Cuba: How it was added to the list of countries that sponsor terrorism

Members of the Sandinista Army's elite Simon Bolivar Battalion disembark from a helicopter in Jinotega Province, northern Nicaragua, December 22, 1984, during a crucial phase of "Operation Victorious December" against CIA-backed rebels (Contras).
Members of the Sandinista Army's elite Simon Bolivar Battalion disembark from a helicopter in Jinotega Province, northern Nicaragua, December 22, 1984, during a crucial phase of "Operation Victorious December" against CIA-backed rebels (Contras). AFP/Getty Images

While a new battle line between the White House and Congress emerges with President Barack Obama’s request to remove Cuba from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, the issue raises the question: just how did Cuba get blacklisted?

The story goes back to 1981, to the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the Cold War. A few weeks after his inauguration in March of that year, the National Security Council began debating over how to respond to the civil war in El Salvador. Reagan was determined to stop the Soviet influence in the area promoted by the Cubans.

Secretary of State at the time, Alexander Haig, advocated "going to the source" and invade Cuba, which was giving aid and weapons to the guerrillas in El Salvador, though the proposal was not supported, according to a detailed account in the book Back Channel to Cuba, The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana, authored by Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande.

From declassified documents, interviews with former officials, newspaper articles and memoirs, the authors document the political conflicts and secret negotiations between the United States and Cuba for five decades, including those that precipitated the inclusion of Cuba on the list of nations that sponsor terrorism.

Although direct invasion was ruled out at that time, Haig tried to pressure Fidel Castro with the threat of military action to get Cuba to desist from supporting the guerrillas in Central America.

Toward the end of 1981 and the deterioration of the armed conflict in El Salvador, the U.S. tightened the embargo, the granting of visas to Cuban officials and announced plans to create Radio Martí. The Pentagon also developed a plan of progressive sanctions against Cuba, with the aim of discouraging the Cuban government to intervene in the area.

Castro responded with "the war of the entire population."

"It was precisely in the midst of threats and growing danger when we started to think, (...) we truly reached new and revolutionary concepts of defense; that's how it went from the old conception of military defense of the country — in the field of battle and all that secures and supports the combat in any variant of aggression — a conception of the defense of the country as a joint task of the Armed Forces and of all the people and, therefore, all the people should be organized and prepared for this fight," Castro said retrospectively in a speech in 1984.

However, despite the rhetoric of intransigence within the island, the Cuban government sent private messages about their interest in participating in a possible "peaceful solution" to the conflict and said it had suspended the supply of arms to the guerrillas in El Salvador and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, but a series of secret diplomatic talks proved equally futile.

With mediation from Mexican President José López Portillo, who had already met privately with Castro in Cozumel, Mexican Vice President Carlos Rafael Rodriguez had a secret meeting with Haig in November 1981 at the home of Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda in Mexico City. Rodriguez announced Cuba’s support for an agreement in El Salvador, if it was endorsed by the guerrillas. Meanwhile, Haig requested a complete cessation of support by Cuba for the guerrillas and its withdrawal from Africa, points at which the Cubans were unwilling to budge. Nor did they agree to end their "friendship" with the Soviet Union.

In January 1982, President Reagan declared in his State of the Union address: “Toward those who would export terrorism and subversion in the Caribbean and elsewhere, especially Cuba and Libya, we will act with firmness.”

Subsequently, in March of that year and after the call for another round of negotiations to be conducted again by Mexican President Portillo — who warned in a speech that direct U.S. military intervention would be a "gigantic historic error" — President Reagan sent Special Ambassador Vernon Walters on a secret mission to meet with Fidel and tell him the U.S. wanted Cuba out of Central America or else they would have to face the consequences. The “consequence” was Cuba’s inclusion in the list of state sponsors of terrorism, said Kornbluh, director of the documentation project on Cuba at the National Security Archive.

“The discussions with Walters were very difficult,” Rodriguez told Miami Herald reporter, Alfonso Chardy, a year later at his office in Havana. "The problem was not that they were tough; they were very interesting, filled with anecdotes ... but Walters had not come to...negotiate but to explore Cuban positions over various problems, test the atmosphere, see Fidel personally."

According to the reporter, Rodriguez complained that Walters constantly interrupted Fidel Castro.

Effective March 1, 1982, the State Department included Cuba on the list of countries supporting terrorism, while Iraq was removed. Months later, a CIA report concluded that "Cuba's repeated offers to negotiate in Central America are an effort to gain time and obtain a propaganda advantage."

"The addition of Cuba was not considered significant at the time since the United States already had comprehensive economic sanctions on Cuba dating back to the early 1960s; as a result, the economic sanctions associated with being added to the terrorism list would have had no practical significance," states an investigative report on the subject submitted to Congress in 2005.

"By removing Cuba from the list, the Obama administration has not only opened the door to normal diplomatic relations but has finally regained some of the credibility of the list itself. Cuba never adjusted to the definition of a state that supports international terrorism," Kornbluh told el Nuevo Herald.

Critics of the move, such as presidential candidate Marco Rubio, have harsh words for the White House.

“The decision made by the White House... is a terrible one, but not surprising unfortunately,” Rubio said in a statement. “Cuba is a state sponsor of terrorism. They harbor fugitives of American justice, including someone who killed a police officer in New Jersey over 30 years ago. It’s also the country that’s helping North Korea evade weapons sanctions by the United Nations. They should have remained on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and I think it sends a chilling message to our enemies abroad that this White House is no longer serious about calling terrorism by its proper name.”

North Korea was removed from the list in 2008, by President George W. Bush. The three countries that remain in the list are Iran, Sudan and Syria.

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter @ngameztorres

Summary: Cuba and the list of terrorist nations

▪ The meeting between Barack Obama and Raúl Castro at the recent Summit of the Americas should have sealed the deal to remove Cuba from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, a determination the president recently made and reported to Congress.

▪ As of December 17, the day of the historic announcement of restoring diplomatic ties, the State Department began an investigation to determine whether Cuba 1). was providing support to international terrorist organizations in the past six months and 2). could do so in the future.

▪ A senior State Department official reported that Cuba had given assurances, "a relatively wide range and high level" that it "will not support acts of terrorism in the future." The Cubans, for its part, agreed to negotiate with the United States the issue of fugitives seeking refuge on the island, including Joanne Chesimard (aka Assata Shakur) and William Morales.

▪ Josefina Vidal, Director General for the United States at Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs: "The government of Cuba recognizes the just decision taken by the U.S. President to eliminate Cuba from a list in which it should have never been included."

▪ Secretary of State John Kerry: "Circumstances have changed since 1982, when Cuba was included for its efforts to promote armed revolution in Latin America. Our hemisphere, and the world is very different from what it was 33 years ago. "

▪ Congress now has 45 days to accept or pass a joint resolution to block Obama's decision, for which requires a majority vote. The president can veto the resolution and Congress, in turn, may appeal the veto.

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