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On its way out the door, Trump administration names Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism

A pedestrian in Havana on Saturday.
A pedestrian in Havana on Saturday. (Ernesto Mastrascusa/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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The Trump administration added Cuba to a list of state sponsors of terrorism Monday, reversing a signature policy move of the Obama administration and potentially hampering President-elect Joe Biden’s ability to quickly broker a rapprochement with Havana.

“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,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

A U.S. economic embargo of Cuba already curbs Americans’ ability to do business with or visit the communist island. But the new terrorism label could hinder commercial deals with third countries Cuba relies on to import essential goods and turn off foreign investors in its all-important tourism industry.

The decision is a part of a blitz of 11th-hour moves by the Trump administration to push through hard-line policies championed by influential domestic political constituencies, despite the complications they will create for State Department lawyers, humanitarian interests abroad and the incoming Biden administration.

“This blatantly politicized designation makes a mockery of what had been a credible, objective measure of a foreign government’s active support for terrorism,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). “Nothing remotely like that exists here. In fact, domestic terrorism in the United States poses a far greater threat to Americans than Cuba does.”

On Sunday, Pompeo announced his intention to designate Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a terrorist organization, a move long sought by anti-Iran hard-liners in the United States despite concerns among aid groups that it will dramatically worsen the humanitarian situation in Yemen. On Saturday, Pompeo said he was lifting restrictions on contacts between U.S. diplomats and Taiwanese officials, a move that infuriated Beijing but won praise from Washington’s Taiwan lobby.

Staffers working for lawmakers on foreign policy and other committees on Capitol Hill were informed of the Houthi and Cuba designations Monday morning in what several described as a contentious phone call with mid-level administration officials.

As sanctions bite in Cuba, the U.S., once a driver of hope, is now a source of pain

The specter of Cuba’s addition to the terrorism list had already led officials in Havana to rail against the move.

“We condemn a unilateral, absurd, hypocritical and unjust maneuver of the US administration to include Cuba in their list of state sponsors of terrorism,” Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel tweeted on Dec. 31 as talk escalated of Cuba’s inclusion. “This administration protects terrorist groups acting against #Cuba.”

Critics have long questioned U.S. interest in placing Cuba on the terrorism list ahead of other countries, attributing it to pressure from the anti-Communist Cuban American community in Florida.

“Returning Cuba to this list is clearly a politically motivated decision, a reward to domestic political allies of the Trump administration during its last weeks rather than an effective foreign policy step,” said Geoff Thale, president of the Washington Office on Latin America.

The move amounts to another step back for relations between Washington and Havana. In 2014, President Barack Obama announced a historic reestablishment of diplomatic ties with Cuba, leading to a 2016 visit that inspired hopes of bringing American investment and visitors back to the communist island largely shut off from the United States.

Obama expanded the categories of U.S. nationals who were allowed to visit Cuba, prompting tens of thousands of Americans to pour into Havana.

That detente came to a halt under President Trump, who reinstated barriers on flights and cruise ships.

Guided by Miami Cuban Americans, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and former National Security Council senior director Mauricio Claver-Carone, Trump also limited the number of Cubans allowed to visit the United States.

The Trump administration has accused Cuba of aiding and abetting President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, a socialist autocrat Washington has sought to oust. During the pandemic, Cuba’s relationship with the Trump administration has deteriorated ever further. Cuba’s deployment of its medical brigades to a host of nations facing shortages of medical staffers, including Italy, drew words appreciation from host countries but stiff condemnations by Washington, which accused the Cubans of forcing doctors to work for next nothing.

“We condemn the US announced hypocritical and cynical designation of #Cuba as a State sponsoring terrorism,” Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez tweeted Monday. “The US political opportunism is recognized by those who are honestly concerned about the scourge of terrorism and its victims.”

Biden has signaled his willingness to pick up where Obama left off, focusing on the restoration of flights and remittance privileges removed under Trump.

But even if Biden moves to lift Cuba off the terrorism list, it could take months, during which Cuba could suffer a substantial economic impact.

The primary basis laid out by the administration for the re-designation is Cuba’s refusal to extradite to Colombia a group of 10 guerrilla leaders of Colombia’s National Liberation Army — ELN by its Spanish initials — accused in a car-bomb attack two years ago on a police training school in Bogota in which 21 cadets were killed.

In addition to suspending sputtering peace talks with the ELN being conducted in Cuba, Colombian President Iván Duque reactivated arrest warrants against the 10, including commander Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista and chief ELN negotiator Israel Ramirez Pineda.

In a May statement, the State Department said that Cuba, among other countries, was “not cooperating fully” with counterterrorism efforts and cited its refusal to extradite the guerrilla leaders to Colombia.

Cuba’s response to the Colombian and U.S. demands has been that the 10 are on the island because of a request by Colombia, made under that country’s previous government, to allow them to live there while Colombia-ELN peace talks are underway. Under Cuba-Colombia protocols agreed to when the talks began — as a follow-on to separate talks between Colombia and its other main guerrilla group, the FARC — guerrilla negotiators would remain free and, if the talks broke down, would be allowed to return freely to Colombia if they chose.

“Otherwise, they wouldn’t have taken the risk of leaving their Colombian bases in the first place,” said a former senior U.S. official familiar with Latin American policy.

Talks with the FARC were ultimately successful, although the peace agreement has suffered implementation setbacks in Colombia.

Since the January 2019 attack, Cuba has insisted that the agreement remains in force and that allegations they were harboring ELN “terrorists,” there at the request of the Colombian government itself, were misplaced.

“The Cubans felt this was a trap that the Trump administration sprung on them by pressing Duque to not respect the protocols but to demand ELN leaders be returned to Colombia,” said the former official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue. “They felt they were doing what they were asked to do, then being accused of being terrorists themselves.”

Colombia’s outrage, “morally, was certainly understandable,” the former official said. “I don’t want to say anything that sounds like it justifies what [the ELN] did. But there was no cease-fire underway, and the ELN and Colombia have been killing each other for years. This was a particularly vicious attack, but [the dead] were not civilians and it wasn’t outside the rules. It would be equivalent of having diplomatic conversations with some adversary that break down, then arrest the adversary after agreeing they would meet on neutral ground.”

“This is not about punishing the ELN,” the ex-official said. “It’s about punishing the Cubans.”

Colombia and the United States have said that the ELN operates primarily out of government-supported havens in neighboring Venezuela. But the Trump administration has never moved to designate Venezuela a state sponsor of terrorism.

Some members of Congress criticized the decision Monday, saying the case for adding Cuba to the list is thin.