Shakur, Snowden, and the State Department: Is Cuba a State Sponsor of Terrorism?

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Assata Shakur

On May 30, the State Department submitted its annual report on terrorism (“Country Reports on Terrorism 2012”) to Congress, notably maintaining Cuba on the list of state sponsors of terrorism along with Iran, Sudan, and Syria. Cuba was designated as a state sponsor of terrorism on March 1, 1982. It has remained ever since on the list of states that Washington accuses of repeatedly providing support for international acts of terrorism. The justification for Cuba’s presence on the list—that it is providing a safe haven for wanted fugitives and particularly for Assata Shakur—is flimsy at best.  [1] Upon closer examination this assertion fails to be convincing. Cuba’s unfounded listing as a state sponsor of terrorism undermines U.S. credibility abroad, hampering its efforts to counteract authentic terrorism around the world.

As to the most common criteria for determining state sponsors of terrorism, the State Department has had to openly acknowledge that Cuba is not providing weapons or training to terrorist groups and is cooperating with the international community’s efforts to combat money laundering. Cuba is currently hosting peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), calling into question claims that Cuba is harboring FARC members. Nevertheless, the assertion that Cuba is a safe haven for terrorists provides the main justification for its classification as a state sponsor of terrorism and is entirely duplicitous in its argument.

Assata Shakur and Edward Snowden: Two Distinct Cases of U.S. Fugitives and Cuba

The contention that Cuba shelters U.S. fugitives primarily alludes to the case of JoAnne Chesimard, better known as Assata Shakur, who became the first woman placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list on May 2 of this year. [2] Shakur is wanted for escaping from jail and fleeing to Cuba after being convicted of murdering a state trooper in New Jersey in 1973. Her conviction remains highly controversial due to the lack of definitive forensic evidence of her involvement, though her presence at the turnpike where the incident occurred is uncontested. [3] Many believe that Shakur was unfairly targeted due to her leadership role within the Black Panther Party and membership in the Black Liberation Army. [4]

Even if Shakur’s conviction holds, her classification as an international terrorist does not. First, U.S. statute defines terrorism as using or threatening violence against civilians or civilian populations for political gains. [5] An active-duty state trooper is not a civilian; therefore, this murder cannot be considered an act of terrorism. Second, the crime was allegedly perpetrated in the United States by a U.S. citizen and against a U.S. citizen, thus ruling out any basis for classification as an act of international terrorism.

Despite these considerations, the United States continues to demand Shakur’s extradition even though Cuba is under no obligation to do so. The Cuban government first granted Shakur asylum in 1984 based on her reasonable fear of being persecuted or prosecuted for her political beliefs and race upon her return to the United States. [6] Granting Shakur asylum absolved the Cuban government of any legal responsibility to comply with the U.S. request. [7] Even if Shakur had not been granted asylum, the Cuban government is not obligated to extradite fugitives charged with political crimes in accordance with a 1904 treaty with the United States. [8] Consequently, the FBI’s convenient reclassification of Shakur less than a month before the state sponsors of terrorism list was released points to inter-agency collaboration within the federal government to justify the continued presence of Cuba on the list.

Recent events regarding National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden shed further light on the inappropriate nature of Cuba’s continued listing as a state sponsor of terrorism. After fleeing the United States and subsequently being charged with three counts of espionage, Snowden travelled first to Hong Kong and then to Moscow, where he requested political asylum from Ecuador. As there were no direct flights from Russia to Ecuador at the time, his publicized route included layovers in Havana and Caracas. Snowden’s transit is a highly political matter for all nations involved, since they can be implicated in giving refuge to a U.S. fugitive. However, the plane to Cuba took off without Snowden on board.


