By Sarah Marsh
(Reuters) - Eighty U.S. House of Representatives Democrats urged President Joe Biden on Tuesday to repeal Donald Trump's "cruel" sanctions on Cuba and renew engagement, an early sign of support in Congress for easing the clamp-down on the Communist-run country.
In a letter to Biden seen by Reuters they urged the Democratic president to sign an executive order "without delay" to end restrictions on travel and remittances, noting that well over half of Cubans depend on the latter.
"With the stroke of a pen, you can assist struggling Cuban families and promote a more constructive approach," they said.
The letter was led by lawmakers Bobby Rush, Gwen Moore, Barbara Lee and Steve Cohen, long-time supporters of engagement with Cuba. Signers also included the leaders of the influential House of Representatives Foreign Affairs, Financial Services and Appropriations committees.
Biden, a Democrat, vowed during his campaign to reverse policy shifts by the Republican Trump that "have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights."
Trump's tightening of the decades-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba has inflicted further pain on its ailing state-run economy, contributing to worsening shortages of food and medicine.
But Biden has not yet indicated whether he will fully revert to the historic detente initiated by Democratic former President Barack Obama when Biden was vice president.
"This letter, signed by a number of key powerbrokers in the House of Representatives, will help empower U.S. foreign policy officials in the Biden administration who seek to rebuild what Trump destroyed - a constructive, productive and civil approach toward Cuba and its people," said Peter Kornbluh, co-author of "Back Channel to Cuba" and senior analyst at the National Security Archive.
The Trump administration took more than 200 initiatives to tighten the decades-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba over four years, citing concerns about a lack of democracy and Havana's support for Venezuela's socialist government.
Critics said Trump's approach did not address such concerns and was more likely aimed at winning over voters in the swing state of Florida, which has a large Cuban-American population and did back Trump in the Nov. 3 election.
The letter also urged Biden to restart diplomatic engagement on areas of mutual interest like health and security and restaff the U.S. embassy, which was reduced to skeletal staffing under Trump over still unexplained health incidents among U.S. diplomats in Havana.
It should also "reverse the recent politicized decision by the departing Trump Administration to add Cuba back to the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism," the letter states.
On Jan. 11, nine days before the end of his presidency, Trump added Cuba to the list, which among other things carries a prohibition on U.S. economic aid and a requirement that Washington oppose loans to Cuba by institutions such as the World Bank.
A White House official dampened hopes for a quick Cuba policy shift in an interview with Reuters at the weekend, saying it was not currently among Biden's top priorities, which include the coronavirus pandemic, economic recovery and rebuilding alliances abroad.
Asked about the prospects for loosening up remittances and easing restrictions on family trips, the White House official said: "The best ambassadors are the American people, specifically the Cuban-American people maybe coming in with remittances and travel."
But the official declined to provide a timetable for such changes, saying: "Because, frankly, first things first."
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh in Chester, England; Additional Reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Patricia Zengerle and Rosalba O'Brien)