Worsening US-Cuba Ties Impacts Peace in Latin America

President Donald Trump
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

According to a senior Trump Administration official, the United States is considering reclassifying Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism. If implemented, this would mark the nadir of Washington-Havana relations since before President Barack Obama launched his policy of detente towards the island nation in 2014. According to the anonymous official, this decision could be made before the end of the year.

The ongoing reevaluation is probably a result of domestic political consideration ahead of the 2020 presidential election. In 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump won the crucial swing state of Florida with a 1.2 percent margin and has since then reversed some of the Obama-era changes. In addition to a return to more bellicose rhetoric, the Trump Administration introduced travel restrictions as well as banned business dealings with companies owned by the Cuban military or intelligence services. These changes had relatively little practical effect, with the prohibition on “the sale or license for export of defense articles and services” having already been in place. Rather, it is likely part of an effort to rally support among Cubans, and increasingly Venezuelans, living in Florida.

Though Cuba has not officially been classed as a state sponsor of terrorism, it has been relegated to a blacklist, allegedly because it is not fully cooperating on counterterrorism. This claim goes against improved relations over the past couple of years. In January 2017, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding on law enforcement meanwhile in January 2018 the U.S. and Cuba held a technical meeting focused on “preventing and fighting terrorism, aimed at advancing cooperation in this area.”

The intermediary step taken potentially reflects internal disputes within the executive branch between those who seek to take a harder stance on Cuba and those who view it as a needless escalation. Trump’s attention to the island has been relatively minor, largely limited to his rallies and visits to Miami and otherwise absent from his rhetoric. Support for a harsher policy towards Cuba largely emanates from elsewhere, such as Florida’s Senator Marco Rubio, and thereby brought to the attention of the Trump Administration. While these figures will seek to ensure that Cuba is relisted as a state sponsor of terrorism, it will probably face resistance from other quarters, such as the Department of Defense. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson (ret.), who served as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff from 2002-2005, said that “I would not doubt that the Pentagon might object as for years it has known quite well that the best crime, illicit drugs, illicit immigration, and terrorist fighters in the Caribbean are the Cubans.”

With Havana arguably being President Nicolás Maduro’s biggest backer, especially in the Western Hemisphere, U.S.-Cuban relations are increasingly being defined through the lens of the White House’s Venezuela policy. On March 26, the Department of Justice officially indicted Maduro, along with some of his senior aides, on narcoterrorism charges. The implementation of sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry, upon which Cuba is heavily reliant on, and the pursuit of a policy in favor of Guaido’s ascendancy risks further diplomatically and politically isolating Cuba. 

With the imprisonment of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil and the more recent forced resignation of Evo Morales in Bolivia alongside the election of conservative leaders across the region, Havana is likely to be less inclined to give up on one of its few remaining allies in Latin America and consequently dig in. “There was a time when there was greater sympathy and now that the number of Cuban allies has diminished, Cuba ties itself more to Venezuela but at the same time, the Cuban-Venezuelan relationship has been very important to Cuba,” but that the island’s “most important relationship is its own with the United States,” as noted by Ivan Briscoe, Program Director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Crisis Group.

The use of terrorism as an allegation against foreign states by the United States is nothing new. However, it has been significantly ramped up over the past couple of years, such as when it was applied to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in April 2019. The increasingly broadened use of the term could result in a growing divide between the U.S. and its allies due to diverging definitions as well as perception that the label is being used opportunistically.

This schism, which has thus far emerged between the United States and the European Union in regards to Iran, has already occurred to some extent in relation to Cuba over other issues. For example, Senator Bob Menendez and others published a letter likening Havana’s use of medical diplomacy to “modern slavery” while countries like Italy have warmly received the Cuban doctors.

A reclassification of Cuba has the potential of alienating countries that already have hostile relations with the United States. The reneging of agreements reached with a preceding administration, such as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the Paris Agreement, reduces the confidence foreign nations have in accords reached with the United States. The blacklisting of Cuba will reinforce skepticism towards the U.S. in Iran and North Korea — both of which are listed state sponsors of terrorism — as well as Venezuela, all three of which have come close to war with the U.S. According to Briscoe, when it comes to Cuba itself, however, “it is a big step to go from non-cooperation designation to designation as a state sponsor.”

More specifically, the Trump Administration’s allegations towards Cuba also risks prolonging the fighting inside Colombia. The left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN) is the country’s last remaining active guerrilla movement. In May, the nation’s air force carried out an airstrike that killed Mocho Tierra, one of the group’s most wanted leaders. Ongoing American antagonization of Cuba risks undermining the latter’s ability to play a constructive role in bringing peace to Colombia. Havana previously served as host to talks between Bogotá and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which resulted in an accord in 2016 with the goal of ending the conflict that has been ongoing since 1964.

While Cuba was set to host the negotiations between Colombia and the ELN, the election of Iván Duque Márquez to the presidency alongside continued ELN fighting, most notably the car bombing that killed twenty-two cadets at the National Police Academy, has reduced the likelihood of any peaceful and fruitful dialogue in the near future. However, “the ELN will not be defeated militarily,” according to Briscoe. Nevertheless, despite Cuba’s continued commitment to resolving the conflict, the Colombian government does doubt the ELN’s sincerity, which could result in a continued reliance on a military solution to the insurgency.

U.S. claims of Cuban non-cooperation are in part based on Cuba’s unwillingness to extradite ten ELN members who were part of the negotiation team in Havana. Duque’s hardened position on the ELN, as well as on the Venezuelan presidential dispute between Maduro and Juan Guaidó, further cements his already pro-American predisposition. Both the U.S. and Colombia share the goal of rolling back coca production in Colombia, however, the former has been erratic towards the latter with Trump even claiming that Duque “has done nothing for us” in terms of combating cocaine trafficking. Nevertheless, the recent move by the State Department could have more to do with their Latin American ally. “I do feel strongly that Cuba’s addition to the ‘not fully’ list is more of a gesture to the Colombians than to the White House hardliners,” noted Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America. “The Duque government really wanted it and asked for the U.S. to weigh in.”

Aside from a deterioration in bilateral ties, neither the blacklisting nor a potential relisting of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism is likely to yield any meaningful results in regards to the stated reasons put forward by the State Department. As a guarantor for the peace talks, should Cuba extradite the ELN members not only would it be violating the terms of the negotiation but also potentially irrevocably damage its reputation as a host and thereby undercut any chance of playing the role of a mediator in any other conflict. Likewise, the odds of Havana revoking asylum granted to Joanne Chesimard, more commonly known as Assata Shakur, after several decades are virtually non-existent and the raising of the issue suggests that the current push is motivated by domestic politics.

The new change and any forthcoming ones might largely symbolic in of themselves but could have far-reaching, albeit indirect, effects. With the general election soon heating up, it would not be surprising if tensions continued ratcheting up. While Cuba will not want to be seen as giving in to American pressure by abandoning its involvement in the Bogotá-ELN conflict, the changing milieu “may dissuade other countries from hosting similar talks elsewhere in the world,” as Isacson believes. It could take years before any reverses are carried through, though this time it will be received more skeptically and tainted by new memories of American policy volatility and continued politicization of terrorism. 

As Briscoe points out in regards to Venezuela, Colombia and Cuba, “The most important thing would be, for any incoming [American] administration, to come in with a very sober and sane examination of the fact that the region has to be treated with a plan for all three countries fundamentally.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.