Trump adds Cuba back to list of states sponsoring terrorism in final move against island
In June 2017, President Trump signed a memorandum outlining his Cuba policy at the Manuel Artime Theater in Miami. AL DIAZ ADIAZ@MIAMIHERALD.COM
The United States added Cuba back to its list of states accused of sponsoring terrorism Monday in one of the Trump administration’s last foreign policy decisions, a move that caps four years of escalating economic and diplomatic pressure against the island.
In a statement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Cuba’s government of having “fed, housed, and provided medical care for murderers, bombmakers, and hijackers.” In particular, he mentioned Cuba’s refusal to extradite to Colombia members of the National Liberation Army guerrilla group following a terrorist attack in Bogotá and a breakdown in peace talks.
He also cited the presence on the island of fugitives from U.S. justice like Joan Chesimard, who lives in Cuba with the name Assata Shakur, and is on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists. She was convicted for the killing of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster in 1973.
“With this action, we will once again hold Cuba’s government accountable and send a clear message: the Castro regime must end its support for international terrorism and subversion of U.S. justice,” he said.
The inclusion of Cuba on the blacklist alongside North Korea, Syria and Iran is the culmination of the “maximum pressure” campaign launched by the Trump administration to punish the Cuban government for its support of Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro and to dismantle the engagement policies of former President Barack Obama.
The decision comes just a week before President-elect Joe Biden is sworn into office.
An official with Biden’s transition team said the incoming administration has “taken note of these last minute maneuvers.”
“The transition team is reviewing each one, and the incoming administration will render a verdict based exclusively on one criterion: the national interest,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss internal deliberations on the matter.
The incoming president is widely expected to restore at least some of Obama’s opening with Cuba. While it can be reversed, it could nonetheless spell further economic trouble for the island, which is already suffering its worst economic contraction since the fall of the Soviet Union.
“Transactions with the Republic of Cuba would have an increase in scrutiny, resulting in fewer governments and companies wanting to engage with it,” said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a New York-based nonpartisan organization.
Earlier in the day, a senior administration official told McClatchy the decision was going to be announced this Monday.
Following Pompeo’s statement, Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez lashed out at the Trump administration.
“We condemn the US announced hypocritical and cynical designation of Cuba as a State sponsoring terrorism,” he wrote in English on Twitter. “The US political opportunism is recognized by those who are honestly concerned about the scourge of terrorism and its victims.”
President Donald Trump’s advisers have been weighing whether to return Cuba to the list for some time.
In January 2019, a senior administration official told the Miami Herald that the issue was being considered due to Cuban security and intelligence support for Maduro. A year later, the State Department included Cuba in its list of countries that do not cooperate with the United States in the fight against terrorism, also citing the harboring of Colombian rebels and fugitives of U.S. justice.
The Obama administration eliminated Cuba from the list of countries sponsoring terrorism in 2015. That was one of the Cuban government’s main demands in order to agree to restore relations. Cuba had been on that list since 1982, when it was included because of Fidel Castro’s support of guerrillas in Central America.
Trump vowed since early in his presidency to reverse “the terrible and misguided deal with the Castro regime.”
His government eliminated so-called “people-to-people” trips, limited flights and remittances to Cuba, prohibited Americans from staying in government hotels, and allowed lawsuits against companies suspected of “trafficking” with properties confiscated by Castro’s government.
The administration has also sanctioned Cuban military companies, government officials — including Raúl Castro — and punished companies that facilitate the shipment of Venezuelan oil to the island.
Cuba’s designation comes at a difficult time for the island, whose economy contracted 11 percent in 2020. The Cuban government has been unable to pay many international creditors due to a lack of liquidity.
Although the measure does not entail more economic sanctions, the announcement may further reduce foreign investment on the island, as most companies prefer to avoid possible fines or the legal costs of doing business in blacklisted countries.
Kavulich said insurance companies could either suspend coverage of transactions and operations of ships and aircraft going to Cuba, or increase prices.
The designation could also limit the range of exports from the U.S. to Cuba, including software and technology and other items for the support of the Cuban people, said Ric Herrero, executive director of the Cuba Study Group. In addition, it triggers a Florida state law prohibiting state universities from using state funds for travel or research activities in blacklisted countries.
“It may also impact commercial travel, as banks that process transactions on behalf of airlines around the world have internal policies that prohibit business with SSOT-listed countries, and could pull out of licensed activities,” he said.
Herrero, a frequent critic of the Trump administration’s Cuba policies, said the designation seemed to be guided more by politics than “factual basis.” Trump won Florida in the November presidential election, with a significant boost from Cuban Americans who supported his tough policies towards the island.
Reactions to the announcement in Congress also followed a partisan line, with Democrats “outraged” by the move and Republicans praising the president.
“I am outraged that Donald Trump is designating Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism less than a week after he incited a domestic terror attack on the U.S. Capitol,” said incoming chair of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y. “The hypocrisy from President Trump and Secretary Pompeo is stunning but not surprising.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who helped negotiate the restoration of relations with Havana, also blasted Pompeo’s “blatantly politicized designation” that “makes a mockery of what had been a credible, objective measure of a foreign government’s active support for terrorism.”
“Nothing remotely like that exists here,” he said. “In fact, domestic terrorism in the United States poses a far greater threat to Americans than Cuba does.”
On the other side of the aisle, Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott applauded the decision.
“For years, I’ve called for Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism to be reinstated, and I’m glad the Administration heeded those calls today,” Scott said in a written statement. “The Obama-Biden Administration’s appeasement policies toward Cuba allowed Havana to extend its reach and expand its control, giving power to other ruthless dictatorships in Latin America.”
In the announcement, Pompeo mentioned Cuba’s engagement “in a range of malign behavior across the region,” including “assisting Nicholas Maduro to maintain his stranglehold over his people while allowing terrorist organizations to operate,” in Venezuela as among the reasons for the listing.
The public designation could further “poison” the atmosphere of bilateral relations, “but it would not significantly delay President Biden from re-engaging with Cuba,” said William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University. He estimates the incoming administration could again remove Cuba from the list “in two or three months,” following the required bureaucratic process.
LeoGrande is one of the authors of a policy memo that asked the Biden administration to pursue normalization policies with Cuba.
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres