In a remarkable 11th hour decision, the Trump administration designated Cuba as a state sponsor of terror on Monday, reversing an Obama-era decision to remove the communist country from the list as part of its broader rapprochement between Washington and Havana.
The move, announced by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo comes just nine days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office. Bloomberg first reported the Cuba policy decision.
"With this action, we will once again hold Cuba’s government accountable and send a clear message: the Castro regime must end its support for international terrorism and subversion of U.S. justice," Pompeo said in a statement.
The decision to label Cuba as a state sponsor of terror will add to the next administration's already long list of foreign policy challenges, which stretch from Iran to North Korea.
A Biden transition official, who was not authorized to speak about the matter on the record, said the president-elect's team has taken note of this and other recent steps by the outgoing Trump administration.
"The transition team is reviewing each one, and the incoming administration will render a verdict based exclusively on one criterion: the national interest," said the Biden official.
The Trump administration has issued a blizzard of sanctions and other policy steps since the Nov. 3 election, with many seemingly aimed at stymieing Biden's foreign policy priorities or otherwise complicating his first days in office. Late Sunday evening, for example, the State Department announced it would designate an Iranian-backed rebel group as a terrorist group, which critics fear could make it harder for aid groups to deliver humanitarian assistance to war-torn Yemen.
The Cuba policy shift is one final hardline decision that likely will please Trump's Republican base in Florida, where Cuban Americans overwhelmingly supported him. And it's a slap at Biden, who struggled to win over Hispanic voters in that key swing state.
Rep. Gregory Meeks, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he would urge Biden to reverse Trump's decision.
“For four years, the Trump Administration’s policy towards Cuba has been focused on hurting the Cuban people – from drastically reducing remittances in the middle of a pandemic to limiting the ability of Americans to travel to the island," Meeks said in a statement. “It is essential that the state sponsor of terrorism list be used judiciously to maintain its seriousness and integrity and that a country is never added to the list unless it meets the legal standard. I urge President-elect Biden to add the reversal of today’s foreign policy failure to his long ‘to do’ list when he takes office."
President Barack Obama moved to take Cuba off the terror list in 2015 as part of his historic effort to thaw relations with the island nation after more than 50 years of diplomatic isolation. In a formal notice to Congress in that year, Obama said a State Department review determined that Cuba — which was added to the terrorism list in 1982 — met the requirements for removal.
Cuba "has not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding 6-month period," and has offered "assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future," Obama's 2015 statement said.
In his statement on Monday, Pompeo said the decision was based in part on Cuba’s refusal to extradite members of a Colombian rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or the ELN. The ELN was in peace talks with the Colombian government but those ended after the group claimed responsibility for the deadly 2019 bombing of a Bogota police academy.
“Citing peace negotiation protocols, Cuba has refused Colombia’s requests to extradite ten ELN leaders living in Havana after the group claimed responsibility for the January 2019 bombing of a Bogota police academy that killed 22 people and injured more than 87 others,” Pompeo said in announcing Monday’s action. “Cuba also harbors several U.S. fugitives from justice wanted on or convicted of charges of political violence, many of whom have resided in Cuba for decades.”
The Obama administration unveiled sweeping changes in U.S.-Cuba policy in 2014, expanding trade with the regime, easing travel restrictions and paving the way for an exchange of embassies in Havana and Washington.
During his four years in the White House, President Donald Trump has rolled back many elements of Obama's Cuba policy. Monday's action is a capstone of that and it's likely to provoke the ire of Biden, who has vowed to revert to the Obama-era policy.
“The administration’s approach is not working. Cuba is no closer to democracy than it was four years ago,” Biden said during an Oct. 5 campaign visit to Florida.
Contributing: David Jackson
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump administration designates Cuba as state sponsor of terror