The Trump administration has restored Cuba to a list of state sponsors of terrorism, a move which will complicate efforts by US president-elect Joe Biden to engineer closer relations with the communist-ruled island.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo accused the Cuban government of providing support to murderers, bombmakers and hijackers, and harbouring American fugitives among other actions.
“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 US justice,” Mr Pompeo said in a statement on Monday.
Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez attacked the Trump administration’s move. “We condemn the hypocritical and cynical designation of #Cuba as a State sponsoring terrorism, announced by the US,” he tweeted. “The political opportunism of the US is recognised by all those who are honestly concerned about the scourge of terrorism and its victims.”
Critics condemned the move as the latest attempt by the outgoing president to hamper the incoming Biden team’s room for manoeuvre when it takes office January 20. The Trump administration last month broke with convention by recognising Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
Over the weekend Mr Pompeo dropped longstanding guidelines that limit contacts with Taiwanese officials, and separately designated Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a terrorist organisation, a move some fear will complicate efforts to resolve the conflict in the Middle East.
Until Monday’s announcement, only three countries had been designated by Washington as state sponsors of terrorism: Iran, Syria and North Korea. The designation typically triggers restrictions on US foreign assistance, a ban on defence exports, controls over the exports of dual use items and financial curbs.
“This is nonsense and they know it is,” said Joe Garcia, a former Democratic congressman and Cuba expert who recently visited the island. “I think what Biden is going to do is to continue at pace [with a rapprochement]. I don’t think the edicts of a lawless president will get in the way of what makes sense for American foreign policy.”
Nonetheless, Mr Garcia conceded that the designation would “hurt Cuba for a little while” by increasing the pressure on Havana at a sensitive time, as the government grapples with its deepest economic crisis since the fall of its main sponsor the Soviet Union in 1991.
Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s president, announced last month that he was scrapping a dual currency system and bringing in a wave of economic reforms because of the crisis.
Cuba was first put on the list of state sponsors of terror in 1982 under Ronald Reagan’s presidency because of what Washington said was Havana’s long-running support for Latin American guerrilla groups.
The designation was removed by Barack Obama in 2015 as part of a broader rapprochement with Havana, which led to the reopening of the US embassy, the lifting of some economic sanctions and the first US presidential visit to the island since the 1959 revolution.
Most of these moves were reversed under Mr Trump, who pursued a policy of “maximum pressure” sanctions on the island, adding more punitive measures to those still in force to try to topple the communist government.
Monday’s announcement had been widely expected. The process for adding a country to the terror sponsor list requires inter-agency review and typically takes several months, meaning that Mr Biden could find it difficult to reverse quickly.
However, the Trump administration’s tough line on Havana has proved politically popular with Cuban and Venezuelan émigrés in southern Florida and helped to deliver big electoral benefits there for the Republicans in November’s presidential and congressional elections. Mr Garcia described it as part of “the subversion of all American policy into ridiculous political gamesmanship”.
Additional reporting by Marc Frank in Havana