CUBA STANDARD — President Joe Biden ordered the creation of working groups to explore reestablishing remittance and consular services, the Miami Herald first reported.
“At President Biden’s direction, the United States is actively pursuing measures that will both support the Cuban people and hold the Cuban regime accountable,” an unattributed statement by the White House said.
The move comes eight days after the biggest anti-government protests in Cuba in half a century. Cubans are facing a major COVID-19 outbreak with curfews and local lockdowns, a near-complete absence of international visitors, rolling blackouts, rising prices, and shortages of most goods, including food.
Responding to a reporter’s question during a press conference a week earlier with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Biden called Cuba a “failed state”.
“There are a number of things that we would consider doing to help the people of Cuba, but it would require a different circumstance or a guarantee that they would not be taken advantage of by the government,” Biden said at the press conference. “For example, the ability to send remittances back to Cuba. We would not do that now because the fact is, it’s highly likely the regime would confiscate those remittances or big chunks of it.”
Even so, one State Department working group is now reviewing remittance policy, apparently trying to find ways around Cuban state entity Fincimex, which was the Cuban partner of U.S. remittance providers until the Trump administration blacklisted the company last year.
The goal is to get remittances “directly into the hands of … families without the regime taking a cut”, the statement by the White House said.
In June last year, the Trump administration added Fincimex, the subsidiary of state conglomerate CIMEX that handles all incoming remittances, to the “Cuba Restricted List”, which puts the entity off-limits for U.S. businesses and individuals. The Trump administration argued that CIMEX is controlled by Cuba’s armed forces and that Cuban recipients should have a choice how they are paid out. In November, remittance giant Western Union discontinued its Cuba service.
Rather than creating a civilian-controlled counterpart for U.S. remittance agencies, the Cuban government chose to shut down all remittance services. This, in turn, forced Cubans to rely on costly international bank transfers and cryptocurrency transactions.
The Biden administration now has to ponder whether and how to allow remittance providers such as Western Union to return to Cuba.
John Kavulich, president of the New York-based US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, suggests that if the Biden administration decides to let remittance services resume, it must accept the fact that the Cuban government “will gain in some measure” — either through a state-controlled receiving agency, or by way of an official dollar-peso exchange rate that overvalues the peso.
Cuban Foreign Ministry official Carlos Fernández de Cossio, in an interview with MSNBC, said the Cuban state does not take a cut of remittances. Western Union does, he said, and pays Cuba $1 per $100 in remittances, for services rendered.
Reopening consular services, increase Internet access
Another State Department working group is reviewing the feasibility of increasing staff at the U.S. embassy in Havana. Since 2017, only a skeleton crew has been working at the building on Havana’s Malecón; Cubans traveling to the United States have had to apply for visa at U.S. consulates in third countries.
The Biden administration is also considering ways to increase Internet access to Cubans, according to the statement. The Cuban government has accused the U.S. government of fomenting the protests and has blacked out mobile Internet for several days, and blocked access to certain social media sites.
In 2017, the Department of State created a “Cuba Internet Task Force”, which put together a list of recommendations two years later. As part of an agreement Google and Cuba’s state telecom signed in 2019, Google said it would establish a physical connection with one of its “points of presence”.
Finally, the statement said the administration will work with international organizations to provide humanitarian assistance, and the Office of Foreign Assets Control will explore sanctioning Cuban officials involved in the crackdown against protesters.
While the measures respond in part to pressure from Cuban exiles, some Miami politicians criticized the possible easing of remittances and reopening of consular services.
“President Biden, we do not need any study groups. We need action — now!”, tweeted Rep. María Elvira Salazar (R-Miami) in response, without specifying what kind of action she would like to see.
Other Trump administration measures, such as prohibiting any flights by U.S. airlines to Cuban destinations other than Havana, or a prohibition for cruise ships to dock in Cuba, remain in place. Also, Cuba remains on the State Department’s blacklist of “state sponsors of terror”, which is a major obstacle for international day-to-day banking transactions with Cuba.
The day after the July 11 protests, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and House Foreign Relations Committee Chair Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) called on Biden to lift all Trump administration sanctions, to “alleviate the suffering in Cuba”.