Trump Designates Cuba a State Sponsor of Terrorism; Biden Likely to Reverse (Quickly?)

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Well, you can say this about Trump: he seems to be doing his utmost to invalidate all lazy cliches about American politics. In this case, the target is the adage that politics stops at the water’s edge and his action to the contrary is designating Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism, as reported by CNN in Trump administration names Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism, frustrating Biden’s efforts to boost relations:

One additional motivation is to erase any sign than his predecessor was ever President, no matter how trivial or insignificant. So Melania decided herself not to plant vegetables, thus cold-shouldering Michelle’s signature – and to my mind, only publicly significant accomplishment; see this WaPo account for the juicy details, How the White House garden became a political football.

Trump Cuba Reversal

Now, I don’t deny that the latest Trump action is more of a policy change, compared to the last time I wrote about Trump’s Cuba policy, Trump Cuba Policy Reversal: More Sound and Fury, Signifying…. No Mucho, when the change was more symbolic, than substantive, When I wrote that 2017 piece, Trump was already following plays that were becoming standard in his  playbook:

…First off, there’s a splashy announcement of a policy change: this time, it’s rolling back his predecessor’s Cuba initiative. This change is often made by a legally dubious executive order,  or in a speech, or in some other non-binding form– certainly not by initiating– let alone completing– the often messy legislative process.

And then, when the dust is settled and the rhetoric is parsed, the mooted changes end up signifying– well, while I may not go quite as far as the Bard, but I will say: no mucho.

By designating Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism, Trump was restoring the status quo ante initiated in 1982, when Ronald Reagan designated it as such, and reversing his immediate predecessor’s 2015 decision, which launched a modest thaw of Cuban-U.S. relations in 2015. That decision, too, had been announced with great fanfare,  as per the Wall Street Journal, Cuba Named a State Sponsor of Terrorism by Trump Administration, part of a campaign that included boosting commercial air travel, the reopening of embassies and a visit by President Obama to Cuba.”

What (If Anything) Has Changed?

CNN notes that nothing has changed that warrants placing Cuba back on the list of state sponsors of terror, joining Iran, North Korea, and Syria,  in Trump administration names Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism, frustrating Biden’s efforts to boost relations: (Sudan was until recently also included, until it was rewarded for entering into an agreement to ’normalise’ relations with Israel by being removed from the list.)

A US diplomat with experience on Cuba issues told CNN last month that “there simply was not a good argument to be made that Cuba actually sponsored terrorism,” when plans to make the change were first reported. “I don’t know of anything that has changed since then in real terms — they’re just reinterpreting things to suit politics.”

Of course, Cuban officials had to express outrage with the Trump decision- after all, we don’t actually expect them to applaud being called terrorists – but even their comments seemed ro incorporate a pro forma quality, a matter of fact understanding of the sometimes crazy character of U.S. politics.  As per CNN:

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla tweeted Monday: “We condemn the hypocritical and cynical designation of #Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, announced by the US. The political opportunism of this action is recognized by all who have an honest concern about the scourge of terrorism and its victims.”

Biden Expected to Roll Back state Sponsor of Terrorism Designation

Unlike the regulatory measures that I wrote about yesterday, which will require some legislative action, albeit as straightforward as  simple majority votes in both House and Senate, as specified under the Congressional Review Act (CRA), to undo, Biden acting alone can easily unwind Trump’s Cuba decision. (See ‘Transparency’ and the New EPA Pollution Rule: Ripe for CRA Overturn by the New Congress, discussing how Biden can overturn any ‘midnight’ Trump regulatory initiatives – those enacted roughly since August -if the incoming administration is willing to risk the pre-emptive pitfalls that may follow if it intends  to enact regulations covering “substantially the same” substance.)

Yet as for Cuba, as CNN explains, the Trump action may actually change little, as Cuba is already subject to significant financial sanctions:

However, William LeoGrande, an expert on Latin America and professor at American University, told CNN that the designation would have little practical impact because Cuba is already subject to wide-ranging US financial sanctions.

Almost all of the sanctions that a country suffers from being on the terrorism list are already imposed on Cuba as part of the broader embargo,” he said.

“The only actual difference is that being on the terrorism list makes a state vulnerable to be sued by private individuals for the consequences of so-called acts of terrorism. You lose sovereign immunity if you are on the terrorism list.”

The Bottom Line

So, what does the latest Trump action actually change?

No mucho.

And even that, probably not for long.

The money question: will the Biden administration in undoing Trump’s latest action also look to reduce or eliminate the extensive other restrictions to which Cuba is already subject, and open the way to ‘normal’ relations – rather than just paying the lip service that has substituted for previous thaws in U.S. Cuba policy?

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