In the dying days of the Donald Trump presidency in the United States, the State Department designated Cuba a “state sponsor of terrorism.” Regrettably, the measure will slow efforts by the new Joe Biden administration to take a calibrated approach to gradually improving US-Cuba relations.

The decision to make the designation was made by outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with little external consultation and after months of legal review. By any measure, the move is hard to justify, and it appears to be a throw of the political dice by someone who believes himself to be in the running to be the next Republican presidential candidate.

In Mr. Pompeo’s Jan. 11 statement on the matter, he said that Cuba has “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism in granting safe harbour to terrorists.”

He also alleged that by supporting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Cuba had enabled “a permissive environment for international terrorists to live and thrive within Venezuela.” To further justify his decision, Mr. Pompeo referenced Cuba not having extradited ten Colombian National Liberation Army guerrilla leaders from Havana when peace talks with the Colombian government broke down in 2017 — a charge that sought to set aside the existence of protocols agreed by all parties guaranteeing safe passage home for every participant.


US decision’s fallout

Not only does Mr. Pompeo’s decision broaden the US definition of terrorism, but as Humberto de la Calle, a former Colombian vice president and peace negotiator, pointed out, it threatens future peace negotiations. Mr. de la Calle observed that if any country that facilitates peace efforts runs the risk of being designated in this way, it will think twice before providing future support.

The decision has the legal effect of subjecting Cuba to sanctions that penalise people and countries engaging in certain trade with Cuba, and it restricts US foreign assistance, bans defence exports and sales, and imposes export controls on some dual-use items. It also requires the US to oppose loans to Cuba by institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The direct impact is therefore largely academic, but it effectively chills relations, causes uncertainty among international investors and financial institutions, and makes more difficult the gradual easing of restrictions.


Widespread ‘dismay’

The decision was fiercely rejected by the Cuban government and met with dismay by countries around the world hoping for an improvement in US-Cuba relations.

Cuba President Miguel Díaz-Canel said on Twitter that the “cynical categorisation” of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism represented “the death throes of a failed and corrupt administration committed to the Cuban mafia in Miami.”

Also writing on Twitter, Cuba Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez noted that the US decision would be recognised as “political opportunism” by those “who are honestly concerned about the scourge of terrorism and its victims.”

Criticism came too from the new chair of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Gregory Meeks, and other members of Congress. Mr. Meeks told the Associated Press that the move sought only to tie the hands of the Biden administration.

He also described the decision — which he said was taken less than a week after Mr. Trump “incited a domestic terror attack on the US Capitol” — as “hypocrisy.”


Hardship in Cuba

Over the last four years, the Trump administration has ratcheted up the pressure on Cuba to the point of causing real hardship to the Cuban people in the form of energy and food shortages, leading to potential instability and at worst a new migratory crisis.

Apart from consolidating what Russia now likes to call its strategic relationship with Cuba, the tightening of the embargo has pushed Venezuela and Cuba closer together — not least for reasons of economic survival. It also has deepened Cuba’s relations with other countries including China, Turkey, Iran and Syria — nations the US is unlikely to want to have greater influence in the Americas.


Cuba’s failures

To observe this is not to exonerate the Cuban government from its failure to address earlier the multiple inefficiencies within its overcentralised and bureaucratic socialist system. Nor is it to excuse past delays in implementing the essential market and currency reforms now under way; the decentralisation of decision making to the provinces; or its still cautious embrace of non-state enterprise — all measures that now form a part of a new “reordering” process.

Rather, it is to argue that sanctions always fail, have the effect of consolidating power, and harm those least able to cope with their economic and social impact.

During the election campaign, Mr. Biden said he would promptly reverse the Trump administration’s policies on Cuba that “have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights.” Incoming officials have also spoken about easing restrictions on US travel and remittances as a part of an incremental strategy aimed at helping the Cuban people.

Whether this can proceed at pace is now less certain.


‘Further review’

The removal of Cuba’s designation as a “terrorist state” requires that a further review be undertaken.

More generally, the speed at which action occurs may be governed by political judgments about whether Florida, to which the Trump family has now decamped, is winnable in the future, and whether states like Georgia, taken against the odds, can be won again.

The Biden administration will also need to decide whether it will delink Cuba from its Venezuela strategy or see Cuba as a part of a solution while addressing pressure for change from powerful lobbies including the cruise and travel industry, US agriculture, and those in the Democratic Party who want to restore civil society linkages.

Caribbean Community governments in a recent unusually strongly worded statement “denounced” the decision to redesignate Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, claiming that it was misguided, unwarranted and not matched by Cuba’s international conduct. Caricom called for an “immediate review” and “the normalisation of relations with Cuba.” Europe, too, wants dialogue and a more rational approach.


Biden strategy

Mr. Biden has many difficult problems to address, but he has said that he wants to pursue a collegiate strategy with partners around the world.

By any measure, a unilateral policy that has failed over 60 years — and which demonstrably has not helped the Cuban people — requires urgent review. The April Summit of the Americas offers the US president the opportunity to indicate his future intent.



Mr. Jessop, a consultant to the London-based Caribbean Council, can be reached at