Washington’s Double Standard on Cuba: Havana as a Spurious “State Sponsor of Terrorism”

The recent lifting of Cuba’s suspension from membership in the Organization of American States indicates that Washington’s domination of the Inter-American system has passed. The preconditions set by the OAS for Cuba’s readmission were far weaker than those Secretary of State Hillary Clinton originally had demanded, demonstrating the power of regional consensus among Latin American leaders, which marked their initial step away from the repudiated policies of the Obama administration.

The controversy surrounding the readmission of Cuba to the OAS also shows that Havana will be the most critical point of contention amidst hopes for improved U.S.-Latin America ties. If the new administration decides to rapidly move toward normalized relations with Cuba, it will vastly improve the U.S.’s standing in the region; but if Washington insists on maintaining the traditional hostilities it has for decades fielded against Havana, it will almost certainly find itself politically isolated among the increasingly autonomous and frequently left-leaning Latin American states.

Consistently apparent in Washington’s policy toward Cuba is its lietmotif of holding irrational double standards: the U.S. habitually acts toward the island nation with spite and reflexive antagonism, in a manner inconsistent with U.S. policies toward more formidable and economically powerful, although even more nondemocratic, states than Cuba. This attitude is clearly manifested in Cuba’s continued inclusion on the State Department’s annual list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism.” This is an amorphous indictment against the Castro government grounded in Washington’s habitual acquiescence to the anti-Castro lobby run from Miami. The State Department’s failure to remove Cuba from its most recently compiled list of “terrorism” sponsors marks yet another sign of the inconsistencies and false starts being displayed by the Obama administration’s recent Cuba initiatives. It must be judged as a serious setback to the possible future normalization of relations between the two ancient foes.

Cuba has remained on the State Department’s terrorism blacklist since March 1, 1982, when it was added at a time of allegations that the Castro regime had been funding and training armed revolutionaries throughout Latin America and Africa. However, in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro renounced his government’s previous policy of supporting terrorist organizations. Since that time, Cuba is not known to have provided financial or logistical support to any such groups, which makes it inexcusable that Cuba remains hostilely branded by Washington, especially in light of the recent removals of Libya and North Korea from the terrorism list. Despite the serious problems posed by the Cuban government’s suppression of democratic freedoms, Cuba cannot convincibly be compared to Iran or Syria as an alleged terrorist-backing state, or, for that matter, also China, Lybia and North Korea.

The Case for Cuba’s Inclusion: a Self-Defeating Argument
Each year by April 30, the State Department is mandated to present to Congress a thorough report on the terrorist activities that have occurred throughout the world, with several paragraphs devoted to each country designated a State Sponsor of Terrorism. The following description was given of Cuba in the “Country Reports on Terrorism 2008”:
Although Cuba no longer actively supports armed struggle in Latin America and other parts of the world, the Cuban government continued to provide safe haven to several terrorists. Members of ETA, the FARC, and the ELN remained in Cuba during 2008, some having arrived in Cuba in connection with peace negotiations with the governments of Spain and Colombia. Cuban authorities continued to publicly defend the FARC. However, on July 6, 2008, former Cuban President Fidel Castro called on the FARC to release the hostages they were holding without preconditions. He has also condemned the FARC’s mistreatment of captives and of their abduction of civilian politicians who had no role in the armed conflict.

The United States has no evidence of terrorist-related money laundering or terrorist financing activities in Cuba, although Cuba has one of the world’s most secretive and non-transparent national banking systems. Cuba has no financial intelligence unit. Cuba’s Law 93 Against Acts of Terrorism provides the government authority to track, block, or seize terrorist assets.

The Cuban government continued to permit some U.S. fugitives—including members of U.S. militant groups such as the Boricua Popular, or Macheteros, and the Black Liberation Army to live legally in Cuba. In keeping with its public declaration, the government has not provided safe haven to any new U.S. fugitives wanted for terrorism since 2006.

Ironically, this very explanation precisely explains why Cuba should not be listed as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. The first sentence states that Cuba no longer “actively” supports terrorism, a clear contradiction to the State Department’s contention that countries on the list “have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.” The contention that Cuba’s banking system is “secret and non-transparent” does little to call into question the reality that the U.S. intelligence agencies have not produced a single piece of credible evidence proving that Cuba is financing terrorists.

