No Significant Change in U.S. Policy Toward Cuba As the Biden Administration Concedes That It “Has Not Even Begun the Review Process” to Remove Cuba from the List of State Sponsors of Terrorism
The U.S.-enforced embargo on Cuba is now more than 60 years old. First introduced by the Kennedy administration in February 1962, it remains one of the most anachronistic and cruel legacies of the Cold War, with no credible rationale supporting it today.
As CovertAction Magazine reported, President Biden, who had “long courted the vote of the Cuban-American lobby,” unnecessarily prolonged the suffering of the Cuban people on September 14, 2023, by extending the embargo by one more year, claiming that the blockade “was in the national interest of the United States.”
The Obama administration had raised some hopes of improved relations with Havana, restoring diplomatic relations, relaxing travel restrictions and at least considering a gradual normalization of economic relationships.
That door was brutally shut by the Trump presidency, which largely reversed the normalization initiatives by hardening the embargo on Cuba, restoring tighter travel restrictions and, more consequentially, by officially designating Cuba a State Sponsor of Terrorism (“SSOT”) based on highly controversial claims, which prompted a new wave of economic sanctions against the people of the island.
President Reagan had first designated Cuba a terrorism-sponsor state in 1982, due to Cuba’s support to revolutionary movements in Central America, but that designation had been removed by the Obama administration in 2015, based on an intelligence review that ruled out that Cuba was actually sponsoring terrorism.
The Biden administration had promised to initiate the process to reverse Trump’s decision, but it has utterly failed to do so. As The Intercept revealed, in December 2023 “State Department official Eric Jacobstein stunned members of Congress” in a private briefing (almost three full years after Biden was sworn in) “by telling them that the department [had] not even begun the review process” necessary to reconsider the SSOT designation.
While Biden eased some of the economic and travel restrictions introduced by the Trump administration, he has retained the core measures of the economic embargo.
The SSOT designation triggers a broad set of sanctions, including “restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance” and other financial and defense export limitations, but also sanctions against “persons and countries engaging in certain trade” with SSOT.
As economist Michael Galant noted in The Hill, “the worst impacts are felt through over-compliance; businesses and financial institutions, including many from outside the United States, often elect to sever all connections to Cuba rather than risk being sanctioned themselves for association with ‘a sponsor of terror.’”
The SSOT designation, imposed just nine days prior to the expiration of the Trump administration, has compounded an already unsustainable situation, as Cuba faces a deepening economic emergency, causing “the exodus of more than 400,000 Cubans leaving for the United States in the last two years.”
“U.S. policy is exacerbating the growing humanitarian crisis,” leading scholar William LeoGrande remarked in The Nation. U.S. economic sanctions enacted by Trump and largely retained by Biden “drastically reduced Cuba’s foreign exchange earnings,” which are desperately needed as Cuba imports the vast majority of its food supply, while “the Covid-19 pandemic closed the tourism industry, the central pillar of the economy, and it has yet to recover. These two massive external shocks struck an economy already vulnerable.”
The 2021 exchange rate reform resulted in sharp inflationary trends, devaluing the salaries of workers paid in Cuban pesos. In Cuba, currently, “the average monthly salary is about 4,200 pesos. In 2021, that was worth $162 US; today, it is worth just $16 on the informal market.”
The UN Population Fund reported that “the intensification of the blockade imposed on Cuba by the United States in 2020 has complicated access to medicines, health supplies and technologies.”
“The impact of the economic crisis is visible everywhere,” LeoGrande notes ominously. “There are fewer cars on the streets and long lines at gas stations because of the fuel shortage. Tourist hotels stand half-empty and the once bustling streets of Old Havana are quiet. The shelves in state stores are mostly bare, often lacking even the limited basket of goods that Cubans receive at subsidized prices on their ration book.”
The author was able to visit Cuba repeatedly in the past years and observe firsthand the crisis’ devastating consequences in people’s daily life. Crowds of Cubans standing in line for food and other basic supplies, with no guarantee of actually getting them, was indeed the most common sight in Havana.
