The White House confirmed that Obama had notified Congress of his intention to remove Cuba from the list, reversing a designation that has been in place since 1982. The announcement came days after a historic meeting between Obama and Cuban president Raúl Castro on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Panama, in the first formal talks between the two countries’ leaders in more than 50 years.
In his letter to Congress, Obama wrote that the Cuban government “has not provided any support for international terrorism” in the past six months, and has “provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future”.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the US would continue to have differences with the Cuban government, “but our concerns over a wide range of Cuba’s policies and actions fall outside the criteria that is relevant to whether to rescind Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.
“That determination is based on the statutory standard – and the facts – and those facts have led the President to declare his intention to rescind Cuba’s State Sponsor of Terrorism designation,” Earnest said in a statement.
Cuba welcomed the move, adding that it “rejects and condemns” all acts of terrorism. A statement by Josefina Vidal, the Cuban foreign ministry’s chief of US affairs, said: “The Cuban government recognized the fair decision made by the president of the United States to eliminate Cuba from a list that it never should have been included on, especially considering our country has been the victim of hundreds of acts of terrorism that have cost 3,478 lives and maimed 2,099 citizens.”
Obama’s decision was made after a State Department review of Cuba’s presence on the terror list – one of several steps the president announced in December as part of his administration’s new policy toward the island nation. The slow pace of the review had been one of several sticking points among Cuban diplomats, thus holding up diplomatic progress and the possibility of reopening embassies in Havana and Washington after a 50-year estrangement.
Cuba was placed on the list in 1982 for training and supporting communist rebels in Latin America and Africa, but the country has long since renounced direct military support for foreign militants and the US has not accused the island nation of actively supporting terrorism for years.
Recent State Department reports have criticised Cuba for offering safe haven to members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Farc, and the Basque separatist group ETA. But Cuba has distanced itself from ETA, and is currently hosting peace talks between Farc and the Colombian government.
The only countries that will now remain on the US terror list are Iran, Sudan and Syria.
Cuba’s removal from the list will also alleviate some of the economic sanctions on the island, thus opening up avenues to access US banking facilities that Cuban officials have said are necessary to reopen an embassy in Washington.
Ben Rhodes, the US deputy national security adviser, tweeted: “Put simply, POTUS is acting to remove Cuba from the State Sponsor of Terrorism list because Cuba is not a State Sponsor of Terrorism.”
Secretary of state John Kerry said the department’s review focused on whether Cuba provided any support for international terrorism over the past six months, and whether the US has received assurances from the Cuban government that it will not support future acts of international terrorism.
“Circumstances have changed since 1982 … Our Hemisphere, and the world, look very different today than they did 33 years ago,” Kerry said in a statement. “Our determination, pursuant to the facts, including corroborative assurances received from the Government of Cuba and the statutory standard, is that the time has come to rescind Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.”
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have 45 days to respond to Obama’s action, but it is unlikely they will seek to block the president from taking Cuba off the list. The move does not end other commercial, economic and financial restrictions under the US embargo on Cuba, as only Congress has the authority to end the freeze.
Senior administration officials told reporters in a conference call Tuesday that they remain optimistic about opening an embassy in Cuba, but acknowledged that obstacles remain. “We’re still not quite there yet,” one official said.
Although Republicans have sharply criticized Obama’s overtures to Cuba, polls show that nearly two-thirds of Americans support the reestablishing of ties. A broad majority of Americans are also in favor of lifting travel restrictions and ending the trade embargo, according to several surveys over the last few months.
Specialists on Latin America agreed that lifting the terror designation was a major step in the normalisation of relations between Washington and Havana.
Richard Feinberg, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution – and an architect of the first Summit of the Americas – said that the move was part of a process which would culminate in the re-opening of embassies in the the two capitals. Feinberg added: “It also suggests that the White House now sees the opening to Cuba as a political winner.”
Dr. Gregory Weeks, a Latin America expert who heads the political science department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said that removing Cuba from the list was “symbolically a demonstration that the two countries were moving beyond the Cold War.”
“It’s a common sense move given the changing realities of global terrorism -- that’s just not something that Cuba’s involved in,” he said. “It was obviously also a major obstacle to normalization of relations. Cuba has not been a security threat to the United States for many years.”
The news had not yet filtered out to the public in Havana, where the vast majority of people have little or not access to the Internet. But hopes in the Cuban capital had already been raised by Saturday’s meeting between President Raul Castro and Barack Obama.
“The relationship is getting better. I think it will take more time, but in one or two years I feel improved ties will make a big difference in our lives,” said fencing coach Eduardo Delgado, as he chatted with friends in a suburb of the city.
The group of youngsters were quick to credit Obama for the improvement in relations. “He is very intelligent, a real source of hope,” said 22-year-old legal student Dyron Hernandez. “Among Cubans, I think Obama is the most popular world leader right now.”
That view was widely echoed. “Obama is the best US president of my lifetime,” said 67-year-old Fria Nieve. “We must not expect too much because presidents alone do not make decisions, but we can hope for change once trade and travel picks up with a country that less than 100 miles away.”
The benefits of the rapprochement are already apparent. Foreign tourist numbers this year are already at the level of the whole of 2014. In Havana, local say almost all the hotels were booked out for the Easter holiday.