Even in the middle of the shipwreck that has been the last few weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency, the US president found time to put Cuba back on the US’ list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The decision, actually made days ago, became official when announced on Monday. It’s seen as a payback for the anti-Castro extreme-right in southern Florida. This grouping of citizens are one of Trump’s safest and most productive sources for votes, over the past few years. This support would be a great starting point for his potential presidential bid in 2024.
“The political reasons behind this decision are so transparent they don’t need much analysis,” says Michael Bustamante, a professor at Florida International University (FIU). “Let’s remember that many Republican Cuban-American representatives were among the congresspersons that questioned the election results. These same legislators frequently boast about their defense of democracy around the globe. This is an exceptionally shameful decision.”
Going back on the US state sponsors of terrorism list means that Cuba is unable to receive financial aid from the US, control on exports of dual use items – military and civil, and international financial institutions – such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – refusing Cuba loans. [None of these are currently received.]
Other sanctions described by the resolution – restrictions on signing up for international collaboration programs, businesses and financial schemes which US companies and their subsidiaries take part in – could be an additional burden to Cuba’s already battered economy.
Collin Laverty is an expert in Cuba-US relations and founder of “Cuba Educational Travel”, a cultural and educational exchange organization. He said, “the implications are still not very clear, as Cuba is already being sanctioned in many ways. It is difficult to calculate the impact of each and every one. However, there will be concrete consequences, that’s a fact.”
Air transport and already restricted academic exchange programs will be directly affected. “After four years of sanctions, Cuba’s banks and economy have taken a big blow. Now we will have to see how they react to revisions of airlines’ and other companies’ insurancy policies, and additional hurdles. These are not only financial, but also involve trade and technology,” Laverty adds.
Intermediary countries will also be affected, as Cuba’s inclusion on the list “also implies other legal sanctions that penalize individuals and countries that trade certain goods or services with state sponsors.”
“Financial institutions will have another reason to stop working with Cuba, and insurance companies can suspend hedging transactions,” John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council (which is based in New York), explained to the BBC. In fact, million-dollar imports of fuel from Argelia or Russia, which Cuba has used to make up for the deficit in fuel supply that used to come from Venezuela in the past, will have higher transport costs. The impact of these sanctions will also be felt in sectors such as the pharmaceutical industry, as before 2015 [when Cuba was taken off the list].
Ricardo Herrero is he executive director of the Cuba Study Group. He noted that contrary to what Trump and his advisers say, the intricate business network “controlled by the military” won’t be the only ones to suffer the effects of this. “One of the new restrictions that comes from Cuba going back on the US state sponsors of terrorism list is linked to US exports of software and technology to Cuba, even to the private sector, which mostly prefers US products to Chinese ones. This is no way to support tech entrepreneurs (or our national security),” said Herrero.
Private businesses such as holiday rentals or restaurants will find their options to manage payments from abroad further restricted. During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden said “the focus of US policy regarding Cuba isn’t working.” This, is especially true if we’re talking about promoting an emerging private sector in Cuba.
Political favors for election support
In 2015, Barack Obama gave the green light for Cuba to be taken off the State Department’s list. The rapprochement process was in the works and relations were thawing as both governments were getting ready to open up their embassies as part of a diplomatic process that would lead the following year, to the US leader’s trip to Havana.
Five years later, under the Trump administration, a process concluded to include Cuba in a special category: countries that are “not fully cooperating with US counterterrorism efforts.” Experts saw this as the first step in putting the Caribbean country back on the list as a state sponsor of terrorism. It had been on the list for over three decades before 2015. They also anticipated that other sanctions would follow during the presidential campaign, which did in fact happened.
In September 2020, when a new series of restrictions were announced, Trump was proud that he had dismantled Obama and Biden’s rapprochement policy. The context of these statements couldn’t be any more symbolic. The announcement came at the White House during a tribute to veterans who took part in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. Trump confirmed his “unwavering commitment to a free Cuba.” It would be his catchphrase until voting day, where his strategy resulted in a key advance in Miami-Dade County, winning 22% more votes than garnered in 2016. While he did lose the overall vote in the county, the increase helped him win the State of Florida.
However, reactions to the attack on the Capitol by a mob of his supporters put Trump back in the corner of the ring, He was holding onto the possibility of not leaving the White House, or eventually running for president in the 2024 elections. It was an objective that the executive apparatus and most of the Republican Party were working towards.
It was only on January 10th that a group of his allies dared to ask him to refrain from running for president in four years. However, there are plenty of politicians willing to stand by his agenda on the US Right; including Cuban-Americans Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, defenders of a hard-line policy towards their country of origin. Cuba going back on the US state sponsors of terrorism list could give them leverage to hinder normalizing US-Cuba relations. Biden and Harris repeatedly promised such a policy change regarding Cuba during their election campaign.
“Biden can and should reverse this measure. However, it will require a revision process that could take months, and the disaster he will inherit from Trump in all matters will make it very likely that Cuba won’t be at the top of his agenda at the beginning,” noted professor Bustamente.
Judging by decisions in the past four years, Trump’s agenda always had Southern Florida as its compass in mapping out its actions, rather than Havana. The effects of his policy will continue after the business mogul leaves the Oval Office. Whether that’s by his own doing, or by his feverish followers.
Inheritance from the Cold War
The “State Sponsors of Terrorism” list was created in December 1979, by the US Department of State. The first version included Iraq, Libya, Syria and South Yemen.
Cuba was included for the first time in 1982, accused of providing assistance to guerrilla movements: the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and ETA (Basque nationalist and separatist movement, in Spain). A media campaign was launched about Cuba allegedly sending weapons and providing military training to both these organizations.
Afghanistan and Sudan are examples that prove the much-criticized bias of this list. Unlike intelligence reports, Kabul never received “state sponsor of terrorism” status, under the pretext that the US didn’t recognize the Taliban government and therefore, it couldn’t be considered to receive sanctions. Other sources indicated that the White House’s overtolerance had to do with its plans to build an oil pipeline that would cross this country, taking back control from Russia’s great oil production in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia.
Meanwhile, to gain removal, Sudan just had to give diplomatic recognition to Israel, which Trump pushed for. The US president then announced that Sudan should be taken off the list in December (it had been on the list since 1993). In the meantime, Khartoum had to negotiate 335 million USD in compensation to the families of victims in the 1998 attacks that destroyed the local US Embassy.
“The countries that end up on this list are the countries that we don’t like,” said Michael Oppenheimer, professor at the Center of Global Affairs at NYU in 2014. “Other countries and foreign powers support terrorism, and objectively-speaking, they are terrorists. But it’s the ones that we don’t like that are on the list, and not our allies. It’s a double standard.”