Far from being a “state sponsor of terrorism,” as the Trump administration claimed, Cuba has been an ally in fighting it.
On October 6, 1976, a Cuban airliner carrying 73 passengers was blown out of the sky off the coast of Barbados. All of the men, women, and children aboard were killed in what was, at the time, the most flagrant act of aviation-related terrorism ever committed in the Western Hemisphere.
CIA and FBI intelligence reports identified two leaders of the violent anti-Castro movement, Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles, as masterminds of the plane bombing. Both were arrested and incarcerated in Caracas, Venezuela, their base of operations. Both managed to get out—Posada escaped from prison in 1985 and, a year later, Bosch was acquitted by a Venezuelan tribunal after dubious legal proceedings. And both eventually returned to the United States, illegally, to take up residence in that bastion of anti-Castro activity, Miami. Despite the fact that the Justice Department identified Bosch and Posada as purveyors of terrorism (“For 30 years Bosch has been resolute and unwavering in his advocacy of terrorist violence,” one DOJ assessment stated in 1989, before President George H.W. Bush ordered his release from an immigration detention center and granted him asylum), both of them managed to evade full accountability for their atrocities and live out their violent lives as free men in Florida.
Their cases reflect a long history of perverted politics surrounding terrorism and Cuba—which continued with outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s shameless decision to redesignate that country as a sponsor of terrorist acts. “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,” Pompeo declared on January 11, reversing the Obama administration’s decision to delist Cuba in 2015. To make this claim, Pompeo reportedly circumvented his own State Department’s Bureau of Counter-Terrorism, where the professional analysts know there is no evidence to support it. Indeed, the Cuba designation has been widely denounced as baseless—a self-serving political gambit by Pompeo to attract Florida voters to his expected 2024 presidential campaign, and Donald Trump’s parting effort to sabotage the incoming Biden administration’s ability to restore sanity to US-Cuban relations.
The State Sponsor of Terrorism (SST) list was created in 1979 as part of the Export Administration Act—a legal clause intended to give the executive branch the ability to restrict exports, arms transfers, and other commercial transactions to sanction rogue governments for backing international terror campaigns. Syria, Libya, Iraq, and South Yemen were the first nations to be designated sponsors of international terrorism. But on March 1, 1982, the Reagan administration formally added Cuba. No clear rationale was given at the time, and the economic sanctions that accompanied the designation were inconsequential, since the US embargo already prevented commercial relations with the Castro government. But in his January 1982 State of the Union address, Reagan telegraphed that he would redefine Cuba’s support for revolutionary movements in Central America as support for terrorist activity. “Toward those who would export terrorism and subversion in the Caribbean and elsewhere, especially Cuba and Libya,” he told Congress, “we will act with firmness.”
Once Cuba was on the list, it proved impossible to get it off—not because there was ongoing evidence of Cuban support for terrorism, but because no president wanted to face the political repercussions from the powerful anti-Castro lobby in Florida. In the mid 1990s, the Clinton administration’s top Cuba official, Richard Nuccio, began exploring ways to remove Cuba from the list but found little interest from his superiors. “I never saw any intelligence that justified Cuba’s listing on the terrorism list,” recalls Nuccio, who held the title of “Special Advisor to the President and Secretary of State for Cuba” at the National Security Council. “It was done for political reasons and sustained for political reasons.”
Yet, even as political inertia kept Cuba on the terrorism list, Washington and Havana found ways to collaborate on counterterrorism efforts. During the 1984 presidential campaign, Cuban authorities uncovered what they believed to be an extremist plot to assassinate President Reagan in North Carolina; Fidel Castro authorized one of his top UN diplomats in New York to pass that information to the head of US security at the UN mission. In 1997, after Luis Posada Carriles—by then a fugitive in Central America—orchestrated a series of hotel bombings in Havana that killed one foreign businessman and injured 11 others, the US Interests Section in Havana began to share intelligence on bomb plots that enabled Cuban authorities to intercept the bombers. In May 1998, Castro dispatched a special emissary, the famed writer Gabriel García Márquez, to Washington with a message for Clinton about a plot to bomb another passenger plane and a discreet invitation for an FBI team to come to Havana and review the intelligence. García Márquez met with the National Security Council’s counterterrorism czar, Richard Clarke, and other officials in the West Wing. Clarke agreed to an FBI-Cuban collaboration; a team of agents quietly traveled to Havana in June for three days of confidential briefings.
The election of Barack Obama created high expectations for what Obama called “a new beginning with Cuba” and an honest revision of the terrorism list. “I know there’s a longer journey that must be traveled to overcome decades of mistrust,” Obama declared in April 2009, a few months after his inauguration, “but there are critical steps we can take toward a new day.” For the first six years of his presidency, however, removing Cuba from the terrorism list was a “critical step” Obama could not muster the political will to take. Instead, the administration revisited the SST designation following the December 17, 2014, accord between Obama and Raúl Castro to normalize diplomatic relations. As part of that dramatic announcement, Obama directed Secretary of State John Kerry to undertake a full legal and intelligence review to determine if Cuba met the statutory criteria for “rescission of Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.”
Those “facts” have remained essentially the same over the past five years—despite Pompeo’s decision to reverse Obama’s rescission. The aged US fugitives that Cuba is once again accused of harboring have been on the island for close to half a century. While condemnable, their crimes do not meet the statutory criteria for international terrorism, as American University professor William LeoGrande has pointed out in Responsible Statecraft. Similarly, the Colombian guerrilla leaders in Cuba cited in the State Department designation are there under an international accord for peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the militant National Liberation Army, facilitated by Cuba and Norway—not because Cuba is providing safe haven for them to organize terrorist atrocities. “Cuba has been Norway’s partner in the Colombian peace process,” Norway’s foreign minister, Ine Marie Eriksen Søreide, stated last week, rejecting Pompeo’s arguments. “If a country risks being placed on a terrorism list as a result of facilitating peace efforts, it could set a negative precedent for international peace efforts.”
“Cuba opposes terrorism. It has been a victim of this scourge,” President Miguel Díaz-Canel reminded the world last week. Members of Congress, former Obama administration officials, and even veteran CIA experts have also denounced the Trump administration for crassly playing politics with the deadly serious threat of terrorism. “In the final days of the Administration, efforts to politicize important decisions concerning our national security are unacceptable and threaten to damage future diplomatic efforts toward Cuba and set a harmful precedent for future designations,” Senators Patrick Leahy, Amy Klobuchar, and seven other senators wrote to Pompeo. “One of the consequences of the sort of misuse of the tool that the secretary of state is contemplating is to weaken the deterrence of true state sponsorship of terrorism and undermine the incentives for improved behavior” by rogue states, Paul Pillar, a former deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, warned in The National Interest. “The ultimate cost of misusing and thus weakening the tools of counterterrorism will take the form of lives lost in the future to international terrorism.”
Most immediately, there will be a cost to future US-Cuba relations. Putting Cuba back on the list, as Obama’s former White House aide Ben Rhodes stated via Twitter, is nothing less than “politicized garbage meant to tie [Biden’s] hand.” Although Biden can reverse many of Trump’s executive directives with a stroke of a pen, removing Cuba from the SST list requires a series of time-consuming, statutory steps: a formal State Department review; a presidential certification to Congress, and a 45-day waiting period during which Congress can object before Cuba can be, once again, rescinded. That lengthy timetable gives opponents of positive engagement, led by Pompeo, Senator Marco Rubio, and every other Republican with presidential aspirations and an eye on the Florida electorate, ample opportunity to attack the new Biden administration and attempt to sabotage the restoration of normalized bilateral ties.