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28 Mar 2023 | Commentary

The Human Cost of Cuba’s Inclusion on the State Sponsor of Terrorism List

Cuba was redesignated as a state sponsor of terrorism on January 12, 2021 in the twilight of the Trump presidency. President Obama’s decision to remove Cuba from the list in 2015 represented an important step forward in his administration’s efforts to forge a more constructive relationship with Cuba. The SSOT list might be an important tool for countering global terrorism, but its application in the case of Cuba is questionable at best. Beyond serving as political fodder, the designation also has tangible effects that make life for Cubans—both on and off the island—more difficult. The Biden administration should make good on its promise to remove Cuba from the list as the human cost of the designation becomes clearer.

What is the State Sponsor of Terrorism List?

The State Sponsor of Terrorism List (SSOT) is a foreign policy mechanism that sanctions countries deemed by the U.S. Secretary of State to have provided support for acts of international terrorism. In addition to Cuba, three other countries are presently labeled state sponsors of terrorism: North Korea, Iran, and Syria. The designation is intended for countries that have “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” but it is not imposed on the basis of human rights abuses, authoritarian backsliding, or military operations that lack an element of international terrorism.

The profile of a state sponsor of terrorism is squarely defined in law but is often overlooked in the politically-charged debates over Cuba’s designation. The legal basis of the designation is enshrined in three laws: section 1754(c) of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, section 40 of the Arms Export Control Act, and section 620A of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. Taken together, the four main categories of sanctions resulting from designation include restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance, a ban on defense exports and sales, certain controls over exports of dual-use items, and miscellaneous financial and other restrictions. Designation also involves a wide array of sanctions that penalize persons and countries engaging in certain trade with designated sponsors of terrorism. 

What is the current rationale behind Cuba’s inclusion on the SSOT list?

Cuba was first added to the State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism List (SSOT) during the Reagan administration in 1982 for alleged ties to international terrorism and support for terrorist groups in Latin America. With no requirement for regular review of SSOT designees, Cuba remained on the list until May 2015 when it was removed following an extensive State Department review shortly after President Barack Obama announced the U.S. would normalize relations with Cuba. At the time, Cuba was hosting peace negotiations between Colombia’s government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which was at the time a designated terrorist organization. The Biden administration revoked the designation of the FARC as a foreign terrorist organization on November 30, 2021. Starting in 2018, leaders from the National Liberation Army (ELN) were also in Cuba for peace talks with the Colombian government.

Peace talks with the ELN, however, ground to a halt following a deadly car bombing that tore through a police academy in Bogotá in 2019. Cuba was re-added to the SSOT in January 2021 by the Trump administration, ostensibly for harboring American fugitives and rejecting Colombia’s extradition request for members of the ELN, which claimed responsibility for the bombing. Cuba refused to comply, contending that the extradition would violate established protocols as a guarantor of the peace talks between the ELN and the Colombian government. The Norwegian foreign ministry—another key guarantor of the peace talks—agreed.

When Colombian president Gustavo Petro took office last year, he announced that the extradition request would be withdrawn as part of his “total peace” initiative. Cuba, for its part, is poised to again serve as a centerpiece of the peace talks as both a host and guarantor, hoping to replicate the success of the agreement it brokered with the FARC in 2016. Nevertheless, the Biden-Harris administration has preserved Havana’s status as a sponsor of terrorism.

What impact does the designation have on ordinary Cubans?

Cuba’s inclusion on the list goes far beyond isolating Cuba’s military and branding the country as an adversary. The most egregious consequences stem from the heightened specter of risk associated with any kind of humanitarian aid, business, investment, and trade that involves Cuba, and by extension, Cuban citizens.

The Washington Office on Latin America has learned of several common ways Cuban citizens have been impacted. Some illustrative examples include:

  • Cubans with Spanish citizenship have had their ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) visa waiver to the United States canceled or denied.
  • Cubans residing in the European Union have been denied bank accounts or have had existing accounts frozen since their nationality makes them “high-risk” clients.
  • Some universities in the United States are barred from supporting research or other work by Cuban, artists, writers, academics, activists, and journalists at risk who reside on the island.
  • Faith based groups have had funds frozen and humanitarian supplies shipments blocked.
  • People attempting to make a PayPal or Wise money transfer to family in Cuba may have their funds frozen and accounts locked.

