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WASHINGTON, Jun 13 2013 (IPS) - Experts here are stepping up calls for the U.S. government to remove Cuba from an official list of “state sponsors of terrorism”, arguing that the country’s presence on the list is anachronistic and makes neither legal nor political sense.
The calls come just weeks after the U.S. State Department, which oversees the “state sponsors” list, released an annual report on terrorism. Its section regarding Cuba varied only slightly from that of the previous year, disappointing those who had hoped for a step in the direction of normalisation of U.S.-Cuba relations.
“At a time when the U.S. is best positioned to help facilitate change in the island and to take advantage of the changes inside the country, this continued inclusion is actually an obstacle to taking advantage of that window of opportunity,” Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, said Tuesday at a panel discussion at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think tank here.
Bilbao noted the continued influence of a “shrinking minority” of anti-Cuba hardliners in the United States who fervently oppose Cuba’s removal from the list, as well as a lack of political will on the part of U.S. policymakers to square off with that minority.
Nonetheless, he asserted that the time is ripe for the United States to take Cuba off the list and prioritise helping the Cuban people over harming the Cuban regime.
President Barack Obama’s administration has overseen some notable policy shifts, such as a relaxation of laws restricting travel by U.S. citizens with family in Cuba. Certain realities have also been changing within Cuba, including the abdication of Fidel Castro from power, which make friendlier policies toward the island nation more feasible.
Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Centre for Democracy in the Americas, a U.S. organisation that promotes reconciliation with Cuba, told IPS that delisting Cuba now would “enable the U.S. to support Cuba’s drive to update its economic model, make it easier to facilitate trade and easier for Cuba to access high technology items”.
“Doing so,” she said, “would in turn help Cubans lead more prosperous and independent lives.”
Debating Cuba’s qualifications
Cuba has been on the State Department list since 1982, but some analysts maintain that the country did not fit the definition of a state sponsor of terror even then. In order to fit that legal definition, a country must have “repeatedly provided support for international terrorism”.
According to Robert L. Muse, a specialist on the legality of U.S. policy toward Cuba, there are currently three ostensible reasons for Cuba’s inclusion in the most recent list: that it has allowed Basque separatists to reside within its borders, that it has dealings with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and that it harbours fugitives wanted for crimes committed in the United States.
Muse, who spoke Tuesday at CSIS, claimed the first two reasons were void because the countries concerned actually condone Cuba’s relationship with their adversaries. Cuba is currently host to negotiations between FARC and the Colombian government, and Spanish leaders prefer that Basque rebels remain in Cuba – and out of Spain.
These interactions with rebel groups, in Muse’s opinion, “can hardly be a basis even for criticism”. It is only the third justification, that Cuba harbours U.S. fugitives, which he said “could fairly bear description as a reason” for keeping Cuba on the list.
Cuba has harboured a number of fugitives seeking refuge from the U.S. justice system. The most prominent is Assata Shakur, an African-American poet and participant in 1970s black liberation movements who was allegedly involved in the killing of a police officer. She was convicted for the murder but escaped and in 1984 gained political asylum in Cuba, where she has remained ever since.
Early last month, Shakur became the first woman to be added to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Most Wanted Terrorist list. But Muse notes that this designation was “arbitrary and capricious”, as neither she nor any other fugitive residing in Cuba has been accused, let alone convicted, of international terrorism.
Politics as usual
Both Muse and Bilbao concluded that Cuba’s continued presence on the State Department’s terrorism list arises less from these shaky legal justifications than from political calculations.
Others have arrived at similar conclusions for years. In 2002, a former advisor to President Bill Clinton suggested that maintaining Cuba on the list keeps happy a certain part of the voting public in Florida – a politically important state with a large Cuban exile population – and “it doesn’t cost anything”.
Muse disagreed with the latter part of that statement, however. He noted that by behaving arbitrarily in what should be a strictly legal matter, the United States was damaging its “credibility on the issue of international terrorism” and diminishing its “seriousness of purpose” in using the term “terrorism” in a meaningful manner.
Proponents of the status quo argue the opposite, saying that by removing Cuba the United States would damage its credibility by effectively making a concession. Bilbao explained to IPS that those such views focus on the “spin” of the Cuban government rather than on the actual consequences of taking Cuba off the list, a move he believes would ultimately benefit the United States.
“I think the priority of the U.S. government should be to determine what’s in its best interests,” he told IPS.
Muse went a step further, saying the list itself is a problem. He noted that even while the list includes countries that don’t deserve to be on it, proven sponsors, such as Pakistan, of international terrorism – albeit those with friendly relations with the U.S. – are absent from it.
His recommendation to solve the problem was simple: “Just scrap the list.”
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