Cuba human rights bill introduced; State says Cuba will talk about return of fugitives

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-South Florida, said she and other members of Congress are discussing how to reverse President Barack Obama’s decision to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-South Florida, said she and other members of Congress are discussing how to reverse President Barack Obama’s decision to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. El Nuevo Herald

A House bill was introduced Wednesday that would tie an improvement in Cuba’s human rights record to any further removal of sanctions, and the State Department said the United States and Cuba planned to start a dialogue about U.S. fugitives living on the island.

The developments came a day after President Barack Obama informed Congress that there was no longer a justification for keeping Cuba on a list of state sponsors of terrorism.

But in the 45 days until his directive takes effect, Congress may seek to block the president’s action by enacting a joint resolution, which Obama could, in turn, veto.

South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen met late Wednesday with other members of Congress to discuss strategies about how to reverse “Obama’s unwarranted delisting of Cuba,” her office said.

Also coming on the heels of the delisting was a bill introduced by New Jersey Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican who is chairman of the House global human rights subcommittee. The Cuban Human Rights Act of 2015 calls for the United States to vigorously oppose human rights violations in Cuba and to maintain the status quo on sanctions, the embargo and federal law regarding Cuba as long as human rights violations continue.

Sanctions against Cuba, the bill said, shouldn’t be reduced until all political and religious prisoners are released; Cuba respects freedom of religion, assembly, association, expression, press and speech, and there is progress toward repealing or revising Cuban laws that criminalize peaceful dissent.

The bill also requires all sanctions to remain in place until Cuba returns fugitives from U.S. justice, such as Joanane Chesimard, the Black Liberation Army member convicted of killing a New Jersey trooper, and Cuba stops providing refuge to terrorist organizations. It also calls for the Secretary of State to submit an annual report to Congress on the human rights situation in Cuba.

Among the bill’s co-sponsors are Ros-Lehtinen, and South Florida Republican Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo.

Smith, as well as members of the Cuban-American delegation, have criticized the White House for not taking into account factors such as Cuba’s continued harboring of U.S. fugitives and members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Basque Fatherland, Liberty (ETA) and other groups in making the determination.

“The Castro regime is a state sponsor of terror and harbors known fugitives from justice, including Joanne Chesimard,” said Smith. “She must be extradited to the U.S. before we can begin to talk about any normalization in U.S.-Cuban relations, let alone removing Cuba from the list of terror sponsors.”

But in a surprise move, the State Department said Wednesday that the United States and Cuba planned to hold talks about Chesimard, now known as Assata Shakur; William Morales, a Puerto Rican nationalist who was sentenced to 99 years for his role in a bomb blast that killed four people before he escaped from prison in 1979 and fled to Cuba, and other fugitives from U.S. justice.

“We see the reestablishment of diplomatic relations and the reopening of an embassy in Havana as the means by which we’ll be able more effectively to press the Cuban government on law enforcement issues such as fugitives,” said Jeff Rathke, a State Department spokesman.

Despite the concerns about fugitives and terrorists living in Cuba, the White House said its decision to seek the delisting was narrowly focused on just two concerns: whether Cuba had provided any support for international terrorism over the past six months and whether the Cuban government had given assurances it would not support international terrorists in the future.

“The assurances they provided were fairly wide-ranging and fairly high-level,” said a senior administration official.

Rathke said the Colombian government had told the United States that it had “no evidence that Cuba has provided any political or material support in recent years” to either the FARC or ELN and that the Cuban government had “provided assurances that it would never permit the ETA members living in Cuba to use Cuban territory for activities against Spain or any other country.”

Spain has requested extradition of two ETA members and Rathke said that Cuba and Spain have agreed to a bilateral process to resolve the matter.

Ros-Lehtinen also noted that just before Obama’s historic face-to-face meeting with Raúl Castro at the Summit of the Americas in Panama over the weekend, a group of Cuban pro-democracy advocates were attacked by a group of Cuban government supporters.

“The Castro communist regime has been denying the Cuban people fundamental human rights and basic freedoms for over 50 years but this aggression is not limited to Cubans but also includes U.S. citizens,” she said.

The human rights bill’s sponsors also wanted it to serve as a rebuke to Obama for unilaterally trying to alter U.S.-Cuba policy without the “advice or consent of Congress.” The president has used his executive authority to make the changes.

At this point, no new formal talks have been set to discuss reopening embassies and reestablishing diplomatic relations. How a U.S. embassy in Havana would operate seems to be a sticking point. But both sides have said they want to have more discussions as soon as possible.

The U.S. wants its diplomats to be able to move freely around the island and “talk to lots of people,” said a senior administration official. Now diplomats must ask for special permission to travel beyond Havana, and Cuba frowns on interactions with dissidents and activists.

“We’re trying to get at the issue of obsolete equipment and facilities. We’re trying to get at the issue of staffing levels,” the official added.

The U.S. side also would like unimpeded access to its embassy. Now visitors to the U.S. Interests Section, which functions as a diplomatic mission in the absence of an embassy, must check in with Cuban guards.

“We’re still not quite there yet and so we’re going to keep working at those things,” said the official. “But I think it’s up to our Cuban counterparts. These are ultimately decisions that have to be made by mutual consent.”

The official said that Secretary of State John Kerry, who plans to visit Cuba for the embassy opening, “wants to get this right, not necessarily fast.”