By Arturo López-Levy*
Unfortunately, the attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters, encouraged by the Inciter-in-Chief, will not be the last act of mischief. Trump is insisting on causing as much damage as possible to the interests and values of the United States on his way out the door. He is not only sabotaging an orderly transition, but persists in obstructing the mandate the American people have given to the incoming administration. On Monday the Trump administration demonstrated that strategy by adding Cuba, without justification, to the list of State sponsors of terrorism, and on Tuesday Trump will celebrate the supposed completion of the wall on the Mexican border. Who knows what price will be paid by the U.S. for the next irresponsible action taken by Trump and his sycophants?
Few of the actors in this disaster movie come close to the role played by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. After the election Pompeo announced that January would mark “a smooth transition to the second Trump administration.” The dream of a coronation turned into a nightmare. On January 20, 2021 Pompeo will leave Foggy Bottom as one of the last cabinet holdouts simply because he is too shameless to resign. After the uprising against Congress, a branch of government in which he himself has served, Pompeo tried to distract from his own lack of courage with a burst of torpedoes against many of the policies announced by the incoming President and Vice-President. Both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have made it clear that they believe the policies espoused by President Barack Obama during his last years in office show the most appropriate way for a democratic power to act with dignity towards Cuba and other members of the international community.
Pompeo’s move actually weakens the fight against terrorism
Including Cuba in the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism is a distraction that seeks to commit U.S. resources to fighting a threat that does not exist. The collateral effect of this irresponsibility is to discredit an American foreign policy tool that might be useful in the international community for pointing out some states that do collaborate with terrorists. Who can take this list seriously when the reasons for including Cuba are so pedestrian?
The “argument” that Cuba’s alignment with the government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela makes it a sponsor of terrorism is rather flimsy. The Maduro administration has a seat at the United Nations and in the next few months it is likely to regain recognition by the European Union, which has already described Juan Guaidó as the President of the “outgoing” National Assembly. If the United States wants to draw up a list of Venezuela’s allies, it could start with Russia, China, and several more.
Cuba is condemned for supporting the peace process in Colombia
Pompeo’s second reason for putting Cuba back on the list is that Cuba did not extradite 10 leaders of the ELN (National Liberation Army guerrillas) to Colombia who were in Havana as part of the dialogue between the guerrilla group and the government of Colombia. Norway, a U.S. NATO ally that accompanied Cuba in the peace talks, has reiterated that the security guarantees afforded to the guerrillas were part of the negotiations protocol adopted by the mediators with the consent of the Colombian government. Not only has Cuba not committed or supported any acts of international terrorism according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) database; Cuba contributed to the peace process in Colombia more than any other state.
If instead of blockading Cuba the Trump administration had continued President Obama’s policy of engagement, which included Bernard Aronson, former Under Secretary of State for Hemispheric Affairs in the George Bush administration (1989-1993) as the U.S. representative, perhaps the dialogue that Norway facilitated between the Venezuelan government and the opposition parties would have made progress with the support of their allies. The same could be said of the dialogue between the ELN and the Colombian government which could have resumed sooner rather than later as the best way to demobilize that guerrilla force and the FARC dissidents who remain armed in Colombian territory.
The third “reason” Pompeo gave was that Cuba has not extradited some people wanted in the U.S. for acts of terrorism against the U.S. government. One should remember that the extradition treaty signed between Cuba and the United States in 1904 is no longer in force because the U.S. suspended it in 1959 to protect fugitives from the revolution that were primarily associated with the Batista dictatorship. The agreement regulated reciprocal extradition for people who break the law in either country, excluding those involved in non-violent political activity.
The United States has given refuge to known terrorists
When Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro decided to move the thorny relationship between the two countries into a more manageable space, they agreed to focus on the future rather than relitigating disputes that originated in the Cold War.
For more than six decades, the U.S. has given political asylum to hundreds of people involved in violence in Cuba or even in the United States itself, some of which its own Department of Justice has labeled terrorism. Under various U.S. administrations, criminals such as Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles were not extradited to Cuba, Venezuela, or Italy (the home country of one of the victims of one of the attacks attributed to Posada), nor were they put on trial in the United States, as is required by several conventions against terrorism to which the U.S. is a signatory. Bosch and Posada were the masterminds of the placement of a bomb on an Air Cubana flight that killed 73 passengers.
