WASHINGTON – As thousands of Cubans protest against food and medicine shortages amid the coronavirus pandemic, President Joe Biden called on Cuban President Miguel Diàz-Canel’s regime to “hear their people and serve their needs” and expressed support for the Cuban protesters.
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“The Cuban people are demanding their freedom from an authoritarian regime,” Biden told reporters Monday. “We call on the government of Cuba to refrain from violence in their attempt to silence the voices of the people of Cuba.”.
In an earlier statement Monday, Biden said: “We stand with the Cuban people and their clarion call for freedom and relief from the tragic grip of the pandemic and from the decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba’s authoritarian regime.”.
Thousands protested Sunday across Cuba in what was said to be the biggest anti-government demonstration in 30 years. Cuba is facing its worst economic crisis in decades, exacerbated by a surge in coronavirus cases coupled with a low vaccination rate.
In an impromptu televised address, Díaz-Canel blamed the protests on U.S. Efforts to provoke a social uprising by tightening its sanctions and warned that protesters would face a strong response.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it would be a “grievous mistake” for the Cuban regime to attribute the protests to the United States or any other outside actor.
“It would be a grievous mistake because it would show that they are simply not hearing the voices and the will of the Cuban people deeply, deeply, deeply tired of the repression that has gone on for far too long,” he said.
He said the Biden administration is watching the events closely as it continues its review of U.S.-Cuba policy.
‘We are fed up’:Thousands of demonstrators throughout Cuba protest shortages, rising prices.
Biden forges new path on Cuba
The Biden administration’s policy on Cuba has differed from the Obama administration, where Biden served as vice president.
Former President Barack Obama was thawing the United States’ tense relationship with Cuba. Restrictions on travel and remittances were eased, the U.S. And Cuban embassies were reopened, and the country was taken off the terrorist list. Obama also reopened diplomatic relations with Cuba and visited the country in 2016.
However, former President Donald Trump reinstated travel restrictions to the country, returned it to the U.S. List of state sponsors of terrorism and enacted tough sanctions. Trump also withdrew staff working in the U.S. Embassy in Havana after officials were struck by an illness that caused hearing loss, dizziness, loss of balance and other neurological symptoms.
Biden has not lifted the the Trump administration’s sanctions.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that the United States is “assessing how we can be helpful directly to the people of Cuba.”.
She said the U.S. Is working on getting vaccines to Cuba, but that the island is not part of COVAX, the initiative aimed at equitable global access to COVID-19 vaccines.
When asked about whether the president is reviewing his policy on Cuba, Psaki said she isn’t going to predict any policy shifts. She added that the future and current policy of the U.S. Is governed by “support for democracy and human rights” in Cuba.
“Our approach continues to be governed by two principles; first, support for democracy and human rights, which is going to continue to be at the core of our efforts through empowering the Cuban people to determine their own future,” Psaki said at the press briefing. “Second, Americans, especially Cuban Americans, are the best ambassadors for freedom and prosperity in Cuba.”.
Experts: Biden’s position isn’t as hard line as Trump’s
Ryan Berg, senior fellow of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the protests will likely force Biden’s hand to complete the review on his administration’s policies on Cuba.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden promised to reverse Trump’s policies on Cuba. Berg said that the recent protests will make it much harder for Biden to return to engaging with the Cuban government the same way that Obama did.
“It’s going to be a lot harder for (the Biden Administration) to engage in the opening to the regime that they campaigned on,” Berg said. “I think that becomes increasingly more difficult the more we see citizen uprisings that could be met with repression and already have been met with repression, in many ways.”.
John Suarez, executive director at the Center for a Free Cuba, said Biden’s statement is a “positive first step” but noted that the president must go further by calling on the government to allow humanitarian assistance to Cubans on the island.
“What’s causing the troubles in Cuba is the internal blockade that the regime has placed on Cubans,” Suarez said. “That’s why the Cubans are protesting the regime. They’re not out front of the U.S. Embassy protesting the U.S. Embargo, they’re protesting the government because they know who’s responsible for what they’re suffering. It’s not an accident.”.
Jaime Suchlicki, director at the Cuban Studies Institute, said Biden is not taking a “hard-line policy” that the Trump administration likely would have.
“President Trump would have taken a much more hard-line policy and threatened the Castro government,” she said. “Biden is not doing that. He’s going easy, telling ‘Well, don’t kill the opposition’ So, it’s a different style, although there was a limit to how much we can do in Cuba.”.
Contributing: Deirdre Shesgreen, Elinor Aspegren, USA TODAY; Associated Press.
Reach Rebecca Morin at Twitter @RebeccaMorin_.