Trump returns Cuba to U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism

Matt Spetalnick
·4-min read
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo and Kuwaiti FM Al-Sabah meet in Washington

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Trump administration on Monday announced it was returning Cuba to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, a move that could complicate any efforts by the incoming Biden administration to revive Obama-era detente with Havana.

Just nine days before Republican President Donald Trump leaves office, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Cuba was being listed for "repeatedly providing support for acts of international terrorism" by harboring U.S. fugitives and Colombian rebel leaders.

Pompeo also cited Communist-ruled Cuba's security support for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, which he said had allowed the socialist leader to maintain his grip on power and create "a permissive environment for international terrorists to live and thrive within Venezuela."

"With this action, we will once again hold Cuba’s government accountable and send a clear message: the Castro regime must end its support for international terrorism and subversion of U.S. justice," Pompeo said in a statement.

Returning Cuba to the list is a further rollback of the detente that Democratic former President Barack Obama orchestrated between the old Cold War foes. Obama's decision to formally remove Cuba from the terrorism list in 2015 was an important step toward restoring diplomatic ties that year.

The terrorism list decision followed months of legal review, with some administration experts questioning whether it was justified, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

It would require further lengthy legal deliberations for Democratic President-elect Joe Biden to reverse the designation.

Trump has clamped down on Cuba since coming to power in 2017, tightening restrictions on U.S. travel and remittances to Cuba, and imposing sanctions on shipments of Venezuelan oil to the island.

Trump's policy was popular among the large Cuban-American population in South Florida, helping him win the state in November though he lost the election to Biden, who was Obama's vice president.

Biden said during the election campaign he would promptly reverse Trump policies on Cuba that “have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights.”

But Trump's move could make it more difficult for Biden to resume rapprochement when he takes office. Syria, Iran and North Korea are other countries on the list.

"We condemn the US announced hypocritical and cynical designation of #Cuba as a State sponsoring terrorism," Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said on Twitter. "The US political opportunism is recognized by those who are honestly concerned about the scourge of terrorism and its victims."

Trump has kept up a steady stream of 11th-hour sanctions announcements and other actions against targets including Cuba, Venezuela and Iran, and Biden aides have said some appear designed to tie his hands when he is sworn in on Jan. 20.

"We’ve taken note of these last-minute maneuvers," a Biden official said. "The transition team is reviewing each one."

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, a staunch supporter of Obama's rapprochement, condemned Pompeo for a "blatantly politicized designation," saying "domestic terrorism in the United States poses a far greater threat to Americans."

A re-listing of Cuba has heavy symbolic meaning for Havana, which had chafed for decades under the U.S. designation, though it is unclear how much practical impact there will be.

The designation carries a prohibition on U.S. economic aid, a ban on U.S. arms exports, controls on "dual-use" items with military and civilian applications, and a requirement that the United States oppose loans to Cuba by institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

But many of those restrictions are already in place - or have even been tightened by Trump - and a decades-old U.S. economic embargo remains and can only be lifted by Congress.

In Monday's announcement, Pompeo singled out, among others, the case of the most prominent U.S. fugitive in Cuba: Joanne Chesimard, who fled there after escaping a New Jersey prison following her conviction for killing a New Jersey State trooper in 1973 and who changed her name to Assata Shakur.

Pompeo also condemned Cuba's refusal of Colombia's request to extradite leaders of the ELN rebel group after it claimed responsibility for an attack at a Bogota police academy in January 2019 that killed 22 people.

The leaders of the National Liberation Army (ELN), the largest active guerrilla group in Colombia, traveled to Havana as part of peace negotiations that collapsed after the attack.

Cuba has received plaudits in the past for hosting the successful peace talks between the Colombian government and the former FARC rebel army.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, additional reporting by Daphne Psaledakis in Washinton and Sarah Marsh in Havana; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool)