On January 11th, 2021, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Cuba has been returned to the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list for “repeatedly providing support for acts of international terrorism in granting safe harbor to terrorists.” Cuba was first placed on the list in 1982 by the Reagan administration and removed in May 2015 by President Barack Obama.
Pompeo cited two reasons for designating Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism. First, Cuba’s refusal to turn over American fugitives, and second, concerns that Cuban intelligence has infiltrated Venezuela’s military and is supporting president-turned-dictator Nicolás Maduro. But beyond Pompeo’s reasoning, many are wondering what this designation actually accomplishes, especially so soon before President Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20th.
Inconsistencies in the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism List
Since 1979, the U.S. Department of State has recorded a list of countries that they argue have “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.” The list currently consists of Cuba, Syria, Iran, and North Korea. Placing a state on this list results in “[limits] on U.S. foreign assistance, a ban on defence exports and sales, control over exports of dual-use items and other restrictions.”
In contrast to the dramatic global shifts in the past five decades, political analyst Daniel Byman remarks that the list of state sponsors of terrorism remains relatively unchanged. Syria has been designated since 1979, and Iran since 1984. This lack of adjustment to match the rapidly-changing global political landscape indicates that the U.S. government sees the list less as a mechanism for analysis and more as a political tool to carry out its foreign policy.
Besides its minimal adaptability, there is also a significant double standard for deciding which countries are considered sponsors of terrorism. To put it simply, there are states which sponsor terrorist activity that are not on the list because they contribute to the United States’ political or economic interests.
As asserted by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, American policies towards Cuba have been “inconsistent with [their] policies toward more formidable and economically powerful, although even more nondemocratic, states than Cuba.” For example, Saudi Arabia – a major oil exporter – has never been designated a state sponsor of terrorism by the United States, despite former U.S. General Counsel of the Treasury Department David Aufhauser calling the kingdom the “epicenter” of financing terrorist movements such as Al Qaeda.
It is doubtful that adding countries such as Saudi Arabia to the state sponsors of terrorism list would be a viable solution for “deterring terrorism.” What is problematic is the American government’s tendency to “designate any group or country which it opposes as ‘terrorist.’” In effect, the Secretary of State’s decision to place Cuba on the list was a result of decades of rocky relations between the two countries.
History of U.S. – Cuba Relations
Tensions between the United States and Cuba began in 1959 when Fidel Castro overthrew the anti-communist government backed by the U.S. In response to Castro’s trade relationship with the Soviet Union, President Dwight Eisenhower imposed a strict economic embargo on Cuba in 1960, effectively banning almost all American exports to the island nation.
What followed were several failed endeavours by the U.S. to remove Castro from power, including the Bay of Pigs invasion in which 1,400 American-trained Cubans attempted to invade Cuba. A year later came the Cuban missile crisis, when U.S. spy satellites found Soviet nuclear missile bases in Cuba. After weeks of negotiation President John F. Kennedy pledged not to invade the island nation, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev removed the missiles. In 1962, Kennedy effectuated a full embargo as well as a ban on U.S. nationals travelling to Cuba. The United Nations estimated that the economic restrictions resulted in $130 billion in losses for Cuba over 50 years.
After decades of strict economic isolation, President Barack Obama made a pledge to restore relations between Cuba and the United States after taking office in 2008. However, in 2017 the Trump Administration once again restricted travel to Cuba and imposed sanctions on Venezuelan oil coming into the country – a move supported by Cuban-Americans in Florida.
Impacts on the Cuban People
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez tweeted his condemnation for the U.S. government’s decision, as a “hypocritical and cynical designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.”
For Cuban citizens, the recent terror classification will have considerable repercussions. Newly imposed sanctions will limit money transactions and travel between the U.S. and Cuba, impacting families in both countries. Overall, isolating Cuba from the rest of the world through economic and travel restrictions for decades has had severe and long-lasting consequences for U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations and for the lives of Cuban people.
The Path to Normalizing Relations
It is important to recognize that designating Cuba as a sponsor of terrorism was a largely symbolic attempt to cement the Trump administration’s policies before a transition in power. Biden himself has committed to reversing the action. Despite this, it may take months for the effects of this designation to be reversed, placing strain on short-term U.S-Cuba relations. There is still hope that President Joe Biden will prioritize normalizing relations with Cuba similar to Barack Obama during his time in office. Biden has promised to roll back the Trump administration’s policies on Cuba which have “inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights.” Only time will tell if the terror designation will stand in the way of Biden’s future plans to improve U.S.-Cuba relations.