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Biden has no courage on Cuba

Trump put Havana back on the terror sponsor list. The State Department refuses to touch it

Analysis | North America

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.

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)

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