The Trump administration will soon take steps toward designating Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism as an 11th hour effort to create hurdles for the incoming Biden administration, which is likely to pursue warmer ties with Havana.
A senior administration official told CNN that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to make the designation in the coming days. A second official confirmed that discussions are taking place, although the timing is uncertain.
The Cuban government has already denounced the move, which is one of a series of bold initiatives the Trump administration is taking as it attempts to leave a lasting imprint on US foreign policy with just three weeks left before President Donald Trump leaves office.
Currently, only three other nations bear the US terrorism designation: Iran, North Korea and Syria. Sudan was recently removed from the list as part of its agreement to normalize ties with Israel.
Such a designation would impose restrictions on US foreign assistance, a ban on defense exports and sales, certain controls over exports and various financial restrictions. It would also result in penalization against any persons and countries engaging in certain trade activities with Cuba.
The New York Times was first to report that Pompeo was considering the designation. A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on Tuesday, saying “we do not discuss deliberations or potential deliberations regarding designations.” The White House declined to comment on the record when reached by CNN.
Momentum to get the designation through had waned in recent months when one of the original advocates for the plan, Mauricio Claver-Carone – a hawkish Cuban-American attorney – left the National Security Council to become president of the Inter-American Development Bank.
However, others within the administration, including Elliott Abrams, Trump’s special representative for Venezuela, and senior Western Hemisphere official Michael Kozak, as well as Florida Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, all supported following through with the idea – despite a lack of support from most of the State Department’s Cuba desk, according to a former administration official.
‘Trashing the hotel room’
“Returning Cuba to the list of state sponsors of terrorism has been a goal of some in the Trump administration since January 20, 2017,” said John S. Kavulich, the president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. “The Trump Administration has altered the definition of ‘terrorism’ to include the behavior of a government towards its citizens – no longer is terrorism solely about an explosion or bombing. The Trump administration connects Cuba with the FARC and with governments China, Iran, Russia, Syria, and North Korea.”
A US diplomat with experience on Cuba issues slammed the expected move, calling it “one more example of trashing the hotel room on the way out the door.”
The diplomat, who was not authorized to speak on the record, noted that when the US and Cuba were opening relations under the Obama administration, Cuba’s presence on the state sponsor of terrorism list “was an obstacle that took a while to overcome, because it comes with real legal restrictions on certain actions.”
Cuba was removed from the state sponsors of terrorism list in 2015 amid President Barack Obama’s efforts to restore ties between Washington and Havana. The Reagan administration designated Cuba in 1982, accusing the Castro government of sponsoring communist groups in Latin American and Africa.
“Cuba’s presence on that list really made a mockery of the list itself - there simply was not a good argument to be made that Cuba actually sponsored terrorism,” the US diplomat said. “I don’t know of anything that has changed since then in real terms – they’re just reinterpreting things to suit politics.”
Although designation would likely get overturned by the incoming Biden administration, the diplomat said that it could do “real damage to our credibility on state sponsorship of terrorism.”
‘Shelter and impunity’
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla on Wednesday “denounced” the expected designation, suggesting it was meant “to please the anti-Cuban minority in Florida.”
“US grants shelter and impunity to terrorist groups acting against Cuba from that territory,” Rodriguez Parrilla wrote on Twitter.
Since taking office, Trump sought to reverse efforts by the Obama administration to end Cold War-era hostilities with Cuba and help to foster a new era of prosperity and growth for the country following decades of rule by socialist Fidel Castro.
Trump’s administration labeled Cuba as part of a so-called “Troika of Tyranny,” which included Venezuela and Nicaragua, and has imposed bruising sanctions and other restrictions on all three countries in the name of combating socialism in the Western Hemisphere. A terrorism designation would likely please Cuban Americans and other voters who helped power Trump to victory in Florida though he ultimately lost the election.
Critics of the Trump administration’s policies toward Cuba and Venezuela believe that sanctions and other clampdowns have only caused more suffering for the people of those countries, while having a limited impact on the regimes they target.
President-Elect Joe Biden said during his campaign that if elected, he “will promptly reverse the failed Trump policies that have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights.”
CNN’s Patrick Oppmann contributed to this report.