Snowden’s absence on the flight to Havana indicates that he had a reasonable fear of detainment—even extradition to the United States—were he to set foot in Cuba. [9] The State Department’s “Country Reports on Terrorism 2006” cites the Cuban government’s assurance that “it will no longer provide safe haven to new U.S. fugitives who may enter Cuba” [emphasis added]. [10] By not facilitating Snowden’s bid for asylum—as of this article’s publication—Cuba is following through with this mandate. Since no new fugitives have entered Cuba in recent years, Washington’s highly publicized reclassification of Shakur as an international terrorist undermines Cuba’s efforts to comply with new U.S. extradition requests. Although Shakur is not a new fugitive, the latest charge against her makes her a renewed threat in the eyes of the public and overshadows Cuba’s commitment to respecting the U.S. justice system in these matters. Snowden’s decision to avoid Cuba illustrates his belief that Cuba and the United States may cooperate on a de facto basis on national security issues more than the State Department’s “Country Reports on Terrorism 2012” might suggest.

Delegitimizing the “War on Terror”

The continued listing of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism reveals a glaring hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy dating back to before the Cuban Revolution. Organized crime in Cuba peaked during the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista (1952-1959) as the U.S.-sponsored puppet government permitted mob gangsters like Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano to conduct crime operations from Havana hotels. The United States arguably tolerated mob activity in Cuba for decades prior to the Revolution—activity that could be easily construed as international terrorism. Now Washington’s accusations that Cuba not only supports, but also sponsors, terrorism only add to Cuba’s baseless inclusion on the list. The old face of terrorism in Cuba (organized crime rings and internationally notorious gangsters) and its supposedly new face (Shakur, a 70-year-old activist accused of a domestic crime that occurred 40 years ago) are irreconcilable.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the State Department has exhausted all plausible arguments for keeping Cuba on the state sponsors of terrorism list, and only continues to do so at the behest of the Cuban-American lobby and U.S. congressional representatives. These policymakers include Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), and Albio Sires (D-NJ), a bipartisan group of Cuban-American legislators that submitted a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry on April 29 demanding that Cuba be maintained on the list. In order to appease the anti-Castro lobby, the State Department has compromised its integrity by resorting to dubious justifications that do not reflect the realities of the situation in Cuba. Thus, it has transformed U.S.-Cuban relations into a matter of U.S. domestic politics, when they should be a matter of foreign policy.

Through its continued listing of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, the United States undermines its own counterterrorism mandate and the already contested legitimacy of certain features of its “War on Terror.” On June 14, Cuba ratified its “commitment to fight terror” and criticized the U.S. double standard on the issue. This allegation alludes to the fact that the United States harbours a known international terrorist, Luis Posada Carriles, one of the architects of the October 6, 1976 bombing of Cubana Airlines flight number 445 that killed 73 people. [11] The ratification indicates that Cuba is taking credible and practical steps towards combating global terrorism, even as Washington continues to abide by its policy of politicized pseudo-diplomacy when it comes to Cuban issues.

Rebecca Lullo and Phineas Rueckert, Research Associates at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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[1] U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Counterterrorism, Country Reports on Terrorism 2012, Washington, D.C., May 30, 2013,

[2] Michael Ratner, “Justice Department Redefines Terrorism by Putting Assata Shakur on Terrorism List,” interview with Paul Jay, The Ratner Report, The Real News Network, IWT, May 10, 2013,

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Most Wanted Terrorists,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Justice, accessed on June 24, 2013,

[5] Ratner, “Justice Department.”

[6] “National Lawyers Guild Urges FBI to Respect Political Asylum Status of Assata Shakur,” National Lawyers Guild, May 7, 2013; Lennox Hinds and Angela Davis, “Angela Davis and Assata Shakur’s Lawyer Denounce FBI’s Adding of Exiled Activist to Terrorists List,” interview with Amy Goodman and Juan González, The War and Peace Report, Democracy Now, May 3, 2013,

[7] Ratner, “Justice Department.”

[8] United States, “Treaty Between the United States and Cuba for the Mutual Extradition of Fugitives from Justice,” April 6, 1904,

[9] Anya Landau French, “Why Didn’t Snowden Board the Flight to Cuba?,” The Christian Science Monitor, June 24, 2013,

[10] U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Counterterrorism, Country Reports on Terrorism 2006, Washington, D.C., April 30, 2007,

[11] Ann Louise Bardach, “Twilight of the Assassins,” The Atlantic, November 1, 2006,