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Congress Split on Obama Push to Take Cuba Off Terror-sponsor List

  • Michael Bowman

FILE - A Jan. 19, 2015, photo shows the Cuban and U.S. flags waving from the balcony of the Hotel Saratoga in Havana.

FILE - A Jan. 19, 2015, photo shows the Cuban and U.S. flags waving from the balcony of the Hotel Saratoga in Havana.

Congressional reaction to President Barack Obama’s push to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism spans from ardent support to fervent opposition, with many lawmakers of both parties taking a wait-and-see approach.

“Long overdue,” said Republican Senator Jeff Flake, who ridiculed any suggestion that Cuba today poses a security threat to the United States.

“They are riding the last mile of socialism in a ’57 Chevy. They didn’t belong on the list for a while; it was more a political designation," he said. "That list ought to mean something. Now [with Cuba’s likely removal], it means a lot more.”

By contrast, Cuban-American Republican Senator Marco Rubio issued a video condemning the president’s move.

“Cuba is a state sponsor of terrorism. They harbor fugitives of American justice,” he said. “It is also the country that is helping North Korea evade weapons sanctions by the United Nations. I think it sends a chilling message to our enemies abroad that this White House is no longer serious about calling terrorism by its proper name.”

Cuba will remain on the terrorism-sponsor list for a 45-day review period, during which time Congress could pass a resolution to block Obama’s decision. Other nations on the list are Iran, Sudan and Syria.

Tuesday’s White House announcement came as many lawmakers were focused on another foreign policy question - Congress’ role in Iran nuclear talks - and members of both parties say they will use the review period to examine Cuba’s record more closely.

“We are going to review the [administration’s] rationale and use the 45-day period we are allotted to determine whether we stick with the president’s determination,” said Democratic Senator Tim Kaine, who nevertheless calls himself a “strong supporter” of normalized relations between Washington and Havana.

Equally cautious is Republican Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who says he is drafting a letter to the White House seeking more information on the president’s decision.

“Before we respond, we want to ask some questions,” said Corker.

Others have made up their minds about the Obama administration’s overall engagement with Cuba’s communist government.

“They don’t give freedom of speech, freedom of the press,” said Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, who represents Florida, home to a large Cuban-American population.

“If we are going to have a normal relation with Cuba, they have got to open up, stop human rights abuses, and give the rule of law,” he said.

“I think the president is moving in the correct direction,” said Democratic Senator Edward Markey. “It is time for us to move as quickly as possible toward the normalization of relations with Cuba.”

For decades after the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Havana backed insurgents and leftist movements in the Americas and parts of Africa. Analysts say Cuba’s foreign adventurism all but ended in the 1990s, although Havana continues to harbor a handful of fugitives from U.S. justice.

More recently, Cuba has played the role of mediator rather than agitator, hosting peace talks between the Colombian government and leftist FARC rebels.

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