Every year, the State Department issues its new “Country Reports on Terrorism,” and each year, the rationale for Cuba’s listing among the state sponsors of international terrorism gets thinner.
The 2022 report, issued just last month, justifies the inclusion of the other countries on the list — North Korea, Iran, and Syria — by citing specific acts of state terrorism or ongoing support for terrorist groups. The report on Cuba, however, is simply an historical account of how Cuba ended up on the list in the first place rather than a rationale for keeping it there.
In 1982, President Ronald Reagan designated Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism for supporting revolutionary movements in Central America. In 2015, President Obama determined, based on an intelligence review, that Cuba was not a state sponsor of terrorism and took it off the list. In January 2021, just days before leaving office, President Trump put Cuba back on the terrorism list in a transparent political pay-off to conservative Cuban American supporters in south Florida, and a last-ditch attempt to complicate Joe Biden’s stated intention to resume normalizing relations with Havana.
Trump’s rationale was that Cuba, which had been hosting peace talks between the Colombian government and the ELN guerrilla movement, refused to extradite the ELN negotiators to Colombia’s new conservative government after it broke off the talks — despite the fact that Colombia had previously signed a protocol specifying that if talks collapsed, the ELN negotiators would be guaranteed safe passage back to Colombia. Norway, co-guarantor of the talks along with Cuba, sided with Havana. (Norway was not designated a state sponsor of terrorism.)
Even that thin rationale disappeared when Gustavo Petro was elected president of Colombia in 2022, restarted the peace talks, and demanded that Washington remove Cuba from the terrorism list, calling its inclusion “an injustice.”
Not until its final sentence does the 2022 Terrorism Report offer any rationale for Cuba remaining on the list: “Cuba also continues to harbor several U.S. fugitives from justice wanted on charges related to political violence, many of whom have resided in Cuba for decades.”
Cuba has, in fact, given political asylum to a handful of U.S. political exiles accused or convicted of politically motivated acts of violence in the 1970s. The United States, of course, has given political asylum to many more Cubans who engaged in politically-motivated violent attacks in Cuba — some of them trained by the CIA as soldiers in its secret war against Cuba in the 1960s.
But does harboring U.S. fugitives qualify as sponsoring international terrorism? Although the fugitives have been in Cuba since the 1970s, they were not cited as a rationale for Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor until 1988, by which time, the annual reports admitted, there was no longer any evidence of Cuba supporting any foreign revolutionary groups.
The law requiring the annual State Department terrorism report defines international terrorism as “terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country.” That does not fit the U.S. fugitives, whose violent acts were committed in the United States before they sought asylum in Cuba. Some of their actions might qualify as domestic terrorism, but not international terrorism. Nor does giving alleged terrorists political asylum constitute providing them with a terrorist sanctuary, which the law defines as territory from which terrorists are allowed “to carry out terrorist activities… or as a transit point.”
None of the U.S. fugitives have planned or plotted terrorist attacks against the United States since arriving in Cuba half a century ago. In 2015, when President Obama took Cuba off the list, Secretary of State John Kerry implicitly acknowledged that the U.S. fugitives were not a valid reason to keep Cuba on the list.
In short, there is no longer any legitimate rationale whatsoever for Cuba being designated a state sponsor of terrorism. Cuba stays on the list because the Biden administration does not have the political courage to remove it — even though Cuba and the United States have a Memorandum of Agreement and active dialogue on counter-terrorism cooperation!
Various U.S. officials have offered different stories about whether the Biden administration is reviewing Cuba’s designation. Shortly after Biden’s inauguration, then-White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said it was under review, along with the rest of Trump’s Cuba policies. More recently, in March 2023, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was browbeaten by Rep. Maria Salazar (R-Fla.) into declaring it was not being reviewed. A number of Democratic members of Congress who have been pushing the administration to take Cuba off the list were given the impression by Biden officials that the policy was being reviewed — until Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Eric Jacobstein told them last week that it was not. They were livid, according to a report in The Intercept.
Treating Cuba’s listing like a political poker chip has real costs, not only to Cuba but to the United States as well. Most obviously, it delegitimizes the list itself, reducing it to little more than an arbitrary political cudgel.
Cuba’s designation has alienated important U.S. allies in Latin America and Europe. For Latin Americans, it is a symbol of Washington’s broader policy of regime change, a policy universally opposed in the region. Colombia has taken the lead in organizing Latin American governments to pressure the Biden administration to take Cuba off the list. When Secretary Blinken visited President Petro in Bogotá in October 2022, Petro made a point of publicly calling for Cuba to be removed from the list. Blinken replied, “We have clear laws, clear criteria, clear requirements, and we will continue as necessary to revisit those to see if Cuba continues to merit that designation.” But since the administration refuses to actually “revisit” Cuba’s designation, the clear laws, criteria, and requirements never come into play.
Most Europeans are able to visit the United States without seeking a visa under the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) visa waiver program — unless they have recently traveled to a country on the state sponsors of terrorism list. The impact of this sanction on European travel to Cuba has been significant. The number of visitors from the major European countries (Britain, France, Italy, Spain, and Germany) remains significantly depressed from pre-COVID levels while the number from Canada, which is not part of the ESTA program, has returned to pre-pandemic levels. European governments regard this restriction on their citizens as utterly unjustified and their representatives in Havana are as vocal as the Latin American diplomats in complaining about it to U.S. officials. But thus far, to no avail.
As campaign 2024 kicks off, the chances that the Biden administration will admit the obvious and take Cuba off the terrorism list appear increasingly remote. There have been 16 U.S. presidential elections since Fidel Castro rode into Havana in 1959, and only once has the incumbent U.S. president relaxed sanctions during an election year — Obama in 2016 as part of his normalization policy. No president running for re-election has ever relaxed sanctions during a campaign.
Cuba is living through its worst economic crisis since the 1990s, unable to access the international financial system because of the terrorism designation. But apparently, Cubans will be condemned to suffer for at least another year, branded with the Scarlett Letter T for terrorist, while the Dimmesdales of Biden’s campaign try to curry favor with Cuban Americans in south Florida who are not going to vote for him anyway.
Dr. William M. LeoGrande is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Quincy Institute and Associate Vice-Provost for Academic Affairs, Professor of Government, and Dean Emeritus of the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C.
July 14, 2021: Anti-Cuba regime protesters in downtown in Sarasota, Florida. (shutterstock/YES Market Media)|JULY 11, 2021: Cuban exiles rally at Versailles Restaurant in Miami's Little Havana in support of protesters in Cuba. (Fernando Medina/Shutterstock)
JULY 11, 2021: Cuban exiles rally at Versailles Restaurant in Miami's Little Havana in support of protesters in Cuba. (Fernando Medina/Shutterstock)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.