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Watching US Cuba policy in the theater of the absurd

Cuban-American lawmakers slipped new sanctions into a bill designed to keep the federal government open. The White House is no better.
By William Leogrande*

Responsible Statecraft: Trying to make sense of U.S. policy toward Cuba is like trying to make sense of a play in the theater of the absurd. The rationales offered by the policy’s defenders make no sense, and when they try to explain, they sound like characters in an Ionesco play.

Recent legislative proposals from Cuban American members of the House of Representatives are prime examples.

Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.), chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, and Rep. María Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, recently proposed new sanctions locking in Cuba’s groundless designation as a sponsor of international terrorism, blocking assistance to Cuba’s private sector on the grounds that it doesn’t exist, and punishing countries hosting Cuban medical missions for practicing “modern slavery.”

The last two proposals became law in the omnibus appropriations bill passed last month to avoid a government shutdown.

Cuba is on the State Department’s terrorism list, even though the Department’s latest Country Report on Terrorism offers no evidence for Havana engaging in international terrorism. It cites Cuba’s harboring of U.S. fugitives who committed politically-motivated crimes in the United States more than 40 years ago.

Meanwhile, the United States for years harbored notorious Cuban exiles like Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles guilty of myriad terrorist attacks against Cuba, including bombing a Cuban airline flight, killing all 73 people aboard, and bombing tourist hotels in Havana.

Early in the Biden administration, the White House said it was “committed to carefully reviewing” Cuba’s designation, and in October 2022, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro, “We will continue as necessary to revisit those to see if Cuba continues to merit that designation.”

But just five months later, he told Congress, “We are not planning to remove them from the list.” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Eric Jacobstein told a group of Democratic lawmakers that, contrary to what they had been told previously, there was no review of Cuba’s designation underway.

Asked in a 2023 press briefing why Cuba was still on the terrorism list, a State Department spokesperson replied that it was because of Cuba’s “long track record of egregious human rights abuses, suppression of a free press, suppression of civil society” -which has nothing to do with international terrorism. The official also acknowledged, oblivious to the irony, that the U.S. and Cuban governments engage in regular counter-terrorism cooperation talks under the auspices of a law enforcement agreement concluded during the Obama administration.

Last year, Díaz-Balart joined Salazar to sponsor a bill preventing the Biden administration from removing Cuba from the terrorism list until it becomes a multi-party democracy. Although the bill is unlikely to become law this Congress, its disregard for the statutory criteria for designating a country as a sponsor of terrorism brings to mind Humpty Dumpty’s declaration in Alice in Wonderland, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.”

Díaz-Balart had better luck with the omnibus appropriation. When Congress fails to do its job passing the 12 appropriations bills that fund the government, it resorts to omnibus appropriations that lump all the unfinished bills together into one must-pass bill to avoid a government shutdown.

All sorts of dubious measures make their way into omnibus appropriations because there just is not time to filter them all out. As chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, Díaz-Balart was perfectly positioned to insert new Cuba sanctions into the omnibus.

The omnibus appropriation prohibits the Biden administration from supporting Cuba’s emerging private sector of some 10,000 new businesses, despite the fact that promoting private enterprise has been U.S. policy under Presidents Obama, Trump, and Biden.

Rep. Salazar calls the private sector a “myth” because some of the businesses are owned by relatives of government officials, even though the vast majority are not.

A year ago, Díaz-Balart forced the Biden administration to abandon plans to help the private sector by threatening to block aid for Ukraine. His appropriations language, now law, blocks U.S. funding for “business promotion, economic reform, [or] entrepreneurship” in Cuba.

Another provision of the omnibus appropriation would punish countries that pay Cuba for providing medical services on the grounds that such contracts constitute “modern slavery.” Since the 1960s, Cuba has sent some 400,000 medical professionals to serve in 164 countries, but in the past two decades medical service contracts have become an important source of foreign exchange earnings.

In 2006, President George W. Bush began offering entry to the United States and a fast path to citizenship to entice Cuban doctors serving abroad to defect. Some of those who defected criticized the pressure placed on them to serve abroad, harsh and restrictive working conditions, and the percentage of the contract fees they received.

By contrast, doctors serving in the programs report that they volunteered because the wages are significantly higher than their wages in Cuba, and out of a desire to help people in need.

During the Obama administration, U.S. and Cuban medical personnel worked together in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and in west Africa fighting Ebola virus outbreak.

President Obama, in his 2016 speech to the Cuban people, praised Cuba’s medical internationalism, saying “No one should deny the service that thousands of Cuban doctors have delivered for the poor and suffering.” But Cuban American Republicans do deny it.

The original House version of the foreign operations appropriation that came out of Díaz-Balart’s subcommittee and passed the House would have cut off U.S. assistance to the Pan American Health Organization and all countries and international organizations that have medical contracts with Cuba. Those provisions did not make it into the final omnibus legislation.

But the bill that passed denies entry to the United States and threatens financial sanctions against “officials of foreign governments and their immediate family members” whose governments have medical service contracts with Cuba.

Cuba has medical personnel serving abroad in dozens of countries, including Mexico, Italy, Qatar, Jamaica, several smaller Caribbean states, and Northern Ireland. Is it really in the U.S. national interest to ban their government officials from the United States?

Would Mexico’s indispensable cooperation on migration and narcotics trafficking survive such a ban? Luckily, during the negotiations over the final omnibus bill, cooler heads prevailed and made these sanctions subject to a presidential waiver. But they are still the law of the land, with Washington once again arrogating to itself the right to sanction other countries for their relations with Cuba, as if neither their sovereignty nor Cuba’s counts for anything in Washington.

That is the final absurdity of U.S. Cuba policy. It’s not just that so much of it is built on false premises and distorted facts. It’s that a small group of conservative Cuban American legislators, obsessed with reducing Cuba to penury, have been able to dictate policies that damage broader U.S. interests in Latin America, Europe, and the Global South.

They get away with it because no issue is more important to them than Cuba, and Cuba is not important enough to Biden for him to stand up to them.

These policies are not cost free. Like water dripping on a stone, they gradually erode the good will of other countries, diminishing Washington’s “soft power.” The accretion of damage is chronicled by the annual vote at the United Nations General Assembly on Cuba’s resolution condemning the U.S. embargo.

When the resolution was first introduced in 1992, it passed with 59 countries in favor, 3 against (the United State, Israel, and Romania), and a majority, 71 abstaining. Last year 187 countries voted for the resolution. Ukraine abstained and only Israel joined the United States in voting no.

When American patriots declared their independence from the British crown, they detailed their reasons in the Declaration of Independence out of a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” That respect is not a virtue Washington policymakers should abandon just because the United States has become a superpower.

*Dr. William M. LeoGrande is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Quincy Institute and Associate Vice-Provost for Academic Affairs, Professor of Government, and Dean Emeritus of the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C.

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Responsible Statecraft

Responsible Statecraft

Responsible Statecraft is the online magazine of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. It publishes outside contributors and reporters as well as staff analysis, opinion, and news to promote a positive, non-partisan vision of U.S. foreign policy and to critique the ideologies and interests that have mired the United States in counterproductive and endless wars and made the world less secure. The views expressed by authors on Responsible Statecraft do not necessarily reflect those of the Quincy Institute or its associates.
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