When President Obama eased economic and travel restrictions on Cuba in 2014 in a move to reestablish diplomatic relations for the first time in more than half a century, Representative Jim McGovern of Worcester, who had long pushed for the effort, got a call from the White House.
“The person who called me was Vice President Biden,” McGovern said in an interview. That policy change, McGovern said, was a crucial first step in ending the long cold war between the nations that only served to further harm Cuban citizens, who had already suffered for decades under a brutal communist regime, and embolden Cuban political leaders’ criticism of the United States and democracy.
Now McGovern is among the lawmakers losing patience with Biden, who as a presidential candidate promised to immediately reverse the Trump-era clampdown on travel and trade with the island nation, but as president has yet to act.
And now the stakes are especially high, with historically unprecedented protests — and the Cuban regime’s crackdown on demonstrators — reaching a fever pitch. In the last week, the Cuban demonstrators have decried the devastating effects of the country’s economic crisis and the collapse of its once internationally renowned health care system as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage. With food and medicine dangerously scarce, inflation rising, and crumbling infrastructure causing power outages, the still-existing Trump policies are blocking humanitarian efforts to send supplies and even the ability of Cuban Americans to send remittance funds to their families.
“I don’t know what the hell the hold-up is. I really don’t,” McGovern said. “This is not about direct aid to the Cuban government. This is about people being able to provide their families with additional funds to put food on the table.”
McGovern is right. Biden must, at a minimum, act now to reverse the previous administration’s restrictions, which were imposed to punish the brutal regime of the Cuban government but served to harm the Cuban people — and indeed, provided a readymade excuse for the regime to explain away its own failures.
That is a first step in what ought to be a broader policy priority of this White House and Congress to reverse the embargo and related restrictive trade, travel, and immigration policies, which remain as harmful to Cuban citizens and their efforts to demand freedom from repressive rule as they have been ineffective in stopping the human rights violations under the reign of the Castro brothers, and now president Miguel Díaz-Canel.
But as demonstrations continue, with Cuban Americans in Miami and elsewhere taking to the streets in solidarity, the White House has issued only words of encouragement.
“The Cuban people are bravely asserting fundamental and universal rights,” Biden said in a statement Monday. “Those rights, including the right of peaceful protest and the right to freely determine their own future, must be respected. The United States calls on the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves.”
Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Tuesday that Biden’s statement was meant to reiterate “that the United States stands firmly with the people of Cuba as they assert their universal rights.”
Those are fine sentiments, but they aren’t enough for McGovern and the dozens of other lawmakers who signed a letter back in March urging Biden to act now to lift the executive order’s restrictions and pursue an end to the embargo.
“It is frustrating to see the reaction of not just the usual suspects, but even the Biden administration in response to this, with this, ‘Oh we stand with the Cuban people; our hearts go out to the Cuban people,’ ” McGovern said. “Well, if you want to help the Cuban people, you might want to begin by relieving their suffering through reversing the Trump-era restrictions.”
Yes, Cuba presents a perilous landscape for Biden, from both a foreign policy standpoint and a political perspective. Those on opposite sides of the Cuban policy divide in Washington and beyond have only dug their heels in deeper during the back-and-forth domestic actions of Obama and Trump. And Biden is surely aware of his failure to win Florida in the 2020 election and knows any move will have repercussions in 2024.
Republicans have criticized what they see as Biden’s failure to adequately support the Cuban demonstrators, all while standing ready to pounce on any move Biden may make to return to a normalization of relations and to portray it as a gift to Cuban communist leaders.
And Democrats are also not united on the issue. Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is the highest-ranking Latino and Cuban American in Congress, says effectively challenging the regime means leaving the embargo in place.
But Biden has already chosen a position, extending at least back to when he made that phone call to McGovern in 2014 and through his 2020 presidential campaign. He’s used plenty of words. Now it’s time for action.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.