Why Cuba Remains a State-Sponsor of Terrorism

Tuesday, April 2, 2013
By Mauricio Claver-Carone in The Journal of the American Enterprise Institute ("The American"):

Cuba Sees an Opening

The State Department is reportedly considering dropping Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. Doing so would hand Havana a major – and unmerited – diplomatic victory.

Cuba’s Castro brothers have spent billions of dollars over the last decade seducing U.S. farm bureaus and agri-business to lobby Congress to support lifting sanctions on Cuba. Recently recognizing that Congress is unlikely to support unconditional changes, and perceiving a possible opening with the new Secretary of State John Kerry, Castro lobbyists have shifted their focus to the Obama administration and a related goal: the removal of Cuba from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Kerry supported unilaterally easing sanctions on Cuba during his Senate career, and speculation that the State Department is considering removing Cuba from the state sponsor list – which also includes Iran, Sudan, and Syria – has been spurred by news reports citing contradictory remarks from anonymous administration sources. Some high-level diplomats have suggested Cuba be dropped from the list, according to the Boston Globe. But the State Department's spokesperson Victoria Nuland clarified in late February that it had “no current plans” to change Cuba's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. However, that has not slowed efforts by those seeking rapprochement with the Castro regime, as a final decision will not be officially revealed until April 30.

Cuba has been on the state sponsors of terrorism list since 1982 due to its hostile acts and support of armed insurgency groups. While being on the list of terrorist sponsors imposes sanctions such as prohibiting the United States from selling arms or providing economic assistance, removing Cuba from that list would have little effect on these sanctions, as these were separately codified in 1996. However, it would certainly hand the Castro brothers a major – and unmerited – diplomatic victory. The Castros have long protested and sought to escape the ostracism associated with the terrorism listing, while refusing to modify the egregious behavior that earned them the designation. They are also hoping the change could improve their standing among otherwise reluctant members of Congress and lead to an unconditional lifting of sanctions in the near future.

Pursuant to the statutory criteria stipulated under Section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act (as currently re-authorized under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act), Cuba can only be removed from the state sponsors of terrorism list in two ways:

Option one is to have the U.S. president submit a report to Congress certifying that there has been a fundamental change in the leadership and policies of Cuba’s government, that Cuba no longer supports acts of international terrorism, and that Cuba has provided “assurances” that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.

It would be disingenuous for anyone to argue that there has been a “fundamental change” when the Castros have ruled Cuba with an iron fist for 54 years. Option one does not pass the laugh test.

Option two is to have the president decide to terminate the listing and submit, at least 45 days before doing so, a report to Congress that the Cuban government has not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six months and has made assurances to the United States that it will not support terrorist acts in the future.

It would be an insult to the American people if Cuba were to be removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism based solely on assurances of change by a dictatorship that brutally represses its population, defies the rule of law, routinely foments anti-Americanism around the world with provocative anti-democratic rhetoric, and is holding in its prisons an American aid worker, Alan P. Gross. Arrested in December 2009, Gross’s “crime” was helping members of Cuba’s Jewish community connect to the Internet.

The last time the United States relied on a dictator’s “assurances” to justify removing a country from the sponsors list was in 2008, when President George W. Bush accepted the assurances of the Kim family that North Korea would not provide support for or engage in international terrorism. That obviously has not worked out well.

The Castro brothers’ lack of credibility alone is legally sufficient to prohibit changing Cuba's designation. Cuba should also be disqualified because it continues to promote and support international terrorism. The State Department’s 2011 Country Reports on Terrorism lays out a three-point rationale for Cuba’s designation as a sponsor of terrorism:

First, “current and former members of Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) continue to reside in Cuba … Press reporting indicated that the Cuban government provided medical care and political assistance to the FARC. There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training for either ETA or the FARC.”

