Since 1982 the United States has had different opinions as to whether Cuba was a “state sponsor of terrorism” under three U.S. statutes—the Export Administration Act (section 6(j)), the Arms Export Control Act (section 40) and the Foreign Assistance Act (Section 620A)—that authorize the Secretary of State to designate countries that “have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism” as “state sponsors of terrorism” and thereby impose sanctions on such countries, including restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance, bans on U.S. defense exports and sales, controls over exports of dual use items and miscellaneous financial and other restrictions.
We will look at these different positions, including the Biden Administration’s current review of the Trump Administration’s last minute designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor.”
Cuba as “State Sponsor of Terrorism,” 1982-2014
From 1982 through 2014, the U.S. designated Cuba as such a Sponsor.
U.S. Rescinds Cuba’s “Sponsor” Designation, 2015
On April 14, 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry publicly announced that the State Department had recommended that President Obama rescind the designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.” His press release stated that the prior week the “Department submitted a report to the White House recommending, based on the facts and the statutory standard, that President Obama rescind Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.”
“This recommendation,” the Statement continued, “reflects the Department’s assessment that Cuba meets the criteria established by Congress for rescission . . . . whether Cuba provided any support for international terrorism during the previous six months, and whether Cuba has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.” This conclusion was based, in part, upon “corroborative assurances received from the Government of Cuba.”
Nevertheless, according to the Secretary’s statement, “the United States has had, and continues to have, significant concerns and disagreements with a wide range of Cuba’s policies and actions, [but] these concerns and disagreements fall outside of the criteria for designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.”
The same day (April 14, 2015), a White House press release stated the President had “submitted to Congress the statutorily required report and certifications indicating the Administration’s intent to rescind Cuba’s State Sponsor of Terrorism designation.”
That presidential decision was based upon the previously mentioned State Department recommendation that was based on its “careful review of Cuba’s record, which was informed by the Intelligence Community, as well as assurances provided by the Cuban government.”
This White House press release also stated, “As the President has said, we will continue to have differences with the Cuban government, but our concerns over a wide range of Cuba’s policies and actions fall outside the criteria that is relevant to whether to rescind Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. That determination is based on the statutory standard – and the facts – and those facts have led the President to declare his intention to rescind Cuba’s State Sponsor of Terrorism designation. More broadly, the [U.S.] will continue to support our interests and values through engagement with the Cuban government and people.”
President Obama’s simultaneous message to Congress certified that “(i) the Government of Cuba has not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding 6-month period; and (ii) the Government of Cuba has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.”
U.S. Non-Designation of Cuba, 2016-20
From 2015 through the end of the Obama Administration in January 2017, the U.S. continued to not so designate Cuba as the U.S. and Cuba held several bilateral diplomatic meetings to discuss the many issues that had accumulated ever since the January 1, 1959, takeover of the Cuban government by the Cuban Revolution.
At their May 2016 Law Enforcement Dialogue, the U.S. State Department said that “law enforcement is an area of mutual interest to both the U.S. and Cuba as we advance toward normalized relations. We anticipate that the dialogue will be productive, and an additional opportunity to reinforce the benefits of law enforcement cooperation. During the dialogue, the United States and Cuba will continue to discuss a wide range of areas of cooperation, including counterterrorism, counternarcotic, transnational crime, cybercrime, secure travel and trade, and fugitives.”
The framework for the dialogue was the May 2016 Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Cuban Ministry of Interior. This MOU set the basis of cooperation in exchanging risk information for travelers, cargo or conveyances in international transit; the continuation of periodic, mutual, and reciprocal assessments regarding air, sea, and port security; and the coordination of transportation security, screening of cargo, travelers and baggage, and the design of secure, efficient inspection facilities at ports and airports, among other things.
The next month, June 2016, the U.S. and Cuba met in Havana for their first Counterterrorism Technical Exchange. The State Department said, “Coordination and cooperation on counterterrorism has been one of several important topics discussed in law enforcement dialogues between the United States and Cuba. We welcome the opportunity to bring together technical experts to discuss this topic of common interest.” Afterwards, the Cuban Foreign Ministry said that the meeting was conducted with “respect and professionalism” and that “both parties agreed on the importance of progress in cooperation in this sphere and agreed to continue the meetings of technicians on the topic.”
During the last weeks of the Obama Administration in January 2017, the U.S. and Cuba signed the following four agreements:
- S.-Cuba Memorandum of Understanding on Law Enforcement “to cooperate in the fight against terrorism, drug trafficking, money laundering and other international criminal activities.”
- Memorandum of Understanding to strengthen cooperation in the field of maritime and aeronautical search and rescue by enhancing effectiveness and efficiency in assisting persons in distress and to act in furtherance of obligations under international law.
- S., Cuba and Mexico signed a a treaty to set territorial limits in contested Gulf of Mexico waters. The treaty covers the Eastern Gap of the Gulf of Mexico, an area believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits. The three countries’ overlapping claims in the Eastern Gap had created what is known as a “Doughnut Hole.” Trilateral discussions begun in mid-2016 on the maritime territorial issue were concluded by the end of the year.
- S. and Cuba memorandum of understanding to help prevent the introduction and spread of quarantine pests, animal and plant disease agents through the exchange of scientific information, best practices for the prevention and control of plagues and emerging diseases, collaborative scientific projects, including the use of technology, research and surveillance, and the holding of events on specific aspects of animal and plant health.
