Strategic Comments

JIIA Strategic Comments (2021-03):
US-Cuba Relations under the Biden Administration and the New Cuban Leadership

Masaru Watanabe (Professor, National Defense Academy of Japan; Adjunct Fellow, JIIA)
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Papers in the "JIIA Strategic Commentary Series" are prepared mainly by JIIA research fellows to provide commentary and policy-oriented analyses on significant international affairs issues in a readily comprehensible and timely manner.

In January 2021, the Biden administration came to power in the United States, and in April a new directorate was inaugurated with a change of leadership at the Cuban Communist Party Congress. In this paper, I would like to analyze the US-Cuba relations in international politics, the future of socialist Cuba after the Party Congress, and the prospect for the relationship between the two countries by reviewing its past.

US-Cuba relations and international politics

Cuba is a small country of 110,000 square kilometers with a population of 11 million, but it is certainly one meriting attention in international relations. Cuban government advocates socialism, anti-imperialism and Marxist-Leninist economy as its national policy. The island of Cuba, only 90 miles from the United States, is at the center of a sea route that connects the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean (through the Panama Canal). It was the scene of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the past, and the two countries still face off over the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay in eastern Cuba.

Cuba also attracts the sympathy of countries dissatisfied with the current state of the world by denouncing imperialism and challenging the current international order. As an ideologue of the Non-Aligned Movement, the G77, etc., Cuba represents the interests of developing countries through a number of initiatives such as debt reduction and the right to development, and boasts a high level of diplomatic power. It was Cuba that mediated the meeting between the top leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, which had been divided for almost a thousand years, and it was Cuba that brokered the reconciliation between the Colombian government and the guerrillas.

Cuba, a socialist country, has close cooperative relations with China, Russia, North Korea, Syria, and Iran as well as left-led Latin American countries such as Nicaragua and Venezuela. In the past Cuba impacted tide of wars abroad, sending troops to countries like Angola, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nicaragua. It is reported to maintain about 15,000 military and security personnel in Venezuela. The seizure of missile-related materials from a Cuban shipment bound for North Korea in 2013 is still fresh in the memory. Russia is said to be considering the possibility of re-establishing a military base in Cuba.

Tensions in US-Cuba relations, if they lead to stronger military and economic ties between Cuba and these leftist and authoritarian countries, will be a problem that could affect not only US-Cuba relations but also the strategic environment of the Americas and the rest of the world.

The Cuban Communist Party Congress and the future of socialist Cuba

Under the charisma and authority of Fidel Castro (who died in 2016) and his younger brother Raúl Castro (89 years old; hereafter referred to as Raúl), both veterans of the revolution, Cuba has maintained its socialist system for over 60 years since the 1959 revolution, building a solid Communist Party organization and suppressing the activities of dissidents.

Cuba still maintains a planned economy system based on Marxism-Leninism. In the 1990s, the country lost its patron after the collapse of the Soviet Union and faced economic difficulties due to the tightening of US sanctions. At the turn of the century, the country caught a break when it began receiving discounted oil shipments from Venezuela and it resumed diplomatic relations with the US during the Obama administration. Thanks to the partial easing of sanctions, European countries and Japan began to pay attention to Cuba, and there were signs of a turnaround. However, even before these measures brought about tangible benefit, sanctions were stepped up by the Trump administration, and Venezuela came under pressure from an economic slowdown and the coronavirus pandemic. Cuba is now facing an unprecedented economic crisis. Its growth rate for 2020 fell to -11%.

The Communist Party is the "superior leading political force of society and the state" (Article 5 of the Constitution) in Cuba, and the country's most important matters are decided at the Communist Party Congress, which is held every five years. In the midst of the aforementioned economic woes, the 8th Communist Party Congress held from April 16-19, 2021 was closely watched to see if the first secretary would be replaced as scheduled and what political, economic and foreign policies would be formulated. The following are the main points of the Congress that have attracted particular attention.

Politburo personnel and politics

The Castro brothers have long been the heads of the Communist Party and the government of Cuba, but First Vice-President of the Council of State Miguel Díaz-Canel was already slated to succeed Raúl as head of the executive branch, becoming President of the Council of State in 2018 and then President of the Republic in 2019, and his default appointment as First Secretary of the Communist Party at the current Party Congress constitutes a peaceful abdication from Raúl. At the Party Congress, most of the generation that had taken part in the revolution retired from the Politburo, and the generational change proceeded to a considerable degree.i

However, even though Díaz-Canel is both the party First Secretary and President of the Republic, he does not have full control of the party. He is a post-revolutionary bureaucrat who was promoted under both Castros, possessing neither the charisma nor the authority of Fidel and Raúl, so he will first work to consolidate his power within the party and government. It is important to note that General López-Calleja has joined the Politburo. The press describes him as Raúl's former son-in-law, but it is worth noting that he is in fact the president of GAESA, a company affiliated with the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces. The company's activities in tourism, construction, distribution, etc., are said to account for 80% of the country's GDP, so this move can be seen as a representative of vested interests joining the Politburo to maintain or increase his say in the party.

