By Karen DeYoung
President Obama has decided to lift the U.S. designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, the White House said in a message to Congress Tuesday.
The long-awaited decision effectively removes the principal impediment to establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, as pledged by Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro last December.
Congress has 45 days to consider Cuba’s removal from the list before it becomes effective, but cannot interfere with Obama’s decision without voting separate legislation, a measure that the White House has deemed unlikely.
In a news conference Saturday, Obama said that the majority of the American people, as well as a majority of Congress, approves of his opening to Cuba.
Cuba was first designated a state sponsor of terrorism in 1982, at the height of the Cold War. Cuba’s removal would leave only three countries on the list--Iran, Sudan and Syria.
Obama’s decision followed White House receipt last week of a State Department conclusion that Cuba deserved to be removed from the list. In a separate statement, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said that the recommendation “reflects the Department’s assessment that Cuba meets the criteria established by Congress for rescission. While the United States has had, and continues to have, significant concerns and disagreements with a wide range of Cuba’s policies and actions, these concerns and disagreements fall outside the criteria for designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.
The review, Kerry said, “focused on the narrow questions” of recent or continuing support for international terrorism, “consistent with the statutory standard for rescission.”
“Circumstances have changed since 1982,” when Cuba was listed “because of its efforts to promote armed revolution by forces in Latin America. Our hemisphere, and the world, look very different today than they did 33 years ago.”
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a lawmaker who participated in efforts to reach an accord with Cuba, said that “While no fan of the Castro regime, I continue to believe that opening up the island to American ideas, vibrancy, and trade is the most effective way to see a more open and tolerant Cuba.”
Congressional opponents of the removal, led by Cuban-American Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have argued that Cuba’s refusal to extradite American fugitives who reside there, in most cases for decades, should constitute an act of international terrorism.
But the administration has said that such acts are not part of the law.
Ahead of Tuesday’s announcement, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was critical of the possibility that Cuba could be removed from the State Department list while providing refuge to American fugitives. One is Joanne Chesimard, a black militant who shot a New Jersey State Police trooper to death in 1973 and escaped from prison after being convicted of the murder.
“I think it would be nice if the Cubans sent back the terrorists that they’re harboring who have killed American law enforcement officers,” McCain said Monday. “It might be a nice gesture, but it’s not going to happen.”