Cuba to Be Removed From U.S. List of Nations That Sponsor Terrorism


A Havana street in late December. In Cuba, the label of state sponsor of terrorism is blamed for discouraging financial institutions from working with the country. Credit The New York Times

Randal C. Archibold and Julie Hirschfeld David  |  New York Times  |  April 14, 2015

The White House announced on Tuesday that President Obama intends to remove Cuba from the American government’s list of nations that sponsor terrorism, eliminating a major obstacle to the restoration of diplomatic relations after decades of hostilities.

The decision to remove Cuba from the list is a crucial step in Mr. Obama’s effort to turn the page on a Cold War-era dispute.

It followed a much-anticipated meeting between Mr. Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas meeting in Panama over the weekend, the first such formal session between the leaders of the two countries in more than a half-century.

For more than 30 years, Cuba has been on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, a designation shared only by Iran, Sudan and Syria.

Cuba’s place on the list has long snarled its access to financial markets and, more recently, emerged as a sticking point in negotiations to reopen embassies that have officially been closed for five decades.

Mr. Obama ordered a review of Cuba’s status in December, when he and Mr. Castro announced that their two nations had agreed to move toward normal relations.

White House officials said Tuesday that Mr. Obama had approved a recommendation by Secretary of State John Kerry to take Cuba off the terrorism list after what officials called a “rigorous” review of Cuba’s record and assurances from Havana that it would not support terrorism in the future.

Cuba will not come off the list until after a 45-day review period, during which a joint resolution to block its removal could be considered in the House and the Senate.

“We will continue to have differences with the Cuban government, but our concerns over a wide range of Cuba’s policies and actions fall outside the criteria that is relevant to whether to rescind Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said in a statement.

Mr. Earnest said the president would continue to “support our interests and values through engagement with the Cuban government and people.”

The State Department determined that Cuba had not engaged in terrorist activity in the past six months — a criterion for designating a country a state sponsor of terrorism — and therefore no longer belonged on the list.

Officials declined to elaborate on the assurances they had received from Cuba, but said that in recent years Raúl and Fidel Castro denounced terrorism, most recently in January, when Raúl Castro called the terrorist attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo “atrocious.”

In a statement on Tuesday, the Cuban government called Mr. Obama’s act a “just decision” and said Cuba should never have been on the list in the first place. “Cuba rejects and condemns all acts of terrorism in all their forms and manifestations,” the statement said.

Washington’s isolation of Cuba, particularly its embargo of the island, has been a perennial source of hostility in Latin America, uniting governments across the region regardless of ideology.

Even some of Washington’s close allies in the Americas have rallied to Cuba’s side, sometimes making it hard to gain traction on unrelated issues, administration officials have said.

But Obama administration officials, explaining the justification for removing Cuba from the list, went to lengths to suggest that times had changed and that Cuba was not the political thorn it had been.

“The world has changed, and the world has changed particularly in Latin America,” said a senior official, on the condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly about diplomatic issues. The official was alluding to an absence of the kind of insurgencies that Cuba once supported, activity that led to its placement on the list in 1982.

Cuban officials have said they would find it hard to move forward with diplomatic relations while remaining on the list, which they see as a blemish to their nation’s image and a scarlet letter that has blocked Cuba from doing business with American banks and led some international institutions to shy away from opportunities to work with Cuba.

Not even Cuba’s interests section in Washington, the outpost that performs some functions of an embassy, could get a bank account as financial institutions worried about violating sanctions from the Treasury Department over doing business with a state on the terrorism list and running afoul of the trade embargo.

In speaking to reporters, another senior administration official, however, said it appeared that Cuba had found a bank even before the announcement, in part because of Treasury Department “steps to ease the situation and facilitate” an agreement.

The United States had sought to keep the terrorism designation question separate from the issue of restoring diplomatic relations, focusing its demands on ensuring that its diplomats could travel freely in Cuba and that Cubans would not be bothered by the police as they entered the redesignated American Embassy.

In a sign of the diplomatic thaw, Cuba attended the summit meeting for the first time since the gathering’s inception in 1994.

The meeting created the first publicly planned encounter of the American and Cuban presidents since 1958, though Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro shook hands at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in South Africa in December 2013 and President Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro shook hands and chatted briefly at a United Nations meeting in 2000.

To many, the decision to remove Cuba from the list affirmed the obvious. When Mr. Obama announced that he would seek normal ties with Cuba, he expressed doubt that the nation belonged on the list.

Many Republicans, including all the usual suspects who tend to comment at the NYT, go crazy as the always do when President Obama makes
Last week, Mr. Obama appeared to be sharpening his defense of removing Cuba’s terrorism designation, telling NPR that the criterion for doing so is a straightforward evaluation of whether a country is a state sponsor of terrorism, “not do we agree with them on everything, not whether they engage in repressive or authoritarian activities in their own country.”

Analysts said Cuba’s designation had more to do with politics than with any terrorist activity.

The terrorism designation “is a hot potato that is literally too hot for the banks involved to do the business,” said Antonio C. Martinez II, a New York lawyer whose practice includes the regulations surrounding Cuban assets.

“The banks involved in or contemplating doing business with Cuba have an enormous compliance burden that does not justify the costs,” he added. “That is why no bank wanted” to have accounts with Cuban diplomats in the United States, complicating efforts to reopen an embassy.

State Department officials said they had embarked on a thorough review to ensure that their decision could stand up to any questioning in a Republican-controlled Congress where there are fierce objections.

A number of Republicans on Tuesday denounced the move, including Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican and Castro opponent, who said the move “will only undermine U.S. national security and send a signal to the Cuban people that instead of disapproving of the Castro regime’s methods, the U.S. is rushing to embrace two decrepit tyrants in their twilight.”

Cuba landed on the list in 1982 for its support of leftist insurgents in Latin America. It remained on the list afterward because, according to a State Department report in 2013, the most recent available, it provided a “safe haven” for Basque separatists and Colombian rebels.

The Cuban government has also harbored an unspecified number of fugitives wanted in the United States, including Joanne D. Chesimard, who is on the F.B.I.’s list of most wanted terrorists for killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973 and receiving asylum in Cuba after escaping from prison in 1979. The F.B.I. said Ms. Chesimard, who now goes by the name Assata Shakur, espoused revolution and terrorism against the United States.

Representative Scott Garrett, a New Jersey Republican who has urged Ms. Chesimard’s extradition, on Tuesday called Mr. Obama’s move “misguided, dangerous and offensive to the families who have been torn apart because of Cuba’s active participation in terrorist activities.”

Still, as the State Department report noted, several Basque separatists had been repatriated to Spain, and Cuba has hosted peace talks between the Colombian government and a major rebel group known as FARC.

Fidel Castro said in a speech in 1992 that Cuba was no longer supporting insurgents abroad.

“There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups,” the 2013 report said.

Michael D. Shear contributed reporting.

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