I. Humanitarian aid 

The terror list designation creates additional obstacles to delivering humanitarian aid at a time when the country is grappling with shortages of basic goods and medical supplies that have been exacerbated by the pandemic’s lingering economic impact, the tightening of U.S. sanctions during the Trump administration, the decades-long embargo, and a global rise in food prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Banks, financial institutions, and international vendors have stopped facilitating both regular trade and cooperation with faith groups seeking to provide humanitarian and development support to Cuba. Fearful of being accused of abetting terror and the mammoth fines that an infraction entails, most banks refuse to process Cuban payments and have frozen funds for permitted religious and humanitarian activities, requiring additional licensing. 

Recently, a U.S. faith group faced significant barriers to sending a medical shipment to Cuba. Their European partners had secured a shipper to take a container of supplies to the island. However, the U.S. bank that was acting as the agent froze the funds and required a special license from the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control. Three months have passed since the partners applied for that license without a response, effectively blocking the shipment.

II. Financial and banking issues stemming from heightened risk and over-compliance

As a result of the SSOT designation, banks, financial institutions, companies, and investors are hesitant to engage with Cuba—a practice known as over-compliance.

Cuba’s presence on the list limits private individuals from opening bank accounts abroad, using instruments for international collections and payments, accessing fintech companies and digital banking, and contracting of online servers and services. These barriers not only stifle the few avenues available for Cubans to expand private sector growth and development, which the Biden administration has committed to support, but are also an obstacle for Cubans living abroad.

The SSOT designation has a chilling effect on businesses, including banking or telecommunications investments, that are crucial to promoting the type of transformation essential to expanding freedom on the island. In turn, even when direct foreign trade expands, private companies will find restrictions on the purchase of products manufactured in the U.S. and even goods produced in third countries that incorporate a high content of inputs from the U.S.

III. Academic exchanges and travel 

Academics in Florida have warned that the designation would obstruct their ability to conduct research. A 2006 Florida statute prohibits the use of public funds for travel to or from countries on the SSOT. Thus, the designation impedes not only the ability of state educational institutions to conduct important research, but also to provide support for Cuban scholars. For example, Florida International University cannot use its funds to pay for travel from the island, even for a program that is expressly designed for activists, artists, writers, academics and journalists, at risk of persecution. Additionally, Cuba’s position on the SSOT requires foreign travelers from countries included in ESTA—a visa waiver program for over 40 countries including the European Union, Japan, and South Korea, who visited Cuba on or after January 21, 2021 when Cuba was re-added to the SSOT—to request a visa at the Consulate General or Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy in their home country. This policy was implemented by the Biden-Harris administration and will likely have a negative impact on Cuba’s tourism industry. Spain, Germany, France, and Italy are among the top eight nationalities of tourists visiting the island.

Why would removing Cuba from the SSOT list benefit the Cuban people?

  • Humanitarian and faith-based organizations would be able to provide aid to address the severe challenges the Cuban people are facing, including shortages of food and life-saving medicines.
  • Reducing limits on financial transactions would benefit the private sector and enable it to expand. Increased tourism could thereby boost the economy, benefiting Cuban families facing a very dire economic crisis.
  • The atmosphere would improve for U.S.-Cuba bilateral dialogue to expand beyond migration and law enforcement to include discussions on human rights. The latter is very important given the increase of repression, disproportionate sentences, and violation of due process rights, persisting after the July 11 protests. Now more than ever, constructive dialogue is necessary to advocate for the release of political prisoners and the improvement of human rights conditions on the island. 
  • It would allow for expanded protection programs for artists, academics, activists, and journalists who are current targets of persecution or in prison.

Where does the case to remove Cuba from the SSOT list stand?

Shortly after taking office, Biden administration officials indicated they would revise Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken reiterated this point in October 2022 in a press conference with President of Colombia Gustavo Petro, who voiced his own objections to the U.S. terror designation. Despite these promises, real progress has remained elusive.

While the president has the authority to review and rescind a country’s designation under section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act, the FORCE Act has been reintroduced in the current Congress. If passed into law, it would block the executive branch from removing Cuba from the list at will. On March 28, the House Foreign Affairs Committee will consider the bill for recommendation to the full House.

For the time being, the White House has an upper hand in shaping Cuba policy. The Biden administration and members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee should follow the recommendations of policy analysts, human rights advocates, and faith-based groups that argue that Cuba’s inclusion on the state sponsor of terrorism list is not sound and has a negative impact on the Cuban people.