In fact, there is ample evidence that the Cuban government has taken significant measures against terrorism. Law 93, enacted in December 2001, provides a legal basis for Cuba’s counterterrorism policy, and although not stated in this report, Cuba is a signatory to all twelve of the U.N. conventions and protocols against terrorism. The State Department’s allegations that Cuba “continued to publicly defend” the Colombian terrorist network FARC do not hold up against Fidel Castro’s State Department-acknowledged public rebuke of its tactics. Additionally, in 2005, Fidel Castro declared to end his practice of offering refuge to fugitives of U.S. justice, including fugitives wanted for terrorism, representing a clear shift from Cuba’s Cold War policies. In September 2006, the Cuban government upheld Castro’s declaration by deporting an American man who had kidnapped his son and flown him to Cuba, the only recent case in which a U.S. fugitive has sought safe haven in Cuba.

One of the State Department’s principal arguments in the report is that because Cuba “continued to provide a safe haven” to Colombian and Basque terrorists, it is a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.” This claim at first did not appear in the draft that the relevant State Department agency sent to Congress for its preliminary review by the legislative body. After Miami-area members of Congress had furiously reacted to the State Department’s actions in not listing Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, the review was hastily recalled by the State Department, where it bowed to the House. The State Department took this action even though the Basque and Colombian terrorists had been given refuge on Cuban territory at the request of the Spanish and Colombian governments respectively, in order to expedite a pending hostage release that they requested on humanitarian grounds. However, while nobody denies that there are members of foreign terrorist organizations living in Cuba, a remnant of Cuba’s previous involvement in occasionally arming international revolutionaries, there has been no credible evidence for years that Cuba currently supports or condones the activities of these groups. These ex-guerrillas certainly are not known to conduct terrorist activities or launch terrorist attacks out of Cuba, and in fact, as the State Department report states that in fear, some “have arrived in Cuba in connection with peace negotiations.” In 2002 and 2003, the government of Colombia publicly announced that peace negotiations were being held with the ELN rebel group in Cuba, and it sought the “continued mediation” of Cuba in these talks. Colombia, Cuba, and the U.N. have recognized six rounds of negotiations with the rebels since 2005. Moreover, the Council on Foreign Relations reports that the FARC and ELN have a presence in many capitals throughout Europe and Latin America. Thus, the presence of such guerrillas in Cuba cannot be used to constitute Cuba as a supporter of international terrorism.

The other common argument for Cuba being posted on the state terrorism list, persistently reiterated over the past decade, is the government’s providing hospitality for an estimated 70 fugitives of U.S. justice, some connected with U.S.-based terrorist organizations. In particular, the Cuban government provides refuge to Joanne Chesimard, who was a member of the Black Liberation Army wanted for the 1973 murder of a New Jersey State Trooper and viewed as notorious by U.S. authorities. She is among other wanted fugitives connected to Black and Puerto Rican liberation movements. Cuba has refused the vast majority of U.S. requests that these fugitives be turned over, on the grounds that “political” fugitives would not receive a fair trial in the U.S.

However, in most of these situations, to use the above cases as arguments for Cuba’s designation as a terrorist state would be seen by some as reeking with hypocrisy. The U.S. is itself holding several fugitives of Cuban justice, most significantly Luis Posada Carriles, an anti-Castro terrorist implicated in the bombing of a Cubana Airlines plane in 1976, as well as a series of 1997 bombings in Havana, and an assassination attempt on Fidel Castro in 2000. Washington has refused repeated Cuban and Venezuelan requests for the extradition of Posada Carriles, claiming that he would face torture in these countries, despite assurances otherwise. The Posada Carriles case strikingly contradicts Washington’s usual anti-terrorism stance and appears to violate UN Security Council Resolution 1373, a product of the U.S. War on Terror, which states that “claims of political motivation” cannot be used as grounds for “refusing the extradition requests of alleged terrorists.” The U.S. also has refused to extradite Orlando Bosch, another terrorist accused of masterminding the 1976 Cuban aircraft bombing.

In response to Washington’s demands for the release of the U.S. fugitives, the Cuban government demands the release of five alleged Cuban spies currently imprisoned in the U.S. and whose punishments have been deemed by a number of human rights groups as excessively harsh, who were the victims of significant bias during their heavily politicized trial. This situation was exacerbated in June, when the Supreme Court declined to review the decision of a federal appeals court that had upheld the initial trial in Miami as fair. Thus, Cuba’s retention of U.S. fugitives is a result of the reciprocal hostilities between the two governments, and does not necessarily indicate that Cuba supports international terrorism. Moreover, Mexico and El Salvador are both known to be holding several fugitives of U.S. justice. In January 2004, the Washington Times reported the cases of several Mexicans wanted for violent crimes committed in the Southwestern U.S., stating that Mexico City authorities have refused U.S. requests for the extradition of these suspects. Such evidence adds to the hypocrisy of Cuba’s unique designation as a terrorist state.

