WASHINGTON (AP) – The Trump administration on Monday renamed Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism”, hitting the country with new sanctions that could hamper President-elect Joe Biden’s promise to renew relations with the island ruled by the communists.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the decision, citing in particular Cuba’s continued hosting of American fugitives, its refusal to extradite a coterie of Colombian guerrilla commanders as well as its support for Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro.
The appointment, which has been discussed for years, is one of many last-minute foreign policy steps taken by the Trump administration before Biden took office on January 20.
Removing Cuba from the blacklist had been one of former President Barack Obama’s major foreign policy accomplishments as he sought better relations with the island, an effort Biden endorsed as a vice. -President. Ties were mostly frozen after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.
As he did with Iran, Trump has sought to overturn many of Obama’s decisions regarding Cuba. He took a firm line on Havana and rescinded many of the sanctions the Obama administration relaxed or lifted after full diplomatic relations were restored in 2015.
Since Trump came to power, after a campaign that attacked Obama’s initiatives to normalize relations with Cuba, relations have become increasingly strained.
In addition to attacking Cuba for its support for Maduro, the Trump administration has also suggested that Cuba may have been behind or authorized alleged sound attacks that left dozens of American diplomats in Havana with brain damage from the end of 2016.
However, few American allies believe that Cuba remains a sponsor of international terrorism, quibbling either with the definition based on support for Maduro, or outright rejecting American claims that Cuban authorities finance or organize international terrorist attacks.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez condemned the American action. “American political expediency is recognized by those who are honestly concerned about the scourge of terrorism and its victims,” he said on Twitter.
Representative Gregory Meeks, the new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the appointment of Trump would not help the Cuban people and only sought to tie the hands of the Biden administration.
“This designation of Cuba as a sponsor state of terrorism with less than a week to assume its presidency and after inciting a national terrorist attack on the US capital … is hypocrisy,” Meeks said in an interview with the Associated Press.
Nonetheless, encouraged by Cuban American and Venezuelan exiles in South Florida, the Trump administration has steadily increased restrictions on flights, trade, and financial transactions between the United States and the island.
The latest sanctions put Cuba alongside North Korea, Syria and Iran as the only foreign countries seen as sponsor states of terrorism. As a result of Monday’s actions, most travel from the United States to Cuba will be banned as well as sending money to Cuba from relatives in the United States, a major source of income for the impoverished island.
But with dollar-generating companies already reeling from the effects of the coronavirus and previous measures like Trump’s ban on cruise ships and cap on remittances, the biggest impact will likely be diplomatic.
“It will really slow down any thaw in relations with the Biden administration,” said Emilio Morales, Cuban economist in exile and chairman of the Miami-based Havana Consulting Group.
Morales said the measure’s unwinding will take at least a year and will require a thorough study by the U.S. government. He also doubts Biden, who played no significant role in opening up the Obama administration to Cuba, is willing to invest the kind of political capital that Obama did and throw a lifeline for Cuban leaders. with nothing in return.
Obama’s removal of Cuba from the list of “sponsor states of terrorism” had been a major target for Trump, Pompeo and other Cuban hawks in the current administration.
Cuba has repeatedly refused to return American fugitives who have been granted asylum, including a black activist convicted of killing a New Jersey state soldier in the 1970s. In addition to political refugee status, the American fugitives have received free housing, health care and other benefits thanks to the Cuban government, which insists that the United States has no “legal or moral basis” to demand their return.
But perhaps the biggest change since Obama’s outreach in 2015 is Cuba’s strong support for Maduro, seen by the dictator whose plundering of the oil economy has driven 5 million Venezuelans from their homes.
Cuba has a long-standing alliance with Maduro, although it has long denied having 20,000 troops and intelligence agents in Venezuela and said it did not conduct any security operations. Cuban officials, however, have said they have the right to conduct broad military and intelligence cooperation that they consider legitimate.
Relations between the two countries have grown stronger over the past two decades, with Venezuela sending billions of dollars in oil shipments to Cuba and welcoming tens of thousands of employees, including medical workers.
In May 2020, the State Department added Cuba to a list of countries that do not cooperate with US counterterrorism programs.
In making the decision, the department said several leaders of the National Liberation Army, a Colombian rebel group designated as a terrorist organization, remained on the island despite Colombia’s repeated request to be extradited to respond to the 2019 car bomb attack on a police academy in Bogota. killed 22 people.
Cuba has rejected the demands, saying sacking the leaders would violate protocols agreed to by the Colombian government for the peace efforts that were halted after the deadly bombings.
In rejecting these allegations, President Miguel Díaz-Canel declared that Cuba was a victim of terrorism. He cited as an example an armed attack on his embassy in Washington last April. Cubans see the blacklist as helping the United States justify the island’s long-standing embargo and other economic sanctions that have crippled its economy.
Associated Press diplomatic writer Matthew Lee reported this story to Washington, and PA writer Joshua Goodman reported from Miami. AP writer Andrea Rodriguez in Havana contributed to this report.