US President Donald Trump has reclassified Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” in a last-minute move that could complicate efforts by Joe Biden’s incoming administration to re-engage with Havana.
The controversial step was announced by secretary of state Mike Pompeo at the start of Trump’s final full-week in office, and places Cuba alongside Iran, North Korea and Syria.
Pompeo justified the move – which reverses Barack Obama’s 2015 decision to remove Cuba from the list after more than three decades – by accusing Havana of “repeatedly providing support for acts of international terrorism in granting safe harbour to terrorists”.
That is partly a reference to the former Black Panther Assata Shakur who was jailed in the US for the 1973 killing of a police officer and later escaped to Cuba where she was granted asylum by its then leader Fidel Castro. It is also based on Cuba’s refusal to extradite a group of guerrillas from Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) for alleged involvement in a 2019 bomb attack in Bogotá.
Pompeo also alleged Cuba was engaging “in a range of malign behaviour across the region”, highlighting its support for Venezuela’s authoritarian leader Nicolás Maduro who Trump has unsuccessfully tried to overthrow.
Havana reacted angrily to what its foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, called a “hypocritical and cynical” move. “The US political opportunism is recognized by those who are honestly concerned about the scourge of terrorism and its victims,” Rodríguez tweeted.
Ricardo Herrero, head of a US-based non-partisan association called Cuba Study Group, said there was “no factual basis” for Trump’s decision.
“This is a malicious, last-ditch effort to handicap Biden’s foreign policy, and reward Maga supporters in Florida for sticking with Trump even after he incited terrorist attacks against the US Congress,” Herrero tweeted.
The new sanctions will include major restrictions that will bar most travel from the US to Cuba and transfer of money between the two countries, a significant source of income for Cubans who have relatives in the United States.
Removing Cuba from the blacklist in 2015 had been one of Obama’s main foreign policy achievements as he sought better relations with the communist island, an effort endorsed by Biden as his vice-president. Ties had been essentially frozen after Fidel Castro took power in 1959 while Cuba had been on the terror list since 1982 because of its support for guerrilla groups.
Biden is expected to work to improve ties, although immigration and Venezuela’s economic, political and humanitarian crises are believed to be higher up his agenda.