Tomas Bilbao, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Good morning. I would like to thanks CSIS for organizing this event and my friend Carl Meacham for his continued work trying to bring about a more rational U.S. policy toward Cuba that advances the interests of the U.S. and the Cuban people. It is a great pleasure to serve as a non-resident Senior Fellow for such a prestigious organization that seeks strategic and bi-partisan solutions to some of the world’s greatest challenges. This is exactly the kind of thinking that U.S. policy toward Cuba has been lacking and so desperately needs, and I am confident that under Carl’s leadership, CSIS’s America’s program will make a big contribution toward that end.
I am grateful to share today’s panel with Bob Muse, the foremost legal expert on U.S Cuba sanctions and someone who for decades has worked to try to bring greater rationale to U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba. Bob will provide the legal context for Cuba’s delisting as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.
My goal today is to explain the political context in which Cuba’s continued designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism has taken place: First, political pressure exerted on the Administration by defenders of the status-quo in U.S. policy toward Cuba, secondly, how this designation fits within this Administration’s on-going review of Cuba policy and finally, what implications it has for civil society in Cuba.
Since Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 1982, seven U.S. administrations have maintained the classification despite radically different contexts. If we can draw one conclusion, it is that while classification requires evidence of support for terrorist groups, maintaining a country on the list requires only a lack of political will to de-list it.
I. Domestic Political Pressure
In the case of Cuba, the lack of political will can best be explained by pressure exerted by a domestic constituency with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo in U.S.-Cuba relations. Members of Congress who represent a vocal and shrinking minority within the Cuban-American exile community present the following arguments for Cuba’s continued designation:
- The Cuban government is authoritarian, violates its citizen’s human rights and does not respect the rule of law.
- Cuba maintains close relations with other state sponsors of terrorism.
- Cuba harbors fugitives from U.S. law.
Of course none of the charges, alone or together, would justify a country’s listing as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. The U.S. maintains diplomatic relations with a number of totalitarian regimes, with countries that maintain normal relations with Syria, Sudan and Iran and with countries where U.S. fugitives reside. As Mr. Muse will explain in a moment, none of these conditions meet the threshold of constituting a State Sponsor of Terrorism.
In response to the eroding credibility of these arguments, defenders of the status quo have sought new ones to justify an increasingly indefensible position. Most recently, they have suggested that U.S. contractor Allan Gross’ imprisonment and Cuba’s interference in Venezuelan affairs represent acts of terrorism, in what amounts to the political equivalent of gasping at straws.
I believe it is clear that Cuba’s continued designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism has as much- or more- to do about politics than it does about U.S. national security.
2. The Terrorist Designation and the Obama Administration’s Cuba Policy
In 2009, President Obama announced that his Administration would seek a new beginning with Cuba by overcoming decades of mistrust. This statement followed the fulfillment of one of the cornerstones of the President’s campaign promises to Cuban Americans: the removal of family travel restrictions. Almost four years later, and after taking additional steps to increase the free flow of people and resources, the President received an unprecedented 49% of the Cuban-American vote for his re-election.
Steps taken by President Obama during his first term in office have helped empower Cuba’s civil society to take advantage of changes on the island. Just this week, it was reported the Cuban-American cash remittances to the island reached $2.5 billion with another $2.5 billion in goods sent. These resources have helped fuel the growth of nearly half a million private entrepreneurs who are now less dependent on the Cuban state.
These and other small steps taken by the Obama Administration during its first term, have helped shift the focus away from an obsession with hurting the Cuban regime, to one of obsessing with helping the Cuban people.
The President’s second term raised the hope’s of Cuba watchers who, though happy with the small steps taken during his first term, saw a great opportunity to capitalize on a strong electoral backing by Cuban-Americans to truly push forward with the new beginning he had promised.
The selection of Senator John Kerry as Secretary of State added fuel to that optimism as he had a long track record in the Senate of pursuing improvements in U.S. policy toward Cuba. Then, just weeks after being sworn in as Secretary of State, the Boston Globe reported that senior Administration officials had reached a consensus that Cuba should be removed from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. The trial balloon however was short lived. Defenders of the status quo in Washington moved quickly to condemn the move and within hours, a State Department spokesperson was denying any such decision had been made.
In April, in public showing of cooperation, Cuba returned within 24 hours two U.S. fugitives accused of kidnapping their children and fleeing to Cuba. Then, in the wake of the Boston bombings, Cuban officials condemned the attacks and denounced all acts of terrorism. Meanwhile, Cuba was hosting peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC.
What followed puzzled Cuba watchers and can only be explained through a political lens.
On April 25, five days before the anticipated released of the Country Report on Terrorism, the Justice Department unsealed a 2004 grand jury indictment of a former State Department official accused of spying on behalf of Cuba and now living in Sweden. Then, on May 2nd the FBI’s Newark field office announced that it was designating a U.S. fugitive who fled to Cuba 40 years ago after murdering a New Jersey police office, as a domestic terrorist. What may have been an attempt to justify the Administration continued inclusion of Cuba on list of State Sponsors of Terrorism might now make it more difficult to de-list Cuba in the future.
In May, the Congressionally mandated Country Reports on Terrorism, which contains the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, was released with almost identical language as in 2011. While the report itself does not designate or de-list State Sponsors of Terrorism, the language contained therein serves as a measure for gauging the U.S. government’s best arguments for supporting the continued listing of offending states. In the case of Cuba, the rationale has eroded over the years.
3. Implication for Civil Society in Cuba
Unfortunately, Cuba’s continued designation as a State Sponsor of Terror not only undermines U.S. security policy, but it also feeds into and prologues the climate of mistrust that President Obama stated he wanted to overcome to achieve a new beginning.
At a time when Cuba is undergoing important changes and the U.S. is in the best position in half a century to facilitate change and empower civil society, the Administration should be taking advantage of opportunities to increase the effectiveness of our policy. Coming to grips with the fact that calling a shovel a spade and delisting Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism will help the U.S. achieve this, will require bold leadership that prioritizes good policy over political expediency.
Tomas Bilbao is the Executive Director of the Cuba Study Group in Washington, DC. All views expressed in this text are his own.
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