What do Cuban-Americans in Houston think of Biden’s new policy toward the island?

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The party of 10 was served a wide variety of typical Cuban food at a lunch last week, but there was no variation in their take on the topic under discussion.

“We are all – all! — against Biden’s policies on Cuba,” said Gustavo Juan, one of the members of the Casa Cuba Houston social organization sitting at the table at the Rincón Criollo restaurant discussing the new measures the administration announced this week. last to lift the restrictive policies implemented by the Trump administration.

“What can you expect from Obama II? said Juan, noting that each of the guests at the table was a Republican. While many Cubans are against the easing of restrictions, others support the new measures or have mixed feelings about the conflict between their ideological views and the practical considerations of policies they see as positive for their loved ones in the country. of the Caribbean.

The new measures restore and expand several policies implemented by the Obama administration, which followed a strategy to promote democracy by engaging the island and facilitating opportunities for a nascent rank of small Cuban entrepreneurs.

The new policies focus on restoring consular services in Havana to process family reunification applications, easing travel restrictions, restoring services that facilitate remittances to Cubans and allowing investments from Americans. in private companies in the Caribbean country.

The State Department said it would reinstate travel categories for Americans wishing to visit Cuba, such as so-called “person-to-person” groups that allowed many US citizens to visit the island before such trips. from being suspended by the administration of former President Donald Trump. It will also allow flights from the United States to destinations beyond Havana, the island’s capital.

“We will make it easier for families to visit loved ones in Cuba and for authorized American travelers to engage with the Cuban people, attend meetings and conduct research,” said Ned Price, spokesperson for the state department.

Economically, Price said in a statement that the government will encourage the growth of Cuba’s private sector by supporting greater access to US internet services, applications and e-commerce platforms. It will also support the creation of channels to transfer money and remittances to Cubans on the island and facilitate U.S. business activities with independent Cuban entrepreneurs.

“The new policies are important because Biden had up until now maintained Trump policies which were a body slam on family reunification, family contact, travel…and these are policies that directly impact the citizens of the country he elected to lead. said Guillermo J. Grenier, professor of sociology at Florida International University’s School of International and Public Affairs and co-director of the Cuban Pool at the Cuban Research Institute.

President Joe Biden said during his presidential campaign that he would reinstate the policy of engagement initiated by President Barack Obama.

Experts say a series of anti-government protests in Cuba in July 2021 may have played a role in delaying new policies. The protests grew out of growing resentment of the island’s authoritarian one-party communist system, coupled with a COVID-19 lockdown and international isolation, and a change in monetary policy that triggered inflation and a rampant poverty.

Danni Escalona, ​​a young Cuban who arrived in Houston five years ago, said he had mixed views on Biden’s policy shifts.

“On the one hand, I don’t see a future in Cuba with this regime,” he said, mentioning that a close friend was imprisoned during the protests in Cuba. One of his frustrations with the government is that “there is no free market”, which he says affects his family’s farming business in eastern Cuba because the state imposes limits on food prices. ” But it’s complicated ; I want the well-being of my family, and some (of the policies) can also help people there.

Experts say that US policies towards Cuba have always been more punitive than those applied to other countries with which the United States has had conflicting political positions, such as China and Vietnam.

“We don’t mean that we endorse China’s domestic policies by trading with them,” Grenier said. “But Cuba has always been a different story for several reasons.” He said they are primarily tied to the political force of Florida’s old guard of Cuban political activists who support the US embargo against Cuba.

Grenier said U.S. policy has hurt Cubans, pointing to what he called “cruel policy restrictions” that severely limit the ability of U.S. residents to send money to relatives on the island in the the height of the pandemic.

US measures that took effect in November 2020 forced Western Union to close its more than 400 locations in Cuba. The remittance agency, which was the leader of its kind in Cuba, carried out annual transactions of between $900 million and $1.5 billion, according to estimates by the Columbia University Capacity Building Project in Cuba.

Juan told the restaurant he applauded “cutting” remittances. He admits that the Cuban people use the money for everyday expenses such as food, but his reasoning prioritizes the overthrow of the Cuban government.

“Cuba lives off the money that is sent from here,” Juan said.

With the new measures, “all Biden is doing is prolonging the existence of the current Cuban government and the suffering of Cubans on the island,” said José Ramón Jimenez, another of the diners. All came to the United States over 40 years ago. years ago and said they had no family or close friends in Cuba.

For many young Cubans in the United States, however, helping their families on the island is more important than politics.

Not far from Casa Cuba members, at another restaurant table, a young Cuban mother who came to Houston across the southwest border in 2019 said she was in favor of the new measures.

“It’s very difficult to send money to my mother and my daughter from here,” said Alina Hernández, whose 6-year-old child is in the care of her mother in a Cuban province. She said that without direct channels to send money, she had struggled to find “mulas,” as Cubans call people who do business by transporting money to Cuba to deliver it to people there. -low.

With the closure of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Cuba in 2018, islanders were forced to travel to Guyana to process family reunification applications at considerable cost. Cubans could only apply for visitor visas to the United States by traveling and making appointments at embassies of third countries.

Biden’s new policies “will not change the political game overnight,” Grenier said. “He should stretch them out, stick to his guns and put boots on the ground for the long haul,” Grenier said.

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