US looks at remittances, larger embassy in Cuba after protests

Agence France-Presse
US looks at remittances, larger embassy in Cuba after protests
A man wearing a shirt depicting the US flag is pictured in Havana, on December 12, 2019. Cuba and the United States, former enemies of the Cold War, had a historic approach five years ago, but their relations deteriorated after the election of Donald Trump, who reinforced sanctions against the island.

WASHINGTON — The United States said Tuesday it was looking to expand its embassy staff in Cuba and studying ways to let Cuban-Americans bypass the government in sending back money following unprecedented demonstrations.

If carried out, the moves would be the first significant policy shifts on Cuba under US President Joe Biden, who has vowed solidarity with protesters who rallied last week amid the island's worst economic crisis in decades.

The State Department said it was looking at reinforcing staff at the embassy in Havana, which was established as part of former president Barack Obama's engagement drive with the communist-run island but drastically scaled back by Donald Trump.

"This staffing at our embassy will serve to enhance our diplomatic activity, our engagement with civil society, our consular service, all of which will be in service of helping the Cuban people to secure greater degrees of... the universal rights that have been denied to them for far too long," State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.

Trump reduced staffing citing mysterious, debilitating sensory illnesses suffered by US diplomats in Cuba, the circumstances of which remain murky but for which US officials have generally blamed Russian intelligence.

Trump also rolled back US remittances and travel to the island, delighting many of the virulently anti-communist Cuban-Americans in the electorally crucial state of Florida.

Price said the State Department had formed a working group on remittances that will examine ways to let Cuban-Americans send back money but avoid giving a commission to the government.

"We are going to, as we explore this issue, make sure that we are doing everything we can to see to it that those proceeds go to the Cuban people and that they do not go into the regime coffers," Price said.

Remittances from abroad account for billions of dollars in Cuba, constituting a crucial part of the economy.

But with the government in control of currency exchange for the peso, which is not internationally convertible, bypassing the government would be a formidable task.

News of the working group comes after White House advisors said they met with Cuban-Americans. Biden on Thursday had made clear he would not restart remittances, reversing his stance during the 2020 campaign.

"I would not do that now because the fact is it's highly likely that the regime would confiscate those remittances or big chunks of it," Biden said.

Biden said the United States was also looking at ways to restore internet access in Cuba that has been heavily restricted by the government.

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