US on verge of momentous Cuba decision: Whether to take island off
controversial terror list
Published March 23, 2013
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
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
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
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.