MIAMI — President Joe Biden’s Homeland Security secretary met Thursday with prominent Cuban American activists here and announced new sanctions on Cuban regime officials, the latest move that aligns the Democrat’s policies more with Donald Trump than Barack Obama.
The Cuban-born Sec. Alejandro Mayorkas is the first Biden Cabinet official to visit Miami since the protests erupted on the communist-run island more than a month ago. His trip came as the Biden administration announced on Thursday its fourth round of sanctions on Cuban regime officials involved in the crackdown following the historic anti-government protests, which involved thousands of Cubans taking to the street across the island to call for freedom.
Mayorkas, speaking to the press following a two-hour listening session with Cuban Americans, repeatedly underscored the Biden administration’s commitment to supporting the Cuban people and nodded to critics that have argued President Joe Biden is moving too slowly and not speaking up enough on the situation in Cuba.
“Please do not interpret a moment of silence to be a moment of relent to our conviction and our commitment to the Cuban people,” Mayorkas said at La Ermita de la Caridad, a Miami shrine honoring Cuba’s patron saint.
So far, Biden’s Cuba strategy has leaned more toward former President Donald Trump’s hardline approach, with the administration keeping in place existing Cuba sanctions and adding new ones targeting Cuban regime officials and entities.
Mayorkas was tight-lipped with reporters about the future of U.S.-Cuba policy. Asked why Biden’s policies so far looked less like those of President Obama, Biden’s former boss when he was vice president, and more like the Trump policies that Biden had once pledged to scale back, Mayorkas wouldn’t say.
“The Biden-Harris administration will develop its policy toward Cuba in support of the Cuban people with the Cuban American community,” he replied.
Biden’s Homeland Security secretary also said he would not comment on whether he supports efforts to prevent money from flowing directly or indirectly to the Cuban military, which controls the island’s economy — the heart of Trump’s Cuba policy.
Mayorkas’ Miami trip coincided with the Treasury Department’s announcement Thursday that it is slapping sanctions on Roberto Legra Sotolongo and Andres Laureano Gonzalez Brito of the Cuban Ministry of Revolutionary Armed Forces, and Abelardo Jimenez Gonzalez of the Cuban Interior Ministry.
This fourth round of sanctions is not expected to be the last. Ahead of a White House meeting with prominent Cuban Americans last month, Biden said there are more sanctions to come, “unless there’s some drastic change in Cuba, which I don’t anticipate.”
Most Cuban officials and entities have already been sanctioned by the U.S., so Biden’s latest sanctions will likely not have a significant impact on those targeted. But administration officials have repeatedly said that the sanctions are not only about holding accountable those responsible for the repression of protesters, but also sending a message to the Cuban people and international community.
Some Democrats, Cuban American activists and Cuba watchers have been frustrated with Biden’s approach to Cuba, which has differed greatly from Obama-era policy that sought a rapprochement with the island after decades of Cold War embargoes. During the transition, Biden officials acknowledged they would not go back to Obama’s same approach toward the island. In the midst of the protests, Biden administration officials began to announce sanctions, while they continued evaluating other potential policies that could tangibly benefit the Cuban people.
“Biden’s history has shown he’s more concerned about what his opponents think about Cuba than what his own supporters think about Cuba,” said John Kavulich, president of the nonpartisan U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
“Why is Biden more Trump than Obama on Cuba? It’s simply a matter of facts on the ground,” Kavulich added, pointing to the 2020 election results in Florida, a state Biden lost to Trump, and coming Senate and House elections.
One Cuban American who met with Mayorkas Thursday said the administration found the 2020 election results a “wake up call” in Miami-Dade, which Biden only carried by 7 percentage points — a 22-point decline from Hillary Clinton’s margins — in part because of Cuban exile fervor for Trump’s tougher sanctions on the dictatorship.
Beyond sanctions, the Biden administration is still largely crafting its Cuba policy, which U.S. officials say is focused on ensuring Cubans have access to the internet; restaffing the U.S. embassy to resume consular services on the island; and allowing Cubans to receive remittances without the Cuban regime taking a cut.
Mayorkas noted that the administration is “very focused” on speeding up the processing of visas for Cubans on the island. There is currently a massive backlog in processing visas that dates to when U.S. officials stopped processing applications for the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program in 2017. The program has not been reinstated yet, despite Biden’s promise on the campaign trail to do so.
Biden officials have not shared details on key aspects of how and when they will roll out the rest of their Cuba policy.
While in South Florida, Mayorkas also met with Haitian American leaders following last weekend’s earthquake there and the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse last month. The death toll from the earthquake has risen to nearly 2,000 people, with more than 9,000 were injured.
Last month, following the Cuba protests and assassination of the Haitian president, Mayorkas urged the Cuban and Haitian people not to come to the United States despite the ongoing upheaval in both Caribbean nations.
“Allow me to be clear: If you take to the sea, you will not come to the United States,” he said in a press conference.