Obama to Drop Cuba From List of State Sponsors of Terrorism

US President Barack Obama makes his way to Air Force One before departing from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on April 8, 2015.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama notified Congress he intends to remove Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, less than a week after meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro in Panama.

The move is the administration’s most significant act since Obama began restoring U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba in December after more than a half century of estrangement between the two countries. Cuba was put on the terrorism list in 1982.

“The government of Cuba has not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding 6-month period,” Obama said in the certification sent to Congress today. “The government of Cuba has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.”

Cuba’s designation as a sponsor of terrorism barred it from access to banks in the U.S. and made banks in other countries that have branches in the U.S. wary of doing business with the Cubans because of the risk they’d be fined. It has been one of the stumbling blocks in negotiations to re-establish ties.

Obama’s action gives Congress 45 days to respond.

Lower Risks

“It’s a key stepping stone in the process of renewing the relations,” Pedro Freyre, chairman of the international practice of Akerman LLP in Miami, said in an interview. “It opens the way for financial institutions to take a second look at Cuba because it lowers the risk and the regulatory burden for banks.”

Obama announced the shift less than a week after the State Department sent him a recommendation advising the change. In its most recent annual report on terrorism, the department highlighted Cuba’s history of harboring members of separatist groups such as Basque Fatherland and Liberty and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Those ties have grown distant and Cuba has hosted peace talks between FARC and the Colombian government, the report said.

Obama’s recommendation wasn’t a surprise. Cuba’s listing as a government that backs terrorism was at odds with the rapport that Obama and Castro showed as they met at the Summit of the Americas in Panama last week.

Trading Compliments

Speaking through a translator in a speech before the meeting, Castro called Obama an “honest man.”

“I admire him and his life and I think that his behavior has a lot to do with his humble background,” he said. Obama also had kind words for Castro.

“I want to thank President Castro for the spirit of openness and courtesy that he has shown during our interactions,” Obama, 53, said during the meeting, while seated next to the 83-year-old Cuban leader.

The two pledged to work toward agreement on issues such as human rights and press freedom, and pledged to open embassies in Havana and Washington. Obama said he’d push Congress to end a trade embargo against Cuba that has been in place for more than 50 years.

Obama’s decision to remove Cuba from a group of terrorism sponsors that includes Iran, Syria and Sudan paves the way for those actions to move forward as the U.S. normalizes relations with its neighbor less than 90 miles away.

“As the Cuban government has reiterated on multiple occasions, Cuba rejects and condemns all acts of terrorism in all its forms, as well as any action to support, finance or cover up terrorist acts,” Josefina Vidal, director of U.S. affairs at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, said Tuesday in a statement.

Opponents in Congress

Some members of Congress from both parties and prospective Republican presidential candidates have been critical of Obama’s steps on Cuba, and Tuesday’s action spurred attacks.

“The decision made by the White House today is a terrible one,” Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, said in a videotaped statement. Cuba “should have remained on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and I think it sends a chilling message to our enemies abroad that this White House is no longer serious about calling terrorism by its proper name.”

Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said Cuba continues to harbor U.S. criminals, including the convicted killer of a New Jersey state trooper.

“How can we say Cuba is not a state sponsor of terrorism when the Castro regime continues to harbor dozens of other American fugitives: cop killers, plane hijackers, bomb makers, arms traffickers?” he said in a statement.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, another contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, told reporters after a speech in Columbus, Ohio, that easing travel restrictions and currency flows will “prop up the Castro regime” with little in return.

No Closer

“A lot of people are really saddened by this because we’re not a step closer to freedom in Cuba because of the actions the president is taking,” Bush said.

Leaders in Latin America, where Obama’s meeting with Castro was widely celebrated last week, welcomed the move.

“Congratulations to the governments of the United States and Cuba for the important step they took today on the road to constructing a united Americas,” said Panama President Juan Carlos Varela, in a Twitter post. Varela hosted the Summit of the Americas, inviting Cuba to participate in the gathering for the first time.

“We salute this new step that brings the people of Cuba and U.S. closer,” said Peru President Ollanta Humala, in a Twitter post. “Today Latin America holds great expectations for this process.”

Several sticking points remain as the governments work to set up embassies and fully restore diplomatic relations. Castro has called for the U.S. to return the military base at Guantanamo and end the trade embargo, which was imposed by Congress and must be rescinded by lawmakers.

The two countries are also at odds over how many embassy staff will be allowed to be stationed in Havana and how freely they’ll be able to travel within the country.

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