Significantly, the most bellicose language employed against Cuba in previous State Department reports has been removed from this year’s Country Reports on Terrorism. Under the Bush administration, the State Department, using ritualized rhetoric, repeatedly accused Cuba of refusing to cooperate with the U.S.-led War on Terror. While the State Department would use these examples as primary evidence that Cuba was a State Sponsor of Terrorism, this is in fact an entirely spurious conclusion. Cuba could not have been expected to forthrightly back Washington’s counterterrorism initiatives, given the legacy of enmity between these countries and Washington’s perennial attempts to destabilize the Cuban government. President Bush’s assumption that every country in the world must support the American-led response to terrorism, and that not to do so by following its model, necessarily determines whether a country should be considered a terrorist state, points to an extremely arrogant stance that fortunately has been somewhat mitigated by the Obama Administration. The Miami Herald noted that the Obama administration, by removing the most outlandish of the allegations from the Bush era, may have taken a definitive step leading to the removal of Cuba from the list altogether.

North Korea and Libya: The Terrorism List as Political Lever
Ultimately, the list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism” is often employed by Washington as a political lever, a carrot or a stick to be used on a country that abjectly follows or definitely renounces U.S. policies, and not as a legitimate measure of a country’s attitude toward international terrorism. This becomes most clear in the case of North Korea, a country that unlike Cuba, is actually likely to be sponsoring terrorism. North Korea was removed from the list of State Sponsors in October 2008, after the government of Kim Jong Il agreed to continue the disabling of its plutonium processing plant at Yongbyon and to allow for limited inspections of its nuclear facilities. In this case, pure expedience was at works.

The removal of North Korea was little more than a purely political act, the product of a desire to demonstrate results of the Six-Party talks that had sought an end to the country’s nuclear program since 2003 and a blundered attempt to placate a real security threat. In June 2008, after the U.S. first announced North Korea’s removal from the terrorism list and proposed a strict system of inspection of its nuclear facilities, Kim immediately reversed himself by threatening to resume his nuclear program. Only when the U.S. backed down and proposed more limited inspections did Kim agree and his government was removed from the State Sponsors list. Such use of the terrorism list as a political device by the State Department under Secretary of State Rice and the White House’s National Security Council, ignores the very definition of terrorism on which it is ostensibly based. Whether or not North Korea is processing plutonium does not necessarily provide convincing proof, nor has much to do, with whether or not it is arming international terrorist groups.

It is particularly ironic, then, that despite the removal of North Korea from the U.S. list, over the past years there have been continual allegations of North Korea’s support of terrorist networks. French, Japanese, and South Korean newspapers and the Israeli foreign intelligence service have alleged evidence that Kim’s regime is actively involved in the arming and training of Hizballah in Lebanon; the Japan media and the foreign intelligence service in Bangkok found that North Korea has armed the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. Both of these groups have been designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations by the U.S. Such reports seriously undermine the claim of the State Department that North Korea has “not sponsored any terrorist act” since 1987, which was sustained by the Rice State Department to push forward with its nuclear disarmament programs despite the putative evidence otherwise. The notion that North Korea is no longer designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, while Cuba remains on the list, is absurd.

The case of Libya further highlights the use of Washington’s State Sponsors list as a political tool. The Libyan government was linked to various terrorist attacks in the 1980s and did not conform to the U.S. counterterrorism standards until 2003, when the Libyan head of state Muammar al-Gaddafi agreed to allow United Nations inspectors to oversee the dismantling of Libya’s nuclear weapons program and accepted legal responsibility for the 1986 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie. His reward for cooperation was Libya’s removal from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list in May 2006 and the normalization of diplomatic and trade relations.

When Libya opened its arms to the West and endorsed Washington’s unilateral counterterrorism policies, it received a prize; when Cuba fails to do so, it remains blacklisted. Yet despite this, Cuba certainly is no more a terrorist state than Libya. While Libya renounced its former policies in 2003, Cuba renounced its support of terrorist revolutionaries in 1992, and has not been shown to fund them since. Although the anti-Castro lobby alleges that the Cuban government is backing the training of guerillas in Venezuela, neither the State Department nor the intelligence community has produced evidence to back these contentions. In fact, demonstrably, Cuba poses far less a threat to the international security than does Libya, considering the continued presence of al-Qa’ida and other terrorist groups in Libya, despite al-Gaddafi’s current willingness to play into Washington’s hands.

