Three years ago today, as a parting shot mere days before leaving office, Donald Trump placed Cuba on the State Sponsors of Terrorism (SSOT) list, triggering a range of new sanctions against the island nation. Last month, members of Congress were left “furious” after learning that, despite assurances otherwise, President Biden has not even started the process of reviewing that decision.
Cuba’s SSOT designation was callous and unjustifiable when it was instituted to great dismay by President Trump. It is even more callous and unjustifiable today, as Cuba suffers the worst economic and humanitarian crisis in its contemporary history, largely as a result of U.S. policy.
The U.S. embargo of Cuba has been in place for over 60 years. In that time, its primary effect has been the immiseration of the Cuban people. U.S. sanctions have starved the Cuban economy of over $130 billion; hindered civilian access to essential goods like food, fuel and medicine; exacerbated hunger and poverty; and systematically undermined fundamental human rights. The evidence that broad economic sanctions harm civilians in targeted countries is overwhelming. Indeed, that is arguably the intent.
In 2014, President Obama broke with a half-century of systematic hostility, taking small but meaningful steps to thaw diplomatic relations and provide a measure of relief for the sanctions-starved Cuban economy, including removing the SSOT designation that President Reagan had imposed in the depths of the Cold War. While Trump took a wrecking ball to these fragile advances, many Cubans and Americans alike saw Biden’s election as a chance to return to the path laid by his former running mate.
But despite campaign promises, Biden has proven to be more Trump than Obama. The SSOT designation is a particularly egregious case.
Designation as an SSOT comes with a host of sanctions, including restrictions on foreign assistance, finance and defense products. But the worst impacts are felt through over-compliance; businesses and financial institutions, including many from outside the United States, often elect to sever all connections to Cuba rather than risk being sanctioned themselves for association with “a sponsor of terror.”
In effect, the SSOT extends U.S. financial restrictions internationally, cutting off the Cuban people from the global financial system. Cuban entrepreneurs unable to access finance, faith groups barred from donating humanitarian goods, Cubans abroad denied bank accounts or prevented from sending money to their families back home — these are some of the documented impacts of the designation.
In no small part due to the tightening of sanctions under Trump, Cuba is now facing its worst humanitarian crisis in decades. In turn, hundreds of thousands of Cubans have left the island in search of economic security in the United States.
But the SSOT designation is not only deeply harmful. It is also baseless.
Trump’s claim that Cuba sponsors terror rested primarily on the fact that it hosts ten members of the Colombian guerilla movement, the National Liberation Army (ELN). However, the ELN members first came to Cuba to take part in peace talks with the Colombian government, brokered by Cuba at Colombia’s request. These negotiations temporarily fell through following an attack on a Colombian police station by a faction of the ELN that opposed the talks. But it would have been a violation of Cuba’s legal role as a guarantor of the peace talks to extradite a party to those talks. Norway, another guarantor, agrees.
Moreover, since that time, Gustavo Petro was elected president of Colombia on a platform of “total peace,” with a plan to return to the negotiations. Petro has withdrawn the extradition request and personally called to remove the SSOT designation.
In fact, top officials from both Democratic and Republican administrations have described the SSOT label as “bogus,” and “absurd.” Colin Powell’s former chief of staff called it “a fiction that we have created … to reinforce the rationale for the blockade.”
Yet the Biden administration has maintained Trump’s unfounded designation. It’s unclear why.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who had wielded his position as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to block any measure of relief for Cuba, was recently forced to step down following his indictment on corruption charges. Accusations that Cuba was targeting U.S. officials with futuristic weapons, which Trump used as pretext for his crackdown, have unsurprisingly been debunked. And Democrats have little strategic justification to allow a small group of Florida hardliners to hold their policy decisions hostage.
Meanwhile, nearly every country in the world opposes the embargo. Latin American leaders in particular have been critical of U.S. policy toward Cuba, which is seen as a manifestation of the 200-year-old Monroe Doctrine. The majority of both Democratic and Republican voters want the embargo to end. And, as a number of Biden’s congressional allies have pointed out, easing sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela could attenuate migration to the southern border. With Biden’s foreign policy approval ratings already in the gutter, returning to the popular Obama approach offers little risk, and high potential reward.
Fully undoing the embargo — a key facet of recent congressional appeals to annul the Monroe Doctrine — may take some time. But delisting Cuba from the SSOT is a simple first step. Faith groups, lawyers, Cuban and U.S. entrepreneurs, and over 100 members of Congress have already called on Biden to do so.
Labeling Cuba a State Sponsor of Terrorism is a fiction with deadly consequences. It’s time for Biden to face facts and break with Trump on Cuba.
Michael Galant is Senior Research and Outreach Associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.
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