In addition, the Trump Administration for 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 did not designate Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.”
Secretary Pompeo’s Re-Designation of Cuba as “Sponsor”
On January 11, 2021 (with only nine days left of the Trump Administration), Secretary of State Pompeo announced that Cuba was being re-designated as a “State Sponsor” to join Iran, North Korea and Syria. Here is what his statement said:
- “The State Department has designated Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism for repeatedly providing support for acts of international terrorism in granting safe harbor to terrorists.”
- “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.”
- “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.”
- “For decades, the Cuban government has fed, housed, and provided medical care for murderers, bombmakers, and hijackers, while many Cubans go hungry, homeless, and without basic medicine. Members of the National Liberation Army (ELN), a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, traveled to Havana to conduct peace talks with the Colombian government in 2017. Citing peace negotiation protocols, Cuba has refused Colombia’s requests to extradite ten ELN leaders living in Havana after the group claimed responsibility for the January 2019 bombing of a Bogota police academy that killed 22 people and injured more than 87 others.”
- “Cuba also harbors several U.S. fugitives from justice wanted on or convicted of charges of political violence, many of whom have resided in Cuba for decades. For example, the Cuban regime has refused to return Joanne Chesimard, on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists List for executing New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster in 1973; Ishmael LaBeet, convicted of killing eight people in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1972; Charles Lee Hill, charged with killing New Mexico state policeman Robert Rosenbloom in 1971; and others.”
- “Cuba returns to the SST list following its broken commitment to stop supporting terrorism as a condition of its removal by the previous administration in 2015. On May 13, 2020, the State Department notified Congress that it had certified Cuba under Section 40A(a) of the Arms Export Control Act as “not cooperating fully” with U.S. counterterrorism efforts in 2019.”
- “In addition to the support for international terrorism that is the basis for today’s action, the Cuban regime engages in a range of malign behavior across the region. The Cuban intelligence and security apparatus has infiltrated Venezuela’s security and military forces, assisting Nicholas Maduro to maintain his stranglehold over his people while allowing terrorist organizations to operate. The Cuban government’s support for FARC dissidents and the ELN continues beyond Cuba’s borders as well, and the regime’s support of Maduro has created a permissive environment for international terrorists to live and thrive within Venezuela.”
- “Today’s designation subjects Cuba to sanctions that penalize persons and countries engaging in certain trade with Cuba, restricts U.S. foreign assistance, bans defense exports and sales, and imposes certain controls on exports of dual use items.”
- “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. Until these rights and freedoms are respected, we will continue to hold the regime accountable.”
Biden Administration’s Review of Designation
The latest change was announced on February 5, 2021 at press briefing by Ned Price, a State Department spokesperson, said, “[O]ur overall overarching policy when it comes to Cuba, and it’s a policy that will be governed by two principles. First is the support for democracy and human rights. It will be at the core of our efforts through empowering the Cuban people to determine their own future. And second, we believe that Americans, and especially Cuban Americans, are the best ambassadors for freedom and prosperity in Cuba. We’re committed to making human rights a core pillar of our U.S. foreign policy. That certainly applies to Cuba, just as you’ve heard me reference it across the board, and includes redoubling our dedication to human rights throughout our own hemisphere.”
“Despite, human rights defenders around the world continue to look to the United States to – for support against authoritarian regimes. This is one of those issues that we will continue to rally our allies and partners against. And in the administration we’ve also committed to carefully reviewing policy decisions made in the prior administration, including the decision by the outgoing administration to designate Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism. I wouldn’t want to go into any further details. But as we take a look at this issue into our broader policy with Cuba, those principles will continue to be front of mind.”
In this context, it should be pointed out that there is a serious legal impediment to Cuba’s extraditing some U.S. fugitives to the U.S.
This blogger strongly supports the Biden Administration’s decision to conduct such a review, as required by statutes, and trust that later it will conclude to rescind this designation.
 Sullivan, CRS Report for Congress: Cuba and the State Sponsors of Terrorism List (Updated May 13, 2015).
 See these posts to dwkcommantaries.com: President Obama Rescinds U.S. Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” (April 15, 2015); U.S. Rescinds Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism,” May 29, 2015).
 See thee posts to dwkcommenareis.com: United States and Cuba Hold Second Law Enforcement Dialogue (May 19, 2016); U.S. and Cuba Discuss Counterterrorism Cooperation (June 10, 2016); President Obama Issues Presidential Directive—United States-Cuba Normalization (Oct. 14, 2016); U.S. and Cuba Continue To Implement Normalization of Relations (Jan. 17, 2017); U.S. and Cuba sign Additional Agreements (Jan. 20, 2017).
 See, e.g., these posts to dwkcommentaries: No Mention of Cuba in U.S. State Department’s Latest Report on Terrorism (July 22, 2017); No Mention of Cuba in New U.S. Report on Terrorism (Nov. 5, 2019).
 State Dep’t, U.S. Announces Designation of Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism (Jan. 11, 2021); Crowley, Augustin & Semple, Pompeo Returns Cuba to Terrorism Sponsor List, Constraining Biden’s Plans, N.Y. Times (Jan. 11, 2021).
 State Dep’t, Press Briefing—February 5, 2021; Issues Regarding Cuba and U.S. Extradition of the Other’s Fugitives, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 24, 2015); Criticism of the U.S.-Cuba Law Enforcement Agreement, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 21, 2017)