Cuba No Longer Sponsors Terrorism

We are pleased to have the opportunity to publish another article today written by guest contributor Clayton Henry.

Clayton is a former intelligence analyst in the United States Army and is currently a graduate student studying U.S. foreign policy and national security in the Department of History at The American University in Washington, DC.


Eric Jones
Editor in Chief 
Foreign Intrigue


Cuba No Longer Sponsors Terrorism




Cuba’s policy changes in the post-Cold War era demonstrate a softened approach towards the U.S. and terrorism. Cuba has denounced terrorist attacks against the U.S., discontinued military aid to terrorist organizations, and is currently hosting peace negotiations between Colombia and the FARC. While the American populace has noticed this transition, Washington has yet to reciprocate with amiable policies. Rather than continuing its outdated strategy of containment, the U.S. should remove Cuba from its State Sponsors of Terrorism list and normalize political and economic relations by lifting the trade embargo and reestablishing diplomatic ties.

Brief History of U.S. Policy towards Cuba

The history of U.S.-Cuban relations must be examined through Cold War contexts, the effects of which have perpetuated a restrictive and anti-cooperative U.S. policy towards Cuba. Fidel Castro took control over Cuba in 1959 during the height of the Cold War. Its mere existence as a communist state located only ninety miles from U.S. soil struck fear in both the American public and its political apparatus. Within just a few years, U.S.-Cuban relations spiraled down a rocky path, which included Cuban nationalization of American businesses in 1960, severed diplomatic relations and U.S. trade embargos established against Cuba in 1960 and 1962, the CIA-led invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, and the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962.[1] This traumatic sequence of events pushed both countries down a long path of bellicose policies against one another, resulting in a series of deadly proxy wars throughout Latin America.

Cuba was first placed on the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list in 1982 for having “facilitated the movement of people and weapons into Central and South America and…directly provided funding, training, arms, safe haven, and advice to a wide variety of guerrilla groups, and individual terrorists.”[2] Specific terrorist groups included the M-19 group in Colombia, “the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador…the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in Nicaragua,” the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) out of Spain and France.[3] The aforementioned list clearly justifies the U.S. designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism in the 1980s; it was not, however, an effective means to curtail Cuba’s support of terrorism considering the list only imposed economic sanctions, which the U.S. had already established. The trade embargo with Cuba had continued under the U.S. policy of containment since JFK’s executive orders of 1960 – 1962 and was solidified into law with the Helms-Burton Act in 1996.[4]

Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in the Post-Cold War Era

The U.S. Department of State listed three justifications for continuing to designate Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism in 2013: first, Cuba continues to harbor terrorists from the ETA; second, Cuba harbors U.S. fugitives; and third, “The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has identified Cuba as having strategic AML/CFT [Anti-Money Laundering/Combating the Financing of Terrorism] deficiencies.” However, embedded within its three short criticisms of the Castro regime include more reasons for its removal from the list rather than its inclusion. While the State Department claims that Cuba is still harboring terrorist from the ETA, it also admits that “the Cuban government was trying to distance itself from” those individuals by “not providing services including travel documents to some of them.” More importantly, the State Department admitted, “There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training for either ETA or the FARC,” which are the only two terrorist organizations mentioned in the report. Lastly, the State Department failed to specify how Cuba’s “AML/CFT deficiencies” related to supporting terrorism.[5] Collectively, the U.S. provided a weak case for Cuba’s inclusion on its very short list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, a case that has been increasingly difficult to make since the end of the Cold War.

Cuba’s post-Cold War policies substantiate the contradictions discussed in the aforementioned country report. In 1992, Castro renounced his policy of supporting terrorism. Within six years of this announcement, “the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Cuba [no longer posed] a threat to U.S. national security.”[6] In fact, the post-9/11 era has suggested a more amiable than bellicose Cuban foreign policy towards America. Immediately following the 9/11 attacks, Castro “offered medical assistance to the victims…opened Cuban airports to U.S. commercial planes diverted because of the crisis,” publically condemned the terrorist actions, and “signed all twelve U.N.-sanctioned international antiterrorism treaties.”[7] And most recently, the Cuban government publically sent condolences to the U.S. after the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013.[8] While the State Department has questioned both Fidel and Raul Castro’s actual commitment to combatting terrorism, Cuba’s softened stance towards America in the post-Cold War era, and specifically Cuba’s recent condemnation of the FARC and their paramount role in the FARC – Colombian peace negotiations, renders U.S. reciprocation.

Facilitating peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC have been by far Cuba’s most significant actions against terrorism. The State Department’s 2008 country report on Cuba first acknowledged Fidel Castro’s shift from supporting the terrorist organization to publically calling for “the FARC to release the hostages they were holding without preconditions… [and] condemned the FARC’s mistreatment of captives and of their abduction of civilian politicians who had no role in the armed conflict.”[9] Then in a monumental move, Cuba began facilitating peace negotiations between the FARC and Colombia out of Havana in November, 2012, which would end “the last major guerilla conflict in Latin America” and elevate Raul Castro to an arbiter of peace rather than a supporter of terrorism.[10] The negotiations are still in progress, but some have speculated that if peace is reached, the U.S. will be forced to remove Cuba from its State Sponsors of Terrorism list.[11]

Normalizing U.S.-Cuban Relations

First, the U.S. should remove Cuba from its State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Building upon the hitherto justifications for such action, Cuba is one of only four countries with this designation; the others, Iran, Sudan, and Syria, all have direct and active ties to current terrorist groups who still pose significant threats to U.S. and allied interests.[12] More compelling, however, are the countries excluded from the list. Pakistan, for example, has long been implicated in supporting terrorist/militant groups through their Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Haqqani network, the Afghan Taliban, and possibly Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden himself.[13] But the U.S. needs Pakistan for logistical reasons to continue its war in Afghanistan, thus keeping a terrorist sponsoring country off the list. Other countries implicated in supporting terrorism more often than Cuba at least include North Korea, China, and Lebanon.[14] With these examples in mind, especially the case of Pakistan, designating Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism is rendered arbitrary and based more on historical notions of Cuba and the U.S. policy of containing communism rather than the country’s current actions.