The new First Secretary Díaz-Canel is young (61), reputedly open-minded and folksy in style, but at the same time conservative in his willingness to suppress dissidents and his constant emphasis on upholding socialism. Although public dissatisfaction with the country's economic woes (see below) and calls for more freedom have never been greater, his lack of solid power base means that he is unlikely to take measures that would shake the foundations of the socialist system, such as allowing widespread liberalization of political activities and freedom of speech.


Of the aforementioned causes of Cuba's economic woes - (1) the Marxist-Leninist economy itself, (2) US sanctions, and (3) other factors (the coronavirus pandemic, the decline of Venezuela, etc.) - (1) is the issue that Cuba itself can address. Many economists believe that liberalizing the economy and opening up to the outside world is the only prescription. Actually, since the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party in 2011 when Raúl took power, some liberalization measures have been introduced such as the permission of self-employment and real estate transactions. It must be noted, though, that the liberalization has been very slow and limited (e.g., the rejection of a socialist market economy like that of China and adherence to a planned economy with state-owned and state-run enterprises), and faced with resistance from military companies and bureaucracy. Although some meaningful reforms such as currency and exchange rate integration were adopted in early 2021ii, the side effects of inflation, shortage of supplies, and rampant illegal currency trafficking have further impoverished the peopleiii. Even after several hours of standing in line at ration shops, people are unable to obtain basic food and medicine, and the gap between those who can get hold of imported goods with black-market dollars and those who cannot is widening. At the end of last year, protests that would have been unthinkable in the past began to take place openly, and an increasing number of people are fleeing Cubaiv.

There were hopes that some sort of breakthrough would be announced at the Communist Party Congress held in April, but in the end there was no plan to boost the economy other than to continue on the current course. The walls of bureaucracy and the vested interests of the military and state-run companies are still thickv. A scenario in which the Cuban economy recovers quickly is unlikely, and further economic hardship may lead to social unrest growing worse and the socialist system stumbling.

Relations with the US

In 2015, the US and Cuba resumed their diplomatic relations, severed since 1961 (after the Cuban Revolution), and the US eased some of its economic policies toward Cuba; relations were improved still further when President Obama visited Cuba in 2016. However, the Trump administration reversed the de-escalation measures taken under the Obama administration and tightened sanctions, including imposing a ban on business with Cuban military-related companies and re-designating Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism, and relations between the two countries cooled immediately.

President Biden said during his campaign that he would reverse the Trump administration's policy toward Cuba, and Cuba had been looking forward to improved relations, with President Díaz-Canel even tweeting out his hopes for constructive relations with the US. However, after the Biden administration took office, US officials stated that US policy toward Cuba was not a top priorityvi. This is why Cuba's policies at the Communist Party Congress were closely watched.

Many of the documents and speeches at this year's Communist Party Congress were devoted to criticism of the United States. Seven-plus pages in the 33-page Central Report from First Secretary Raúl were devoted to criticism of the US. The new First Secretary Díaz-Canel even described US sanction as a " crime against humanity" and a "ruthless policy of genocide". At the same time, they expressed hope for improved relations, stressing the willingness "to promote mutually respectful dialogue and to build new relations with the United States, without Cuba abandoning its revolutionary and socialist principles or making concessions contrary to its sovereignty and independence" (First Secretary Raúl, Central Report)vii. The seemingly contradictory messages of criticism of the US and hope for improved relations are not unusual in Cuba's communication methods. This Communist Party Congress, too, seems to be saying that it does not intend to change Cuba's system or policies, but expects a "unilateral" compromise from the United States. It is not surprising that the party took a hardline stance against the US at its congress, which dealt with such sensitive issues as generational change in the Communist Party and the transfer of top leadership.

Prospects for future US-Cuba relations

At the time of writing (May 2021), the Trump administration's tightened sanctions remain in place. US domestic politics is behind this situation. In the November 2020 elections, anti-Castro forces of Cuban descent are said to have played a role in Republican gains in Florida, the largest swing stateviii. The three Cuban-American senators who hold seats in the US Senate include not only Republicans (Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz) but also Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, a Democrat, who has maintained a firm stance against socialist Cubaix. For the Biden administration, which is preparing for the midterm elections in 2022, improving relations with Cuba will be costly in terms of domestic politics and cannot be expected to produce quick resultsx. Cuba, too, faces high hurdles to make concessions to the US due to the aforementioned political situation at home.

