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Pompeo assesses intention to put Cuba on list of US terrorist sponsors

State Department officials have crafted a proposal to designate Cuba as a sponsor state for terrorism, a late-breaking foreign policy move that would complicate plans by the new Biden administration to ease increased US pressure on Havana.

Three weeks from the day of the inauguration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo must decide whether or not to approve the plan, according to two US officials, a decision that would also serve as a thank you to Cuban Americans and other anti-Communist Latin Americans. in Florida, which strongly supported President Trump and his fellow Republicans in the November election.

It is not known if Mr. Pompeo has decided to go ahead with the designation. But Democrats and foreign policy experts believe Mr. Trump and his senior officials are eager to find ways to constrain President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s first months in office and make it harder for Mr. Biden to overthrow Trump. -will be policies abroad. In recent weeks, Trump officials have also sought to increase US pressure and sanctions on China and Iran.

The discovery that a country has “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” as the State Department of a state sponsor of terrorism officially describes, automatically triggers US sanctions against its government. If added to the list, Cuba would join just three other nations: Iran, North Korea and Syria.

The Biden administration could act quickly to remove Cuba from the list. But that would require more than the presidential stroke of the pen. The State Department is expected to conduct a formal review, a process that could take several months.

A State Department spokeswoman said the agency was not discussing “deliberations or potential deliberations” regarding the terrorist designations. The White House did not comment.

Democrats attacked Cuba’s proposal on Tuesday, criticizing what they called an 11th hour foreign policy change that unfairly limits Biden’s incoming team.

“It’s another stunt from this president with less than 23 days to go,” Representative Gregory W. Meeks, a New York Democrat who is the new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said during a telephone interview.

“He’s trying to put handcuffs on the new administration,” Meeks added.

The State Department removed Cuba from its list of terrorist sponsors in 2015, after President Barack Obama announced the normalization of relations between Washington and Havana for the first time since the Communist Revolution of 1959, which he declared. referred to as a relic of the cold war. In return for promises of political and social reform, Mr. Obama abandoned economic sanctions, relaxed restrictions on travel and trade, and reopened an embassy in Havana for the first time in decades. In 2016, he became the first US president to visit the island from Calvin Coolidge.

The Reagan administration first added Cuba to the terrorism list in 1982 for its support for leftist insurgents in Latin America. During Obama’s time, the State Department cited him as a “safe haven” for Basque separatists and Colombian rebels. But Obama administration officials ultimately concluded that no terrorist threat was posed by the aging Basques, nor by the Colombian rebels who joined the peace talks in Havana that led to a peace deal of 2016 with the Colombian government.

They were also prepared to accept that the Cuban government hosted some wanted fugitives in the United States, including Joanne D. Chesimard, 73, a former member of the Black Liberation Army. Ms Chesimard, now Assata Shakur, remains on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list for killing a New Jersey state soldier in 1973.

In a potential snapshot of a reenlistment, the State Department notified Congress in May that Cuba was among five countries it said were not fully cooperating with US counterterrorism efforts – the first time since 2015 that Cuba has not had not been certified as doing so. .

The notification cited Cuba’s refusal of a request by Colombia, a US ally, to extradite 10 leaders of the country’s National Liberation Army living in Havana after the group claimed responsibility for a bombing. the bomb against a police academy in Bogotá in January 2019 that killed 22 people.

But Democrats said the idea that Cuba posed a terrorist threat to the outside world was a political fiction.

“It’s completely absurd. Cuba is not a sponsor state of terrorism, ”said Ben Rhodes, who, as Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser, played a central role in negotiating the administration’s deal with Havana.

Mr. Trump denounced the deal as “terrible and misguided” and rescinded many of its provisions. On visits to South Florida, he boasted of opposing communism in Latin America and warned that Mr. Biden would not do so, a message that proved popular with Cuban Americans and other voters hostile to Havana.

As a candidate, Biden pledged to change US policy again, saying he would “quickly reverse Trump’s failed policies that have inflicted damage on the Cuban people and have done nothing to advance the democracy and human rights ”.

Cuba’s repressive government largely dashed liberalization hopes after the death of its revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, in November 2016. Havana continues to arrest and detain dissidents and quell a recent artists’ hunger strike and other activists in the capital, proof to many Republicans that his government does not deserve a cordial relationship from Washington.

Trump administration officials have also severely criticized the Cuban government’s support for Venezuelan socialist leader Nicolás Maduro, whom Trump has tried unsuccessfully for years to dislodge from power.

In an opinion piece published this month in The Miami Herald, Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida and an influential voice on Cuban politics, urged Biden to “stand with the dissidents” there. and urged him not to “go back to a situation. sided with Cuban politics – and threw a lifeline to the dictatorial regime of Raúl Castro.

U.S. officials say the plan to restore Cuba to the terrorist sponsor list was developed, breaking the standard process, by the State Department’s Office of Western Hemisphere Affairs, not its office. counterterrorism campaign, which would generally play a central role in such a decision.

Mr. Rhodes presented this evidence of a politically motivated process. “It’s a sign that they know they can’t put Cuba on the substantive list,” he said.

Critics say the Trump administration has started to politicize such designations, which are supposed to be a matter of national security. This month, the United States removed Sudan from its list of terrorist sponsors days before the African nation joined the list of Arab nations that have established diplomatic relations with Israel, a top priority for Mr. Trump.

The Trump administration recently cracked down on Cuban companies run or affiliated with the Cuban military. Last week, the Treasury Department blacklisted three of these companies.

A recent report commissioned by the State Department found that staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana were sickened in 2016 by what was most likely a microwave weapon of unknown origin. The Cuban government has denied any knowledge of such attacks.

Pranshu Verma contribution to reports.

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