HAVANA – Eighteen former Latin American and Caribbean leaders have signed a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden asking the United States to remove its six-decade embargo on Cuba in the wake of devastation inflicted by Hurricane Ian.
The letter, shared with The Associated Press ahead of its Wednesday release, also requests that Biden remove Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism for providing refuge to leaders of a guerrilla group that is now set to reenter peace talks with Colombia, an American ally.
The letter comes as Cuba is suffering its worst economic, political and energy crises of the century so far, spurring a migratory exodus from the island. It was exacerbated by Hurricane Ian, which walloped western Cuba before hitting southern Florida late last month.
“We ask you, Mr. President, to take into account this dramatic situation that thousands of Cubans are experiencing and do whatever is necessary to lift those restrictions that affect the most vulnerable,” the letter reads.
Among the signatories are former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, two former Colombian leaders — Juan Manuel Santos and Ernesto Samper — and former leaders from Bolivia to Belize.
All of the signers are leftists or centrists. Notably absent were signatures from right-wing politicians, underscoring the deep divisions that the Caribbean island still provokes in the region.
The United Nations General Assembly is scheduled to vote this week on a resolution to condemn the trade embargo and it is expected to pass again for the 30th consecutive year.
Yet former Colombian President Ernesto Samper told The Associated Press in an interview that he doesn’t want the letter to be viewed as a political statement.
“At this moment, what worries us is that the ones paying the cost … are Cubans who are going without food, medicine or electricity,” Samper told the AP.
The trade embargo was imposed in 1962 as the Cuban revolution veered toward socialism. It has restricted Cuba's access to a vast array of products, as well as international aid, and financial resources.
Island officials say the restrictions have made it harder to recover from the hurricane, which destroyed 14,000 homes and caused long-term damage to the country’s electrical grid.
While the Obama administration eased many sanctions, they came back into full force under the Trump administration, which justified the sanctions by re-designating Cuba as a state sponsor for terrorism for its refusal to extradite 10 leaders of Colombia’s biggest remaining guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army.
But that order was lifted when Colombia’s first leftist leader was inaugurated in August and announced new peace talks with the group. The rebel leaders recently left Cuba to hold negotiations in Venezuela.
Biden has eased a few measures, but has also been sharply critical of the Cuban government’s harsh treatment of protesters last year — which also hardened sentiment against concessions to the Cuban government among Cuban-Americans, a key voting bloc in Florida.
But the administration recently made a few friendly gestures, offering $2 million in emergency relief to help with hurricane recovery.
Fully lifting the embargo also would require authorization by Congress at a time deep of political division in the U.S., only made more difficult by approaching midterm elections in which Florida is a swing state.