President Donald Trump’s outgoing administration on Monday returned Cuba to the US blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism, erecting a last-minute roadlock to expected efforts by President-elect Joe Biden to ease tensions.
The terror designation severely hampers foreign investment and can only be removed after a formal review by the Biden administration, meaning it may remain in force for months.
With nine days left in office, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited Cuba’s ties with Colombian rebels, alliance with leftist Venezuela and sanctuary to several US fugitives in justifying the blacklisting.
“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 US justice,” Pompeo said in a statement, referring to former leaders Fidel and Raul Castro.
“The United States will continue to support the Cuban people in their desire for a democratic government and respect for human rights, including freedom of religion, expression and association,” he said.
Then-president Barack Obama in 2015 delisted Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism as he moved to normalize relations and declared the half-century US effort to isolate the communist island to be a failure.
Trump has reversed many of Obama’s overtures to Cuba and also imposed sanctions on Venezuela, winning him support among immigrant communities in Florida, a crucial state in US elections.
Biden has indicated he wants to return at least to some engagement started under Obama and blocked by Trump, including allowing Cuban-Americans to visit family and send money.
Lawmakers from Biden’s Democratic Party had been outraged by signs that Pompeo would move ahead with the designation, saying he should be assisting the transition instead.
Representative Gregory Meeks, the Democrat who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, had warned that the decision “would clearly be another stunt by President Trump and Pompeo, trying to tie the hands of the incoming Biden administration on their way out the door.”
“President Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba reversed decades of failed foreign policy which neither advanced our goals or helped the Cuban people,” Meeks said in December.
To remove Cuba from the terror list, Antony Blinken — Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, who the Republican-led Senate is not expected to be confirm in time for the January 20 inauguration — would need to initiate a review that shows that Havana did not engage in terrorism over the previous six months.
The designation is the latest in a blitz of decisions by Pompeo in his final days in office, with most of Washington focused on whether to remove Trump for inciting a deadly riot at the US Capitol of supporters who sought to stop the ceremonial certification of Biden’s victory.
Since Saturday, Pompeo has also designated Yemen’s Huthi rebels as a terrorist group, defying warnings from aid groups, and relaxed rules on US engagement with Taiwan.
John S. Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council that looks at commercial ties between the countries, said the immediate effects of Pompeo’s move would include discouraging financial institutions from dealing with Cuba.
Insurance companies could also suspend coverage or jack up rates for operators of ships and aircrafts to Cuba, he said.
“Transactions with the Republic of Cuba would have an increase in scrutiny, resulting in fewer governments and companies wanting to engage with it,” he said.
But he doubted the move would ultimately change Cuba’s policies, including its staunch support for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whom the Trump administration is seeking to topple.
Before Obama’s delisting, the legal grounds for Cuba’s terror designation had come under frequent question.
Providing a legal justification, Pompeo pointed to Cuba’s refusal to extradite commanders from Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) over a January 2019 car bombing at a Bogota police academy that killed 22 people.
Cuba has said it will not hand them over due to its role mediating between the ELN and government.
Pompeo also pointed to Cuba’s sanctuary of Americans including Assata Shakur, a Black Power militant who fled to the island after escaping prison following a conviction over the killing of a New Jersey state trooper.
Only three other countries are on the blacklist — Iran, North Korea and Syria. Trump late last year removed Sudan after its democratic transition, compensation for past attacks and agreement to recognize Israel.