The Trump administration on Monday named Cuba a “state sponsor of terrorism,” in a move that would hit the country with new sanctions just before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the move, citing in particular Cuba’s continued protection of US refugees and its support for Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro.
The designation is one of the latest in a series of last-minute moves made by the Trump administration before Biden takes office on January 20.
Removing Cuba from the blacklist had been one of former President Barack Obama’s top foreign policy achievements as he sought better relations with the communist island, an effort that Biden approved as his vice president. Ties had largely frozen after Fidel Castro took power in 1959.
As he has done with Iran, Trump has tried to reverse many of Obama’s decisions involving Cuba. He has taken a hard line against 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, following a campaign that attacked Obama’s moves to normalize relations with Cuba, ties have become increasingly strained.
In addition to attacking Cuba for its support of Maduro, the Trump administration has also suggested that Cuba may have been behind or allowed alleged attacks that left dozens of U.S. diplomats in Havana with brain damage as of late 2016.
However, few US allies believe that Cuba is still a sponsor of international terrorism, either arguing with the definition based on Maduro’s support or rejecting US claims that Cuban authorities are bankrolling or masterminding international terrorist attacks.
Despite this, the Trump administration has pursued an opposite policy towards Cuba, which has steadily increased restrictions on aviation, trade and financial transactions between the United States and the island.
Recent sanctions reintroduced by the Trump administration include major restrictions preventing most travel from the United States to Cuba and the transfer of money between the two countries, a significant source of income for Cubans with relatives in the United States.
Obama’s removal of Cuba from the list of “state sponsors of terrorism” would have been a major goal for Trump, Pompeo and other Cuban hawks in the current government. Former National Security Adviser John Bolton had been an important advocate for restoring sanctions.
Cuba has repeatedly refused to extradite U.S. refugees who have been granted asylum, including a black militant convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper in the 1970s. In addition to political refugee status, American refugees have received free housing, health care and other benefits thanks to the Cuban government, which insists the United States has no “legal or moral basis” for demanding return.
Cuba has had a long-standing alliance with Maduro, although it has long denied that it has 20,000 troops and intelligence services in Venezuela and says it has not conducted any security operations. However, Cuban officials have said they have the right to carry out a broad military and intelligence service that they consider legitimate.
Relations between the two countries have grown strongly over the past two decades, with Venezuela sending Cuban oil shipments worth billions of dollars and employing tens of thousands of workers, including medical workers.
In May 2020, the State Department added Cuba to a list of countries that do not cooperate with US terrorism programs.
The ruling said the department said several leaders of the Colombian rebel National Liberation Army remained on the island despite attempts at dialogue.
Cuba has denied such allegations. President Miguel Díaz-Canel has dismissed the allegations, saying Cuba was a victim of terrorism. He cited an armed attack on its embassy in Washington in April last year as an example.
Cubans see the blacklist as helping the United States justify the long-standing embargo on the island and other economic sanctions that have paralyzed its economy.
As for the Colombian rebel group, Cuba rejected the extradition of the leaders who negotiated with Colombian President Iván Duque, whose peace efforts ended in 2019 after a bomb attack by the group in Bogotá.