President Joe Biden now has a Cuba puzzle even as China showdown sizzles


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This story was excerpted from the July 13 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in America, the daily email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.
The sudden and historic uprising on the communist island over the systemic suppression of freedom and an economic crisis, exacerbated by Covid-19 and US sanctions, seemed to catch the Biden administration on the hop. President Joe Biden had promised on the campaign trail to revive the Obama administration’s policy of engaging Cuba and easing the decades-long US embargo, which was partially reimposed by President Donald Trump. But given all the crises churning around the world, it has yet to settle on a defined policy.

Part of the problem is that Cuba has become so politicized, especially in the key swing state of Florida, where many exiles live, that it’s all but impossible to have a dispassionate discussion about what the US approach should be. Key players in the debate who oppose another opening, like Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez — a New Jersey Democrat — and Sunshine State Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, have deep familial ties to the island and antipathy to its communist heritage. And the past affinity of some liberals to the Castros, not to mention left-wing strongmen in Venezuela, has fueled GOP claims that Democrats are “socialists” — a politically potent insult in much of the US.

True to form, it didn’t take long for Republicans to slam Biden for not speaking out in strong support of the protests. The President is in a bit of a box since he has put support for global democracy at the center of his administration. By Sunday evening, his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, warned authorities in Havana against a crackdown. Biden followed with a written statement, then said on camera that current protests were not like anything, “frankly,” seen before. Protesters are demanding their freedom from “an authoritarian regime” and asserting “their universal rights,” Biden said. He also warned the Cuban government against “attempts to silence the voice of the people.”
If the protests boil over and even topple the post-Castro regime in Cuba, US supporters of a hardline approach — seeking their own political dividend — will surely claim that choking the island’s economy delivered. Then again, 60 years is a heck of a long time to wait for a policy to work.

Troubled waters

Things are not just getting dicey in America’s backyard.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned China on Sunday that the US would fulfill treaty obligations and defend its ally the Philippines if Manila’s vessels were attacked by Beijing’s Navy, as tensions simmer in the South China Sea. The statement came on the fifth anniversary of a ruling by an international tribunal that repudiated China’s sweeping claims to the vast maritime territory also claimed in part by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
China claims that international voyages through the region by foreign navies, including that of the United States, unnecessarily spike tensions. Rival Pacific powers argue they are assuring the lawful principle of freedom of navigation.
In the latest such mission, the guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold carried out a freedom of navigation operation near the Paracel Islands in the northwestern South China Sea on Monday. The islands, referred to as the Xisha chain in China, are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, but China has controlled them since the 1970s. China responded by calling the US a 
”South China Sea security risk maker.” The South China Sea, along with the waters off Taiwan, is a potential maritime tinder box as US and allied ships maneuver in close quarters with Chinese vessels and planes.

Tensions are likely to further spike in the coming weeks when the new British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth sails through the South China Sea at the head of an international flotilla — with all the colonial echoes that voyage will bring.

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