HAVANA — Along with Iran, Syria and North Korea, Cuba is listed as a “state sponsor of terrorism” by the U.S. Department of State.
The designation subjects it to sanctions “that penalize persons and countries engaging in certain trade with Cuba,” according to the State Department.
Scared of being accused of abetting terror and being hit by mammoth fines, most banks refuse to process Cuban payments, cementing the Caribbean nation’s pariah status in the international financial system.
“It’s lethal,” said Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez when asked about the designation’s effects at a press conference in Havana on Wednesday. He added that the listing prevents people from sending remittances to the country from abroad, and raises the price of vital products the country buys on the world market.
Cuba has called the sponsor of terrorism designation "illegitimate and immoral," arguing that it deprives it of financing and credit sources. The country is grappling with shortages in a moribund economy that has been buffeted by the pandemic, U.S. sanctions and the decadeslong embargo and a global rise in food prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Yet, according to half a dozen interviews with former intelligence analysts and officials who worked on Cuba policy in both Republican and Democratic administrations, the “consensus position” in the U.S. intelligence community has for decades been that the communist-led nation does not sponsor terrorism.
Fulton Armstrong, a former national intelligence officer for Latin America, the U.S. intelligence community’s most senior analyst for the region, described the designation as “bogus.”
Larry Wilkerson, who was the chief of staff to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell in the George W. Bush administration, agreed. “‘Cuba is not a state sponsor of terrorism’ was a mantra from the moment I walked into the State Department to the moment I walked out,” he said. “It’s a fiction that we have created … to reinforce the rationale for the blockade.”
The chasm between the designation and the evidence was so great, he said, that during his time in government, Cuba analysts at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research “laughed at it.”
Cuba was first put on the terror list in 1982, but was taken off in 2015 as part of the Obama administration’s rapprochement with it. The Trump administration, which battered the island with more than 200 new sanctions, put it back on the list just nine days before leaving office.
While the Biden administration has rolled back some Trump-era restrictions on Cuba, the continuing terror designation is now affecting travel to the United States: People from 40 countries this year lost the right to travel to the U.S. without a visa if they visited Cuba in the last decade. For U.S. travel, they must now apply for a visa and it can take months for an appointment.
“They say they want to empower Cuban society, specifically the Cuban private sector, but these measures impoverish Cuban society,” said tour guide Marlon Díaz, who worried that on top of the blackouts and the bad press the island has received following last year’s nationwide protests, the measure will keep European tourists away.
The general manager of a joint venture involving a European firm on the island, whose name is being withheld because his company had not authorized him to speak to reporters, said his bosses were unable to attend a recent board meeting because of the measure. “People from multinationals who work in multiple markets cannot now come to Cuba," he said. "That’s very negative because the exchange of ideas is essential if you want a more democratic and capitalistic society.”
As banks take fright and hard currency inflows are stifled, budgets for the import of food and medicine are crimped.
Those hit the hardest? The poorest — who must rely on the state for food and cannot afford to buy from a private sector which can now import all but directly.
The designation contributes to barren pharmacy shelves and the insufferable hours regular Cubans spend sweltering in lines for food.
'Delegitimizing what should be a tool'
Former security and law enforcement officials also argue that the listing damages U.S. national security interests.
“To weaponize the state sponsor of terrorism list like this for purely political ends of the United States, I think, is not only wrong with respect to Cuba, to me it risks delegitimizing what should be a tool that is used to punish actual state sponsors of terrorism,” said Ben Rhodes, who was then-President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser and his point man on Cuba.
U.S. intelligence did, in the past, conclude that the island sponsored terrorism. Throughout the 1980s, Cuba shared intelligence with, trained and apparently supplied weapons to revolutionary movements fighting military dictatorships in Central America.
But by the mid-1990s, after civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador had come to an end and after the Sandinistas in Nicaragua had accepted defeat at the ballot box, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded the island had abandoned its policy of “export of the Revolution.”
“After the Central American peace processes had run their full course, the Cubans really and truly did demonstrate that they were supporting peaceful resolutions,” Armstrong, the former intelligence officer, said. “The world was changing: they knew that the USSR was going to collapse before we did, so it was part of an overall redirection of their foreign policy.”
The Trump administration's decision to reinstate Cuba into the terrorism list chafed those on the island who have lost loved ones in terrorist attacks.
In 1976, plastic explosives disguised as Colgate toothpaste blew up a Cuban flight from Barbados to Jamaica as the plane flew over the Caribbean Sea, killing 73 people on board, including every member of the Cuban national fencing team. A now-deceased CIA-trained Cuban exile, Luis Posada Carriles, was linked to the bombing and accused of masterminding the operation.
The designation “is ironic because in the 1960s, the CIA sponsored assassinations attempts, sabotage and paramilitary raids against Cuba — what today would be called state-sponsored terrorism — and CIA-trained Cuban exiles continued such attacks for the next several decades," said William LeoGrande, a professor of government at the American University in Washington.
When explaining his decision to relist the island as a sponsor of terrorism, then-President Donald Trump's secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, cited Havana’s support for Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro and its harboring of U.S. fugitives from justice.
But neither are “international terrorism,” according to U.S. law.
“Fugitives are not active terrorists. It’s an absurd argument,” Rhodes said. “Are we sanctioning France for Roman Polanski living there?” he asked, referring to the movie director who fled the United States on the eve of sentencing in a child sex abuse trial in 1978.
The Trump administration also cited the sanctuary Havana provides to the leadership of Colombia's National Liberation Army (ELN), a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization which took credit for a 2019 attack inside Colombia’s national police academy, in which 22 were killed.
But the ELN leaders were granted safe haven in Havana as part of peace negotiations with the Colombian government that were facilitated by Cuba and Norway, and backed by the Obama administration and the Vatican. Following those negotiations, the Colombian government and the guerrilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) reached a historic peace accord ending a half-century of bloody combat. Peace with the ELN, however, was not achieved.
New Colombian President Gustavo Petro has called Cuba’s inclusion on the list “an enormous injustice." He has announced his government will resume talks with the ELN next month. Cuba will once again be a “guarantor state.”
The Biden administration has provided no evidence that Cuba sponsors terrorism. When asked by NBC News to provide any proof, the State Department declined.
“The Department of State carefully and consistently reviews available information and intelligence, from many sources, to determine if a country meets the statutory criteria for designation or rescission," according to a State Department spokesperson. "We do not publicly discuss or comment on internal deliberations regarding designations.”
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