young, internet-savvy people hungry for reforms. At one point during the July 11 protest, the authorities blocked popular communication sources such as WhatsApp and Facebook and they weren’t fully restored until two days later. The blockage led to calls in the U.S. for the Biden administration to find ways to provide internet to the island.

Gonzalez said the administration has spent an “inordinate amount of time” looking at the issue of internet connectivity and reviewed what the Trump administration did with the Cuba Internet Task Force it set up. “There’s no really technical, easy fix, nor is the technology there to have internet connectivity, so we should be focusing on censorship circumvention.”

Tensions between Washington and Havana have grown recently, with the island’s government claiming the U.S. is trying to destabilize Cuba by paying and directing dissidents. Following the protests, the Cuban government has reiterated that the decadeslong U.S. embargo is mostly to blame for its economic hardship.

For some Cuban Americans, the most important policy issues are the restrictions on travel and remittances. In 2019, Trump suspended flights from the U.S. to nine airports in Cuba, allowing travel to Havana’s airport only. Western Union, which operated 407 locations throughout Cuba was forced to close them after Trump prohibited remittances through its partner, the military-owned Fincimex. Biden promised during his 2020 campaign he would lift the restrictions on travel and remittances.

Gonzalez wouldn’t say if and when these restrictions would be lifted and stated the administration is not looking at these isolated restrictions. “We’re looking at the whole policy," he said.

The administration set up a remittance working group after the July protests to come up with “innovative options” to ensure money sent to the island doesn’t fall into the hands of the military.

“We’ve decided to further pursue investigation,” he said, pointing out that a significant number of Cubans do not receive remittances.

“How can we actually use remittances to support communities that aren’t being benefited by this? A lot of the focus has been on sanctioning individuals, so we’re going to continue to sanction those individuals," Gonzalez said. "We’re trying to promote a debate about what is clearly happening in Cuba, which is a regime that is afraid of giving greater rights and even engaging in a debate.”

He also said the administration is taking steps to restart consular processing but did not offer a timeline. The U.S. Embassy scaled back its staff in 2017 following health incidents that affected employees and their families. Cubans have to fly to Guyana to have their visas processed at the U.S. Embassy there. In September, the State Department began allowing diplomats in Cuba to be accompanied by some adult family members.

Gonzalez said the process of restaffing takes time because of the health incidents. “We want to get that started and we’re taking the steps to get there."

When asked if the governments have had discussions, he said they've mostly been "private" conversations regarding U.S. offers of vaccines, oxygen and general humanitarian support during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

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