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Get Cuba off the List of State Sponsors of Terror

by Sarah Stephens, Director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas
25 August 2011

It is both untrue and a travesty to paint Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism as the United States government did in its annual report on the subject last week.

For twenty-nine years, Cuba has appeared on the list, which comes with considerable economic and diplomatic costs. It disqualifies Cuba from economic assistance, punishes Cuba for engaging in legal trade and financial transactions, and deprives Cuba of access to modern technology by way of exports, to name but a few.

Most of all, the list stigmatizes Cuba - not everywhere, but certainly in the United States and elsewhere in the world where our country's word is respected and the terrorist label stings and stays.

Terror exists in the world; both the U.S. and Cuba have experienced it, and the purpose of the list is to get perpetrators to stop and enlist other nations in a global effort to get them to do so.

This activity took on special meaning for the U.S. after September 11, 2001, but it also should have come with a greater responsibility to use the list seriously and not use it to play domestic politics on a higher and more fraught stage.

Other nations listed in the State Department's Country Report on Terrorism, including Iran and Syria, are said to provide "financial, material, and logistical support" for terror groups. Iran is cited for arming the Taliban in Afghanistan and supporting militants in Iraq who kill American forces; Syria for supplying terrorist groups in Lebanon and Palestinian militants aligned against Israel.

So why is Cuba on the list?

As the Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports, Cuba did support revolutionary movements and governments in Latin America and Africa in the 1980s, but stopped supporting insurgencies in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Since then, as the Council on Foreign Relations said last year, "intelligence experts have been hard pressed to find evidence that Cuba currently provides weapons or military training to terrorist groups. In 1998, a comprehensive review by the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Cuba does not pose a threat to U.S. national security, which implies that Cuba no longer sponsors terrorism... . In the 2008, Country Reports on Terrorism, the State Department reported that Cuba 'no longer actively supports armed struggle in Latin America and other parts of the world."

At this stage, the case for Cuba's inclusion is flimsy to non-existent.

The State Department reports, for example, that Cuba denounces U.S. counterterrorism policies, and has not "severed ties with elements from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and recent media reports indicate some current and former members of the Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) continue to reside in Cuba. Available information suggested that the Cuban government maintained limited contact with FARC members, but there was no evidence of direct financial or ongoing material support. In March, the Cuban government allowed Spanish Police to travel to Cuba to confirm the presence of suspected ETA members."

If this is the core of the problem, what do Spain and Colombia think? Former President Jimmy Carter put that question directly to those countries' ambassadors to Cuba when he visited the island in March of 2011. This is what President Carter said in his trip report:

We raised a question about the terrorist list, and the Ambassadors from Spain and Colombia said they were not concerned about the presence of members of FARC, ETA, and ELN in Cuba. Indeed, they maintained that this enhances their ability to deal more effectively with these groups. In fact, ETA members are there at the request of the Spanish government (our emphasis).
President Carter, as Peter Kornbluh reported in the Nation, also told the press that U.S. and Cuban intelligence were currently "cooperating" in counterterrorism efforts against Al Qaeda.

In other words, as Wayne Smith, former Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana writes, "there is absolutely nothing in this year's report which would in any way suggest that Cuba is a 'state sponsor of terrorism.'" In fact, there are national interest arguments for removing the designation, and acknowledging Cuba's cooperation. As Smith says, "That the U.S. continues to keep it on the list despite this total lack of evidence simply diminishes our own credibility. "

There is a process for getting Cuba off the list. One option, as CRS writes, is for the president to submit a report to Congress that says the listed government has changed policies, stopped supporting acts of terrorism, and provides assurances that it will not do so in the future.

We don't know whether Cuba, given the politicized nature of this process, wants to offer this guarantee, but doing so would certainly test the Obama administration' s commitment to running an honest war against terrorism. We'd like to give the administration the benefit of the doubt, and we'd like to see the machinery start to run to remove Cuba from the list.

Here in the U.S., we will soon commemorate the tenth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, a good opportunity for us to demonstrate by our deeds and our words that we take the cause against terrorism seriously and responsibly.

Cuba acted with honor on that awful September day. Its government condemned the attacks quickly and it offered medical assistance to the victims and to give U.S. planes access to Cuban airspace and airports when they could not land here -- offers our government did not accept.

These deeds -- and the clear factual record -- show Cuba deserves better than the continued painting it receives from our anti-terrorism brush. It's time to get Cuba off the list.



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