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U.S. declares Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism

Cuba was first placed on the list in 1982 under Reagan but was removed in 2015 by Obama as part of a normalization of relations.
Image: Vintage cars drive on the seafront boulevard El Malecon in Havana
Vintage cars drive on the seafront boulevard El Malecon in Havana on Dec. 29, 2020.Reuters

The Trump administration declared Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism on Monday, the latest in a series of actions aimed at undoing the Obama-era legacy of opening U.S. relations with the island nation just weeks before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

"The Trump Administration has been focused from the start on denying the Castro regime the resources it uses to oppress its people at home, and countering its malign interference in Venezuela and the rest of the Western Hemisphere," said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a statement. "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 U.S. justice.”

The State Department had briefed Congress on the impending move Monday morning, according to two congressional aides who spoke to NBC News on the condition of anonymity, as they were not authorized to speak publicly. Bloomberg had first reported on the impending action.

Cuba was placed on the list in 1982 under President Ronald Reagan but was removed in 2015 by President Barack Obama as part of a normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

Placing Cuba back on the list before the Trump administration leaves office will place a major roadblock for efforts by incoming Biden officials to return to the Obama-era policy.

Groups that favor greater U.S. engagement with Cuba criticized the announcement.

“There is no compelling, factual basis to merit the designation,” according to Ric Herrero, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, a Washington DC-based organization that supports engagement with the island. "Instead it appears to be another shameless, last-ditch effort to hamstring the foreign policy of the incoming Biden administration and set the stage for the next election in Florida, all at the expense of the Cuban people and relations between our countries.”

Herrero said the process to remove Cuba from the list is complex and can take months once initiated.

After the announcement, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez tweeted: "We condemn the US announced hypocritical and cynical designation of #Cuba as a State sponsoring terrorism. The US political opportunism is recognized by those who are honestly concerned about the scourge of terrorism and its victims."

Reversing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s action would require the Biden administration to certify to Congress that there has been a fundamental change in leadership in Cuba and that the government is not supporting acts of international terrorism, has not for the previous six months and will not do so in the future.

The designation results in restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance, a ban on U.S. arms exports and sales, controls on dual-use items that could be used for both military and civilian purposes and the withdrawal of U.S. support for loans from global financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank.

Still, the move may be largely symbolic. Given the series of sanctions and restrictions already put in place under the Trump administration, it's unclear what further financial hardship the designation would present the Cuban government.

Pompeo has been weighing the decision to place Cuba back on the terrorism list for months, sources said.

The State Department tipped their hand to Monday’s decision as early as last May, notifying Congress that in addition to the three countries already on the list, Venezuela and Cuba were now certified under the Arms Export Control Act as “not cooperating fully” with U.S. counterterrorism efforts in 2019.

Among the reasons for the designation was Cuba's refusal to extradite Joanne Chesimard, also known as Assata Shakur, an American who fled to Cuba after being convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973. The State Department also cited Cuba's denial of a Colombian request to extradite members of a guerilla group that claimed responsibility for a bombing in a police academy; the Cuban government has cited the ongoing peace negotiation protocols.

The Trump administration has systematically called out the Cuban government for backing socialist Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

"The argument to put Cuba back on the list is for the administration a simple straight line to Venezuela," John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said about the expected announcement. "They've made the case, constantly, that Maduro is only there because of Cuba."

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"The Cuban intelligence and security apparatus has infiltrated Venezuela’s security and military forces," said Pompeo's statement, adding Cuba assisted Maduro in maintaining "his stranglehold over his people while allowing terrorist organizations to operate."

In December, Cuba's Rodriguez had denounced Pompeo's potential "maneuvers" as an attempt to "please the anti-Cuban minority in Florida."

Iran, North Korea and Syria are the only nations currently designated as state sponsors of terrorism, which requires the State Department to certify a country "repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism." The Trump administration removed Sudan from the list last month shortly after they agreed to formally recognize Israel.

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