The United States designates ETA and the FARC as foreign terrorist organizations and Cuba continues to provide support for both groups. The favorite new argument of those seeking Cuba’s removal from the list is to note that peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC are taking place in Havana. But the United States would need to rescind its designation of ETA and the FARC as foreign terrorist organizations before it could remove Cuba from the terrorism sponsor list. More importantly, there is no peace agreement or peace in Colombia and ETA continues to threaten Spain.

Testifying on Colombia before the House Armed Services Committee, General John F. Kelly, head of the U.S. Southern Command, provided some perspective:

"Terrorist groups represent a persistent challenge that has plagued the region for decades. The FARC is the region’s oldest, largest, most capable, and best equipped insurgency. The government of Colombia is currently in peace negotiations with the FARC, but the fight is far from over and a successful peace accord is not guaranteed. Although weakened, the FARC continues to confront the Colombian state by employing improvised explosive devices and attacking energy infrastructure and oil pipelines."

Second, the State Department country report says that “the Cuban government continued to permit fugitives wanted in the United States to reside in Cuba and also provided support such as housing, food ration books, and medical care for these individuals.”

That has not changed either. The FBI estimates that Cuba has provided safe harbor to more than 70 fugitives from U.S. justice who live on the island under the protection of the Castro regime. Some of these fugitives are charged with or have been convicted of murder, kidnapping, and hijacking, and they include notorious killers of police officers in New Jersey and New Mexico.

Warranting special mention are the outstanding U.S. indictments against Cuban Air Force pilots Lorenzo Alberto Pérez-Pérez and Francisco Pérez-Pérez and General Rubén Martínez Puente, the head of the Cuban Air Force, who in 1996 ordered the pilots to shoot down two civilian American aircraft over international waters in the Florida Straits. That act of terrorism killed four men, three of them American citizens.

Third, the State Department report says that the Financial Action Task Force has identified Cuba as having deficiencies in combatting money laundering and terrorism financing. In February, the Castro regime made “a high-level political commitment” to work with the FATF to address money laundering and the flow of money through Cuba to terrorists. There has been no discernible effort since to criminalize money laundering or to establish procedures to identify and freeze the assets of terrorists.

The State Department’s previous rationale for continuing to list Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism stands and now new justifications can be added:

Terrorism is defined in U.S. law as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” The arrest and arbitrary imprisonment of Alan P. Gross for actions internationally protected under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Cuba is a signatory, is an act of terrorism. Moreover, the Castro regime has now made it clear that Gross will be held hostage until the United States releases five Cuban spies convicted in U.S. federal courts.

In addition, thousands of Cuban soldiers and intelligence officials are stationed in Venezuela. Cuba’s presence and control over the highest levels of Venezuela’s military, police, and intelligence services not only threatens to subvert democracy in that nation, but it allows those Venezuelan authorities to be Cuba’s proxies in trafficking drugs and weapons, and in providing support to such extremist organizations as Hezbollah and Iran’s al-Quds.

Cuba’s close political ties with other state sponsors of terrorism – particularly Iran and Syria – and its history of sharing intelligence with rogue regimes are of serious concern and, according to former U.S. intelligence officials, pose a risk to U.S. counter-terrorism efforts in the Middle East and elsewhere.

As President Obama himself recognized last month when he renewed the “national emergency” designation regulating the movement and anchorage of vessels in the Florida Straits (a yearly evaluation process undertaken by U.S. presidents since the 1996 downing of U.S. civilian aircraft by the Castro regime), “the Cuban government has not demonstrated that it will refrain from the use of excessive force against U.S. vessels or aircraft that may engage in memorial activities or peaceful protest north of Cuba.”

To remove Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism list based on mere hopes of bettering relations would be foreign-policy malpractice. Cuba must earn its removal from this list. Clearly it has not done so, and, as long as the Castro brothers retain their absolute control over the island, nor is it likely to do so.

Mauricio Claver-Carone is a director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC and host of "From Washington al Mundo" on Sirius-XM's Cristina Radio. He is an attorney, served as an attorney-advisor with the U.S. Treasury Department, and was a member of the law faculty at the Catholic University of America and George Washington University.