After 33 years of designating Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism, the United States began the process Tuesday of removing its Caribbean neighbor from a list of terrorist nations in another sign of warming relations between the two countries.
President Barack Obama sent a report to Congress saying he intended to remove Cuba from the list because it had not provided support for international terrorism during the preceding six months and Cuba had provided assurances that it would not support acts of international terrorism in the future.
In accordance with U.S. law, the president is required to inform Congress 45 days before the directive takes effect. Congress doesn’t have to validate his decision, but it could decide to take action to override his recommendation and the president could, in turn, veto such a joint resolution of Congress.
“Circumstances have changed since 1982, when Cuba was originally designated as a state sponsor of terrorism because of its efforts to promote armed revolution by forces in Latin America,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. “Our hemisphere, and the world, look very different today than they did 33 years ago.”
“The government of Cuba recognizes the just decision taken by the president of the United States to remove Cuba from a list on which it never should have been included since our country has already been the victim of hundreds of acts of terrorism that have cost 3,478 lives and incapacitated 2,099 Cuban citizens,” Cuba's Foreign Relations Ministry said in response to the news.
“As the Cuban government has repeated on many occasions, Cuba rejects and condemns all acts of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations as well as any action that would have as its object to encourage, support, finance or cover up terrorist acts,” Minrex said.
The State Department began a review of whether Cuba should still have a place on the list of state sponsors of terrorism on Dec. 17, the day Cuba and the United States announced they planned to put more than a half-century of hostility behind them and work toward normalizing relations. It forwarded its recommendation to the president last week and Obama accepted it this week.
South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen promptly condemned the action, calling it “a miscarriage of justice borne out of political motivations not rooted in reality,” and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said it was a “terrible” decision because Cuba remains a state sponsor of terrorism.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, said the administration jeopardized U.S. national security with its action to absolve Cuba of its “anti-American terrorist activities” across the globe. “Once again President Obama has demonstrated his eagerness to capitulate to dictators has no bounds,” he said.
But others said the president’s action would help pave the way for a new era in U.S.-Cuba relations.
Maryland Sen. Benjamin Cardin, who became the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez — an outspoken critic of White House Cuba policy — stepped aside, called the recommendation “an important step forward in our efforts to forge a more fruitful relationship with Cuba.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” said José Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States. “I understand it’s the only thing that’s delaying the restoration of relations.” He spoke Tuesday after attending the Miami World Strategic Forum.
Negotiations continue to get respective embassies open and diplomatic ties reestablished. U.S. officials said conversations between Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro in Panama last week were productive.
“Sadly, President Obama’s decision to remove Cuba from the state sponsor of terror list is based on politics and not facts,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
A senior Obama administration official disagreed. The official said the United States expected it would continue to have its differences with Cuba over values and U.S. support for democracy and human rights but those were not the relevant issues in determining whether Cuba should remain on the list.
“The decision was based on the facts,” said the senior official. Among the facts the official cited were the repeated rejection of terrorism in speeches by high Cuban officials, Cuba’s ratification of certain international treaties and high-level assurances that Cuba didn’t intend to support international terrorism in the future.
Pedro Freyre, a Miami lawyer, said removing Cuba from the list “means the removal of a whole range of legislative and legal restrictions.”
A 2006 state law, for example, doesn’t allow any money that goes to a Florida state university, including grants from private foundations, to be used to organize, direct or coordinate travel to any country designated a state sponsor of terrorism. Scholars have complained that the restriction has complicated their research efforts.
Cuba’s presence on the list made banks reluctant to handle the accounts of its diplomatic missions in Washington and at the United Nations. The two missions have been working on a cash basis for more than a year after their former banker, M&T Bank, told them it was getting out of the business of handling the accounts of foreign missions.
No other bank came forward because of fears of regulatory retaliation. There was good reason to be cautious. The French bank BNP Paribas, for example, was fined $8.9 billion for concealing U.S. dollar transactions with Sudan, Iran and Cuba, and other banks have received heavy fines for transactions involving countries on the list.
Cuba’s removal from the terror list should make it easier for its missions to find a bank. A senior U.S. official said Tuesday that the banking issue is very close to a resolution and Cuba may already have found a bank.
