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Cuba-US relations: the thaw is halted

It’s time the US removed Cuba from the ‘Sponsors of Terrorism’ List

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Alan Cunningham, a student at Norwich University, Vermont, argues that the Biden administration should reverse Trump’s Cuba policies and restore a more productive, mutually beneficial relationship, of the kind introduced in the Obama era.


On 14 May 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken charged Cuba, alongside the likes of Venezuela, Syria, North Korea, and Iran, with ‘not cooperating fully with United States antiterrorism efforts’. Despite being an important indicator of the new administration’s policy, this brief note was only made public on 25 May.

Startling though the charge may appear, it is not as serious as the decision made by the Trump administration in January 2021, in one of its various valedictory actions, to place Cuba on the US Department of State’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list.

The official statement made then by the State Department under Secretary Mike Pompeo identified Cuba’s links to Colombia’s ELN [Ejército de Liberación Nacional] and the island’s continual harboring of fugitives from US justice such as Joanne Chesimard (also known as Assata Shakur) and Ishamel LaBeet.

Retreat from Obama policies

However, Blinken’s statement in May signals a retreat from previous Obama administration policies and will confirm some Cubans in their belief that changes of administration in Washington bring no tangible benefit to their island.

US-Cuba Relations under the Biden Administration. A discussion with: Richard Feinberg, UC San Diego; Michael Bustamante, Florida International University; Javier Corrales, Amherst College; Ted Henken, Baruch College, CUNY; William LeoGrande, American University. Moderator: Margaret Crahan, Colombia University. Recorded on 25 March 2021. University of California TV

Beginning almost immediately after its inauguration in 2008, the Obama administration had enacted many policies that helped to thaw the heated relationship between the two nations. The administration eased ‘restrictions on remittances and travel, allowing Cuban Americans to send unlimited money to Cuba and permitting US citizens to visit Cuba for religious and educational purposes… [restored] full diplomatic ties and begin to ease more than fifty years of bilateral tensions [while further loosening] restrictions on remittances and travel, as well as trade, telecommunications, and financial services’ and removed Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. This, combined with many economic reforms under Raul Castro, resulted in a complete change in the relationship between the US and Cuba.

However, these policies did not survive the administration of President Trump. In 2019, Trump  tightened sanctions and restricted travel to Cuba, severely harming the the island’s economy. Just before leaving office, the State Department put Cuba back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, against the objections of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism, who could not substantiate the charge that Cuba was aiding terrorist activities. All of these policies, combined with the general antagonism and racism shown by Trump, in addition to the global COVID-19 pandemic, resulted in a return to an almost Cold War era relationship between the two nations.

A total lack of evidence

Designating Cuba as ‘not cooperating’ appears to be an extremely poor policy for the United States to adopt. First, there is no evidence to say that Cuba is working with terrorists. Pompeo claimed ‘that Cuba was providing sanctuary to leaders of the Colombian National Liberation Army [ELN] and fugitives from U.S. justice’.

However, William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University, took issue with this, saying, ‘The ELN leaders are in Havana because Cuba and Norway were facilitating negotiations between the ELN and the Colombian government… When Ivan Duque, who opposed the peace accord, was elected president, he broke off the talks in response to an ELN bombing in Bogota, and then demanded that Cuba extradite the ELN negotiators. Cuba, backed by Norway, refused on the grounds that the agreement to convene the talks, which the Colombian government signed, provided for the safe return to Colombia of the ELN negotiators if the talks broke down – an agreement that Duque refused to recognize. If this makes Cuba a sponsor of terrorism, Norway is equally guilty’.

Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs also commented on this, saying, ‘[Trump’s decision] is regrettable. Placing Cuba on the list will make it difficult to normalise relations between the US and Cuba, and will impede efforts to promote positive change and development in Cuba’.

LeoGrande further points out that the fugitives being harbored in Cuba are domestic terrorists, not international terrorists, meaning that their inclusion on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, which specifically focuses on international terrorism, is unwarranted as these persons (Joanne Chesimard, Ishmael LaBeet, etc.) have not engaged in acts of international terrorism.

