THE NEW YORK TIMES: Cuba’s Spot on U.S. Terror List Gums Up Restoration of Relations

Feb 27, 2015 by

Cuba’s Spot on U.S. Terror List Gums Up Restoration of Relations
FEB. 27, 2015

MEXICO CITY — As Cuban diplomats gather in Washington on Friday for historic talks to restore relations with the United States, their diplomatic entourage may carry something even more tangible than political demands: bundles of cash.

The reason is that, as one of the few nations in the world on the American government’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism, Cuba cannot find a bank in the United States that will do business with it, State Department officials say.

Now, Cuba’s spot on the American list of states that sponsor terrorism is emerging as a major sticking point in the effort to restore diplomatic ties with the United States and reopen embassies that have been closed for nearly five decades.

On Friday, Cuban and American officials will meet in Washington for a second round of talks — the first were in Havana in January — aimed at carrying out the vow of President Obama and President Raúl Castro to restore diplomatic relations as a prelude to more normal ties.

But whether Cuba should be removed from the state terrorism list is a particularly nettlesome issue, with some Republicans openly opposing it, the Cubans demanding it, and the Obama administration struggling to explain how it will proceed.

Roberta S. Jacobson, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs,
center, in Havana last month for talks on restoring relations with Cuba.
Credit Yamil Lage/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“These processes tend to be a little bit more complicated than they seem, and that’s all I’m going to say,” said a senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk more frankly than prepared statements allowed.

Cuban officials say they cannot envision opening a formal embassy in the United States while their country remains on the terror list. The only other countries on it are Iran, Sudan and Syria.

“It would be a contradiction, the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, if Cuba still remains on the list of countries sponsoring international terrorism,” Gustavo Machin, deputy director of American affairs at the Cuba Foreign Ministry, told reporters on Wednesday in Havana, according to Cuban news media reports.

President Obama announced on Dec. 17 that Cuba’s terror designation would be reviewed. “At a time when we are focused on threats from Al Qaeda to ISIL,” Mr. Obama said, “a nation that meets our conditions and renounces the use of terrorism should not face this sanction.”

But how long that review will take — and its prospects before a Republican-controlled Congress — are another matter entirely. Some Cuba watchers are baffled that the review is not yet complete.

“It’s hard to imagine what would take so long,” said Philip Peters, a former Reagan and Bush administration State Department official who now heads the nonprofit Cuba Research Center in Alexandria, Va. “It seems pretty clear they are going to be removed from the list. It’s a mystery.”

The presidents of both countries have said that they would attend the regional Summit of the Americas in Panama in April, leading to expectations that the embassies might open before then.

Both sides now indicate such a timetable might be a challenge.

State Department officials have sought to play down the terror list’s importance in the discussions about reopening embassies, declining to say when a review of Cuba’s designation would be completed.

“It would be very easy to restore diplomatic relations if they would not link those two things,” a senior State Department official told reporters Wednesday, referring to the terror list and the embassies.

Since 1977, Cuba and the United States have had “interests sections” in their respective capitals. They perform many of the functions of an embassy but do so under decidedly second-class status — and with enough suspicion and rancor that they have long been subject to restrictions, including limits on diplomats’ travel and the problem of finding a bank in the United States.

More than a year ago, the State Department held a meeting with bankers and Cuban officials to deliver an unusual request: Please accept Cuba’s money. The one bank that did business with Cuban diplomats in Washington, M&T Bank of Buffalo, had announced that it would no longer serve foreign missions.

State Department officials say they have been working on finding a bank for the Cuban interest section in Washington, acknowledging that cash-only transactions are “not safe.”

Beyond that, Cuban officials have complained that keeping their nation on the terror list is a political stunt out of sync with larger Middle East threats and the growing number of American travelers who regularly visit the island.

If Mr. Obama recommends that Cuba be removed from the list, he must submit a report to Congress certifying that Cuba has not supported international terrorism in the last six months.

Members of Congress could put forward a joint resolution to block the move, and some lawmakers have made their opposition to the détente with Cuba quite clear.

“President Obama and his negotiating team need to stop looking so desperate to secure a deal with the Castro regime to open an embassy in Havana, at any cost, before this April’s Summit of the Americas,” Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and possible contender for the presidency in 2016, said in a statement Tuesday.

Even if the House and Senate do not oppose removing Cuba from the terrorism list, the report to Congress includes a 45-day review period. So, while the administration’s conclusion may be known before the summit meeting, the removal of the designation would not take effect until after it.

Cuba landed on the list in 1982 for its support of leftist insurgents in Latin America. It has remained on the list since then because, according to a State Department report in 2013, the most recent available, it has provided “safe haven” for Basque separatists and Colombian rebels.

The Cuban government, the report also noted, continued to harbor an unspecified number of fugitives wanted in the United States, including Joanne D. Chesimard, who is on the F.B.I.’s list of Most Wanted Terrorists for killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973 and receiving asylum in Cuba after escaping from prison in 1979. The F.B.I. said Ms. Chesimard, who now goes by the name Assata Shakur, espoused revolution and terrorism against the United States.

The State Department report, however, noted that several of the Basque separatists had been repatriated to Spain, and that Cuba was playing host to peace talks between the Colombian government and a major rebel group, known by its Spanish acronym FARC.

“There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups,” the report said.

Some wonder if the terror list designation is a bargaining chip to extract further concessions from the Cubans.

“It may be a negotiating tactic,” said Christopher Sabatini, an adjunct professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and a longtime Cuba scholar. “But for the Cubans, this is a legitimate stumbling block. The risk is they can ask, ‘Are these good faith negotiations when the U.S. is not moving as quickly as it could?’ ”

Dr. Sabatini attended the meeting with the bankers last year. State Department officials, he said, pleaded with financial institutions to let the Cubans open accounts, but the bankers balked, having received no assurances they would not face Treasury Department sanctions.

A State Department official said there was no government waiver available to circumvent the sanctions laws. M&T Bank declined to comment, saying client information was private.

Some people, of course, would rather Cuba stay on the terror list.

Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who has vowed to block the détente, told a congressional hearing on Thursday that Cuba “poses a clear and present danger to the United States.”

“The Castro regime,” she added, “undermines our national security at every turn and reinforces instability in the entire region by exporting their Cuban military and espionage apparatus across the region.”

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