White House officials left open the possibility Tuesday that President Obama could recommend Cuba's removal from a list of state sponsors of terror around the time of the Summit of the Americas later this week in Panama. The officials also sought to soften tensions with Venezuela that threatened to overshadow the summit.
Deputy National Security adviser Benjamin Rhodes said the State Department's review of Cuba's place on that terror list is in "its final stages." While he said the timing is in the hands of Secretary of State John Kerry, he would not rule out an Obama announcement before or during the two-day summit in Panama City.
Removing Cuba from the terror list would be one of the biggest developments since Dec. 17, when Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced they would seek to re-establish diplomatic relations after half a century of antagonism. But Rhodes cautioned that the actual opening of embassies in Havana and in Washington by both countries was still some time off.
"When you have two countries that haven't spoken to each other like this over 50 years, you have lot off issues to work through," Rhodes said in a call previewing Obama's trip to Jamaica and then to the summit in Panama. Obama leaves for the Caribbean on Wednesday.
Among the issues that have slowed the diplomatic efforts have been Cuba's presence on the terror list and U.S. demands that U.S. diplomats be able to interact with the Cuban people without limitations.
Rhodes also downplayed U.S. sanctions against certain Venezuelans in protest of President Nicolas Maduro's crackdown on dissent. Maduro has characterized the sanctions against seven individuals as an act of aggression, citing language in an Obama executive order that describes Venezuela as a threat to U.S. security.
Rhodes sought to tamp down the furor, noting that the language is boilerplate used in executive orders that impose sanctions around the world.
"The U.S. doesn't believe that Venezuela poses some threat to national security," Rhodes said. The action, Rhodes said, "was not of a scale that in any way was aimed at targeting the Venezuelan government broadly."