Cuba’s Return to the Terrorist List: Biden’s Options

Prints for sale. Photo: Juan Suarez

By Rafael Gonzalez Morales (Progreso Weekly)

HAVANA TIMES – The unjust and arbitrary reincorporation of Cuba to the list of state sponsors of terrorism constitutes a political decision that must be analyzed based on three fundamental questions: (1) What is its purpose? (2) What are the implications for the next administration’s Cuba policy? (3) What options would the Biden administration have to handle this situation?

The objectives of this decision are closely linked to the interests of sectors that promoted, practically from day one of Trump’s rise to power, Cuba’s return to that list. The Cuban-American extreme right and high-level officials of the Trump administration kept the evaluation of this issue under permanent consideration and carried out various action exerting pressure. Here’s the evidence:

  • On February 28, 2017, Congressman Mario Díaz-Balart delivered to Rick Scott, then the governor of Florida, a two-page memorandum which included, among the proposals, designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.
  • On March 3, 2017, during a visit by President Trump to Tampa, Scott held an exchange with the president where Marco Rubio also participated and commented on the content of the document. It was agreed that they would prepare a letter and send it to the White House, which was done in the middle of that month.
  • On September 29, 2017, the same day that the reduction of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Havana was announced because of the alleged acoustic incidents, Marco Rubio advocated, in an official statement, for the return of Cuba to the list.
  • On June 16, 2018, the anti-Cuban organization Inspire America Foundation, whose main purpose is to promote a policy of confrontation against Cuba, sent a letter to Trump requesting the inclusion of the country in the aforementioned list. The members of that group participated together with the president in the signing of the “Presidential Memorandum of National Security on the Strengthening of the United States Policy towards Cuba” in June 2017.
  • At the beginning of February 2019, then national security adviser John Bolton raised the proposal to return Cuba to the list as a step to continue the increase of pressure on the island. Bolton himself wrote this in his book, “The room where it happened: A memory of the White House.” At that time, one of the most enthusiastic advocates of this idea was Mauricio Claver-Carone.

In essence, the issue, for this group, was considered a kind of “jewel in the crown” for three fundamental reasons: 1) the decision would cause a substantial deterioration of the bilateral climate and immediately cancel opportunities for dialogue; 2) an additional regime of economic, commercial and financial sanctions would be imposed that would affect US and other third party countries’ companies doing business on the island; and (3) ideal conditions would be created to break diplomatic relations.

Therefore returning Cuba to the list was the necessary and essential step that expedited the fulfillment of the greater objective: blowing up Obama’s legacy and beginning a spiral of hostile actions without limits. Fortunately, on this issue, certain government agencies erected a red line impossible for these sectors to cross until May 12, 2020, when the State Department released its certification that Cuba “was not fully cooperating with the fight against terrorism.” This action indicated that bureaucratic resistance had been broken and was a sign of what was to come.

Between 2017 and early 2020, it is clear that there was no consensus within the Trump administration to adopt this decision, nor were the conditions created to politicize Cuba’s appointment. Representatives of professional bodies and structures linked to national security that participate in this evaluation process became a strong obstacle for achieving their purpose.

It is obvious that their greatest concern was that a total derailment of the already tense bilateral relations would generate the occurrence of incidents and outcomes with serious implications for the national security of both countries. However, the political irrationality, hatred and frustration of the hard-line sector finally prevailed, taking advantage of the unprecedented circumstances of an unbridled and out of control government.

Trump’s defeat in the presidential election and the prospects that resulted for the improvement of ties between Cuba and the United States as of January 20 with a new Democratic administration constitute the determining factors that explain why the decision was taken now. The political context forced them to rush their plans and they have had no choice but to use this maneuver as an instrument to hinder an eventual dismantling of their main achievement in these four years: imposing a hostile and confrontational policy.

Its strategic objective is to limit as much as possible the capacity of the Biden administration to initiate a process of rebuilding relations that implies eliminating the system of pretexts, sanctions, measures and executive provisions that underpin the current policy. They are betting that the new administration will initiate policy towards Cuba with its hands and feet tied on day one, and carrying on its back the complex obstacles placed in its way.

The bilateral scenario that Biden and his team will inherit cannot be worse. Firstly, it will have to deal with and adopt a position in relation to four key issues that constitute the fundamental nucleus of the pretexts promoted by the Trump administration: the so-called human rights situation on the island; the role of Cuba in Venezuela; the role of the military in the economy; the acoustic incidents and now reinstatement on the list of sponsors of terrorism.