There was never much evidence to keep Cuba on the list. When initially placed there in 1982, according to director of the National Security Archive Pete Kornbluh, ‘No clear rationale was given at the time, and the economic sanctions that accompanied the designation were inconsequential’. He also noted that some members of the National Security Council (NSC) found retaining Cuba’s remaining-on the list was ‘done [and sustained] for political reasons’ and ‘[seeing that there was no] intelligence that justified [the] listing’. Kornbluh also recounts how Cuba, throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, worked with the US government on counterterrorism missions, assisting with investigations and passing along evidence.

The former Director of the Counterterrorism Finance and Designations Office of the State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism, the group that managed the designation of state sponsors of terrorism, also stated ‘It was clear to many of us that [state sponsored terrorism] sanctions were not getting the desired result of a democratic Cuba. Moreover, it was legally determined that Cuba was not actively engaged in violence that could be defined as terrorism under any credible definition of the word’.

A vote at the UN General Assembly backed Cuba’s resolution demanding the lifting of U.S. trade restrictions which date back more than 60 years. Video: CGTN America 23 June 2021.

Drug traffickers avoid Cuba

Furthermore, while some in the US and the West also claim Cuba is engaged in drug trafficking, a 2014 report from the U.S. State Department stated, ‘Despite its location between some of the largest exporters of illegal drugs in the hemisphere and the U.S. market, Cuba is not a major consumer, producer or transit point of illegal narcotics…Traffickers typically attempt to avoid Cuba and US counternarcotics patrol vessels and aircraft by skirting Cuba’s territorial waters’, while former members of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and US Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) have stated that the US needs to become more entrenched in counternarcotic operations with Cuba.

In the striking absence of evidence to prove that Cuba is actively supporting either international terrorism or drug trafficking, there seems to be no legitimate reason for keeping Cuba on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Only political bias can explain this decision.

If Cuba were removed from this list, a thaw could once again occur. This would allow the United States to further cooperate with Cuba on counterterrorism and anti-narcotic measures, decreasing the amount of drugs entering the Florida panhandle and working to combat terrorism within the Latin American region and beyond. This would increase the level of cooperation between US and Cuban government agencies and better defend US national security interests.

Lifting the economic sanctions and the travel ban against Cuba, could result in more mutually beneficial economic policies while allowing the Cuban economy to thrive. While the new First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, Miguel Diaz-Canal, ‘has shown himself as loyal to the Castro-model of state socialism in Cuba [with] no likelihood of any sudden changes’, it is well known that Diaz-Canal is something of ‘an advocate for social and economic modernization’. Working with this new leader could prove very beneficial in changing the relationship between the United States and Cuba, providing more rights for journalists and the average citizen, and reorienting the overall political/social/economic makeup of the island nation (though this would be a long-term goal).

Certainly Cuba has a poor track record with human rights, effectively being an authoritarian police state with no freedom of the press or expression and this is a concern for the US government. Yet, by bringing back some of the policies initiated under President Obama, the United States could, through beneficial economic policies and diplomacy, encourage the Cuban government to abandon or soften these authoritarian policies.

On 20 May 2021, Secretary Blinken made a statement directed to the Cuban people, saying, ‘The United States stands with you and seeks to support you as you pursue freedom, prosperity, and a future of greater dignity… The United States recommits to accompanying the Cuban people in your quest to determine your own future.  We will support those improving the lives of families and workers, cuentapropistas [self-employed Cubans or non-state workers] who have forged their own economic paths, and all who are building a better Cuba – and a better tomorrow for themselves in Cuba’. The US State Department can still uphold this promise to bring about a better future to the Cuban people and open up a new platform for working with sectors of the left in Latin American society and politics.

However, the first step must be by removing Cuba from the list of sponsors of terrorism, then lift the Trump era blocks on trade and travel. The new government under Diaz-Canal may be amenable to developing a productive, mutually beneficial relationship that could seriously transform the way in which the United States negotiates with Cuba and other Latin American nations.


Alan Cunningham is a graduate student at Norwich University, Vermont, pursuing an MA in International Relations. He has gained admission to a PhD in History program at the University of Birmingham in the UK and will begin work as an AP US History Teacher while working towards the goal of become a US Navy Officer. He has been published in the Jurist, Security Magazine, and the US Army War College’s War Room among others.

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