WASHINGTON -- Cuba has agreed to work on resolving the cases of U.S. fugitives harboring from justice on the island as part of the effort to normalize relations between the two nations, President Barack Obama told lawmakers as he made the case for removing the former Cold War foe from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
In a message to Congress dated Wednesday, Obama acknowledged that Cuba has gone so far as to provide housing, food ration books and medical care to some of the fugitives wanted by the United States to stand trial or serve sentences on serious charges. However, he argued that Havana has been more cooperative with the United States in some recent cases, returning two fugitives in 2011 and two more in 2013.
"Cuba has agreed to enter into a law enforcement dialogue with the United States that will include discussions with the aim of resolving outstanding fugitive cases," Obama wrote. "We believe that the strong U.S. interest in the return of these fugitives will be best served by entering into this dialogue with Cuba."
Obama's move to remove Cuba from the terror list has been met with some opposition over the fugitives. New Jersey's Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez and Republican Gov. Chris Christie have both maintained that the terror designation should remain, especially while refusing to return Joanne Chesimard. Chesimard, a member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army, has lived in Cuba since escaping prison after her 1977 conviction for killing a New Jersey state trooper.
"It is a national disgrace that this president would even consider normalizing relations while they are harboring a terrorist murderer who belongs in prison in New Jersey," Christie, a likely 2016 presidential candidate, said at a town hall meeting Wednesday in New Hampshire.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest rejected the notion that whether Cuba returns U.S. fugitives should be related to the decision to remove the country from the terror list.
"The fact that a country may have some fugitives that need to be brought to justice here in America does not merit their inclusion on the state sponsor of terror list," Earnest said. "And I know that's the argument that's made by some, but it's not an argument that withstands the scrutiny that's required by a serious designation like being added to the list of state sponsors of terror."
Another senior administration official said the administration intends to raise not only high-profile fugitive cases with the Castro government, but also pursuit of high-priority crimes like Medicare fraud. The official spoke was not authorized to be quoted by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Justice Department said the fugitives Cuba returned in 2011 were Denis Catania and Diana Camacho, who fled charges of murdering a 23-year-old man whose body was found in a burning car in Hammonton, New Jersey. The Justice Department said in 2013, Cuba turned over Joshua and Sharyn Hakken after they were charged with kidnapping their 2- and 4-year-old sons from the boys' grandparents, who had legal custody, and sailing to Cuba.
Obama's message to Congress provides a more detailed argument after he announced Tuesday that he will remove Cuba from the list after the required 45 days have passed after notification. Lawmakers could vote to block the move during that window of time, though Obama would be all but certain to veto such a measure.