For 33 years, Cuba has occupied a spot on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism — a place reserved for nations that repeatedly provide support for international acts of premeditated, politically motivated violence against non-combatants.
It was placed on the list during the Cold War, an era when there was still a Soviet Union and Cuba was accused of supporting and arming leftist insurgencies in Latin America and Africa.
But 45 days ago Friday, as part of his opening toward Cuba, President Barack Obama informed Congress he intended to remove Cuba from the list that also includes Syria, Iran and Sudan. In his report, he said Cuba hadn’t provided any support for international terrorism in the previous six months and had provided assurances it wouldn’t support such acts in the future.
With no attempt by Congress to override his recommendation in the 45-day period, the president’s directive now takes effect as soon as it is published in the Federal Register.
“We are just two days away,” Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, told reporters in Havana on Wednesday during a visit to the island. “There has not been a vote in the Congress so that’s going to stand. I think it will be a matter of weeks when we have restored diplomatic relations.”
At the conclusion of the fourth round of normalization talks in Washington last Friday, the two sides said they were very close to reaching agreement on renewing diplomatic ties and opening embassies. Cuba has long contended it should never have been on the list and getting off it has been a key element in the Cuban delegation’s negotiating stance since the talks began.
“There’s certainly a symbolic element to it — a return to reality. Cuba hasn’t been sponsoring left-wing guerrilla movements for a long time,” said Richard Feinberg, a professor of international political economy at the University of California, San Diego and a National Security Council director during the Clinton administration.
But members of the Cuban-American delegation in Congress still look suspiciously at Cuba’s activities, especially its decision to give safe haven to criminals wanted for serious crimes in the United States, and think Cuba should remain on the list.
“Unfortunately, it is unsurprising that the Obama administration has removed the Castro regime from the state sponsor of terror list. As his December announcement made clear his primary interest was in pushing a political narrative about the Castros’ actions, instead of one rooted in reality,” said South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
“In his rush to cut a ribbon on a new embassy in name only, his administration has left unresolved many crucial issues such as U.S. citizens and businesses that have certified claims against the Cuban regime for illegally confiscated properties, fugitives from American justice who have been granted refuge by the Castro regime, and the regime’s abysmal human rights record,” said Ros-Lehtinen.
Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced last December the two countries were working toward a rapprochement after more than a half-century of hostility. Restored diplomatic ties is expected to be the first step, followed by opening embassies and naming of ambassadors. Obama also said he wants to work with Congress to get the embargo lifted.
Being delisted will bring an end to certain financial and trade restrictions on Cuba. With the embargo and Helms-Burton Act still in effect, the economic impact for Cuba won’t be as far-reaching as it might have been. Still, it may give some foreign companies and banks more confidence to engage in business with Cuba and fewer worries about being snared by U.S. regulations governing sanctioned countries.
“The main issue — the 800-pound gorilla — is the embargo,” said David Schwartz, chief executive of the Florida International Bankers Association. “But it will give third country banks and companies a little more comfort that they are not running afoul of U.S. regulations if they do business with a country on the list.”
Cuba’s presence on the list, for example, “put it in the same category as Iran,” said Feinberg. “As a vast international bureaucracy and a tightening web of international financial sanctions closes down trade with Iran, Cuba has gotten caught up in all this too. Any international bank has been very wary of doing business with any country on the list.”
Being on the list had complicated Cuba’s efforts to find a bank to handle the accounts of the Cuban Interests Section and its employees. Cuba’s U.S. diplomatic missions had searched for a new bank for more than a year after its former banker, M&T, informed them it was getting out of the business of handling any accounts for foreign missions. At the request of the State Department, Pompano Beach-based Stonegate Bank said last week that it has become the Interests Section’s new banker.
Under Obama’s new Cuba policy, U.S. banks are now allowed to establish correspondent accounts at Cuban financial institutions and to support expanded trade and travel with Cuba authorized under the new policy. Use of U.S.-issued credit and debit cards also is now permitted.
Schwartz said banks have remained cautious. So far it appears no U.S. bank has tried to establish a correspondent relationship with a Cuban bank or supports the use of its credit or debit cards on the island.
Behind the scenes, Schwartz said banks are making Cuba plans and preparing to serve customers who might want to do business with the island — but in the context of when the embargo is lifted. “When it happens, they will be ready,” he said, “but it’s going to be customer-driven.
“It’s also important to point out that we haven’t seen anything from the Cuban side yet,” Schwartz said. “We haven’t seen them change their regulations, infrastructure or processes” in response to the trade and financial opening outlined by Obama.
Taking Cuba off the list, said Feinberg, “removes one more constraint from the U.S. side, making it even more apparent that the ball is now in Cuba’s court.”
Ros-Lehtinen said the United States has done nothing except grant concessions to Cuba, “making no demands of the Castro regime.”
As Obama was visiting Florida on Thursday, Gov. Rick Scott echoed that sentiment: “Cuba has done nothing to warrant being taken off this list. The president should take time to reconsider this dangerous decision while in South Florida today.”
Republicans had considered mounting a challenge to Cuba’s removal from the terrorism list, but in late April, after meeting with her colleagues, Ros-Lehtinen said they had decided against introducing a bill to fight it and instead would concentrate on other Cuba legislation related to human rights and national security.
With a challenge no longer looming, “people began to analyze their business opportunities in Cuba more seriously,’’ said Andy Fernández, who heads Holland & Knight's Cuba Action Team/Financial Services. “Now one of the first barricades has been lifted. But any transaction with Cuba still needs to be analyzed to see if it is prohibited by the embargo.
“This will be a slow process; it will not be an overnight sensation,” he added.
David Levine, an international trade attorney in the Washington office of McDermott Will & Emory, said as more U.S. professional, business and academic groups head to Cuba “to scope things out” and start to see opportunities, “it will help push politicians toward what needs to be done to normalize the relationship.”