On the other hand, there are groups in the US such as congressmen led by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy that seek to improve relations with Cubaxi, and there are many Cuban-Americans concerned about their relatives remaining in Cuba. Above all, reviewing the Trump administration's policy toward Cuba was a campaign promise made by President Biden himself. On the Cuban side, Venezuela remains in turmoil, with no support expected from the World Bank, IMF or the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) (of which Cuba is not a member), and Cuba remembers how its economy improved under the Obama administration with increased tourism, remittances, and foreign-investment momentum. I believe that both sides will take steps to improve relations at the right time and in a scenario that will not provoke a major domestic backlashxii.

The first step is likely to be taken by the US and not by the new Cuban government, which does not yet have a solid power base. It is difficult to judge the timing, but humanitarian measures, measures that contribute to Cuba's democratization and measures that can be dealt with technically and administratively are likely to be met with less opposition. These might include the removal of restrictions on remittances from Cuban-Americans to relatives in Cuba, the restart of commercial flights for visiting relatives, the reopening of intergovernmental dialogue mechanisms initiated during the Obama administration, the appointment of a full-fledged ambassador in place of a chargé d'affaires ad interim, and the resumption of visa provision for 20,000 immigrants per year. On the other hand, there are few things that the Cuban side can offer the US, but the release of political prisoners and the start of negotiations on compensation for assets seized during the revolution seem to be relatively low hurdles. Unless there is a fundamental change on the Cuban side after these first steps, however, improving relations will require considerable time.

*This is an English translation of a Japanese paper originally published on May 24, 2021.

i "Nuevo Buró Político, Secretariado y miembros del Comité Central del Partido Comunista de Cuba", Partido Comunista de Cuba, 19 de abril de 2021.

ii In the past, Cuba had two currencies in circulation: the cuban peso (known as CUP, not convertible to foreign currencies) and the convertible peso (known as CUC, 1 convertible peso = $24), which distorted the economy because of the multiple exchange rates between the two currencies. In January 2021, the convertible peso was abolished, and the official exchange rate between the peso and the US dollar was fixed at 24:1. For more information on the economic problems of the old system, see Masaru Watanabe, "Unknown Cuba - The Real Cuba as Seen by a Diplomat", Beret Publishing, 2018, pp. 80-86.

iii The black-market dollar rate as of April was said to be 50:1, double the official rate, and inflation in 2021 is predicted to be as high as 900%.

iv In February 2021, 16% of the 71,021 people in Mexico seeking refuge in the US were Cubans, and the number of Cubans seeking US asylum by boat in January 2021 is said to have tripled from the same month last year; see William M. Leogrande, "Cuba's economic woes may fuel America's next migrant crisis", The Conversation, April 16, 2021.

v At the party congress, it was stressed that the basic means of production should be owned by all the people (i.e., state-owned and state-run) and that there are limits to the expansion of self-employment, which may have given the impression that the Communist Party is rather backward-looking toward economic liberalization; see "Resolución del 8vo.Congreso del Partido sobre el Estado de la Implementación de los Lineamientos de la Polírica Económica y Social del Partido y la Revolución desde el 6to. Congreso hasta la fecha y la Actualización de estos para el período 2021-2026", 18 de abril de 2021, "Resolución del 8vo. Congreso del Partido sobre la Actualización de la Conceptualización del Modelo Económico y Social Cubano de Desarrollo Socialista", 18 de abril de 2021.

vi Remarks by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki and NSC Western Hemisphere Affairs Director Juan González. Carmen Sesin and Orlando Matos, "Raul Castro confirms he's stepping down, says he's fulfilled his mission", NBC News, April 21, 2021.

vii Raúl Castro Ruz, "Informe Central al 8vo. Congreso del Partido Comunista de Cuba", 17 de abril de 2021. "Díaz-Canel: ≪Entre los revolucioinarios, los comunistas vamos al frente≫", "Granma", 20 de abril de 2021.

viii For information on Cuban voting trends during the November 2020 elections in Florida, see Kenji Hirata, "US Policy toward Cuba and Venezuela and the Elections in Florida," Quarterly Latin American Journal, Spring 2021, No. 1434, pp. 12-15.

ix Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez has often given speeches in English and Spanish criticizing the human rights situation in Cuba, and his February 17 video message was particularly harsh.

x Given that President Obama did not announce a dialogue with Cuba to restore diplomatic relations until December 2014, just after the last midterm elections of his term in office, some believe that the US will not start to review its policy toward Cuba until after the 2022 midterm elections.

xi Eighty Democratic federal lawmakers jointly issued a letter to President Biden urging him to return relations with Cuba to those of the Obama era. Catherine Osborn, "Latin America Brief", Foreign Policy, April 22, 2021.

xii See also the following for more information on circumstances in both countries. Masaru Watanabe, "The Biden Administration's Long Road to 'Normalization of US-Cuba Relations,'" Foresight, February 9, 2021.