Donald Trump has reclassified Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” in a last-minute move that could complicate efforts by Joe Biden’s incoming administration to re-engage with Havana.
The controversial step was announced by secretary of state Mike Pompeo on Monday, at the start of Trump’s final full-week in office, and places Cuba alongside Iran, North Korea and Syria.
Pompeo justified the move – which reverses Barack Obama’s 2015 decision to remove Cuba from the list after more than three decades – by accusing Havana of “repeatedly providing support for acts of international terrorism in granting safe harbour to terrorists”.
That is partly a reference to the former Black Panther Assata Shakur who was jailed in the US for the 1973 killing of a police officer and later escaped to Cuba where she was granted asylum by its then leader Fidel Castro. It is also based on Cuba’s refusal to extradite a group of guerrillas from Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) for alleged involvement in a 2019 bomb attack in Bogotá.
Pompeo also alleged Cuba was engaging “in a range of malign behaviour across the region”, highlighting its support for Venezuela’s authoritarian leader Nicolás Maduro who Trump has unsuccessfully tried to overthrow.
But most observers and many US allies are unimpressed by Trump administration claims that Cuba is guilty of sponsoring terrorism.
“These are trumped up charges,” said Christopher Sabatini, a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House. “Terrorism as an international definition is committing acts of violence against unarmed civilians intended frighten the population. Cuba doesn’t do that. Yes, it represses its own people – but so does Saudi Arabia.”
Sabatini said he saw Trump’s move as “a parting gift to hardliners” in Florida and a deliberate attempt to make life difficult for his successor, who takes office on 20 January. The same rationale lay behind the recent decision to lift restrictions on contacts between US officials and their Taiwanese counterparts, a move that angered Beijing and will be awkward for Biden to reverse without appearing soft on China.
“It’s like when departing armies leave scattered mines in a field,” Sabatini added. “They are planting these political mines for the Biden administration that will be very difficult to be rolled back and to lock in, at least temporarily, their policy preferences.”
Havana reacted angrily to what its foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, called a “hypocritical and cynical” move. “The US political opportunism is recognized by those who are honestly concerned about the scourge of terrorism and its victims,” Rodríguez tweeted.
Ricardo Herrero, head of the a US-based non-partisan association called Cuba Study Group, said there was “no factual basis” for Trump’s decision.
“This is a malicious, last-ditch effort to handicap Biden’s foreign policy, and reward Maga supporters in Florida for sticking with Trump even after he incited terrorist attacks against the US Congress,” Herrero tweeted.
The new sanctions will include major restrictions that will bar most travel from the US to Cuba and transfer of money between the two countries, a significant source of income for Cubans who have relatives in the United States.
Removing Cuba from the blacklist in 2015 had been one of Obama’s main foreign policy achievements as he sought better relations with the communist island, an effort endorsed by Biden as his vice-president. Ties had been essentially frozen after Fidel Castro took power in 1959 while Cuba had been on the terror list since 1982 because of its support for guerrilla groups.
As with Iran, Trump has sought to reverse many of Obama’s decisions involving Cuba. He has taken a tough line on Havana and rolled back many of the sanctions that the Obama administration had eased or lifted after the restoration of full diplomatic relations in 2015. Since Trump took office ties have been increasingly strained, with his administration also suggesting Cuba may have been behind or allowed alleged attacks that left dozens of US diplomats in Havana with brain injuries starting in late 2016.
Biden is expected to work to improve ties, although immigration and Venezuela’s economic, political and humanitarian crises are believed to be higher up his agenda.
“He wants to get back to the policies that were in place at the end of Obama’s term. He believes that closer connections in trade and personal connections between the two countries are more likely to lead to political opening and freedoms, as well as giving the US leverage on other issues, including Venezuela,” Sabatini said. “This is going to be much more complicated now.”
In an article last year Biden’s recently appointed chief adviser on Latin America, Juan S Gonzalez, said Trump’s policies on Cuba and Venezuela were based on political self-interest and had failed the people of those countries “by every metric”.
“In Cuba, engagement is not a gift to a repressive regime. It is a subversive act to advance the cause of human rights and empower the Cuban people as protagonists of their own future,” Gonzalez wrote in the Americas Quarterly magazine last July.