President Barack Obama said Thursday that the State Department has made its long-awaited recommendation on whether to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, but he gave no hint of what had been recommended or on when a decision would be made. He said the recommendation was still subject to an inter-agency review.
The recommendation is critical to the Obama administration’s hopes of re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, something U.S. executives in Panama for this week’s Summit of the Americas say they hope will also lead soon to the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo, imposed after the two nations severed ties in 1961.
Cuba has made the lifting of the terror designation a key demand in negotiations to re-establish embassies in Havana and Washington.
U.S. authorities put Cuba on the state terror sponsor list in 1982, where it is joined today by Iran, Syria and Sudan. The designation bars U.S. weapons sales and economic assistance and imposes a sweeping range of financial restrictions.
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Speaking at the side of Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller in Kingston, where he was on a one-day stop before proceeding to Panama, Obama described the U.S. list of state sponsors of terror as “a powerful tool” to combat nations that sponsor terrorism and should be based on “strong evidence.”
“As circumstances change, then that list will change as well. So I won’t make a formal announcement today about what those recommendations are. I'll wait until I’ve received them,” Obama said.
Obama didn’t say how long the interagency review would take but asserted that efforts to establish diplomatic relations “are proceeding as I expected.”
“I never foresaw that immediately overnight everything would transform itself, that suddenly Cuba became a partner diplomatically with us the way Jamaica is, for example. That’s going to take some time,” he said.
Once Obama makes a decision on the designation, Congress will have a 45-day period to act or let the decision stand. Some conservative lawmakers, particularly Cuban-Americans, suggest that the designation should remain.
A 2013 report by the State Department noted that while Cuba has long provided a haven for Basque terrorists and leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, it had relocated some of the Basques to Spain and was hosting peace talks between the FARC guerrillas and Colombia’s government. Venezuela, Norway and the International Red Cross also support those talks.
Cuba also harbors as many as 70 fugitives wanted by U.S. courts, including several who took part in airline hijackings in the 1960s and 1970s.
Perhaps the most widely known fugitive is Assata Shakur, who was once known as JoAnne Chesimard, a onetime Black Panther on the FBI list of the 10 most wanted terrorists for her conviction in the 1979 killing of a New Jersey state trooper.
In an interview with el Nuevo Herald, Abel Prieto, an advisor to Cuban leader Raúl Castro, called the terrorism list “absurd and irrational.”
“Cuba is the victim of state terrorism, financed and promoted by the United States,” he said.
Simpson Miller, hosting Obama in Jamaica House, the stately home of the prime minister, hailed Obama’s decision Dec. 17 to seek a renewal of U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba.
“You’re on the right side of history,” she said. “We commend you, Mr. President, and President Raul Castro, for this bold and courageous move.”
Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, hailed Obama’s announcement and said he expected it to provide “the space needed to more vigorously promote our national interests. . . . A healthy and prosperous Cuba is good for the United States and will promote a more open society.”
Obama was to arrive in Panama around 6:30 p.m. local time Thursday to attend the two-day Summit of the Americas, a gathering of nearly all the hemisphere’s 35 heads of state or government and one that will put Obama in the same venue as the Cuban leader. While the two leaders will interact, White House aides say, no one-on-one meeting has been scheduled.
The rapprochement between the United States and Cuba was a principle theme of events here before the summit begins Friday.
Outside the Cuban Embassy, Cuban exiles and dissidents clashed with members of the island’s official delegation. Confrontations also took place outside an official forum on civil society that was organized as part of the sideline events to the summit and was intended, in part, to encourage dialogue between Venezuelan and Cuban dissidents and their governments.
The Cuban delegation pulled out of that meeting, saying it would not “share space with mercenaries and terrorists.”
Prieto also said that the United States needs to accept Cuba’s single-party system that has kept Castro and his brother in power for five decades. “The United States needs to respect the political system chosen by the Cubans,” he said. “And that’s the essential foundation for any kind of dialogue.”
The atmosphere was decidedly different at a forum for corporate chief executives that drew a hundreds of business leaders and Cuba’s top trade official, who made a pitch for U.S. investment. U.S. executives welcomed the possibility of a new market.
“We absolutely believe 11 million people (in Cuba) should not be excluded from the development of Latin America,” said Marcel Smits, chief financial officer for Cargill Inc., the Minnesota-based grain and commodity giant.
Smits said his firm and other companies in the newly formed U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba are pressing U.S. lawmakers to lift the embargo and free up trade with Cuba.
Mark Zuckerberg, the billionaire co-founder and chief executive of Facebook, was more cautious when asked if his company might press for broader access to the Internet in Cuba, a nation that sharply restricts access online.
“In the fullness of time, we are going to want to be able to connect people across every country in the world,” Zuckerberg said, adding that some countries impose restrictions “where it’s not possible for us to operate.”
“But one day, as Cuba starts opening up, it will be something that we might consider over time and definitely fits in our mission, but I just don’t have much more specifically to say about that today,” Zuckerberg said.
Rodrigo Malmierca Diaz, Cuba’s minister of trade and foreign investment, said his island nation needs $2.5 billion a year of foreign direct investment to expand as it wants. He said Cuba’s foreign trade had tripled in the past decade.
He called on Obama to forge ahead and not be swayed by the threat of lawmakers to seek to keep the embargo in place.
“We expect that the president will continue using his executive prerogatives to modify other aspects of the embargo that don’t need approval by Congress,” Malmierca said.
He urged U.S. executives “to approach the Cuban delegation . . . and its diverse array of executives” to discuss investment possibilities on the island.
Nora Gamez Torres of el Nuevo Herald in Panama City and Jacqueline Charles of the Miami Herald in Kingston, Jamaica, contributed to this report.