Cubans Brace For Even Tougher Times as U.S. Returns Island to Terrorism Sponsor List

Shortages are already chronic given existing sanctions and the covid pandemic, but life for Cubans is about to get even harder.
A man wears a face mask as he walks past a mural depicting Argentine-born revolutionary leader Ernesto Che Guevara in Havana, Cuba
A man wears a face mask as he walks past a mural depicting Argentine-born revolutionary leader Ernesto Che Guevara in Havana, Cuba on April 17, 2020. Photo by YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images

The return of Cuba on Monday to the state sponsors of terrorism list by the outgoing administration of U.S. President Donald Trump promises to hinder new, closer relations between the island and President-elect Joe Biden’s government. 

The Trump administration moved to re-designate Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, using its support for Venezuela as a reason, in a largely symbolic move that may take months to overturn. 


In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo questioning the lack of congressional oversight in the decision, eight Democratic Senators said the act “threatens to damage future diplomatic efforts toward Cuba and set a harmful precedent for future designations.” 

The decision to return Cuba to the state sponsors of terrorism list comes at an exceptionally difficult time for Cubans. The coronavirus pandemic, coupled with the longstanding embargo, and the added weight of new sanctions piled on top, has made shortages of basic goods commonplace. 

“Every day it gets a little harder to find things. There’s no shampoo or deodorant, even less than before,” Luís, who is a student at the University of Havana, and who asked him name be changed for this story for fear of the repurcussions , told VICE World News. Luís has quit smoking, but not intentionally. In his region of Pinar del Rio, on the west side of Cuba, there are no cigarettes to be found. 

Formal diplomatic relations resumed between Cuba and the United States in 2015 under the administration of former-President Barack Obama, after over fifty years of silence between the world’s largest capitalist power and the communist-led island just 200 miles away. But Donald Trump’s administration strived to classify Cuba once again as a primary adversary, making it more difficult for Americans to travel to Cuba, broadening sanctions on Cuban commerce, and attempting to halt the delivery of money, known as remittances, from Cuban-Americans to family members on the island. 


In November, Western Union announced it would cease operations in Cuba after new sanctions imposed by the United States, eliminating the channel used by the majority of Cubans to receive money from family members in the U.S. Even when remittances are received, Luís says there is nothing on the shelves to buy, as foreign trade has been effectively suffocated by existing sanctions and the pandemic.

Cuba’s presence on the list of state sponsors of terrorism will further inhibit the island from trading with United States allies, as foreign governments and individuals will face penalties in their trade relationships with the U.S. after engaging with Cuba. This could exacerbate the existing shortages of basic goods. 

“Ordinary Cubans will suffer so Pompeo can look tough to a few people in Miami,” said Ben Rhodes, one of former-President Obama’s senior foreign policy advisors who aided the thawing of relations with Cuba in 2015, via Twitter.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy went further is a statement on the move. “Secretary Pompeo has self-righteously defended Donald Trump’s worst foreign policy failures, and on his way out the door he seems intent on making things as difficult as possible for his successor.”

Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, in response to the new sanctions, argued there is no legal justification for the decision saying it was “an arrogant act by a dishonest, discredited, and morally bankrupt government”. 

The transfer of power from Trump to Biden in a week’s time may help alleviate the pressure of the new sanctions, but Luís is not hopeful it will end the shortages for good. 

“We aren’t waiting for Trump to leave or for the end of the pandemic, we’re waiting for communism to be over in Cuba,” he said.