Last month, Havana was the seat of the first high-level talks between Cuba and the United States since 2018, fueling speculation that the Biden administration may be contemplating removing Cuba from the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST), an easy first step that wouldn’t require congressional approval.
In Washington, everybody knows that Cuba isn’t a state sponsor of terrorism. President Obama understood that when, in April 2015, he removed the island from the SST list (the Trump administration would later reinsert it). Ben Rhodes, one of Obama’s deputy national security advisers, tweeted at the time: “Put simply, POTUS is acting to remove Cuba from the State Sponsor of Terrorism list because Cuba is not a State Sponsor of Terrorism.”
Obama believed it was in the national interest for the US to veer away from its age-old Cuba policy. Stemming from his belief that engagement would serve a greater purpose than isolation, the shift contributed greatly to improving Obama’s standing in Latin America. After the fiasco of last year’s Summit of the Americas, Biden may find this to be an attractive prospect.
If anything, the election of left-of-center governments in several Latin American states means the region is now even more united on the Cuba issue than before. Unsurprisingly, a week before his trip to Washington, President Lula da Silva of Brazil said Cuba was likely to feature in his discussion with the US president, as “Cuba was always on the agenda” in his meetings with Bush and Obama.
It’s also significant that Cuba returned to the SST list for the most dishonest of reasons: Trump’s pandering to the extremist anti-Cuba lobby, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio, then vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in charge of investigating Trump’s Russia connections. If Trump’s motives were dishonest, the process by which Cuba was put back on the list was even more deceitful. Trump found an opening not in Cuban support for war or terror, but in Cuba’s support for peace: specifically, Colombia’s peace.
Cuba had been the host of the talks that led to the September 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas. At the same time, negotiations between another group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), and the Colombian government had begun in Ecuador. But in April 2018, Ecuadorian president Lenín Moreno stunned the world when he announced that he was withdrawing support from the negotiations. Cuba then accepted Colombia’s request to host the ELN talks.