WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Monday announced a partial lifting of sanctions against Cuba, including expanding flights beyond Havana and restarting a Cuban family reunification program in the United States, its first steps toward fulfilling President Biden’s campaign promise to reverse many of the sanctions imposed by his predecessor.
The changes, which also include easing the ban on remittances, were announced after a lengthy review of Cuban policy. They come into effect at a time when food and medicine shortages have created new waves of Cubans trying to reach American shores.
While administration officials said the actions would be “focused on human rights and the empowerment of the Cuban people,” they were immediately denounced by Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, a Cuban-born Democrat. American who is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. “Today’s announcement,” he said, “risks sending the wrong message to the wrong people, at the wrong time and for all the wrong reasons.”
The split between Mr. Biden and Mr. Menendez goes to the heart of the differences between the two political parties over how to deal with the Cuban government. A government crackdown on dissent that began in July led Mr. Biden to announce largely symbolic sanctions against Cuban police officers and others accused of human rights abuses, including arrests of protesters. But it also made it more difficult to fulfill his campaign promise to restore the kind of relationship envisioned by the Obama administration and that Mr. Biden endorsed as vice president.
But Biden administration officials have concluded that restoring the status quo from January 2017, when the Obama administration left office, is as complicated in the case of Cuba as it is in that of Iran, where a parallel effort failed.
The Biden administration’s policy review concluded that the best way to bring about change in Cuba was through direct engagement with its people — not its government — which had also been the underlying logic of the opening of President Barack Obama in Havana. The administration argued it was shipping technology to Cubans to help them avoid government censorship and to help 20,000 people reunite with family members in the United States.
Mr. Menendez takes a very different view: that the only way to change the behavior of the Cuban government is to stifle its revenues. He specifically objected to the administration’s decision to allow groups to travel to Cuba, but not individual tourists.
“I am appalled to learn that the Biden administration will begin allowing group travel to Cuba through tourism-like tours,” Menendez said in a statement.
“To be clear, those who still believe that increased travel will spawn democracy in Cuba are simply in a state of denial,” he said. “For decades the world has traveled to Cuba and nothing has changed. For years the United States foolishly relaxed travel restrictions, arguing that millions of US dollars would bring freedom, and nothing has changed. .
The largest program being revived is Cuba’s parole program for family reunification, which has authorized up to 20,000 immigration visas to the United States each year. The State Department is expected to announce that it is stepping up visa approvals at the Havana embassy. There are 22,000 requests, officials said, that no one has responded to in the past five years.
The administration is also relaxing the ban on family remittances of $1,000 per quarter to ensure payments go to individuals, not businesses. But it’s unclear how the movement of the money will be accomplished: the main financial processing company, called Fincimex, was run by the Cuban military.
In a conversation with reporters Monday night, White House officials sidestepped one of the thorniest issues in the effort to roll back President Donald J. Trump’s sanctions: the lingering mystery as to who whether the Cuban government was responsible for mysterious evils that afflicted diplomats. and CIA personnel around the world.
The CIA said in January that the ailments, widely known as Havana syndrome because they were first identified among the US delegation in Cuba, are unlikely to have been caused by Cuba, the Russia or another foreign adversary.
The agency argued that a majority of the 1,000 cases reported to the government could be explained by environmental causes, undiagnosed medical conditions or stress, rather than a global campaign backed by a foreign power. Groups representing victims were angry, and the CIA said investigations were continuing for about two dozen cases that remained unexplained.
Biden administration officials said recently that the inconclusive findings left them somewhat stranded, unable to solve the mystery of Havana Syndrome and therefore unable to do much with diplomatic relations.