In my last visit in 2023, Cubans appeared to have completely lost the resilience and positive attitude which had been so striking, amid such harsh circumstances, in previous trips to the island. Exhausted by the compounding crises, more and more Cubans see the prospect of fleeing the country as the only way out of an unsustainable humanitarian and economic conundrum.
The longest war: decades of U.S.-backed covert warfare on Cuba
The latest “developments” in U.S. foreign policy on Cuba hardly take place in a vacuum. They are part of a consistent pattern of U.S.-backed subversion against the island, aimed at overthrowing the government while resorting to the most extreme measures to achieve that goal.
The historical record of U.S. covert warfare against Cuba is overwhelming, yet subservient legacy media and academia continue to withhold or understate it.
Starving the Cuban people into ultimately revolting and overthrowing their government, for instance, has been a stated policy goal. In January 1960, pondering a possible quarantine of the island, President Eisenhower is on record as saying that “If they (the Cuban people) are hungry, they will throw Castro out.”
More than 60 years later, under the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy, U.S. aims had not significantly changed. “By systematically cutting off Cuba’s major sources of foreign exchange currency, the administration intended, as [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo told a European diplomat, to ‘starve’ the regime out.”
Both mainstream media and academia also continue to ignore or under-report the multiple assassination attempts against Fidel Castro, even though former CIA Director Richard Helms admitted openly in congressional hearings to U.S.-backed plans to “get rid of Castro,” which are now a matter of official record.
A most notorious case is the covert warfare contingency plan known as “Operation Northwoods.” In early 1962, i.e., months before the missile crisis originated, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff submitted to the Secretary of Defense proposals for a series of highly destabilizing actions explicitly aimed at providing “justification for U.S. military intervention in Cuba.”
Code-named “Northwoods,” the plans included a “series of well coordinated incidents” to be staged against the U.S. military in Guantanamo “to give genuine appearances of being done by hostile Cuban forces.”
For that purpose, “a ‘Remember the Maine’ incident could be arranged in several forms…We could blow up a US ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba,” the Northwoods documents state, with the proposed plans progressively growing more appalling: “We could develop a Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities and even in Washington. The terror campaign could be pointed at Cuban refugees seeking haven in the United States. We could sink a boatload of Cubans enroute to Florida (real or simulated). We could foster attempts on lives of Cuban refugees in the United States to the extent of wounding in instances to be widely publicized,” to name only some of the most outrageous actions envisaged.
While there is no evidence that these particular contingency plans were ever approved or implemented, they certainly disclose, in the most frightening manner, to what insane extremes U.S. government actors would go to destabilize and overthrow the Cuban government.
However, there is extensive evidence that U.S. covert plans, including biological warfare against Cuba, went well beyond planning. The official government record, substantial as it is in the case of U.S. policy toward Cuba, is still inadequate to fully expose the most sensitive covert operations.
We owe it to intelligence insiders and whistleblowers if the true nature and actual extent of U.S. destabilizing operations against Cuba can finally be disclosed.
A notable case is that of Verne Lyon. Completely unknown to the general public, Lyon should be regarded as one of the most significant CIA whistleblowers.
In the 1960s, as an aerospace engineering student at Iowa State University (ISU), Lyon was recruited by the CIA within the controversial “Operation Chaos,” in order to spy on fellow ISU students. Lyon was ultimately framed by the CIA on bogus terrorism charges and compelled to move to Cuba as a deep undercover operative to subvert Castro’s government.
Lyon has devoted his later life to exposing the excesses of the CIA and the criminal nature of U.S.-backed activities in Cuba.
In the documentary Secrets of the CIA, which featured former CIA officers and whistleblowers such as Philip Agee, as well as prominent Cuba scholar Peter Kornbluh, Lyon recounted his experience with the Agency, recalling the shocking episode when, once in Cuba as a CIA asset, his group persuaded a truck driver to allow them to put cement in milk bottles destined to children’s schools.
