Biden's Cuba policy is a huge mess — but Obama can show him how to fix it

Barack Obama's historic 2015 handshake with Raúl Castro signaled a new day. Was Joe Biden paying attention?

By Medea Benjamin

Contributing Writer

Published May 19, 2022 5:30AM (EDT)

US President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with Cuba's President Raul Castro (L) on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas at the ATLAPA Convention Center on April 11, 2015 in Panama City. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with Cuba's President Raul Castro (L) on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas at the ATLAPA Convention Center on April 11, 2015 in Panama City. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

On May 16, the Biden administration announced new measures to "increase support for the Cuban people." They included easing travel restrictions and helping Cuban-Americans support and connect with their families. These changes mark a step forward. But it's a baby step, given that most U.S. sanctions on Cuba remain in place. Also in place is a ridiculous Biden  policy of trying to isolate Cuba, as well as Nicaragua and Venezuela, from the rest of the hemisphere by excluding them from the upcoming Summit of the Americas that will take place in June in Los Angeles.

This is the first time since its inaugural gathering in 1994 that the event, which is held every three years, will take place on U.S. soil. But rather than bringing the Western Hemisphere together, the Biden administration seems intent on pulling it apart by threatening to exclude three nations that are certainly part of the Americas.

For months, the Biden administration has been hinting that these governments would be excluded. So far, they have not been invited to any of the preparatory meetings, and the summit itself is now less than a month away. While former White House press secretary Jen Psaki and State Department spokesman Ned Price have repeatedly insisted that "no decisions" have been made, Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols said in an interview on Colombian TV that countries that "do not respect democracy are not going to receive invitations." 

Biden's plan to pick and choose which countries can attend the summit has already set off regional fireworks. Unlike in the past, when the U.S. had an easier time imposing its will on Latin America, nowadays there is a fierce sense of independence, especially with a resurgence of progressive governments throughout the hemisphere. Another factor is the growing influence of China. While the U.S. still has a major economic presence, China has surpassed the U.S. as the No. 1 trading partner with Latin American nations, giving them more freedom to defy the U.S. or at least to stake out a middle ground between the two superpowers.

The hemispheric reaction to the exclusion of three regional states is a reflection of that independence, even among small Caribbean nations. In fact, the first words of defiance came from members of the 15-nation Caribbean Community, or Caricom, which threatened to boycott the summit. Then came s regional heavyweight, Mexican President Manuel López Obrador, who stunned and delighted people around the continent when he announced that, if all countries were not invited, he would not attend. The presidents of Bolivia and Honduras soon followed with similar statements. 

The Biden administration has put itself in this bind. Either it backs down and issues the invitations, tossing red meat to right-wing politicians like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida for being "soft on communism," or it stands firm and risks sinking the summit — and U.S. influence in the region. 

Biden's failure at regional diplomacy is even more inexplicable, given the lesson he should have learned as vice president when Barack Obama faced a similar dilemma. 

That was in 2015, when, after two decades of excluding Cuba from these summits, the countries of the region put their collective foot down and demanded that Cuba be invited. Obama had to decide whether to skip the meeting and lose influence in Latin America, or go, and contend with the domestic fallout. He decided to go. 

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

I remember that summit vividly because I was among the bevy of journalists jostling to get a front seat when Obama would be forced to greet Cuban President Raúl Castro, who came into power after his brother, Fidel Castro, stepped down. The momentous handshake, the first contact between top-level leaders of the two countries in decades, was the high point of the summit.

That momentous handshake, the first contact between leaders of the two countries in decades, marked the dawn of a new era. It was a massive win-win.

Obama was not only obligated to shake Castro's hand, he also had to listen to a long history lesson. Raúl Castro's speech was a no-holds-barred recounting of past U.S. attacks on Cuba — including the 1901 Platt Amendment that made Cuba a virtual U.S. protectorate, American support for Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s, the disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the scandalous U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay. But Castro was also gracious toward Obama, making clear that he was not to blame for this legacy and describing him as an "honest man" of humble origins.

The meeting marked the dawn of a new era between the U.S. and Cuba, as the two nations began to normalize relations. It was a win-win, with more trade, more cultural exchanges, more resources for the Cuban people and fewer Cubans migrating to the U.S. The handshake led to an actual visit by Obama to Havana, a trip so memorable that it still brings big smiles to the faces of Cubans on the island. 

Then came Donald Trump, who skipped the next Summit of the Americas and imposed draconian new sanctions that left the Cuban economy in tatters, especially once COVID hit and dried up the tourist industry. 

Until recently, Biden has largely been following Trump's slash-and-burn policies, which led to tremendous shortages and a new migration crisis, rather than reverting to Obama's win-win policy of constructive engagement with the Cuban government. This month's measures to expand flights to Cuba and resume family reunifications are helpful, but are not enough to mark a real change in policy — especially if Biden insists on making the Summit a "limited-invite only" event.

Biden now faces a foreign policy crisis of his own making, and needs to move quickly. He should invite all the nations of the Americas to the summit. He should shake the hands of every head of state (whether he agrees with their politics or not) and, more importantly, engage in serious discussions on burning hemispheric issues such as the brutal economic recession caused by the pandemic, climate change that is affecting food supplies, and rising gun violence, all of which are fueling the migration crisis. Otherwise, Biden's #RoadtotheSummit, which is the summit's Twitter handle, will only lead to a dead end. 

Read more from Medea Benjamin on war, peace and U.S. foreign policy:

By Medea Benjamin

Medea Benjamin is co-founder of CODEPINK for Peace and author of several books, including "Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran." She and Nicolas J.S. Davies are the authors of "War in Ukraine: Making Sense of a Senseless Conflict."

MORE FROM Medea Benjamin

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama Commentary Cuba Foreign Policy Joe Biden Latin America Summit Of The Americas