The U.S. State Department's recent recommendation that U.S. President Barack Obama take Cuba off the list of state sponsors of international terrorism removes a major roadblock to the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana. If Obama acts on the recommendation on the eve of the Seventh Summit of the Americas convening in Panama this Friday, he will significantly strengthen Washington's diplomatic position in Latin America and create a positive atmosphere for his interactions with the hemisphere's other heads of state—including Cuban leader Raúl Castro.
To be sure, a decision to remove Cuba from the terrorist list will not end the domestic debate about whether Cuba belongs on the list—or about Obama's broader opening to Cuba. Congress has 45 days to review a president's determination before it goes into effect, and the Obama's conservative critics on the Hill will no doubt try to block Cuba's removal. They are not likely to succeed, however, since they would have to muster veto-proof majorities in both houses of Congress. But they will use the opportunity to redouble their criticism of Obama's Cuba policy in particular and his foreign policy in general.
Although the president's determination on Cuba seems straightforward—even obvious—the issues are complex. The law establishing the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, the Export Administration Act of 1979, at a minimum requires the president to certify that the country in question has not supported international terrorism in the past six months and has given assurances that it will not support it in the future. He would report that certification to Congress, and it would not become effective for 45 days, giving Congress an opportunity to try to overturn the finding. Meanwhile, the State Department will examine Cuba's recent behavior on the issues that were the basis for Cuba's inclusion on the list.
Cuba's original designation in 1982 was a law governing the state sponsors list defines terrorism narrowly as "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets." Prior to 1982, Washington distinguished between revolutionary movements and terrorist organizations. It did not list Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism despite Havana's long-standing support for revolution. In the 1980s, however, while Havana was supporting revolutionary insurgents, especially in El Salvador, Washington, under the Reagan Doctrine, was backing counterrevolutionary ones. The administration called Cuba's allies "terrorists" and its own "freedom fighters." It never listed as terrorists the insurgent groups it supported in Afghanistan, Angola, and Nicaragua, despite their use of violence against noncombatants.
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