President Barack Obama said Tuesday that he intended to take communist Cuba off the United States' list of state sponsors of terrorism, part of his effort to normalize relations with the island nation after five decades of hostilities.
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The American leader told Congress of his intention after a State Department review concluded that Cuba "has not provided any support for international terrorism" in the last six months, and it has given the U.S. assurances that it does not intend to in the future.
Senior administration officials said the State Department review was “extremely rigorous,” and officials said they were “very confident” about the recommendation.
Obama's action came just days after he met with Cuban President Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, the first face-to-face meeting of leaders of the two countries in more than 50 years.
The terror designation had been a barrier in the resumption of relations between the two countries, which that are separated by 145 kilometers of open sea.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro meet for an informal talk on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, April 11, 2015.
The U.S. has long since stopped actively accusing Cuba of supporting terrorism. When Obama and Castro announced a thaw in relations in December, the U.S. president expressed his willingness to remove Cuba from that list.
However, he held off on making a final decision amid indications that the White House was reluctant to grant Cuba's request until other thorny issues — such as restrictions on U.S. diplomats in Havana — were resolved.
The U.S. government placed Cuba on the sponsors-of-terrorism list in 1982 because of the communist nation’s “efforts to promote armed revolution by forces in Latin America,” said Secretary of State John Kerry. But, the U.S. diplomat added, "circumstances have changed."
Kerry said that while the U.S. still has significant concerns and disagreements with Cuba on a wide range of Havana’s policies and actions, “these concerns and disagreements fall outside the criteria for designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.”
Obama submitted the statutorily required reports and certifications to Congress on Tuesday. The statute requires that no rescission take place within 45 days. Congress can enact a joint resolution to prohibit the rescission, but the president can veto that action, according to a top government official. Congress can override the veto.
If the designation is rescinded, Cuba will no longer be subjected to restrictions under the state-sponsor-of-terrorism authorities, including restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance, a ban on defense exports and sales, certain controls over the export of dual-use items, and miscellaneous financial and other restrictions.
In December, Obama announced a sweeping new approach toward Cuba, one that pushes aside a longtime policy of isolation in favor of engagement and empowerment of the Cuban people.
U.S. and Cuban diplomats are continuing to work on opening embassies in Havana and Washington. A senior State Department official said Tuesday that after decades of mistrust, “maybe more confidence-building is necessary, but we’ll get there.”
Obama administration officials hope removing Cuba from the list will help build that confidence.
The terrorist designation has irked Cuba’s leadership, and at the Summit of the Americas, Castro praised Obama’s efforts to remove his country from the list.
Castro said Cuba should have never been designated a sponsor of terrorism. In a 48-minute speech to leaders including Obama, the Cuban president accused the United States of sponsoring terrorist activity. As an example, he cited the CIA’s participation in the capture and interrogation of leftist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, executed in 1967 while trying to launch an unsuccessful rebellion in Bolivia.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Cuba supported leftist insurgencies in Central and South America and sent up to 37,000 troops to participate in Angola’s civil war.
Obama has said a decision to remove Cuba’s terrorist designation would be based on facts. U.S. officials said there has been no recent evidence of Cuban support for armed rebellions.
In the early 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent loss of economic and military support from Moscow, then-President Fidel Castro announced Cuba would no longer take part in foreign conflicts.
VOA's Aru Pande contributed to this report from the White House.