The State Department removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, a largely symbolic step clearing the way for normalizing diplomatic relations 54 years after the U.S. severed ties after Cuba’s communist revolution.
Removal from the list, announced by the department on Friday, came as a matter of course because Congress made no move to block the action within 45 days after President Barack Obama unveiled plans to do so on April 14.
“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,” Jeff Rathke, a department spokesman, said in a statement.
The two nations intend to reopen embassies in Havana and Washington once officials resolve points of contention, including U.S. demands for freedom of movement for its diplomats in the island nation and Cuba’s concerns about U.S. democracy programs that it says undermine the government in Havana.
“It’s hard to put a timeline on it,” Rathke told reporters at the State Department. “We’ve gotten closer each time,” he said of continuing U.S.-Cuba talks.
When the remaining issues are resolved, the Obama administration will give Congress 15 days’ notice of its intent to reopen an embassy in Havana and will seek to name an ambassador.
While U.S. lawmakers opposed to normalizing relations with Cuban President Raul Castro’s government can’t stop Obama from upgrading the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to an embassy, they may try to block or delay the nomination of an ambassador to serve there.
House Speaker John Boehner said in an e-mailed statement that “the Obama administration has handed the Castro regime a significant political win in return for nothing.”
“The communist dictatorship has offered no assurances it will address its long record of repression and human rights abuses at home,” the Ohio Republican said. “Nor has it offered any indication it will cease its support for violence throughout the region.”
Removal from the terrorism list doesn’t affect the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, which can’t be lifted without action by Congress. Boehner vowed that the House will make sure the sanctions remain in place.
Cuba was added to the list of state sponsors of terrorism - - a short roster that now includes only Iran, Syria and Sudan -- in 1982 by President Ronald Reagan.
Removing Cuba from the list will make companies internationally more willing to do business there, according to Pedro Freyre, who heads Akerman LLP’s international law practice in Miami.
“Cuba will no longer carry the stigma associated with being designated as a ‘terrorist state,’ and this in and of itself lowers the perceived risk, and on a practical level, removes a number of regulatory barriers related to export, reporting, and compliance restrictions,” Freyre said in a e-mailed statement.
In April, Obama cited a four-month interagency review that concluded Cuba was no longer providing support for international terrorists such as the Basque separatist group ETA.
Secretary of State John Kerry said at the time that removal from the list doesn’t mean the U.S. has resolved its differences with Cuba over other issues, which include restrictions on human rights and the harboring of U.S. fugitives from justice.
The move toward normalized relations was announced by Obama and Castro on Dec. 17, which opened the door for talks in each capital on conditions each side wanted fulfilled.
Cuba has insisted since the first talks in Havana in January that it never belonged on the terrorism list and would have to be removed before it would agree to restore ties and reopen embassies.