Removing Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list would be a step in the right direction; but, similar to its inclusion in 1982, taking it off the list would be little more than symbolic. Instead, the U.S. should normalize political and economic relations with Cuba by repealing the Helms-Burton Act and re-establishing diplomatic ties. The economic embargo is outdated and, more importantly, has proven ineffective in changing the Cuban government. Instead, it has forced Cuba to trade and ally with enemies of the U.S., such as the former Soviet Union, Libya, Syria, Venezuela, and North Korea.[15] Conversely, lifting the trade embargo would enhance U.S.-Cuban cooperation and allow the freedoms of capitalism and democracy to positively influence both the Cuban populace and its political apparatus.

American popular support for normalizing relations with Cuba has steadily increased since the close of the Cold War. Gallup reported that from 1996 to 2009, American support for re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba increased from 40% to 60%, while those who opposed such action decreased from 49% to 30%.[16] A more recent poll conducted by the Atlantic Council in January, 2014 indicated that 56% of Americans support “normalizing relations or engaging more directly with Cuba,” while 35% are opposed. Specific to the State Department’s list, 61% of Americans do not view Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism and, while most of those who support the latter changes are Democrats or Independents, “52% of Republicans also favor normalization.”[17] President Obama has implemented incremental steps towards changing U.S. policy, such as easing travel restrictions in 2009 and 2011.[18] Normalizing relations, however, requires congressional action, and congress has thus far been unsupportive.[19]



[1] John F. Kennedy: Presidential Library and Museum, “The Bay of Pigs,” accessed March 5, 2014,; ibid, “The Cuban Missile Crisis,”

[2] Congressional Research Service, “Cuba and the State Sponsors of Terrorism List,” Updated May 13, 2005,, 4.

[3] Congressional Research Service, 5.

[4] Council on Hemispheric Affairs, “Helms-Burton Act: Resurrecting the Iron Curtain,” June 10, 2011,

[5] U.S. Department of State, “Chapter 3: State Sponsors of Terrorism,” July 31, 2012,

[6] Council of Foreign Relations, “State Sponsors: Cuba,” March 23, 2010,

[7] Council of Foreign Relations, “State Sponsors: Cuba.”

[8] Los Angeles Times, “Iran, Russia and others condemn Boston bombings,” April 16, 2013,

[9] U.S. Department of State, “Country Reports of Terrorism 2008,” April 2009,, 182.

[10] Reuters, “Colombian Peace Talks Resume in Cuba, Elections Loom,” by Marc Frank, Jan 13, 2014,; Global Post, “Cuba: Colombia’s peacemaker?” by Nick Miroff, Nov 19, 2012,

[11] Reuters, “Colombia’s FARC Accuses Ex-president of Spying on Peace Talks,” by Nelson Acosta, Feb 2014,

[12] U.S. Department of State, “Chapter 3: State Sponsors of Terrorism,” July 31, 2012,

[13] Council on Foreign Relations, “The ISI and Terrorism: Behind the Accusations,” by Jayshree Bajoria, and Eben Kaplan, May 4, 2011,; The Long War Journal, “Admiral Mullen: Pakistani ISI sponsoring Haqqani Attacks,” by By Thomas Joscelyn, September 22, 2011,; The Guardian, Mumbai Terror Trial Hears Claim That ISI and LeT Coordinated with Each Other, by Ben Quinn and agencies, May 23, 2011

[14] The Weekly Standard, “North Korea Sponsors Terrorism,” by Joshua Stanton, Aug 13, 2013,; The Huffington Post, “Cyberterrorism,” article collection,

[15] Fox News, “VIDEO: Marco Rubio Unloads on Democrat Who Praised Communist Cuba,” by Noah Rothman (Mediaite), Feb 26, 2014,

[16] Gallup Politics, “Americans Steady in Backing Friendlier U.S.-Cuba Relations,” by Lymari Morales, April 23, 2009,

[17] Atlantic Council, “U.S.-Cuba: A New Public Survey Supports Policy Change, by Adrienne Arsht, Feb 11, 2014,; 5-6.

[18] Congressional Research Service, “Cuba: U.S. Restrictions on Travel and Remittances,” by Mark P. Sullivan,

[18]February 4, 2014,, summary.

[19] Council on Foreign Relations, “U.S.-Cuban Relations,” by Brianna Lee, Feb 26, 2014,


(Featured photo courtesy of Thomassin Mickaël and Wikimedia Commons)


About the author:

Clayton Henry is currently a graduate student at The American University studying United States foreign policy and national security in the Department of History. He served three years as a military intelligence analyst prior to graduate school and deployed to eastern Afghanistan in 2011-2012.