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Cubans fear impact of U.S. terror designation, see "hope" in Biden

CBS News logo CBS News 1/13/2021 Portia Siegelbaum
a group of people walking in the rain with an umbrella: TOPSHOT-CUBA-US-DIPLOMACY-TERRORISM © YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty TOPSHOT-CUBA-US-DIPLOMACY-TERRORISM

Havana — Most Cubans think times are tough, and most Cubans believe they're about to get worse thanks to the pending U.S. designation of their country as a "state sponsor of terrorism." Worse how? At the most basic level, many say it will make it harder to put food on the table and shoes on their children's feet.

"Our economy is a disaster. There is not enough food grown and goods produced to meet the demand. There is no money -people have no money, the government has no money. And how can we attract investors if the U.S. threatens them with sanctions?" Michel tells CBS News. The Havana taxi driver says the lack of tourists has left him virtually unemployed already.

The Cuban economy is reeling. The costs of combating COVID-19 have been astronomical. The economic crisis is, in great part, due to the state's provision of free health care for all citizens, including hospitalizing every Cuban who tests positive for the virus. The situation is getting worse right now, with the capital region and others facing an uptick in infections and, with that, more stringent restrictions being brought back.

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a blue umbrella in the rain: A woman walks through Havana, Cuba, January 12, 2021. / Credit: YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty © Provided by CBS News A woman walks through Havana, Cuba, January 12, 2021. / Credit: YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty

But the pandemic hit the island as the Trump administration pursued a no-holds-barred policy intended to wipe out advances in relations made under former President Barack Obama. Monday's announcement that Cuba will be added to the terrorism sponsors list — a dubious distinction shared only by North Korea, Iran and Syria — is like a final nail in the coffin.

It will, among other things, penalize people and countries for engaging in certain trade with Cuba, and impose controls on some exports.

The Trump administration had already limited the ability of Cubans in the U.S. to send money to their families back on the island (remittances); put many new constraints on U.S. travellers wishing to visit Cuba; limited commercial flights from the U.S. to a single city — Havana; stopped cruise ships from coming here and effectively barred U.S. nationals from staying in any of Cuba's hotels. And all of that came on top of the long-running, blanket U.S. economic, financial and trade embargo on the island.   

a group of people standing on a beach: New U.S.-Cuba travel restrictions 06:04 © Provided by CBS News New U.S.-Cuba travel restrictions 06:04

Visitors from the U.S. and remittances were an important source of income for the government, but also for normal Cubans — and for the emerging private sector that blossomed when Mr. Obama's policies made it possible for large numbers of Americans to visit.

All this on top of Cuba's own economic failings, and the pandemic, has meant hardship and shortages for all Cubans. It's been particularly hard for those working in tourism, artists who briefly enjoyed a ready market for their work, private restaurant and B&B owners, to mention just a few.

"It is an outrage and may affect many aspects for the potential traveller, like insurance and, of course, banking," a Scottish woman who's spent about two decades bringing European tourists to Cuba tells CBS News of the new status conferred by the U.S. "It will just act as yet another deterrent for those of a nervous disposition, although Cuba remains one of the safest countries in the world."

Amid the intense pressure on state finances, the Cuban government has decided to move forward on economic reforms that have been pending since 2013. These include the long-postponed unification of Cuba's dual currencies and adjustment of currency exchange values. That may all help the government's bottom line, but it also carries the threat of inflation, and that's brought an outcry from nearly every sector of the population.

Many here are so focused on how these domestic measures will hit them that Monday's announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo may have come as just the latest, not-unexpected slap in the face to Cubans already spending long hours in line for food and other necessities.

The government's official rejection of the measure came swiftly, in the form of tweets from the Cuban president and foreign minister and an official statement denouncing the designation as cynical political opportunism.

Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, head of the U.S. Department of the Cuban Foreign Ministry reiterated on Tuesday that Cuba does not promote terrorism, but rather has been a victim of terrorism from persons and groups based in the United States.

"These past four years have been the result of unilateral actions by the Trump Administration, aimed at punishing Cuba and aimed at destroying the links between our two countries," de Cossio said. "It has an impact on the people of Cuba... it has hurt the well-being of the people of Cuba."

He said he doesn't believe that President-elect Joe Biden considers Cuba a genuine sponsor of terrorism, and voiced optimism that this would influence the policies of the incoming administration.

But it may not be a rapid about-face. Emilio Morales, an exiled Cuban economist and president of the Miami-based Havana Consulting Group, told the Associated Press this week that even if Biden does opt for détente, the terrorism designation "will really slow any thaw in relations."

Joe Biden et al. standing in front of a sign: Biden nominations signal foreign policy shift... 06:02 © Provided by CBS News Biden nominations signal foreign policy shift... 06:02

Morales said reversing the measure would take at least a year, the Biden administration would have to carefully consider the political implications given ongoing concern in the U.S. over Cuba's human rights record, and mysterious brain trauma suffered by Americans in the country. He was also doubtful about the level of Biden's own will, given that he wasn't a key player in the Obama administration's Cuba policy.

Still de Cossio wasn't alone in voicing hope for a renewed thaw in relations with Washington.

"We've been praying Biden will reverse all of Trump's sanctions against us," Magaly, a retiree who augments her state pension by cleaning homes for foreigners in her Havana neighborhood, tells CBS News. "It gives us a glimmer of hope. Things are pretty bleak right now." 

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