Biden faces lose-lose scenario with rising Cuban migration


The Biden administration is facing an impossible scenario with growing Cuban migration, forced to balance the political fallout of stubbornly high border encounter numbers and that of opening talks with the Cuban regime.

According to Customs and Border Protection data, more than 200,000 Cubans showed up at the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal 2023, about the same number encountered in fiscal 2022.

According to analysis by the Washington Office on Latin America, 19 percent of all migrants who presented at U.S. ports of entry in September were Cubans.

Mexicans represented 27 percent of all encounters, and Venezuelans represented 23 percent.

President Biden is starved for any short-term strategy that can reduce border arrivals and ease political pressure on border security.

There are no short-term measures to reduce Mexican migration, given the country’s relatively healthy economy and political stability, but Cuba and Venezuela are both economies depressed in part by U.S. sanctions.

The mass migration from Venezuela has been a motivating factor for the Biden administration to open talks with President Nicolás Maduro’s regime, despite years of open enmity and allegations of narco-corruption against his government’s top officials.

But the administration has shown deaf ears to Cuba’s appeals for talks.

Cuban officials know they face long odds: Ahead of an election year, Biden is wary of making Democrats’ lives harder than they already are in increasingly ruby-red Florida.

Talks with Venezuela already represent a risk with a significant portion of the Florida electorate, but those negotiations are centered on upcoming elections in the South American country, opening the prospect of ending Maduro’s 20-year reign.

Biden administration officials loosened sanctions on Venezuela in exchange for Maduro allowing the opposition’s primary elections to take place relatively unencumbered.

On Sunday, María Corina Machado, an opposition leader whom Maduro has attempted to railroad, won the opposition primaries with 92 percent of the vote, setting up the most credible challenge to Maduro’s hold on power in two decades.

Still, news of talks with Maduro drew immediate backlash from Florida Republicans.

“I vehemently oppose the announced ‘deal’ with the Maduro dictatorship to promote fake elections in Venezuela,” Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said in a statement last week. 

“After years of political persecution, repression of independent media, and brutal human rights abuses, I am convinced that no agreement with Maduro will genuinely ensure freedom in Venezuela.”

Yet some Biden allies expressed hope that the sanctions-for-democracy deal could pan out.

“As Democratic leaders of the House and Senate subcommittees with jurisdiction over Western Hemisphere affairs, we are heartened to see this important progress toward democracy and human rights in Venezuela,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) said in a statement.

“If successfully implemented, this agreement has the potential to foster the preconditions for the free and fair elections that Venezuelans deserve.”

The deal has the Biden administration and Maduro playing a game of chicken: Maduro is betting he will regain political strength with new income from relaxed sanctions, and Biden is betting the sanctions relief will force Maduro to give the opposition enough breathing room to compete.

Regardless, the sanctions relief is likely to at least momentarily prop up the Venezuelan economy, potentially making a dent in the number of people leaving that country.

Cuban officials, meanwhile, are pleading with the Biden administration to open talks on nearly any topic, including human rights and political prisoners, but not regime change.

Because elections are not on the table, the Biden administration doesn’t have the cover to loosen sanctions in the name of democracy — any such effort is certain to be seen a return to the Obama administration’s policy of rapprochement.

But Cuban officials say any sort of sanctions relief would have the desired effect of reducing emigration from the island. Above all, however, they’re seeking to be removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which isolates Havana from international banking.

Cuba was placed on the list in the waning days of the Trump administration, essentially daring Biden to either deal with further economic distress on the island or publicly renounce major leverage against the communist regime.

Cuban officials are cognizant of Biden’s predicament and the historical baggage of U.S.-Cuba relations, but they’ve engaged in a pressure campaign to highlight how relatively recent measures are impacting migration.

“I’m not talking about the 60 years of the embargo. I’m talking of the brand-new 200-and-something unilateral, coercive measures during Trump and Biden that trigger the highest emigration away from Cuba to the U.S., which is painful for us,” Johana Tablada, the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s top official in the General Division for the United States, said in a recent interview with The Hill.

Updated at 12:35 p.m. ET

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