Noteworthy among the people being charged by the United States and living in Cuba is the case of Assata Shakur, who is accused of involvement in the death of police officer Werner Foerster in New Jersey while she was a member of the Black Liberation Army. All U.S. extradition requests predate Cuba’s removal from the State Department’s list in May of 2015 and the reinstatement of diplomatic relations between Havana and Washington. After 2010, The many reports on the inclusion of Cuba in this list, made no consistent mention of Shakur or any other cases. Prominent members of the Congressional Black Caucus, such as Maxine Waters (Democrat from California) have sent letters to the Cuban government and U.S. authorities arguing that the Shakur case was a political vendetta that ignored the context of African-American civil rights groups in decades gone by and illegal activities against them through projects such as COINTELPRO.
The decision to move beyond this history of conflict served the interests of both countries. Pompeo’s selective and unilateral relitigation of the American claims is an exercise in hypocrisy for the sole purpose of making the future a slave of the past.
Acknowledging progress in the change of leadership in Cuba
Pompeo’s irresponsible act provides Biden’s new Secretary of State with an easy way to discount out of hand this attempt to twist the official image of Cuba in the United States. The designation’s potential damage to the policy announced by Biden and Harris toward Cuba is considerable. A wrong diagnosis that views Cuba as a threat to U.S. security detracts from a realistic approach that sees the island as a country in the middle of an important economic and leadership transition, with significant consequences for its future and for a potential new start with the United States. Raúl Castro is retiring as head of the Communist Party and Cuban leadership is being passed to the next generation. What sense does it make to face this new reality with an inaccurate diagnosis?
Financial profit at the cost of a failed policy
Treating Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism opens the U.S. courts, particularly those in south Florida, to opportunistic lawsuits in which unscrupulous attorneys will take advantage of the limited sovereign immunity conferred by a country’s appearance on the terrorism list to obtain juicy profits from trials for which Cuba would not be present. These trials could produce multimillion dollar rulings against Cuba, rendering the difficult issue of financial settlements between Cuba and the United States intractable.
One effect of such trials could be to discredit the United States in the eyes of the Cuban people. Although the most recalcitrant sectors of the Communist Party called him a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the first African-American U.S. President left a fresh image of openness to Cuba that transcended the history of conflicts and disagreements. This idea of a change one can believe in contrasts with the imperialist posture of Trump towards Cuba and other issues. The Biden administration should not only resume cancellation of lawsuits under Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, it should also preclude these offensive caricatures of the rule of law—lawsuits against Cuba with limited immunity—from being justified by an unwarranted “terrorist” label.
Precedents of ideological manipulation of Cuba’s image
If he quickly resumes the path of rapprochement, Biden will show the difference between an administration stuck in the Helms-Burton imperial framework and the best values of U.S. democracy represented by the open hand Obama extended for dialogue with Havana in 2016. The Cuban people are all too familiar with the attacks, hypocrisy, and lack of civility that characterized imperialist dirty war tactics against Cuba. Gratuitously labeling Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism reminds many Cubans of Operation Northwoods in which the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff proposed false flag acts of terrorism in which alleged Cubans would attack the U.S., giving a pretext for an invasion of Cuba.
Biden should continue Obama’s policy
Despite all this, the image of the first African American President and his ultimate decision to propose a new tack with Cuba created good will toward the United States and the Democratic Party in the eyes of many Cubans. But there is nothing more damaging to soft power than deception. The Biden team should bear this in mind. From the outset it should act decisively as an agent of change, and never as a continuation of Trumpism. Trump’s supporters will try to crucify Biden for whatever he does—be it a small or grand gesture. To quote the president-elect, “It makes no sense to hang yourself on a small cross.” The incoming team should return in grand fashion and deepen the policy announced by Obama in his Presidential Policy Directive of October 2016.
If the Biden administration wants to communicate that it is serious about combatting terrorism and is throwing its hat in with multilateralism, removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism is a litmus test. The idea that Cuba is not a top priority in Biden’s agenda is an unsustainable pretext. The State Department has enough experts to seriously examine this issue, and follow procedures to remove Cuba from the list in a relatively short time.
The incoming Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, should not simply fall into the traps that Pompeo is laying in his path. Pompeo’s last minute outrageous actions do not reflect well on American diplomacy. The new administration owes nothing to the right-wing Cuban exile community in Florida, that simply wants to manipulate the list to hurt Cuba. It is a matter of basic diplomatic professionalism that the incoming administration reviews the case of Cuba according to technical, non-partisan criteria. Since Cuba was taken off the list in 2015, has the island engaged in sponsorship of any terrorist organization or act? If the answer is no, Cuba should be removed from it immediately.
*Arturo López-Levy is a Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA). He is a professor of international relations and politics at Holy Names University in Oakland, California and author of “Raul Castro and the New Cuba: A Close-up of Change.” Twitter, @turylevy.