As Gen. Raúl Castro celebrates his removal from the U.S. State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, President Obama’s finding that Havana “no longer supports international terrorism” is not one to be taken seriously in Washington.
On Feb. 28, just weeks before the U.S. president embraced the Cuban dictator in Panama, the Colombian Navy seized a Chinese freighter, the Da Dan Xia en route to Havana. The vessel’s cargo? “Around 100 tons of powder, 2.6 million detonators, 99 projectiles and around 3,000 cannon shells,” according to Colombia’s daily, El Espectador. The weapons and war materiel were hidden in the hole of the ship under 28,451 tons of cereal. Norinco, a Chinese government enterprise, was readily identified as the manufacturer.
Colombia’s defense minister told the newspaper the military “has confiscated from FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a communist insurgency), and destroyed, Norinco-manufactured rifles and pistols throughout the country.”
China characterized the Da Dan Xia’s cargo as “an absolutely normal operation of commercial and military cooperation.” It offered no explanation as to why a “normal” transaction would be buried under cereal. For Havana, hiding its trade in weaponry and war materiel appears to be its modus operandi. Two years ago, Cuba attempted to export war planes and missiles parts to North Korea under tons of Cuban sugar. That trade was in direct violation of sanctions imposed by the United Nations.
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Given President Obama’s commitment to normalizing relations with Cuba, and Colombia’s ongoing negotiations in Havana with the FARC to end the insurgency, the Da Dan Xia was released along with its cargo.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is not a firebrand looking for a showdown with President Obama, like, say, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. Santos wasn’t going to risk spoiling the summit for either the United States or Cuba. Much of Latin America faces the same dilemmas that Colombia faces.
For the sake of American security, however, the U.S. Congress should be asking more questions about Obama’s U.S.-Cuba rapprochement and whether there are any real benefits for Cubans or the United States absent any true economic or political reforms in Cuba.
The Panama Summit was an unprecedented “love fest” for Raúl Castro and President Obama. Castro flew hundreds of Cuban security agents to Panama to disrupt conferences on civil society that the Panamanian government had organized to coincide with the summit. Among those agents was Alexis Frutos Weeden, an intelligence officer stationed in Caracas who has been advising and training Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s police force on how to repress Venezuela’s democratic opposition.
Panamanian TV broadcast Col. Frutos beating up Americans trying to place a wreath at the base of a statue of Jose Martí, Cuba’s national hero. Washington officials believe the beating of Americans by Cuban intelligence agents is a “judicial” matter for the Panamanian courts.
After acquiescing to demands to delist Cuba from the list of terrorist states, the administration has little clout to steer Cuba under Raúl toward reform.
Raúl won’t get more reasonable about establishing a rule of law in Cuba, holding free elections, introducing and sustaining economic reforms. Nor is he likely to allow the United States to try the Cuban military pilots indicted for murder in the 1996 shootdown of two civilian American aircraft over the Straits of Florida that killed three Americans and one Florida resident. Raúl, who headed Cuba’s military at the time, gave the order to down the planes and gave the pilots medals for their “courage.”
Many believe Obama has granted Raúl impunity now and forever for that crime or others, but having put away the U.S. “stick” he’s certainly come close to being Raúl’s enabler.
Frank Calzon is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba.