HAVANA – A normally routine bit of Washington bureaucracy could have a big impact on U.S. relations with Cuba, either ushering in a long-stalled detente or slamming the door on rapprochement, perhaps until the scheduled end of the Castro era in 2018.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry must decide within a few weeks whether to advocate that President Barack Obama should take Cuba off a list of state sponsors of terrorism, a collection of Washington foes that also includes Iran, Syria and Sudan.
Cuban officials have long seen the terror designation as unjustified and told visiting American delegations privately in recent weeks that they view Kerry's recommendation as a litmus test for improved ties. They also hinted the decision could affect discussions over the release of jailed U.S. subcontractor Alan Gross, whose detention in 2009 torpedoed hopes of a diplomatic thaw.
Inclusion on the list means a ban not only on arms sales to Cuba but also on items that can have dual uses, including some hospital equipment. It also requires that the United States oppose any loans to Cuba by the World Bank or other international lending institutions, among other measures.
U.S. officials agree the recommendation, which Kerry must make before the State Department's annual terror report is published April 30, has become ensnared in the standoff over Gross. The American was sentenced to 15 years in prison after he was caught bringing communications equipment onto the island illegally while working for a USAID-funded democracy-building program.
Cuba has been on the terror list since 1982, and is also the target of a 51-year U.S. economic embargo — the reason why the island of beaches, music and rum is the only country Americans cannot visit as tourists. Removal from the list would not change that.
Critics say Cuba's inclusion on the list has little to do with any real threat posed by the Communist-run Caribbean island, and they say the list has become so politicized it's useless. North Korea was removed in 2008 during nuclear negotiations that ultimately failed, and was never put back on. Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden had been hiding out, is not on the list in large part because of its strategic importance.
Longtime Cuba analyst Philip Peters of the Virginia-based think tank the Lexington Institute said removing Cuba from the list "makes sense ... just because it's been a specious allegation that the United States has repeated for many years ... It would improve the atmosphere."
Others argue against rewarding Havana unless it releases Gross.
"I have long believed it's in our interest to see an improvement in relations with Cuba," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Gross's home state of Maryland who traveled with a congressional delegation to Havana last month. But "the first step needs to be resolving Alan Gross's situation."
Voices calling for a change in the policy are growing louder, however.
Last month, The Boston Globe cited administration sources saying high-level diplomats determined Cuba should be dropped from the list. That prompted State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland to say there were "no current plans" to do so, though she did not explicitly rule out the possibility.
Last week, a Los Angeles Times editorial called for Cuba's removal from the list, and other newspapers have voiced similar opinions. The Cuba Study Group, a Washington-based exile organization that advocates engagement to promote democratic change, issued a white paper in February calling for an "apolitical" reexamination of the terror designation.
While Kerry can review the designation even after the State Department's report comes out, Cuba's continued inclusion on the list in April would almost certainly rule out its chances of removal in 2013.
A U.S. official involved in deliberations told The Associated Press that Kerry will ultimately decide and nobody under him is in a position to predict what will happen. "It's very much up in the air," he said.
But another administration official said that lifting the terror designation will be a hard sell while Gross remains imprisoned.
"It's very unlikely," the second official said. "There is no consensus. And if you are on (the list), you stay on as long as there is no consensus on taking you off."
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Ostensibly, Cuba has been designated a terror sponsor because it harbors members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group, the Basque militant organization ETA and a handful of U.S. fugitives, many of whom have lived here since the 1970s.
But much has changed in recent years.
Late last year, peace talks began in Havana between Colombia and the FARC, and even Washington has voiced hope that the negotiations will end Colombia's half-century old conflict.
ETA announced a permanent cease-fire in 2011, and Madrid has not openly called for the return of any Basque fugitives. Cuba has enjoyed improved relations with Spain and Colombia in recent years, and both countries routinely vote at the U.N. against continuing the U.S. embargo.
Under President Raul Castro, Cuba has freed dozens of dissidents and has begun opening its economy and society, though it remains a one-party political system that permits no legal opposition. Castro announced in February that he would step down in 2018 and signaled a likely successor.
The time might also be ripe in terms of U.S. politics.
While in the Senate, Kerry was an outspoken critic of America's policy on Cuba, saying it has "manifestly failed for nearly 50 years." He called for travel restrictions to end and held up millions of dollars in funding for the type of programs Gross worked with.
His boss, President Obama, no longer has to worry about reelection or pleasing Cuban-Americans, an all-important voting bloc in the crucial swing state of Florida.
Ann Louise Bardach, a longtime Cuba observer and the author of "Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington," said all the political winds would seem to point toward a reboot in relations — except for Havana's decision to hold Gross and try to swap him for five Cuban agents in the U.S.
"In a way they cooked their goose with Alan Gross," she said. "The Cubans thought, 'Gee what a brilliant idea, we'll have a chit to trade.' Little did they know that they would be at this moment where you have considerable momentum to move on in Washington, and politically, because of the Gross mess, Washington can't act."
Associated Press reporters Bradley Klapper and Jessica Gresko in Washington, and Peter Orsi in Havana contributed to this report.
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