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Biden should remove Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list

We condemn the repressive policies of the Cuban government that have caused so much hardship on the island. But an honest assessment requires an acknowledgement of the ways that America’s sanctions are compounding the suffering of Cuban families.

Drivers queued to get fuel near a gas station in Havana on April 24. "This is hell!" said Lazaro Diaz, a 59-year-old Cuban courier who waited in line for a day hoping to get gasoline, in the longest fuel shortage crisis that Havanans say they have experienced in years.YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images

In the final days of the Trump administration, Cuba was relisted as a state sponsor of terrorism alongside countries like North Korea, Syria, and Iran.

Intelligence officials and diplomats in Democratic and Republican administrations almost all agree — the designation was without merit. That’s why Cuba was removed from the list by President Barack Obama in 2015. Yet over halfway through President Biden’s first term, Cuba remains on the list — meaning that private industry, faith-based groups, NGOs, universities, and even foreign governments risk US prosecution for nearly any kind of humanitarian aid, business, investment, or trade with Cuban citizens.


To be clear, we strongly condemn the repressive and undemocratic policies of the Cuban government that have caused so much hardship on the island. But an honest assessment requires an acknowledgement of the ways that America’s sanctions are compounding the suffering of Cuban families.

Combined with the Cuban government’s mismanagement of its economy — and supply chain disruptions caused by COVID-19 — US policies have helped create a humanitarian crisis.

And now, as a result of severe shortages of food, medicine, fuel, and other necessities, an unprecedented number of Cubans are fleeing the island. In 2022, more than 313,000 undocumented Cubans sought admission to the United States — that’s more than twice as many as in the 1980 Mariel freedom flotilla and 1994 rafters crisis combined.

Cuban authorities have demonstrated over and over that they will do whatever it takes to remain in power, regardless of the suffering of their people. The current economic crisis will not loosen their grip — but the status quo does pose serious challenges for the United States.

Without a change in US policy, our leadership in Latin America will be weakened, as the controversy over participation in the Summit of the Americas last year demonstrated. Our adversaries will also have an even greater opening in the Americas as the Cuban government increasingly turns to Russia and China for aid.


The solution is US engagement with Cuba — allowing us to better defend the rights and alleviate the suffering of the Cuban people, advancing US interests on issues of common interest, and offering Cuba an alternative to deepening ties with other authoritarian regimes.

While ending the economic embargo — an anachronism of the Cold War that has not achieved any of its objectives — requires an act of Congress, there are interim steps that should be taken immediately.

First, the White House should remove Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list. It’s an open secret in Washington that Cuba does not belong on the list and that the previous false justification by the Trump administration was politically motivated.

Second, Biden should waive Title III of the Helms-Burton Act. Waived for years by Democratic and Republican administrations before Trump, Title III is a misguided attempt to bully other countries into involuntarily joining US efforts to punish the Cuban people and Cuban entrepreneurs — exacerbating their hardships by preventing trade and investment, even when it has nothing to do with the Cuban government.

Third, the Biden administration should expand diplomatic dialogue with Cuba on issues like migration, maritime security, and environmental protection, as well as facilitating the export of US agricultural products and collaborating to protect our citizens from infectious diseases.

Finally, the Biden administration should allow more Americans to travel to Cuba to support the struggling private sector there. Reinstating the general license for individual people-to-people educational travel would give private businesses a major boost since individual travelers are far more likely than groups to travel to Cuba.


As a candidate, Biden said “Americans — and especially Cuban Americans — can be our best ambassadors for freedom in Cuba.” Members of Congress overwhelmingly agree. History has proven that a policy of engagement and the exchange of ideas, not isolation, is what brings lasting change. Yet two years into this administration, travel to Cuba is subject to onerous restrictions that don’t apply to Americans traveling to any other country except North Korea.

The bottom line? The Cuban and American people deserve better.

Americans deserve the freedom to travel to and trade freely with Cuba. Cubans — ignored and repressed by their government and caught in the cross fire of a Cold War rivalry that belongs in the dustbin of history — deserve the freedom to chart their own course free from the Cuban government’s oppression and vengeful US policies.

Engagement, based on our national interests and values, and the need to help the Cuban people at this critical time, is the only effective option, and the only option worthy of the United States.

Democratic US Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts is a ranking member of the House Rules Committee and cochair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. Patrick Leahy is a former eight-term US Senator from Vermont and former Senate President Pro Tempore.