Each spring, the U.S. State Department releases a report indicating which countries the United States considers “State Sponsors of Terrorism.” Currently the list consists of four countries: Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria. This year, John Kerry’s ascent to U.S. Secretary of State generated a discussion about taking Cuba off the list. Given Kerry’s generally reasonable position on Cuba in the past, it was perhaps not surprising that he considered this option.
Nonetheless, on May 1, the U.S. State Department announced that Cuba would remain on its list. It’s a serious mistake.
State Department reports from the last decade have provided no substantive evidence to justify keeping Cuba on the list. In fact, the country’s inclusion is based on dubious allegations. The reports allege that Cuba has provided medical treatment and refuge for terrorist groups from the FARC in Colombia to the ETA in Spain. However, the reports do not acknowledge that the governments of both countries have expressed appreciation for Cuba’s cooperation in this arena.
The reports mention some fugitives from American justice who live in Cuba, but neglect to say that the United States stopped honoring the 1904 extradition agreement between the two countries in early 1959. Cuba has sent back most U.S. fugitives and has generally recognized the validity of U.S. courts, but has occasionally offered asylum to people it considers victims of “political persecution,” including former Black Panther Assata Shakur, accused of killing a New Jersey highway trooper in 1973.
Shakur’s asylum in Cuba has precedent in international law, as well as in decisions by U.S. Courts not to equate all violent political acts to terrorism. Her case constitutes a reason to raise the issue diplomatically and negotiate a new bilateral extradition treaty, but it is not sufficient motive to keep Cuba on the list. It is no coincidence that those Cuban-American politicians who demand that Cuba unilaterally return these few U.S. fugitives are the same ones who have advocated providing refuge for anti-Castro terrorists like Luis Posada Carriles—who in 1976 was responsible for a bomb that took 73 lives (including the Cuban national fencing team) on a Cuban civilian plane. Posada lives freely in Miami.
The Bush administration removed North Korea from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism in 2008 as part of a larger diplomatic strategy to shut down the country’s nuclear program. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explained the thinking behind that decision in No Higher Honor, her recently published memoirs. The list, she wrote, was supposed to single out “countries that supply a terrorist organization with training, logistics, or material or financial support. Technically, the North Koreans should have already been removed from the list much earlier; there had not been, at the time, any known terrorist incident involving Pyongyang for two decades.” Using Rice’s same substantive criterion for determining whether a country belongs on the list (no terror incident involving the country in question for twenty years), it is very difficult to argue that Cuba should be there.
Confronted with this double standard and the lack of evidence for keeping Cuba on the list, some defenders of the Obama administration’s decision to keep Cuba on the list simply reply that Cuba is not as important economically or strategically as South Florida is electorally. Yet these self-proclaimed political realists miss an important reality. The Cuban-American community, including the majority of those who oppose Castro, has changed. For most Cubans who came to the United States in the last two decades, the inclusion of their country of origin in the terrorism list is not only unfair, but also an obstacle to promoting changes on the island that could take place through exchanges between Cuba and the United States.
Defenders of including Cuba on the list point to Cuba’s imprisonment of Alan Gross, an American citizen who was arrested for his participation in a United States Agency for International Development regime change program on the island. They also claim that Cuba violates human rights and point to an increase of short-term detentions of Castro’s opponents during the last year.
Yet these actions have nothing to do with the congressional mandate to create a list of States Sponsors of Terrorism under the 1979 Exports Administration Act. Mixing these unrelated issues only demonstrates that the list has become a pretext to punish the Cuban government. This situation feeds into the Cuban government’s narrative that its revolution is under siege, and that because the island is a victim of U.S. double standards and hostility, it has to adopt emergency measures. Using the list in this way is therefore not only inconsistent, but also counterproductive.
If the goal is to provide anti-Castro militants a venue for psychological catharsis, there are other ways for them to vent their frustrations. The State Department already has a mechanism for reporting human rights violations all over the world. The UN Human Rights Council is in the process of evaluating Cuba this year, and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has indicated that the Gross arrest is unfair.
The misuse of an otherwise effective foreign policy tool should give pause to responsible members of Congress and the Washington intelligence community. First, it dilutes America’s multilateral anti-terrorist efforts by taking eyes and dollars away from where the real threats are. Second, it sends the wrong message to countries such as Iran and Syria and the groups they sponsor by diminishing both the substantive and political impact of being listed. Third, it weakens the case for monitoring countries such as Iran, whose presence on the list is more easily justified. In short, including Cuba undermines the credibility of the list itself, and has a corrosive effect on U.S. leadership in world.
Characterizing Cuba as a terrorist state—and more generally implying that the island in any way poses any threat to U.S. security—hinders the United States’ ability to develop a strategic vision for post-Fidel Cuba. The list encourages hostile actions against Cuba in American courts, thereby aggravating conflicts and blocking new exchanges. The island is a country in transition that is carrying out market-oriented economic reforms without changing its centralized, one party system. This situation calls for policies of engagement completely different from those required for dealing with a terrorist threat.