Each one separately represents an obstacle to advancing the improvement of ties, and they are obliged to evaluate the political cost to definitively break with all of them or recognize some. The decision taken about how to handle each pretext will be vital to the dynamics of the relationship.

The impact that the recent inclusion in the list would have on the orientation of the Biden Administration’s Cuba policy must necessarily be examined in this context. As of January 20, this decision could in principle produce the following:

  1. It would delay any attempt to move immediately to create a constructive political climate on an equal footing between the two governments that is essential for a possible recomposition of relations.
  2. It would take more time to reactivate the bilateral dialogue mechanisms created at different levels during the Obama era, which are essential to address key issues on the agenda between the two countries.
  3. It would affect the pace and results needed in the short term on issues of common interest in their different areas, including the confrontation of pandemics, climate change, and transnational crimes that constitute shared threats to the national security of the United States and Cuba.
  4. It would hinder the timely and expeditious implementation of the 22 bilateral instruments adopted and in force on issues of common interest.
  5. It would increase scrutiny, surveillance, and prohibitions on financial operations involving Cuba with third parties, which could imply that certain banks refrain from participating in transactions for fear of being sanctioned.
  6. It would help promote an environment of disinterest in the Cuban market on the US business community and increase the perception of a risk among potential investors from other nations.

Most of the economic, commercial and financial sanctions that apply to a country by belonging to this list have already been applied to Cuba for several years as part of the blockade policy and the Trump administration is implementing them with the utmost rigor. For this reason, the most significant implications are focused on the political sphere and, especially, on government to government relations.

Despite these complexities that imply serious challenges in the face of a recomposition of the ties, Biden, as president, will have the executive powers necessary not only to loosen those knots that they intend to impose, but to break them definitively, for which he must show political will and determination. The fact that Cuba is on the list is not an impediment for the new government to adopt the following measures that would have an immediate, positive impact:

  • Restore trips to Cuba in the 12 existing categories through a general license.
  • Reestablish licenses for airlines, cruise ships, and pleasure boats to operate under normal conditions.
  • Eliminate the list of prohibited accommodations that limits where travelers can stay when they visit the Island.
  • Reestablish the general license for remittance providers from the United States to sign contracts with the Cuban side and eliminate the limit imposed on remittances.
  • Allow US institutions to open and maintain correspondent accounts in Cuban financial entities to facilitate the processing of authorized transactions.
  • Eliminate the list of “restricted entities” of the State Department that prohibits the performance of economic, commercial and financial operations with certain Cuban legal entities.
  • Suspend the application of Title III of the Helms – Burton Act.
  • Reactivate bilateral dialogue mechanisms on issues of common interest related to the national security of both countries.

This group of actions would generate an initial bilateral dynamic that would contribute to significantly limit the implications of the inclusion of Cuba in the list of promoters of terrorism and would create a favorable environment for the process of removing Cuba from that list more quickly. On this last aspect, US laws establishes an exit procedure that can take several months.

Remember that when the Obama administration announced its intention to exclude Cuba from the list, on December 17, 2014, until its exclusion, May 29, 2015, five months and twelve days passed. This exclusion process involves two essential steps: (1) the State Department directs and coordinates a review process on the designation; and (2) subsequently a message is sent to Congress certifying that the country in question has complied with the requirements established by U.S. laws.

In the case of Cuba, the Obama administration affirmed that “the Cuban government has not provided any support to international terrorism in the last six months” and that “it has provided guarantees that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.” After Congress receives such communication, it must wait 45 days based on the law. Biden knows the path that must be traveled on this issue, all he needs to do is resume that same path and exclude Cuba as quickly as possible from a list it should have never been put on. After taking this step and having cleared the other obstacles, without a doubt, the long and complex process towards normalization could be resumed with greater force and intensity.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.


One thought on “Cuba’s Return to the Terrorist List: Biden’s Options

  • January 18, 2021 at 5:57 pm
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    Rafael Gonzalez fails to support his suggestion that the US relax it’s restrictions against the Castro dictatorship. In other words, what’s in it for the US? He insinuates that there are national security risks for both countries should bilateral relations continue to sour. Really? A poor Caribbean country of 11 million people versus the world’s only superpower? There is no doubt that Castro espionage continues to be a bother but calling Cuba a national security risk? A tad bit ambitious. If relations were to worsen to a mini-cold war and devolve into a tit-for-tat, I’ll take US tits for Cuban tats any day. Instead, the plan should be that Diaz-Canel swallow hard and be prepared to negotiate in good faith. Trading a little more Democracy for the Cuban people in exchange for better relations with the US bully is a good deal for the Cuban people.

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