Thirty-three years after US President Ronald Reagan slapped Cuba onto a state department list of nations that support international terrorism, the Obama administration has finally corrected that historical injustice. By “delisting” Cuba, and removing the onerous financial sanctions that accompanied the terrorist designation, US President Barack Obama has eliminated the last obstacle to one of the most historic accomplishments of his presidency – the restoration of official diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana.
Few people know, or care to remember, how Cuba came to be on the list to begin with. The reason had to do with Cuban support for revolution – not terrorism. In 1981 and early 1982, the Reagan administration was engaged in secret back-channel diplomacy with Fidel Castro to pressure him to cease Cuban support for armed struggle in Central America. Reagan even sent a former CIA deputy director, Vernon Walters, on a top secret mission to meet with Castro in Havana.
Walters carried a warning: If Castro didn’t remove Cuban advisers helping the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, and halt material aid to guerrilla forces in El Salvador and Guatemala, the US and Cuba “were headed inexorably towards confrontation”.
When Castro didn’t acquiesce to US threats and demands, in the spring of 1982, Reagan added Cuba to a list of states that supported international terrorism. At the time the list included North Korea, Libya, and Iran. (The list now consists of three countries: Iran, Sudan, and Syria.)
Support for revolution is fundamentally different from support for international terrorism. Moreover, long after the civil strife ended in Central America the US state department renewed, year after year, Cuba’s designation as a terrorist state even though the historical record clearly demonstrated that Cuba did not meet the legal criteria to be on the list.
In 1999, for example, the state department conceded that there was no evidence that Cuba was actively supporting terrorists or insurgents, but designated Cuba a terrorist state because it was “harbouring past terrorists”, among them militant fugitives from the United States and members of the Basque separatist movement, ETA, and the FARC insurgents in Colombia.
If harbouring known international terrorists is criteria for being designated a terrorist state then the state department should add another country to its list: the United States of America.
In a recent analysis of Cuba’s placement on the list published in the journal Foreign Affairs, American University professor William LeoGrande writes that the state department’s rationale “was not entirely consistent with the official definition of support for international terrorism, which specifies that giving “sanctuary” to terrorists means allowing them to “carry out terrorist activities” from a country’s national territory – something that Cuba has not allowed.
Cuban exile terrorism
Indeed, if harbouring known international terrorists is criteria for being designated a terrorist state then the state department should add another country to its list: the United States of America. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, the CIA trained, paid, and provided bases to Cuban exiles engaged in acts of murderous violence and sabotage against Cuban civilians and property.
In the late 1980s, the administration of George H W Bush gave sanctuary and safe haven to Orlando Bosch, who the CIA and FBI identified as an intellectual author of the October 6, 1976, bombing of Cubana flight 455, killing all 73 men, women and children on board. The administration of his son, George W Bush, allowed Bosch’s co-conspirator in that act of international terrorism, Luis Posada Carriles, to come to the US in March 2005. He has been there ever since.
Posada is the true godfather of Cuban exile terrorism; the Cubans refer to him as “the Osama bin Laden of Cuba”. In 1997, he orchestrated a series of bombings of hotels and tourist sites in Havana, injuring more than a dozen people and killing an Italian businessman.
In an effort to gain publicity, he proudly confessed to those crimes – the Italian “was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I sleep like a baby”, he told the New York Times. In November 2000, he was arrested, prosecuted and convicted in Panama for plotting to blow up an auditorium where Fidel Castro was due to speak. He served four years in prison before being pardoned. He then came to the US and now lives in Miami, unmolested by his terrorist past.
As part of the secret negotiations that led to the removal of Cuba from the terrorism list and breakthrough in US-Cuban relations, Obama administration officials raised the issue of Cuba returning several black militant fugitives who, decades ago, were given political asylum in Havana. The Cuban negotiators promptly requested the US turn over Posada Carriles. At that point, as one White House official told me, those negotiations “came to a dead end”.
The political enemies of Obama’s historic opening to Cuba are now attacking the White House for “concessions” to Cuba. And predictably, Cuba’s removal from the list has already become a political hot potato in the US presidential campaign. The leading contender for the Republican nomination, Jeb Bush, denounced Obama for being “more interested in capitulating to our adversaries than in confronting them”.
Marco Rubio, the hardline Cuban-American senator from Florida, attacked the president for giving “the Cuban regime concession after concession, in exchange for nothing that even remotely resembles progress towards freedom and democracy for the Cuban people”.
But Senator Rubio and his few supporters in Congress had 45 days to challenge the president’s decision to remove Cuba from the terrorism list, and they failed to do so. In the end, they do not have the political power and the votes to block Obama’s ongoing effort to change US policy from 55 years of perpetual hostility to a future of engagement and diplomatic normalcy.
Now, for the first time since President Dwight Eisenhower broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in January 1961, Washington and Havana are poised to re-establish official ties. An announcement is expected in the coming days that both nations will upgrade their “interest sections” in Washington and Havana to fully functioning embassies.
John Kerry has already said that he would relish being the first US secretary of state in 60 years to travel to Cuba for the official reopening of diplomatic relations. A historic new era between the United States and Cuba is about to begin.
Peter Kornbluh directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive in Washington DC and is co-author, with William LeoGrande, of the new book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between the United States and Cuba.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.