As of Friday, the United States no longer considered Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism, provoking impassioned reaction on both sides of the issue.
Cuba was removed from the U.S. black list of nations that support international terrorism Friday, clearing away an obstacle for resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
A State Department review of Cuba’s continued presence on the list of state sponsors of terrorism began Dec. 17 — the day President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced that the two countries planned to resume diplomatic relations, open embassies and exchange ambassadors.
Simply and without drama, the State Department said Friday that Cuba was no longer on a list of nations that also includes Iran, Syria and Sudan because it “has not provided any support for international terrorism during the previous six months; and that Cuba has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.”
While those who support engagement with the island hailed Cuba’s delisting as a step forward, opponents said that Cuba had done nothing to merit its removal from the list and the Obama administration was making a big mistake.
The delisting, said Democratic Leader Rep. Nancy Pelsosi “removed the burden of an outdated, outmoded strategy. As the United States gets closer to restoring full diplomatic relations with Cuba, I hope we can continue to build on the historic progress we have made and improve the lives of both the American and Cuban people.”
Cuba was placed on the list in 1982 during the Cold War when it armed and supported leftist insurgencies in Latin America and Africa. Even though many analysts said it’s been a long time since Cuba has actively supported leftist guerrillas, congressional opponents of the move say they remain troubled by Cuba’s behavior at home and aboard.
“The Obama administration has handed the Castro regime a significant political win in return for nothing,” said House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican. “The communist dictatorship has offered no assurances it will address its long record of repression and human rights abuses at home. Nor has it offered any indication it will cease its support for violence throughout the region.”
Despite the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said, “The fact is, the Castro regime has not shown one iota of change in its actions that earned it a spot on the state sponsor of terrorism list.’’
Menendez noted two mysterious clandestine arms shipments involving Cuba in the last few years as well as Cuba giving safe haven to Joanne Chesimard, a Black Liberation Army member who was convicted in the 1973 murder of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster. After a jail break, she escaped to Cuba where she was granted political asylum.
“To this day, we have not seen one substantial step toward transparent democratic elections, improved human rights, freedom of assembly, or the ability to form independent political parties and trade unions on the island,” Menendez said.
But the State Department’s certification that Cuba is no longer a sponsor of terrorism was very narrowly focused on its behavior in supporting international acts of terrorism in the previous six months and its commitment not to do so in the future.
Cuba met the requirement for being removed from the list, the State Department said. “While the United States has significant concerns and disagreements with a wide range of Cuba’s policies and actions, these fall outside the criteria relevant to the rescission of a state sponsor of terrorism designation,” said Jeff Rathke, director of State’s Office of Press Relations.
Bernadette Meehan, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, said Cuba’s delisting is “another step forward toward a more normal and productive relationship between the United States and the Cuban people. Our new direction will allow us to better promote our values, including support for basic human rights, as attention within Cuba and the international community is no longer focused on opposition to U.S. policy.”
The State Department announcement also attracted the attention of possible and declared Republican presidential hopefuls.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has said he would reverse Obama’s Cuba opening if elected, also faulted the administration for giving up concessions to the Cubans: “President Obama and his administration continue to give the Cuban regime concession after concession, in exchange for nothing that even remotely resembles progress towards freedom and democracy for the Cuban people, or assurances that the regime will discontinue working against America’s national security interests.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said the news that Cuba had been removed from the list “is further evidence that President Obama seems more interested in capitulating to our adversaries than in confronting them.
“Iran's leaders are surely taking note,” Bush added. He called on Congress “to keep pressure on Cuba and the administration accountable.”
Since the president’s Cuba opening was announced, there has been a flurry of Cuba bills introduced, ranging from those that would tighten sanctions on Cuba to those that would permit freer trade with and travel to Cuba.
The president was required to give Congress 45 days notice of his intention to take Cuba off the list and the clock started ticking on April 14. That notification period, during which Congress could have passed a joint resolution opposing the delisting, expired Friday.
The Cuban-American delegation discussed mounting a challenge but didn’t go forward with it.
“There was little appetite even among the traditional Castro-bashers in Congress to get in front of the terrorism-list-removal train,” said Jose W. Fernandez, a New York lawyer who previously was assistant secretary of state for economic, energy and business affairs in the Obama administration..
South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who had met with her colleagues before deciding against a challenge, said the Obama administration’s review and delisting of Cuba “was not based on facts, but rather based on a desperate attempt to offer more concessions to the Castro brothers in exchange for opening an embassy in Havana.”
Even though coming off the list means some financial and legal sanctions against Cuba will be removed, the embargo and the Helms-Burton Act remain in effect.
Fernandez cautioned that there is still plenty of work ahead in rebuilding a relationship with Cuba: “the Helms-Burton law remains on the books, details for opening an embassy in Havana still have to be negotiated, and the Cuban government hasn't said much about which U.S. investments it will welcome.”
Right now, the next thing on the agenda is concluding negotiations to renew diplomatic ties and open embassies. The fourth round of talks in Washington ended May 22 with both sides declaring progress.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday that Cuba’s continued presence on the terrorism list “was one stumbling block in those discussions.”
It was a major irritant for Cuba and has been one of its key negotiating points in the talks.
But Earnest said there are “additional issues that our diplomats are working through before we can reach an agreement” on opening embassies.
One sticking point has been the U.S. desire to have its diplomats in Havana move freely around the country to talk to all kinds of Cubans.
“That includes meeting with citizens outside of the capital city. And it includes even meeting with citizens who aren't entirely supportive of the political decisions that are being made by their government,” said Earnest.
The ultimate goal of the president’s Cuba policy, he said, is “to empower the Cuban people and put additional pressure on the Cuban government to do a better job of respecting and protecting the basic human rights of their people.”