The United States is considering returning Cuba to its list of state sponsors of terrorism, a senior official in the administration of US President Donald Trump told Reuters news agency on Thursday – a move that would mark another major blow to increasingly tense relations between Washington and Havana.
There is a “convincing case” that Cuba should be placed back on the US blacklist, in part because of its continued backing for socialist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and the refuge it gives to leaders of Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group, the official said.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official did not rule out that a decision on Cuba’s relisting could come by the end of the year.
In what was possibly a preliminary step, the Trump administration said on Wednesday that it had put the Communist-ruled island back on a separate list of countries that do not cooperate fully with its efforts to counter “terrorism”.
Havana, which has long denied any link to so-called terrorism, dismissed Wednesday’s Department of State announcement as “spurious”.
Returning Cuba to the blacklist would be a further rollback of the detente that former President Barack Obama orchestrated between the old Cold War foes. His decision to formally remove Cuba from the “terrorism” list in 2015 was an important step toward restoring diplomatic ties that year.
Trump’s toughened stance on Cuba, as well as Venezuela, has gone down well in the large Cuban-American community in south Florida, an important voting bloc in a key political swing state as he seeks re-election in November.
The designation by Washington – which carries the potential for sanctions and trade restrictions – would put Cuba in the company of Iran, North Korea, Syria and Sudan.
Any decision to put Cuba back on the list would take into account Havana’s support for Maduro, whose 2018 re-election was considered a sham by most Western countries. The US government indicted him and much of his inner circle in March on charges of “narco-terrorism” conspiracy, corruption and drug trafficking. Maduro has denied the charges.
The US and dozens of other nations recognised opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president last year. But Maduro, who calls Guaido a US puppet, remains in power, backed by Venezuela’s military as well as Russia, China, Cuba and Iran.
Some US officials have said privately that this has been a growing source of frustration for Trump.
The senior official said the US government was also considering designating several of Venezuela’s security services as “terrorist” organisations, in part for alleged links to drug trafficking. Those include the national intelligence service, the military counterintelligence agency and the elite police unit, in addition to paramilitary groups loyal to Maduro.
The deliberations on whether to relist Cuba are focused heavily on legal questions required to justify this designation for a country, the official said.
Also figuring into the discussions is Cuba’s refusal of Colombia’s request to extradite ELN leaders after the group claimed responsibility for an attack at a Bogota police academy in January 2019 that killed 22, the official said.
The leaders of ELN, the largest active armed fighting group in Colombia, travelled to Havana as part of peace negotiations that collapsed last year after the car bomb attack.
Cuba has received broad plaudits in the past for hosting the successful peace talks between the Colombian government and the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Another issue expected to weigh on Washington’s decision is Cuba’s harbouring of several US fugitives, some of whom have lived on the island for decades.
A relisting of Cuba would have heavy symbolic meaning for Havana, which had chafed for decades under the US designation.
It is unclear, however, how much practical impact there would be.
The designation carries a prohibition on US economic aid, a ban on US arms exports, controls on “dual-use” items with military and civilian applications, and a requirement that the US oppose loans to Cuba by international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
But many of those restrictions are already in place – or have even been tightened by Trump – and a decades-old US economic embargo remains and can only be lifted by the US Congress.