“Now that burden of regulatory risk will diminish — although it won’t disappear,” said Freyre, chairman of the Akerman law firm’s international practice.
Other financial sanctions not governed by being on the terrorism list still remain in effect for Cuba.
Removal from the list is also a first step toward Cuba’s gaining “much-needed access” to financial markets and having representation in multilateral financial institutions, said Jason Marczak, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.
“Eventual membership in the International Monetary Fund and access to development assistance through the World Bank will be instrumental in facilitating Cuba’s full integration into the international financial system and supporting a stronger economy in which Cubans can thrive and U.S. businesses can invest,” he said.
But there are a number of hurdles along that path, including U.S. sanctions that “prevent the U.S. from voting for Cuba’s ascension into international financial institutions,” Marczak said. Congress would have to vote to lift them.
Cuba was added to the list of state sponsors of terrorism on March 1, 1982, because of its training and arming of communist rebels in Africa and Latin America.
In its most recent report on worldwide terrorism in 2013, the State Department said: “There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.”
Opponents of removing Cuba from the terrorism list, however, have made much of two clandestine weapons shipments.
In 2013, a North Korean freighter coming from Cuba and about to transit the Panama Canal was found to be transporting two MIG-21 jets and other undeclared war materiel under sacks of brown sugar. The North Korean shipping company that carried the cargo was sanctioned by the United Nations for violating restrictions on trafficking of weapons systems, but Cuba was not.
This year a Hong Kong-registered vessel headed to Cuba carrying an unregistered cargo of ammunition and gunpowder was impounded in the Colombian port of Cartagena and the captain was ordered arrested. China has insisted it was part of normal trade.
Ben Rhodes, a deputy National Security adviser and one of the architects of the new Cuba policy, said removal from the list doesn’t mean the United States is in agreement with a country’s political system or foreign policy or what it does. “It’s a very practical review of whether or not a government is sponsoring terrorism,” he said.
The State Department’s 2013 terrorism report concentrated most of its attention on the activities of the al-Qaida and Hezbollah terror groups rather than Cuba.
In the very short section on Cuba, it said: “Cuba has long provided safe haven to members of Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
But the report also noted that Cuba had hosted and supported peace negotiations between the FARC and Colombian government, and said Cuba’s ties to ETA have become more distant.
The report also mentioned that the Cuban government continues to harbor fugitives wanted in the United States and provides support for them, but did not specify how many fugitives or name them.
Cuba acknowledges that it has granted political asylum to a small number of U.S. fugitives, including JoAnne Chesimard, a member of the Black Liberation Army who is known as Assata Shakur. On the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists, she was convicted in the 1973 murder of a New Jersey state trooper and fled to Cuba after a jail break.
Also believed to be living in Cuba is William Morales, the Puerto Rican separatist and bomb-maker who was convicted and sentenced to 99 years in connection with a 1975 blast that killed four people. He escaped from a New York prison ward in 1979 and lived in Mexico before heading to Cuba.
During the second round of talks between the United States and Cuba in February, Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s chief negotiator, said that Cuba didn’t want to discuss returning people that now have political asylum. Once they are granted asylum, she said, “It can’t be a part of this type of talks.”
Cuba has said that the United States also harbors fugitives from Cuban justice such as Luis Posada Carriles, who has been accused of plotting the 1976 bombing of a Cubana airliner in which 73 people lost their lives.
Ros-Lehtinen said that taking Cuba off the list denies justice for victims such as Werner Foerster, the trooper killed by Shakur, and the South Florida pilots of the 1996 shoot-down of two Brothers to the Rescue planes as they approached Cuba.
State Sponsors of Terrorism
March 1, 1982
Jan. 19, 1984
Aug. 12, 1993
Dec. 29, 1979
U.S. State Department definition of terrorism: Premeditated, politically-motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents. Governments on the list have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.
Sanctions against state sponsors of terrorism
▪ Ban on arms-related exports and sales.
▪ Controls over export of items or services that could significantly enhance the military capability or ability to support terrorism of a terrorist-list country.
▪ No economic assistance.
▪ Financial and other restrictions.