Cuba, Iran, and Syria
Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terror becomes further discredited when Cuba is compared to two of its counterparts on the list, Iran and Syria, both of which are verifiable terrorist states. Iran is designated on the State Sponsors list primarily due to the functions of the Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Group, a branch of the Iranian military, which has financed and trained Hamas, Hizballah, the Islamic Jihad, as well as radical militants in Iraq. Iran’s government is also holding members of al-Qa’ida, whom it refuses to identify or put on trial.

According to the State Department, Syria “provided political and military support to Hizballah” and its President Bashar al-Assad openly “expressed support” for many Palestinian militant groups. Several groups designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations actively operate and train militants on Syrian territory, often with the tacit approval of the Syrian government. These allegations are not easily debunked as is the State Department’s far less evidenced language against Cuba.

Cuba’s inclusion on the terrorism list has often been justified by other countries on the State Sponsors list. In particular, the anti-Cuban lobby cites Fidel Castro’s May 2001 visit to Iran, Syria, and Libya as evidence that his government backs terrorism, often recalling Castro’s reported comment to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini: “Iran and Cuba, in cooperation with each other, can bring America to its knees. The U.S. regime is very weak, and we are witnessing this weakness from close up.”

Given the entrenched hostilities between the U.S. and Cuba, it is no surprise that Castro would find an ideological ally in the Islamic Republic, also a government born out of a revolution against an American client state. But there is no evidence that Castro’s rhetoric has materialized into cooperation in backing terrorists. While Cuba and Iran signed a banking agreement in early 2006, which facilitated trade between the two nations and provided for increased economic and scientific cooperation in the future, the U.S. has not been able to prove that this agreement went beyond what it was publicly stated to be. Significantly, Cuban-Iranian relations have not been mentioned in the Country Reports on Terrorism for the past three years, a sign that Cuba cannot be deemed a terrorist state solely on the basis of association.

Conclusions: Moving Forward
As with many other aspects of U.S.-Cuba relations, the Obama administration has so far not enacted the significant policy shifts hoped for by supporters of a rational and respectful approach to Latin America. When Hillary Clinton was questioned by Senator Richard Lugar during her confirmation hearings as to Cuba’s placement on the terrorism list, her vague response suggested the potential for change: “We anticipate a review of U.S. policy regarding Cuba and look forward to working with members of the Committee and other members of Congress as we move forward to the consideration of appropriate steps to take to help advance U.S. interests and values in the context of relations with Cuba.” But clearly her State Department has failed to produce an objective review and, at least up to now, instead has succumbed to the demands of the anti-Castro lobby which, despite fifty years of proof that isolation will not bring about democracy in Cuba, continues to put forth its same confrontational tactics.

The terrorism list is more than a symbol of an anachronistic policy; in an era when the lifting of the trade embargo appears to be a real possibility, Cuba’s designation as a terrorist state has practical implications for the potential extent of trade between the two nations. As it stands, even if the embargo were lifted, there would still exist significant impediments to full bilateral trade and other links between the two countries. The U.S. would be forced to deny tax-free treatment of imported goods coming from Cuba; U.S. citizens wanting to trade with Cuba would first need to seek a license from the Treasury Department; and the U.S. would be forced to oppose any World Bank or IMF loans to the country. These stipulations of the U.S. laws and regulations, under which Cuba is considered a terrorist state, would stall the country’s economic development and the growth of meaningful U.S.-Cuba trading relations.

However, the removal of Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism would be a simple procedure: President Obama would only have to present Congress with a statement at least 45 days before the proposed removal, ascertaining that Cuba has not supported international terrorism in the past six months and that it has pledged not to do so in the future. There are two precedents in recent years for the use of such Presidential authority and no precedents for Congress to block a President’s decision.

Such a move would signal the reprioritization of consistency and rationality in Cuba policy over domestic political jockeying. This is a clear sign to the likes of sharply tongued ideologues such as South Florida Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart that the administration will no longer allow their ad hoc sense of history to prevent the U.S. from improving its relations with Cuba. Moreover, this action would mark a decisive step toward the full normalization of relations with Cuba, a sign of goodwill to governments throughout Latin America that would have no negative impact on the security of the United States, yet prompt a surge of amity. The removal of Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terror is a matter of simple consistency, honesty, and integrity: these are the values Obama vowed to bring to policymaking during his campaign, and Latin Americans as well as North Americans are waiting to see if he will live up to his promises.