NEW YORK – When Pope John Paul II arrived for a six-day trip to Cuba on January 21, 1998, he closed his first address to the Cuban people with a historic message: “May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba.”
At that point, the United States’ embargo against Cuba, begun in 1962, was in full swing. It wasn’t until almost 20 years later that President Barack Obama eased some of the restrictions on the island nation. President Donald Trump re-imposed them during his administration.
Earlier this week, the Biden administration announced it was lifting some of the Trump restrictions on Cuba and moving back towards the policies of the Obama presidency – a move supported by Bishop Octavio Cisneros, one of the few Cuban American bishops in the United States.
“I believe that this would be of great need for the people because the people of Cuba right now are suffering quite a bit,” Cisneros, an emeritus auxiliary bishop of Brooklyn, told Crux.
The Biden administration’s partial lifting of sanctions includes restarting the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program and increasing the capacity of consular services and visa processing that includes 20,000 immigrant visas hung up in Havana. It also expands authorized commercial and charter flights beyond Havana, and lifts the remittance limit of $1,000 per quarter, plus a support of donative remittances to further support families and entrepreneurs.
The U.S. will still prohibit tourism in Cuba, but will allow group people-to-people educational travel.
A senior Biden administration official described the actions as those that “center on human rights and empowering the Cuban people to determine their own future.”
Cisneros said he has spoken with the other Cuban American bishops and that they are collectively in favor of the U.S. opening up the relationship with Cuba. He noted that this kind of openness is an important first step towards progress at a time when there is immense suffering in Cuba with both medicine and food shortages, an inability for Cuban Americans to travel to their families, and difficulty getting them financial assistance.
The bishop highlighted a letter sent from a religious sister working in a nursing home about the difficulty she had getting needed supplies for their people. He said that, hopefully, the Biden administration’s move can help alleviate these kinds of troubles.
“An openness has to happen so that an easier way of reaching the people that need [help] can be found,” Cisneros said. “I hope that through that openness the Biden administration can help us carry on the work that the Church does.”
Cisneros added that there needs to be openness “to see any progress” in Cuba, but also clarified that the bishops’ support of the eased sanctions doesn’t signal support of the Cuban government.
“We are all in favor of opening the relationship, but it does not mean that we are in favor of the government of Cuba,” Cisneros said. “We are not opening ourselves to say, ‘No, the Cuban government is fine.’ It’s not about the government. It’s about the people.”
In a May 19 statement, Bishop David Malloy of Rockford, the U.S Bishops’ Conference Committee on International Justice and Peace, said the lifting of the sanctions “will strengthen familial, economic, and social ties between our countries.”
Not everyone saw the Biden administration’s decision as a positive. U.S. Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, a Cuban American Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that the decision “risks sending the wrong message to the wrong people, at the wrong time for all the wrong reasons,” citing the communist regime’s persecution of Cubans for participation in last summer’s pro-democracy protests.
Menendez also challenged the decision to allow group travel, saying “those who still believe that increasing travel will breed democracy in Cuba are simply in a state of denial.”
Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami called the Biden administration’s move “an important step” from the standpoint that “we’ve had the Biden administration basically ignoring Cuba for the last 15 months.” He noted also that Biden promised it would provide free internet to Cuba to circumvent the government’s control of social media when the protests erupted last summer.
“Well, Biden hasn’t done that yet almost a year later,” Wenski told Crux.
In general, though, Wenski said the eased sanctions are a plus because it can help create conditions “where there can be a broader reconciliation” between people of Cuba and America. The archbishop added that he hopes the measures spur further steps like getting the U.S. Embassy in Cuba “working at full capacity again.”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg