A new start: Obama works to thaw relationship with Cuba

[dropcap]P[/dropcap]resident Barack Obama announced he intends to remove Cuba from America’s list of nations that sponsor terrorism this week.

“We will continue to have differences with the Cuban government, but our concerns over a wide range of Cuba’s policies and actions fall outside the criteria that is relevant to whether to rescind Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism,” said Josh Earnest, the White House’s press secretary in a statement released Tuesday. “That determination is based on the statutory standard – and the facts – and those facts have led the president to declare his intention to rescind Cuba’s State Sponsor of Terrorism designation.”

Obama’s announcement on Tuesday is the latest step in removing a major obstacle to restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba after decades of hostilities dating back to the Cold War. Last December,Obama directed the U.S. State Department to launch a review of Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism and provide a report to him within six months. Last week, the report was presented to the White House and recommended Cuba be removed from the list.

“This recommendation reflects the Department’s assessment that Cuba meets the criteria established by Congress for rescission,” said Secretary of State John Kerry. “This review focused on the narrow questions of whether Cuba provided any support for international terrorism during the previous six months, and whether Cuba has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future, consistent with the statutory standard for rescission.”

Back in 1982, President Ronald Reagan added Cuba to the State Sponsor of Terrorism list because of its efforts to promote armed revolution by forces in Latin America.

“Toward those who would export terrorism and subversion in the Caribbean and elsewhere, especially Cuba and Libya, we will act with firmness,” said Reagan in his 1982 State of the Union address.

During his administration, Reagan also tightened the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba in an effort to curtail companies operating in foreign countries from providing American goods and technology and to increase scrutiny by American authorities of travel groups organizing and promoting travel to the island.

Washington, D.C.’s embargo and general policies on Cuba since Fidel Castro sized power in the mid-20th century has been a point of contention for Latin American allies of the United States over the years. This has led to the U.S. being unable to get support on other issues from Latin American allies over the years, said administration officials.

“Circumstances have changed since 1982,” said Kerry. “Our Hemisphere, and the world, look very different today than they did 33 years ago.”

President Obama meets with President Raul Castro. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
President Obama meets with President Raul Castro. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Obama met with Cuban President Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas meeting in Panama over the weekend, the first time a U.S. and a Cuban president spoke face to face in more than half a century.

“Now, obviously there are still going to be deep and significant differences between our two governments. We will continue to try to lift up concerns around democracy and human rights. And as you heard from President Castro’s passionate speech this morning, they will lift up concerns about U.S. policy as well,” said Obama after the historic meeting. “But I think what we have both concluded is that we can disagree with the spirit of respect and civility, and that over time it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship in our two countries.”

The meeting was held in a small conference room in a Panama City convention center. Each leader sat in polished, wooden chairs, angled slightly toward each other, with a small round table placed between them that had a set with a simple bouquet of three white roses. Instead of American and Cuban flags in the background, as is customary for these types of meetings, the backdrop was the “Summit of the Americas 2015 in Panama” signage and each leader had an interpreter sitting next to him.

During the 12-minute meeting, the two men shook hands and then had a frank discussion on the ongoing project of opening embassies in Havana and Washington, occasionally remarking how unlikely the meeting would have seemed in the past, said a White House official. The “practical” issues the two leaders discussed included the importance of U.S. diplomats needing to move around in Cuba.

“We would obviously need to have sufficient capability for diplomats to move around the country,” said the official, adding that it’s a requirement for the U.S. to open an embassy. And although the Obama administration “understands this is not going to be like our embassy in London,” more flexibility is needed than what Cuban authorities are offering.

“We’ve made good progress,” the official said. “Our expectation is this could be concluded relatively quickly.”

After the meeting, Castro addressed leaders from North America, Central America, the Caribbean and South America and said he considered Obama’s desire to move quickly to remove Cuba from the list of countries sponsoring terrorism as a “positive step” and called him an “honest man.” However, the positive comments were made after a considerable preface severely criticizing previous White House administrations’ initiatives to destabilize and wrest control of Cuba away from the Castro family’s Communist dictatorship.

“Today, the economic, commercial and financial embargo applies in full force against the island, causing damage and shortages to the island and is the essential obstacle to the development of our economy,” said Castro. “It constitutes a violation of international law and its extraterritorial scope affects the interests of all nations.”

Obama submitted the state department’s report to Congress with his recommendation on Tuesday. The proposed rescission could go into effect within 45 days of Congressional approval.

The same day the recommendation was made, U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) issued a statement critical of Obama’s decision to remove Cuba from the list because the Cuban government has harbored an unspecified number of fugitives wanted in the U.S. His statement mentioned Joanne D. Chesimard, who the F.B.I. has on its Most Wanted Terrorists for killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973 and receiving asylum in Cuba after escaping from prison in 1979.

“There is no explanation, no justification, and no comfort that can be provided today to the family of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster…today’s announcement reopens a painful wound for so many people in my state,” said Menendez. “For Cuba to be removed from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, it must demonstrate changed behavior through verifiable actions, not empty rhetoric. Cuba remains as repressive today as ever and is undeserving of this potential newfound designation.”

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