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Hey Joe, Hands Off Cuba!

Rather than pursue another heavy-handed failure, the Biden administration should lift the unjust trade embargo and keep away from the island nation’s nascent protest movement.

A close up of Joe Biden, holding his hand in front of his face.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

It’s rare that U.S. foreign policy makes much of a dent in domestic politics—did anyone, outside of the families of military members and refugees, notice the end of the Afghan war?—but recent political unrest in Cuba has quickly been taken up by Republican politicians with fervor. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who is of Cuban descent, has tweeted frequently over the past few days in support of anti-government protesters while taking the opportunity to bash the Biden administration as insufficiently supportive of their efforts.

The line expressed by Rubio—militantly anti-Communist and equally critical of supposed Democratic passivity—has spread quickly among his colleagues. Republican politicians and conservative media outlets, from Representative Lauren Boebert to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to Fox News, have echoed those sentiments while calling the Cuban protests an indictment of socialism, communism, or choose-your-left-wing ideology. Many of them are using the #SOSCuba hashtag, which has become a locus for anti-regime expression of a pungently right-wing flavor. Francis Suarez, the mayor of Miami, tweeted, “We are imploring the USA to take action.”

With due respect to Miami’s Bitcoin-loving chief executive, the United States should not just “take action”—especially if “action” means violently interfering in Cuban affairs or trying to foment potentially catastrophic regime change, as administrations have done going back to Dwight Eisenhower. The simplest, and perhaps the most politically savvy, path forward would be to drop the long-standing U.S. trade embargo, eliminate sanctions, and ensure that any incipient protest movement remains organic, indigenous, and untainted by American association. Anything more risks hobbling a movement that has only barely sprung into being.

The notion that we might not Do! Something! is antithetical to a deeply ingrained ideology that casts our shock troops as M16-toting bearers of democracy. Accusations of “isolationism” and capitulation to communism will surely follow in the wake of opting out of some blundering, heavy-handed approach. But a mature nation knows when restraint is the better and more effective course and doesn’t regard every problem as deserving of a military response. As it is, it’s unclear whether America’s ruling class—which just last week refused Haitian government entreaties to send troops in the wake of their president’s assassination—has the capacity to see the Cuban protests as anything but an opportunity to burnish the myth of American exceptionalism. The sight of American flags at some protests was taken by Republicans as a sign that the movement invited U.S. involvement.

The exact nature of the Cuban protest movement—its demands, its scale—is still coming into focus, though it seems pitched against a government that allows few political rights and that has overseen an economy battered by sanctions and the Covid-19 pandemic. A pro-government counterprotest movement has also sprung up, with leftists sharing news articles and videos on Twitter to counter what they say is an imperialist narrative of failed socialism spread by right-wing politicians, corporate media, and the CIA.

But with the situation moving quickly, observing from the sidelines is proving to be untenable. The Biden administration has been prompted into—well, not action, at least not yet—but some statements of the forcefully worded varietal: “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,” read a statement the White House released on Monday. “The Cuban people are bravely asserting fundamental and universal rights. Those rights, including the right of peaceful protest and the right to freely determine their own future, must be respected.”

Such a statement should be transparently ridiculous and hypocritical to anyone familiar with the stream of videos of U.S. police violence coursing through social media feeds in recent years. But U.S. policy toward Cuba has never been premised on good faith, mutual understanding, or a sense of fair play. The U.S. has attempted to kill or otherwise remove Cuban leaders ever since Fidel Castro overthrew the murderous, U.S.-backed Batista regime in 1959. A punishing trade embargo—and a series of failed operations by the CIA and other U.S. agencies, from Castro assassination plots to a social media platform designed to provoke protest—have since given the Cuban people, and the ruling dictatorship, little reason to trust their powerful neighbors to the north. The main U.S. presence on Cuba, of course, is a military base that the U.S. coerced the Cuban government to hand over in 1903 and that in recent years has hosted a lawless prison and torture site.

This past March, 80 Democratic members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to President Biden requesting that he return to Obama-era policies of rapprochement and diminished sanctions against Cuba. Many other countries, especially in Latin America, have pushed for an end to U.S.-imposed trade restrictions. The Biden administration didn’t listen: In June the U.S. opposed a United Nations resolution—passed for the twenty-ninth time—that called for the elimination of the embargo. The president’s apparent indifference to reverting back to Obama’s policies—themselves still far less liberal than many on the left would prefer—has led to criticism that he is just as bad as his immediate predecessor: “Why Cubans see Biden as no ‘different from Trump,’” read a CBS News headline. An anonymous administration official offered a sense of the new realpolitik to The Washington Post: “When it comes down to Cuba, we’ll do what’s in the national security interest of the United States.”

We are far from the height of the Cold War, when the USSR secretly placed nuclear missiles in Cuba, helping provoke a crisis that nearly led to Armageddon. (America’s encirclement of the USSR with its own nuclear armaments didn’t help soothe tensions.) Cuba has long been open to diplomatic engagement with the U.S. That hasn’t stopped conservatives from shoehorning Cuba’s nascent protest movement into their shabby Cold War 2.0 narratives. Rubio invoked the specter of our two great global adversaries, warning about Chinese and Russian intelligence facilities inside Cuba and Chinese equipment to censor internet access, as if the mere mention of these two countries is supposed to cause American readers to stand at attention. (For what it’s worth, U.S. companies sell similar internet censorship and monitoring equipment to Belarus and other repressive countries that have faced recent political and social unrest.)

One of the great lost opportunities of the Cold War, which has extended well into the post-9/11 era, is that the U.S. never experienced a real peace dividend following World War II. We have fostered a wartime economy for some 80-odd years, and have been hunting for foreign monsters to slay for just as long. Along with pouring vast sums into military and intelligence efforts better spent on diplomacy and providing for domestic needs, we’ve corrupted our sense of political possibility. Peace has become weakness; diplomacy a failure to impose American will on foreigners who must appreciate having democracy forced on them at gunpoint. Every foreign movement for political rights becomes an opportunity to hype the long-failed possibilities of American military interventionism—to “take action” by smashing some bad guys.

If the Biden administration hopes to carve out a new, post–war on terror philosophy governing America’s engagement with the world, it should be premised as much on quiet diplomacy—and perhaps the occasional mealy-mouthed statement—as on revving the engine of empire. Immune to critiques of U.S. foreign policy, the Republican Party will never come round to the liberal-left view that American intervention, particularly in Cuba, can be a toxic force that does little to advance the cause of democracy. The religion of American exceptionalism, and its electoral utility, is premised on denying this long-understood fact. It takes then a certain amount of resolute decision-making not to intervene, to risk domestic political blowback. You might even call it strength. The strength to do nothing, and to trust others to forge their own political destiny.