In 2018, Lyon published his autobiographical work Eyes on Havana, unsurprisingly one of the most ignored and under-reported books of our time, where he also confirmed previous disclosures, reported by CovertAction Magazine, pointing to CIA responsibility for introducing the African swine flu into Cuba in 1971.
According to Lyon, CIA assets “delivered a vial of African swine flu virus to one of the many anti-Castro groups still operating under CIA auspices,” which eventually smuggled the virus into Cuba, provoking the “first ever outbreak of swine flu in the Western Hemisphere.
The Cubans, ultimately, slaughtered 500,000 pigs to try to stop the epidemic, causing severe food shortages across the island, as pork serves as a staple of the Cuban diet. Even the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, alarmed that the virus could spread to other countries, sent representatives to look for the cause of the outbreak. The U.S. never told them what happened.”
The testimony of Lyon has been reinforced by recently declassified records from the JFK Assassination Collection, which include evidence of U.S. plans to unleash biological warfare on Cuba, with one memorandum explicitly considering the causation of “crop failures by the introduction of biological agents which would appear to be of natural origin.”
As the historical quest carries on, the picture of the U.S. covert warfare against Cuba only turns darker.
The U.S. has also protected and harbored on U.S. soil known anti-Castro terrorists, most notably Luis Posada Carilles and Orlando Bosch, who reportedly participated in the planning of the attack on Cubana Airlines Flight 455 on October 6, 1976, which killed 73 people, and were involved in many other acts of terrorism against Cuban targets, including bombings of hotels and diplomatic facilities, as well as numerous attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro.
Carriles and Bosch were members of the “Coordinacion de Organizaciones Revolucionarias Unidas” (“Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations”) that FBI files identified as “an anti-Castro terrorist umbrella organization.”
Shielded by the United States government, which also denied extradition requests from Cuba and Venezuela, neither Carriles nor Bosch ever faced any serious criminal punishment for their actions, both living a comfortable life and dying free men in Florida.
It was actually to watch and attempt to prevent the plots of anti-Castro terrorists that the “Cuban Five,” a group of intelligence officers working for the Cuban government, operated in the U.S. under cover in the 1990s, before being arrested in 1998 and convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms in 2001 on highly contested espionage and related charges, only to be finally freed after serving their sentence or as a result of the Obama administration’s normalization efforts in 2014.
After the 9/11 attack, President George W. Bush, who consistently protected Carriles and Bosch, famously said that the U.S. would “make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” As Cuba scholar Wayne Smith pointed out in 2004, by its own standards, then, the U.S. would fit the definition of terrorist.
Washington continues to designate Cuba as a terrorism sponsor. Based on the available record, it turns out that it is Cuba which has been on the receiving end of a long-term terror campaign run by and from the United States.
This is not 1962: It is time for a new course with Cuba
The above is not to suggest that the long, complex relationship between the United States and Cuba can be reduced to confrontation and subversion. Several U.S. administrations, from Kennedy’s to Ford’s and, more recently, Obama’s, did pursue serious negotiations toward normalization, which are now well documented.
However, it is inevitable to note that, with the partial exception of the Obama administration’s, such efforts have so far failed, albeit they could set useful precedents for future initiatives.
The international isolation of the United States in its policy toward Cuba is increasingly embarrassing, to say the least. In November 2023 the UN General Assembly regretted that, “despite its resolutions dating back to 1992 (Resolution 47/19), the economic, commercial and financial embargo against Cuba is still in place,” and worried “about the adverse effects of such measures on the Cuban people and on Cuban nationals living in other countries.”
In the 2022 and 2023 resolutions, virtually the entire General Assembly condemned the U.S.’s unilateral embargo and called for its repeal, with respectively 185 and 187 countries voting in favor and only the U.S. and Israel in opposition (Ukraine was the only abstention in 2023, joined by Brazil in 2022).
The main pretexts invoked by the Trump administration to place Cuba back on the SSOT list have been largely debunked, beginning with the alleged protection of the Colombian guerrilla group National Liberation Army (ELN), that the Cuban government refused to extradite further to accusations of terrorism.
