Assistant Secretary Brian A. Nichols’ Remarks on Cuba Policy at the Cuban Research Institute of Florida International University March 7, 2023


U.S. Embassy in Havana

Havana, Cuba

March 7, 2023

Hello, thank you all for joining me to discuss our policy toward Cuba and support for the Cuban people.

I am honored to gather here today with an impressive group of Cubans and Cuban-Americans who are incredibly knowledgeable about Cuba and U.S.-Cuba policy.  Your efforts, your expertise, and your commitment to a better future for the Cuban people have never been more important than they are at this moment.

I welcome your perspectives and thank you in advance for the insight you will share with us here today.

Everyone in this room is aware that the Cuban people are facing among the most difficult and dire political, economic, and social circumstances since Fidel Castro came to power. Analysts suggest the economic situation is worse even than the so-called Special Period of the 1990’s, and the human rights situation is grimmer than it has been for decades.

As I am sure you do, we hear over and over again from our contacts in Cuba and outside that many Cubans believe there is no future left for them on the island.

That sense of desperation and a yearning for greater freedoms led to the protests in July 2021 – the largest nationwide demonstrations in Cuba in recent history. Instead of recognizing the moment and addressing citizens’ legitimate concerns, the Cuban government responded with characteristic repression, condemning hundreds of protestors to prison with sentences up to 25 years.

Unfortunately, in the more than 18 months since these historic protests, the regime has only doubled down. NGOs estimate that over 700 protestors are among the more than 1,000 total political prisoners that remain behind bars today.

Publicly – and privately in discussions with Cuban officials – the U.S. government continues to call for the release of political prisoners. And we always stress that the Cuban people should be able to choose where to live and the government should allow its citizens to return to Cuba.

While we strongly oppose forced exile, the United States will not turn its back on political prisoners, and if they want to come to America, we will explore available avenues under U.S. law to welcome them.

Our Embassy in Havana has constant communication with the dissident community on the island, including the families of political prisoners. These dissidents and families are an incredibly brave group of people, facing extremely difficult conditions.

I would like to review the key aspects of the Administration’s policy toward Cuba. As this group is aware, President Biden directed us to take action in two primary areas.

First, to promote accountability for human rights abuses. As the President made clear, the U.S. government supports the right of Cubans and people everywhere to exercise their freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly.  We announced targeted sanctions against Cuban officials and security forces involved in abuses related to the July 11th protests and visa restrictions on officials implicated in attempts to silence the voices of the Cuban people.

Second, the President directed us to explore meaningful ways to support the Cuban people while limiting benefits to the Cuban regime.

To that end, on May 16 last year, we made several policy announcements. One of the most important elements of that support is family reunification through legal migration.

As you well know, the desperation that led to the protests also led to a wave of migration, with more Cubans arriving at our southern border and the beaches of Florida in the last year than during the waves of maritime migration in 1980 and 1994 combined.

In 2022, almost 300,000 Cubans crossed the southwest border, representing almost three percent of Cuba’s estimated population.

At the same time, the number of Cubans attempting to cross the Florida Straits also surged. Both these dangerous routes put migrants at extreme risk and led to an unknown number of deaths.

I know migration is a topic very close to home for this audience, as the vast majority of Cuban migrants are ultimately settling right here in South Florida. Thank you for your efforts to help new arrivals.

To fulfill the President’s May 16 commitments, we have been working to expand safe and legal migration options. Our Embassy in Havana is now fully open for immigrant visa processing and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has resumed processing under the Cuban Family Reunification Program.

Additionally, the Administration took the very bold and innovative step of launching a new parole program. The Administration committed to granting parole to up to 30,000 individuals from Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Haiti each month.

About 10,000 Cubans have successfully used the program to enter the United States to date. Cubans from all walks of life have benefited, including members of the human rights community.

I am pleased to report that since the launch of the parole program in particular, the number of Cuban migrants attempting dangerous irregular migration has plummeted. Recognizing it is still early days, we are pleased to see Cuban families choosing these legal options.

Our other areas of meaningful support for the Cuban people aim to support greater freedom and expand economic opportunities while limiting benefits to the Cuban regime.  These areas complement the ever-present focus on and support for Cuban human rights defenders and civil society.

For the first time since 2019, flights are now operating between the United States and cities outside of Havana.

We have strengthened family ties and facilitated educational connections between the American and Cuban people by expanding categories of authorized group travel.

The United States is increasing support for independent Cuban entrepreneurs and everyday citizens.

For example, we removed the cap on remittances and now allow for those in the United States to send remittances to non-family members.

Direct remittance flows resumed in November 2022 for the first time since 2020.

We increased support for private Cuban entrepreneurs by authorizing travel for professional meetings or conferences, including those that help connect the U.S. private sector with Cuban entrepreneurs, providing opportunities for networking and training.

We are working to expand access to technological services and tools that will enable trailblazing Cuban entrepreneurs to start or grow their businesses and thrive in the global digital economy, which will create jobs and opportunity for the Cuban people.

We are exploring expanded access to cloud-hosted services and other development tools for the Cuban people. These tools will help activists and civil society connect with each other and facilitate the flow of information on and off the island.  They will also help the Cuban people access more services, including those that circumvent censorship.

The current crisis, as you well know, is marked by very high inflation and chronic shortages of food, medicine, and electricity. The August 2022 fire at the Matanzas oil storage facility demonstrated the fragility of Cuba’s energy infrastructure and exacerbated pre-existing energy shortages which manifest in widespread and lengthy blackouts around the island.

The Cuban government is quick to try to blame others for its economic woes without acknowledging the decades of mismanagement that led to the current crisis.

We continue to call on the Cuban government to put in place economic policies that would improve the country’s situation, such as greater freedom for private sector actors and much-needed agricultural reforms.

These are all crucial steps which the President believes are the best means to support the Cuban people, while minimizing benefits to the regime.

As we implement these measures, we will continue to call on the Cuban regime to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms for all Cubans and unconditionally release all political prisoners.

To support the Cuban people and protect our U.S. national interests, we also do have direct engagement with the regime when it is in our interest to do so.

Such engagement includes discussions on migration, scientific and technical cooperation including maritime and aviation safety, and food and animal health protocols. It also includes law enforcement cooperation as appropriate.

The United States will consider all options available to continue supporting the Cuban people as they call for greater freedom, access to resources, and respect for human rights.

Thank you and I look forward to listening to remarks from the panelists and answering your questions.