In a major step in the developing diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, the State Department has recommended that Cuba be taken off the agency’s list of nations that sponsor terrorism, according to several published reports.
The recommendation comes some three months after President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. and Cuba were restoring diplomatic relations almost 54 years after President Dwight D. Eisenhower closed the American embassy in Havana and broke off relations. In December, Obama instructed the State Department to review the feasibility of keeping Cuba on the list.
ABC News cited unidentified sources as saying that the State Department delivered a report and its recommendation to the White House on Wednesday, and the agency was urging Cuba’s removal from the list, which also designates Sudan, Syria and Iran as terrorism sponsors.
On Thursday, at a public appearance in Jamaica, Obama confirmed that the State Department had concluded its review of Cuba’s designation on the list, but he said he would not discuss its contents or their recommendation until cabinet members who advise on national security approve it.
Some experts believe the president could announce the recommendation, and perhaps what action he will take stemming from it, as early as Friday when he is at the Summit of the Americas in Panama.
"Throughout this process, our emphasis has been on the facts," Obama said in Jamaica, according to ABC. "We want to make sure that, given this is a powerful tool to isolate those countries that genuinely do support terrorism, that when we make those designations we've got strong evidence that's the case, and as circumstances change that list will change, as well."
Obama is said to be set to have a face-to-face bilateral meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro on Saturday. It is unclear when that meeting was planned, given that as recently as Wednesday administration officials said no formal meeting was planned between the two heads of state.
Obama and Castro spoke by telephone this week.
"I can confirm that President Obama spoke with President Castro on Wednesday, before President Obama departed Washington,” ABC News quoted an unnamed source as saying.
Cuba's continuing presence on the list has been a sticking point in the effort to restore ties between the two countries. Yet there have been indications that the U.S. has held back on granting Cuba a reprieve while other thorny issues — such as restrictions on U.S. diplomats in Havana — are still being resolved.
Delisting Cuba as a state terrorism sponsor is highly controversial.
Those who support taking it off say the list is first and foremost a political tool, keeping nations on it that are not any more dangerous than other nations, such as Pakistan, that clearly support or harbor terrorist groups but are not on it. Supporters also say U.S. handling of Cuba for the last 55 years has failed to propel it toward democracy, and that the time is long overdue for a new approach.
“We will continue to have differences with the Cuban government, but we don’t want to be imprisoned by the past,” Obama said in a public appearance in Jamaica. “Engagement is a more powerful force than isolation. I believe that we can move past some of the old debates that so often define the region, and move forward.”
Opponents of Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba say it amounts to making a deal with a dictator who continues to suppress freedom of expression, punishes dissenters and has indicated that the oppressive system in Cuba will continue.
The opponents say delisting Cuba is yet another reward for a regime that routinely violates human rights and that supports, in various forms, terrorist groups and nations. Those critics include all the Cuban-Americans in Congress.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican and chairperson of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, assailed the expected decision to remove Cuba from the list.
“A country cannot be removed from the list of State Sponsors of Terror if it continues to pursue the same policy of subversion and provides support for acts of international terrorism such as providing safe haven to foreign terrorist organizations and harboring U.S. fugitives as cited for years by the Department of State in its terrorism reports,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement Friday.
"Yet these realities coupled with being caught red handed sending arms to North Korea in violation of U.N. sanctions and sending weapons on a Chinese-flagged ship that was intercepted in Colombia destined for Cuba’s military, have not changed and therefore does not merit for Cuba to be removed from the SST list. The Obama administration should look to facts, not politics, to guide their decision."
The congresswoman said that Cuba has had ties to the violent Spanish separatist movement, the Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA), which the State Department estimates has killed more than 800 people, she said. Cuba also retains links to the Colombian guerrilla army Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Ros Lehtinen said.
The State Department’s web page on the countries on the terrorism list offers a glimpse into its view of Cuba as a less serious threat than the other three nations on it, which have entries that are about three times as long as the Caribbean island.
It concedes that Cuba had worrisome dealings with terrorist groups such as ETA and FARC in the past, but then says that Cuba has been playing an important role in trying to broker peace agreements between those organizations and their home countries.
Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and son of Cuban immigrants, has been a vocal opponent of Obama’s overtures to the Castro regime – something that some political observers believe has played a role in the Justice Department’s decision to press charges against the veteran lawmaker that allege bribery, among other things.
Menendez says that Cuba has harbored fugitives, such as Joanne Chesimard, a member of the Black Liberation Army who killed a New Jersey State Police trooper execution-style in 1973.
"It is essential to recognize that the Castro regime has a long track record of providing sanctuary to terrorists and harboring U.S. fugitives who have murdered American citizens, while undermining national security," Menendez said in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry.
"Before Cuba is removed from (the list), the Castro regime must be held to account for these acts and American fugitives must be brought back to face justice in the U.S."
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