Brief #104  Foreign Policy

Yemen and Cuba- 2 Foreign Policy Challenges for the Biden Administration 

By Brandon Mooney

January 29, 2021

With Pompeo and Trump’s State Department now a thing of the past, the Biden administration has turned to the long, arduous task that has faced every incoming administration throughout American history: the review and either reversal or preservation of foreign policies.

Policy Summary:

With Pompeo and Trump’s State Department now a thing of the past, the Biden administration has turned to the long, arduous task that has faced every incoming administration throughout American history: the review and either reversal or preservation of foreign policies. However, the Trump presidency was anything but typical, and it has left behind a complicated legacy that will take serious time and effort to sift through. This legacy is only made more difficult by the feverous, diplomatic equivalent of a closing sale that occurred in the final month of the Trump presidency. Two items of particular interest are the declaration of the Yemeni Ansar Allah, or Houthis, movement as a foreign terrorist organization and the designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism. “Terrorism” has become a loaded and dangerous label that comes with justifiably serious repercussions and should not be taken lightly. This brief will discuss whether these designations were called for, and whether they should be maintained.

Turning first to the Ansar Allah movement, some quick history to set the scene. Yemen has been trapped in a gruesome civil war since 2014, which pits a Western-supplied coalition of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) against rebel Ansar Allah forces. The Saudi coalition is attempting to reinstate deposed Yemeni president Adbrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and the Ansar Allah insurgents having once supported former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, but are now fighting for their own regime. I would encourage readers to do their own research into the conflict, as it is vastly more complicated than the watered-down rendition I just gave. But, putting that aside, the Ansar Allah movement is an Islamist Shia faction, and due to Saudi Arabia and the UAE being Sunni-majority states, they perceive a Shia-controlled Yemen as a dangerous regional threat in their wide-ranging Middle Eastern proxy war against Shia-majority Iran. The fact that Yemen shares a border with Saudi Arabia does not help matters. The U.S. and the U.K. have been providing the Saudi coalition with weaponry for years, and Trump’s rather chummy relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is notorious.

With the history laid out, it is perhaps no wonder that the Trump administration declared the Ansar Allah movement to be a terrorist organization. Not only do they threaten a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, but they have been restricting aid, placing arbitrary taxes on aid, and utilizing civilians in their war tactics. Such was the explanation for the designation. The now-newly designated Secretary of State for the Biden administration, Antony Blinken, has publicly stated that Biden wishes to terminate U.S. support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, with the justification being that it not in our national interest. The choice to declare Ansar Allah a terrorist organization is under review.

Now to the issue of Cuba. I assume that most know of the fraught relationship between Cuba and the U.S., stretching back to Castro’s socialist revolution and the Cold War, so I will leave that for another day. The explanation for the label of state sponsor of terrorism was that Cuba has allowed terrorists to live within its borders and has sponsored international terrorism. The fingered terrorists are a Black Panther who escaped prison in 1979 after killing a police officer, and guerillas wanted in Colombia in connection with the bombing of a police academy. The charge of sponsorship of international terrorism is specifically attributed to Cuba’s support for battered Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, and more vaguely attributed to a harmful influence in the Western Hemisphere. It is expected that the Biden administration will overturn the state sponsor of terrorism designation.


Firs, there is absolutely no doubt that Ansar Allah forces bear significant responsibility for the grievous humanitarian crisis and various war crimes that have been committed in Yemen. This is not up for debate. However, when reviewing the designation of Ansar Allah as a terrorist organization, we must also ensure that it does not impede or stop the provision of humanitarian assistance. The United Nations estimates that as of March 2017, 69% of the population requires humanitarian aid, with 8.4 million Yemenis being identified as severely food insecure or at risk of starvation. To put that into perspective, that’s the entire state of Virginia starving to death. In addition, Yemen has little domestic agriculture, importing over 90% of its staple foods. If the international community does not provide aid, we are condemning millions to death.

To their credit, the Trump administration had been supportive of aid to Yemen in the past. In 2019, the U.S. alone gave Yemen $700 million. However, efforts were complicated by the Saudi coalition attempting to blockade relief from entering the country and the U.S. itself selling weaponry that was then being used against said civilians. And when aid did enter, the coalition attempted to make the journey so arduous and checkered with fees that it never reached Ansar Allah-controlled territory. A large portion of the Saudi coalition’s strategy is to starve out the rebel forces, and by extension, the civilians. Yet the rebels have done little better, as they have regularly demanded taxes for transporting supplies and re-directed significant aid resources into their own networks at the expense of starving civilians.

To put it simply, relief supplies must flow unrestrained into Yemen. The cost of attempting to stem supplies would spell disaster for millions of innocents. Marking Ansar Allah as a terrorist organization means that such aid will slow to a dribble and possibly even cease. The situation is far too murky to really tell if one is providing relief to the rebels or civilians. Distinction is wholly impossible on the ground. It would lead to humanitarians abandoning Yemen because they are too afraid of the U.S. government’s wrath. There are other ways to punish Ansar Allah for its transgressions and bring them to the bargaining table. In addition, it is hypocritical and signals significant political favoritism to not discipline the Saudi coalition, which is equally at fault.

Looking at Cuba, there is similarly justification for the designation of state sponsor of terrorism. It is harboring terrorists. Colombia most certainly considers the paramilitaries to be terrorists. However, the entire issue is complicated by Cuba currently brokering a peace agreement between the paramilitary group in question and the Colombian government, with the guerrilla’s leadership residing in Cuba. There is also a good argument that one should return escaped murderers to their country of origin. The accusation of sponsoring international terrorism due to Cuban support for Maduro is tenuous, however, and the accusation of having a damaging influence is far too vague. Yet many of the consequences Cuba suffers from now being placed on the terrorism list have already been and continue to be inflicted by the American embargo of Cuba. If anything, the label is more symbolic as a result.

I do not claim to know the right answer when it comes to Cuba. Does returning a criminal now well into their 70’s warrant worsening an already fraught relationship that many in the U.S. wish to mend? If you want to view the Trump administration in the worst light, placing Cuba on the terrorism list was an attempt to make Biden-Cuba relations more difficult. If you wish to view it from a calculated political position, it was likely an attempt to curry favor with anti-Castro Cubans in Florida ahead of the election.

In summary, both of these foreign policy decisions are damaging to the credibility of the designation of terrorism by the U.S. They clearly display that the label of terrorist can and is affected by political leanings. Sure, most of us know that, but it is a wholly different affair to make it plain and clear. Although I would argue that Ansar Allah should not be deemed a terrorist organization at the moment due to the humanitarian repercussions and would lean towards improving our relationship with Cuba, this is a decision left up to the new leadership at the State Department. I have more faith that they will act in the national interest than I had in the Trump administration, but then again, only time will tell.


Engagement Resources: 

Amnesty International – a good source for information about the humanitarian situation in Yemen.

Action Against Hunger – an NGO working to address starvation in Yemen.

Paramilitary Bombing – a news article about the bombing in Colombia.


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