WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Monday announced a partial lifting of sanctions on Cuba, including expanding flights beyond Havana and restarting a program to reunify Cuban families in the United States, its first moves toward fulfilling President Joe Biden’s campaign promise to reverse many of the sanctions imposed by his predecessor.
The changes, which also include relaxing the ban on remittances, were announced after a lengthy review of Cuba policy. They go into effect at a time when food and medicine shortages have created new waves of Cubans trying to reach U.S. shores.
While administration officials have said the actions would “center on human rights and empowering the Cuban people,” they were immediately denounced by Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, a Cuban American Democrat who is chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. “Today’s announcement,” he said, “risks sending the wrong message to the wrong people, at the wrong time and for all the wrong reasons.”
The split between Biden and Menendez goes to the heart of differences in both political parties about how to deal with the Cuban government. A government crackdown on dissent that began in July led Biden to announce largely symbolic sanctions on Cuban police officials and others accused of human rights abuses, including arrests of protesters. But it also made it harder to fulfill his campaign promise to restore the kind of relationship the Obama administration envisioned, and which Biden endorsed as vice president.
But Biden administration officials concluded that restoring the status quo from January 2017, when the Obama administration left office, is as complicated in the case of Cuba as it is in that of Iran, where a parallel effort has faltered.
The Biden administration’s policy review concluded that the best way to bring about change in Cuba was direct engagement with its people — not its government — which had also been the underlying logic of President Barack Obama’s opening to Havana. The administration has argued that it is shipping technology to Cubans to help them avoid government censorship and to help 20,000 people rejoin family members in the United States.
Menendez takes a very different view: that the only way to change the behavior of the Cuban government is to choke off its revenues. He objected specifically to the administration’s decision to allow groups to travel to Cuba, though not individual tourists.
“I am dismayed to learn the Biden administration will begin authorizing group travel to Cuba through visits akin to tourism,” Menendez said in a statement.
“To be clear, those who still believe that increasing travel will breed democracy in Cuba are simply in a state of denial,” he said. “For decades, the world has been traveling to Cuba and nothing has changed. For years, the United States foolishly eased travel restrictions, arguing millions of American dollars would bring about freedom, and nothing changed.”
The largest program that is being revived is the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, which allowed up to 20,000 immigration visas to the United States each year. The State Department is expected to announce that it is stepping up the approval of visas at the embassy in Havana. There are 22,000 applications, officials said, that no one has acted on in the past five years.
The administration is also relaxing the ban on family remittances of $1,000 a quarter to make sure the payments go to individuals, not businesses. But it is unclear how the movement of money will be accomplished: The main financial processing firm, called Fincimex, has been run by the Cuban military.
In a conversation with reporters Monday night, White House officials sidestepped one of the thorniest issues in the effort to undo the sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump: the continuing mystery over whether the Cuban government was responsible for mysterious ailments that have afflicted diplomats and CIA personnel around the world.
The CIA said in January that the ailments, broadly known as Havana syndrome because they were first identified among the U.S. delegation in Cuba, are unlikely to have been caused by Cuba, Russia or another foreign adversary.
The agency argued that a majority of the 1,000 cases reported to the government could be explained by environmental causes, undiagnosed medical conditions or stress, rather than a sustained global campaign by a foreign power. Groups representing the victims were angry, and the CIA said studies were continuing for about two dozen cases that remained unexplained.
Biden administration officials have said recently that the inconclusive findings left them somewhat stuck, unable to resolve the Havana syndrome mystery and thus unable to do much with the diplomatic relationship.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.