Close neighbors Cuba and the U.S. have had one of the world’s strangest relationships. Think of it: A Caribbean island-nation of just 11 million people locked in a seemingly permanent standoff with a superpower. The row has ebbed and flowed for more than half a century, bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war, reshaping the culture and politics of the third-largest U.S. state, and outliving the Cold War that provoked the dispute in the first place. The longtime enemies established diplomatic relations in 2015 when Barack Obama was U.S. president, and the U.S. eased a five-decade trade embargo. Then Donald Trump replaced Obama and reversed course, imposing painful economic sanctions and new travel restrictions on Cuba. The next U.S. president, Joe Biden, has signaled he wants to turn the clock back (but not too far) and rethaw relations.
Biden has suggested he wants to continue the Obama-era policies of easing economic and travel restrictions in hopes that closer ties and more capitalism will pave the way for democratic change on the communist island. That would mark a dramatic departure from Trump’s administration, which in 2018 labelled Cuba part of a “Troika of Tyranny” with Nicaragua and Venezuela. In a wave of new sanctions, the U.S. under Trump opened the door for lawsuits against companies benefiting from property confiscated by the government in Cuba, prohibited educational trips and cruises there, and limited direct flights. As Trump courted the critical Cuban-American vote in Florida in the run-up to his failed 2020 reelection bid, the U.S. effectively cut off remittances to Cuba. His administration also tried to interrupt the flow of oil to Cuba from Venezuela, its key economic allay. That the fresh sanctions came in the middle of a global pandemic only made them more painful. In December 2020, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel announced that the government would adopt deep, market-oriented economic reforms, including scrapping a decades-old dual currency system — effectively sparking a devaluation in hopes of attracting foreign investment. If Biden pursues the rapprochement, he will face pushback. Many in the U.S. say the Cuban government bears some responsibility for a spate of mysterious symptoms that sidelined almost two dozen U.S. diplomats on the island from 2016 to 2018. U.S. researchers believe the officials were victims of a state-sponsored radio-frequency, or microwave, attack — but it’s still not clear if Cuba or another nation was behind it. There are also concerns about Cuba’s continued crackdown on dissent and track record of human rights abuses.