Biden does the right thing by taking a step away from Obama’s Cuba policy

In a sharp departure from former President Obama’s Cuba policy, the Biden administration has released a report on human trafficking around the world that strongly condemns Cuba’s medical missions abroad.

The State Department’s “2021 Trafficking in Persons Report,” released on July 1, says there are “strong indications of forced labor” in Cuba’s medical missions. Last year, the Cuban regime “capitalized on the pandemic” by increasing these missions, which now place between 34,000 and 50,000 Cuban doctors in more than 60 countries, it says.

“The Cuban government has profited from exploitative overseas medical missions,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a ceremony launching the report. “They send doctors and other medical personnel abroad, fail to inform them of the terms of their contracts, confiscate their documents and salaries, threaten them and their family members when they try to leave.”

According to the report, part of an annual U.S. review of human trafficking in 188 countries — including the United States — the Cuban regime collects between $6 billion and $8 billion annually from its exports of Cuban doctors.

The doctors “receive only a portion of their salary, ranging from 5 to 25 percent,” with the bulk of their salaries being kept by the government, it says.

The renewed U.S. emphasis on the exploitation of Cuban doctors is a departure from the Obama administration’s positive view of the Cuban medical missions.

In October 2014, at the height of the Obama administration’s re-engagement with the island, then Secretary of State John Kerry — who now is on Biden’s cabinet as U.S. special presidential envoy for climate — praised the medical missions’ work in helping fight the Ebola pandemic in Africa, calling them “impressive” and “a contribution on the front lines.”

In 2015, after the normalization of U.S.-Cuba ties, the Obama administration removed Cuba from its list of countries that fail to combat human trafficking. Cuban medical missions abroad were first included in that list in 2010.

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But after joining the Biden team, Kerry himself turned more critical on Cuba. In September, 2020, as a spokesman for the Biden campaign, Kerry told me that there was “disappointment” in Washington over Cuba’s failure to open up its system following the normalization of U.S.-Cuba ties.

Judging from my conversations with U.S. officials in recent weeks, the Biden administration is in no hurry to start a new effort to improve ties with Cuba.

Biden had promised to restore travel and family remittances to the island, and Juan Gonzalez, top White House’s adviser on Latin American affairs, has said that the Trump administration’s Cuba policy is “under review.”

But several factors have dampened the Biden administration’s initial eagerness to reverse Trump’s harder line toward the island’s regime.

First, the Cuban dictatorship’s latest arrests of artists and new suspicions about Cuba’s possible involvement in sonic attacks against U.S. diplomats in Havana are making it more difficult for U.S. advocates of engagement with Cuba to make their case.

In recent months, Cuba’s regime has arrested several artists and independent journalists, a June 30 report by Human Rights Watch says. “In Cuba, to sing a song that the government doesn’t like is enough to land you in prison,” the group says.

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Second, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has a strong influence over the Biden administration’s Latin America policy and is a strong critic of the Cuban regime. Menendez has demanded, among other things, a U.S. probe into the Pan American Health Organization’s “unacceptable role” in facilitating Cuba’s medical missions abroad.

Third, the Biden administration, which holds a razor-thin majority in the House and risks losing the Congress in the 2022 mid-term elections, may have learned from its 2020 campaign mistake of underestimating Cuban-American voters’ strong feelings against Cuba’s six-decade dictatorship.

In part, because of that mistake, the Democrats lost Florida and two key Miami seats in the House. The Republicans’ campaign in South Florida consisted of little more than parroting Trump’s ridiculous claim that Biden is a “socialist.”

Biden is doing the right thing on Cuba. There should be no rush to improve ties with a dictatorship that bans independent parties, prohibits non-government media and arrests artists for singing critical songs.

Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show on Sundays at 8 pm E.T. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

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