Report

U.S. to Remove Cuba From List of State Terrorism Sponsors

Cuba stopped trying to export its revolution decades ago, but the terrorism designation has been used as one of several cudgels in Washington's arsenal.

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The White House said Tuesday it will remove Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, stripping it of an anachronistic designation that has been used as a cudgel to punish Havana for behavior that it already has largely abandoned.

Cuba’s delisting is the most concrete step yet toward normalizing relations between the two estranged countries, which are separated by a mere 90 miles of ocean but decades of distrust forged during the Cold War.

In the aftermath of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro’s communist government invested enormous energy and funds toward promoting guerrilla movements around the world. Cuban fighters were dispatched to Latin America and Africa to topple governments and speed the spread of communism. Indeed, Che Guevara, the talismanic commandant of the revolution, died in a Bolivian jungle leading a ragtag insurgency against the government.

It was such efforts — in addition to the harboring of fugitives — that landed Cuba on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism in 1982. But when the Soviet Union came crumbling down, so too did Cuba’s efforts to export its revolution.

Despite pledges that it would no longer support insurgent movements, Cuba stayed on the terrorism list, in large part because its removal was a political non-starter in the United States. Besides Cuba, only Iran, Syria, and Sudan remain on the list, which is maintained by the State Department.

But with Cuba and the United States now embarking on a historic rapprochement — urged on by Pope Francis and the Vatican — the removal of the terrorism designation is the latest evidence that this vestigial conflict of the Cold War is coming to an end.

“While the United States has had, and continues to have, significant concerns and disagreements with a wide range of Cuba’s policies and actions, these concerns and disagreements fall outside of the criteria for designation as a state sponsor of terrorism,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement Tuesday.

Last weekend, Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro met on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Panama. It was the first meeting of the two nations’ leaders in more than half a century.

But in a measure of the immense challenges that remain in patching up U.S.-Cuban relations, the country’s removal from the list only affects a small part of the voluminous American sanctions regime against it. Its removal from the list — subject to a 45-day wait — will lift U.S. restrictions on arms sales, controls on dual-use goods, direct financial assistance, and other financial restrictions, but most transactions with Cuba will still be governed by the U.S. embargo against the island nation, a senior Obama administration official told reporters Tuesday. While the White House has softened those restrictions, it will require an act of Congress to formally remove the embargo.

Tuesday’s decision does, however, pave the way toward what is expected to be the next step in the rapprochement between Washington and Havana: the opening of embassies. Another senior administration official told reporters Tuesday that American officials are currently negotiating with their Cuban counterparts about securing freedom of movement for American officials stationed at a possible U.S. Embassy in Cuba, about staffing levels at such a facility, and about securing modern technology and facilities.

The delisting began in December, when Obama asked the State Department to review Cuba’s support for terrorism as part of an announcement that Washington and Havana would begin a process to normalize relations.

As part of that process, Washington has eased travel bans and financial restrictions, among other aspects of the longtime U.S. embargo against Cuba. But in recent weeks, Cuban diplomats made clear they wanted their nation to be removed from the state terrorism sponsor list before dual embassies were opened. Obama moved Tuesday to have that wish granted.

“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,” Kerry said in the statement.

In recent years, Cuba’s inclusion on the terrorism blacklist was largely seen as a political move, not one that reflected Havana’s support for violent extremism. The designation severely limited diplomatic channels between Havana and Washington, and its removal now gives diplomats much more room to maneuver.

The State Department says it concluded Cuba had refrained from terrorist activity for at least six months, the criteria for being removed from the list. Administration officials briefing reporters on the decision also said that they had received “high-level” assurances from the Cuban government that it would not support any such acts in the future.

In the absence of Havana’s sponsoring any overt acts of terrorism, the State Department has justified the designation in part because of Cuba’s sheltering of fugitives and international terrorists, including members of the Basque separatist group ETA and the FARC, the Colombian left-wing guerrilla group. Also among those sheltered by the Cuban government are American militants, including Joanne Chesimard, also known as Assata Shakur, a member of the Black Liberation Army who escaped from prison and fled to Cuba after being convicted in the killing of a New Jersey police officer in 1973.

A 2013 State Department report found no evidence that Cuba was supporting revolutionary or terrorist groups and noted that it is brokering peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC.

Obama’s decision is likely to draw heat from Cuba hawks like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). But Menendez, who faces federal corruption charges, has been pushed from his perch as the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a position he used to blast Obama for warming up to Castro. Criticism from Rubio, by contrast, is likely to only get louder now that he has declared himself a 2016 GOP presidential contender.

“The decision made by the White House today is a terrible one but not surprising,” Rubio said in a YouTube message Tuesday afternoon. “Cuba is a state sponsor of terrorism. They harbor fugitives from American justice.”

“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,” Rubio said.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who participated in efforts to reach a deal with Cuba, praised the latest development. “While no fan of the Castro regime, I continue to believe that opening up the island to American ideas, vibrancy, and trade is the most effective way to see a more open and tolerant Cuba,” the lawmaker said in a statement.

Photo Credit: Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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