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Department of Energy labels Cuba and Venezuela ‘foreign adversaries’

Contractors work on electrical substation renovations at Beale Air Force Base, Calif. Oct. 23, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Tristan D. Viglianco)

The U.S. Department of Energy has determined that Cuba and Venezuela are “foreign adversaries” that might target the U.S. electrical grid, as the agency works to implement an executive order signed in May by President Donald Trump.

The executive order aims at securing the bulk-power system — the facilities and control systems necessary for operating the electrical network — from the “malicious activities” of these foreign actors, and orders the Department of Energy to define those.

In a notice published in the Federal Register on Wednesday, the department included the governments of China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Venezuela in its “current list of foreign adversaries.”

Other countries considered sponsors of terrorism, such as Syria and Sudan, were not included.

The executive order defines the term as foreign governments and actors “engaged in a long-term pattern or serious instances of conduct significantly adverse to the national security of the United States.”

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The department said the determination of which countries to include was based on multiple reports from the intelligence community. The designation is only relevant to the May executive order, the notice adds.

Citing the National Counterintelligence Strategy, the department said that malicious foreign actors “are employing innovative combinations of traditional spying, economic espionage, and supply chain and cyber operations to gain access to critical infrastructure.“

The executive order bans the acquisition of equipment or software from these countries that could make the nation’s electricity grid vulnerable to cyberattacks.

It is unlikely that U.S. companies would import energy software or equipment from Cuba and Venezuela, which is generally prohibited by U.S. sanctions. But the formal designation of both Latin American nations adds to the “maximum pressure campaign” the administration launched last year to try to force Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro to exit from power.

The Trump administration believes the Cuban government provides Maduro with critical support in the way of political advice, security, and intelligence services.

In the past, Maduro has blamed electricity blackouts in Caracas on cyberattacks backed by the U.S. and the Venezuelan opposition.

In May, the State Department notified Congress that Cuba and Venezuela did not cooperate “fully” with U.S. counterterrorism efforts in 2019. And talks within the administration about returning Cuba to the list of countries that sponsor terrorism have been ongoing since last year.

“Including Cuba on a list of adversaries will further add to the list of reasons for companies to avoid transactions with Havana and Caracas, and for the 186 countries that are not adversaries to think further about supporting both Cuba and Venezuela,” said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

“The Trump Administration continues decorating the layers of its labeling cake with the goal of returning Cuba to the list of state sponsors of terrorism,” before presidential elections in November, he said.

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© 2020 Miami Herald