As Michael Galant noted, “the ELN members first came to Cuba to take part in peace talks with the Colombian government, brokered by Cuba at Colombia’s request.” The negotiations provisionally collapsed after a terror attack from a dissenting faction of the ELN, but “it would have been a violation of Cuba’s legal role as a guarantor of the peace talks to extradite a party to those talks. Norway, another guarantor, agrees.”
Since those events, a new President has been elected in Colombia, Gustavo Petro, “who has withdrawn the extradition request and personally called to remove the SSOT designation.”
In an urgent letter to President Biden, prompted by the infuriating disclosure that the administration had not even started the process to review the SSOT decision, prominent members of Congress, including Representative Jim McGovern and Senator Elizabeth Warren, also endorsed the international community’s call to withdraw Cuba from the SSOT list.
LeoGrande concludes poignantly that “there is no longer any legitimate rationale whatsoever for Cuba being designated a state sponsor of terrorism. Cuba stays on the list because the Biden administration does not have the political courage to remove it,” under circumstances that could not be more paradoxical, considering that, as Congress members also noted in the letter to President Biden, “Cuba and the United States have a Memorandum of Agreement and active dialogue on counter-terrorism cooperation.”
As to the U.S. embargo, humanitarian considerations aside, the best argument against it remains that it does not work. Both Fidel and Raul Castro stayed in power until the end. Castro resigned as late as 2008 and was succeeded by his brother Raul who resigned as president in 2018 and as head of the Cuban Communist Party only in 2021.
As CovertAction Magazine noted, current Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel has vowed defiance, and he is not going to capitulate any time soon.
Newer generations of Cuban Americans are increasingly frustrated with travel and other limitations currently in place, which was one factor behind the Obama administration’s reforms.
The embargo has not achieved anything other than—literally—starving Cuban civil society and undermining U.S. standing in the global community. Keeping the U.S.’s Cuba policy prisoner of the Cuban-American lobby or narrow-minded Florida electoral politics is profoundly immoral, unnecessary and counterproductive.
It is high time to end it and to start with a clean slate in U.S. relations with Cuba.
Mervyn J. Bain and Chris Walker, Eds., Cuban International Relations at 60: Reflections on Global Connections (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2021), 42. ↑
The documentation concerning “Operation Northwoods,” declassified by the U.S. National Archives, is extensive. The ensuing quotes are taken from the “Memorandum for the Secretary of Defense” and its attachments, dated March 13, 1962, and signed by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Lyman Lemnitzer. A copy of the memorandum is readily available on the National Security Archive’s website.
Verne Lyon, Eyes on Havana: Memoir of an American Spy Betrayed by the CIA (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018). ↑
Ibid., 103-104. ↑
The National Security Archive of George Washington University deserves credit for the discovery and declassification of the most sensitive records on Carriles. The author contributed to the archival research that produced part of the “Posada file.” ↑
Bosch died in 2011 at age 84, while Carriles passed in 2018 at 90. ↑
The case of the “Cuban Five,” known in Cuba as the “Five Heroes,” was highly controversial, particularly in regard to the unfairness of the charges and imprisonment, and sparked a debate in the U.S., involving activist and human rights organizations. Their story was recently told in the 2020 documentary Castro’s Spies. ↑
See William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015). It is perhaps surprising that Henry Kissinger, hardly a dove on communism, considered pursuing détente with Cuba. However, that initiative quickly collapsed when Castro had the audacity to dispatch Cuban troops to back up anti-colonial guerrilla movements in Angola in 1975. Kissinger is on record as saying that, if Cubans extended their actions in Namibia or Rhodesia, he “would be in favor of clobbering them.” The interaction of the U.S. and Cuba in Africa is actually quite enlightening, of both the respective foreign policies and the true motives behind Washington’s persistent hostility toward Havana, as prominent scholar Piero Gleijeses shows in his indispensable Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003). ↑
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About the Author
Dario Calvisi is an independent researcher and analyst of U.S. foreign policy.
Dario is from Italy and currently based in Washington, DC.