Trump administration redesignates Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism

Photo by Ricardo IV Tamayo

In the dying days of the Trump administration the US State Department has again designated Cuba as a ‘State Sponsor of Terrorism’. The decision could slow efforts by the incoming Biden administration to take calibrated steps to gradually restore US-Cuba relations.

The decision to redesignate by the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was taken with little external consultation and, according to Reuters, was subject to months of legal review, with some administration experts questioning whether it was justified. The decision effectively broadens the US definition of terrorism.

In an 11 January statement, Pompeo said that Cuba has “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism in granting safe harbour to terrorists”. He also alleged that Cuba had “fed, housed and provided medical care for murderers, bombmakers and hijacker” while, he said, “many Cubans were hungry, homeless and without basic medicine”. Pompeo additionally indicated that by supporting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Cuba had enabled “a permissive environment for international terrorists to live and thrive within Venezuela.” He also justified the decision by referencing Cuba not having extradited ten Colombian ELN guerrilla leaders from Havana when peace talks with the Colombian government broke down in 2017, comments that sought to set aside the existence of protocols agreed by all parties guaranteeing safe passage home for all participants.

The listing, Pompeo said, was intended to hold the Cuban government accountable and “send a clear message: the Castro regime must end its support for international terrorism and subversion of US justice”.

The decision has the effect of subjecting Cuba to sanctions that penalise persons and countries engaging in trade with Cuba, restricts US foreign assistance, bans defence exports and sales, and imposes export controls on some dual use items. It also requires the US to oppose loans to Cuba by institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. For the most part the substance of the designation is academic, but it effectively chills relations, creates uncertainty for US and international investors, and makes more difficult the gradual easing of restrictions expected under the incoming Biden administration.

The decision, just nine days before President elect Joe Biden is sworn in, was fiercely rejected by the Cuban government, and met with dismay by countries around the world hoping for an improvement in US-Cuba relations.

President Díaz-Canel said on Twitter that the “cynical categorisation (of Cuba) as a State sponsor of terrorism” was “the death throes of a failed and corrupt administration committed to the Cuban mafia in Miami”. Also writing on Twitter, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez noted that the US decision would be recognised as “political opportunism” by those “who are honestly concerned about the scourge of terrorism and its victims.”

Criticism also came from the new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Gregory Meeks (D-New York) and other members of the House and Senate. Meeks told AP that the move sought only to tie the hands of the Biden administration. “This designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism with less than a week to go in his presidency and after he incited a domestic terror attack on the US Capital … that’s hypocrisy”, the news agency quoted Meeks as saying.

The decision by President Obama to remove the designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism in 2015 was an important step towards restoring diplomatic relations and enabling his policy of détente to move forwards and for him to visit Havana in 2016.

During the election campaign President elect Biden said that he would promptly reverse the Trump administration’s policies on Cuba that “have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights.”

In media comments late last year, Juan Gonzalez, Biden’s choice for Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere at the National Security Council, said that while he expected the incoming administration will continue to press for change in both Venezuela and Cuba, it will have clear objectives and seek multilateral solutions.

In Cuba’s case the intention of the Biden White House is to ease restrictions on US travel and remittances, as a part of an incremental strategy aimed at helping the Cuban people. However, the eleventh-hour sanctions imposed by Pompeo – seen in Washington as one of several signals that he is preparing to run for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2024 – has the effect of delaying any decisions on Cuba policy until a further review of the terrorism designation is undertaken. Syria, Iran, and North Korea are other countries on the US list.

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