In the dying days of his presidency, Donald Trump’s administration redesignated Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism.
Trump’s then-secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the announcement on January 11. Not surprisingly, the decision was immediately welcomed by reactionary right-wing Cuban Americans in Florida.
The decision was the culmination of Trump's hardline stance on Cuba.
The Trump administration imposed new restrictions on travel to Cuba from the US in 2019, disallowing people-to-people educational group travel, one of the most popular exemptions to the ban on US tourism to Cuba.
The US also blacklisted Fincimex last June — a Cuban military-controlled firm that processes remittances for Western Union — and banned US companies from dealing with the company. This move was designed to eliminate most remittances from, in particular, Cuban Americans to Cubans.
In same month, it ordered Marriott International, at that time the only US hotel company in Cuba, to shut down its Four Points Sheraton hotel in Havana by August 31. Marriott was also prevented from opening other planned hotels. Marriott first entered Cuba in 2016, following permission from the US government. Its licence was reviewed and renewed in 2018.
Just before the November presidential election, Trump announced new sanctions, restricting imports of Cuban rum and cigars and banning Americans from staying at properties owned by the Cuban government.
To top it all off, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the US government stopped vital medical supplies from reaching Cuba. More than 2 million masks, 40,000 rapid diagnostic kits and 104 ventilators donated by the Alibaba Foundation were blocked.
Previous US administrations, including those most hostile to Cuba — for example, the Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W Bush administrations — had made exceptions to the embargo for medical emergencies.
The timing of the Trump administration’s decision to redesignate Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism strongly suggests that it was attempting to tie the hands of the incoming Joe Biden administration. Biden has pledged to revive Obama's efforts at rapprochement between the US and Cuba.
The Reagan administration first designated Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism in 1982, accusing Fidel Castro’s government of sponsoring communist groups in Latin American and Africa.
President Barack Obama took Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terrorism in 2015.
The designation was based on spurious allegations that Cuba is "repeatedly providing support for acts of international terrorism in granting safe harbour to terrorists”.
Pompeo accused Cuba of reneging on commitments made when the Obama administration took it off the terror list, carefully ignoring the fact that Cuba played a crucial role in ending the civil war in Colombia, for which the Obama administration applauded the Caribbean nation.
“For decades,” said Pompeo, “the Cuban government has fed, housed and provided medical care for murderers, bomb makers, and hijackers" and "harbours several US fugitives from justice, wanted on, or convicted of, charges of political violence, many of whom have resided in Cuba for decades.” However, Pompeo provided no evidence that Cuba has sponsored terror attacks.
The Cuban government immediately condemned the US decision as a “the fraudulent designation”, a “cynical and hypocritical move” and “an arrogant action by a discredited, dishonest and morally bankrupted government”.
“It is well known – and there is little doubt about it - that the true motivation behind this action is to impose additional obstacles to any prospective restoration of bilateral relations between Cuba and the United States,” it said.
“Cuba is not a State that sponsors terrorism and this is a truth that has been widely recognised by everybody. Cuba’s official and well-known policy and impeccable behaviour has been that of rejecting terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, particularly State terrorism, wherever and by and against whoever committed.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement said Cuba has been “a State victim of terrorism”, asserting that Cubans have suffered firsthand from actions carried out by the US government or with the acquiescence of US authorities.
Such actions, which include “terrorism”, “aggression”, “acts of piracy and other actions” have cost 3478 Cuban lives, and 2099 Cubans have suffered permanent injuries as a result, according to a 2001 report by Cuba's Permanent Mission to the United Nations.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla said: “The political opportunism of this action is recognised by all who have an honest concern about the scourge of terrorism and its victims.”
Implications for both countries
Cuba has now rejoined three other countries on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, namely, North Korea, Syria and Iran. Recently, Sudan was removed from the list as part of that country’s agreement to normalise relations with Israel.
Countries on the terror sponsor list are subject to restrictions on US foreign assistance, a ban on defence exports and sales, controls over other exports and various financial restrictions. Any persons and countries engaging in certain trade activities with them can also be penalised.
In reality, the redesignation will have little practical impact on Cuba, as it is already subject to wide-ranging US financial and commercial restraints resulting from the long-running US embargo.
The embargo was first imposed on Cuba in 1960, and is firmly entrenched in statute. Although the US president has the power to make some exceptions to the embargo’s restrictions and prohibitions, only Congress can remove it.
The July 2020 “Report by Cuba on Resolution 74/7 of the United Nations General Assembly — Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed by the United States of America against Cuba" estimated that the cost of the 60-year-long embargo, at current prices, was US$1.44 trillion.
The embargo also detrimentally affects the US economy, as legal structures prevent US exporters from entering Cuban markets.
The UN General Assembly has condemned the embargo each year for the past 29 years, while rejecting US criticism of alleged human rights violations in Cuba.
The UN has also criticised the Trump administration’s increasingly tough enforcement measures. The embargo cost Cuba a record total of more than US$5 billion in 2019–20 and hurt the island nation’s ability to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the embargo, Cuba now has four COVID-19 vaccine candidates in clinical trials, after authorisation of the study phase for two additional vaccine candidates, Mambisa and Abdala, developed by Cuba’s Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB).
Cuba was the first country in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the 30th worldwide, to receive authorisation to begin clinical trials of a COVID-19 vaccine candidate called Soberana 01 in August.
In early November, the World Health Organization included a second Cuban vaccine candidate (Soberana 02) on the official site of projects in phases of clinical trials.
Between April 2019 and March 2020, the US Departments of Treasury and Commerce introduced regulatory changes under the embargo, imposing 12 penalties on US and third-country entities for purportedly violating Cuban Assets Control Regulations. The penalties exceeded $2.4 billion.
In response to the redesignation, American University professor and Latin America specialist William LeoGrande told CNN on January 12: “Almost all of the sanctions that a country suffers from being on the terrorism list are already imposed on Cuba as part of the broader embargo.
“The only actual difference is that being on the terrorism list makes a state vulnerable to be sued by private individuals for the consequences of so-called acts of terrorism. You lose sovereign immunity if you are on the terrorism list.”
Cuba: a victim of state-sponsored terrorism
There were several attacks against Cuba by US-based exile groups, such as the Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations (CORU), Alpha 66 and Omega 7, in the 1960s and '70s.
The acts of terrorism cited in Cuba’s 2001 report to the UN included bioterrorism, assassination attempts against Fidel Castro and other Cuban officials, and terrorist attacks against tourist facilities, carried out by US agencies or paid assassins under their protection.
These acts of terrorism spanned some four decades and include the bombing of Cubana Flight 455 by persons trained by the CIA, as well as the six-year-long insurgency by anti-communist rebels in the Escambray Mountains.
Looking to the future
The timing of Trump’s decision was perverse in the extreme and, along with the blockade itself, can only hurt the Cuban people.
The Biden administration may reverse many, if not all, of the Trump administration’s adverse decisions in relation to Cuba in due course. However, the embargo will likely remain for some time to come, as some members and supporters of the Democratic Party are in favour of its retention.
The US must recognise that Cuba is a free, sovereign and independent nation and respect its right to self-determination.
[Dr Ian Ellis-Jones is a member of Socialist Alliance.]