On Tuesday, President Obama’s announcement of his intention to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism (SSOT) was received with both praise and dissent from Cuban and U.S. politicians. Despite the controversy, the announcement marks a significant change in not only U.S.-Cuba relations, but also U.S.-Latin America relations.
The announcement followed President Obama’s meeting with Cuban President Raúl Castro at the Summit of the Americas in Panama last week, where Cuba made an inaugural appearance and where the two countries’ heads of state met officially face-to-face for the first time since 1959. Cuba’s designation as an SSOT was one of the “sticking points” in the negotiations to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba.
President Obama said that Cuba had "provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.” White House press secretary Josh Earnest added that although the U.S. still had differences with Cuban policies and actions, they were not "relevant" to the terror list.
The director of U.S. relations at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, Josefina Vidal, acknowledged the U.S.’s move in a statement: “The government of Cuba recognizes the just decision made by the President of the United States to remove Cuba from a list on which it never deserved to belong [...] As the Cuban government has reiterated on multiple occasions, Cuba rejects and condemns all acts of terrorism.”
On Tuesday, the White House announced that it plans to remove the designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism (SSOT), representing another step forward in the normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.
The first announcement of this nature was made on December 17, 2014, when U.S.–Cuba rapprochement was first announced. President Barack Obama instructed the U.S. State Department to review Cuba’s status as an SSOT. This was completed on April 9, prior to the Summit of the Americas held last week in Panama, with Secretary of State John Kerry recommending that Cuba be removed from the list.
Cuba was designated as an SSOT on March 1, 1982. The removal of the SSOT designation will allow a broader range of goods to be exported to Cuba, certain federal financial assistance to be directed towards Cuba, and will ease companies’ disclosure requirements of activities involving Cuba, among other changes.
In order for the SSOT designation to be officially lifted, the U.S. State Department's report must justify that Cuba has not provided support for international terrorism in the past six months, and that the Cuban government will not do so in the future. Congressional leadership has 45 days to review and act on this report.
Although the removal of Cuba from the SSOT list is an important diplomatic step towards normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba, the key provisions of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, including restrictions on investment, trade, and financial transactions with Cuba, will remain in place.
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This week’s likely top stories: The Summit of the Americas commences in Panama; petition criticizes U.S. action against Venezuela; Argentine Central Bank inspects Citibank; TSJ initiates missiles trial in Bolivia; Canada and Venezuela discuss investment in Venezuelan oil.
Americas Summit Begins This Week in Panama: The seventh Summit of the Americas will take place this week from April 10 to 11 in Panama City, the first summit in which the leaders of all 35 countries in the hemisphere—including Cuba—will participate. Topics such as climate change, immigration, violence, and energy needs will be on the agenda, although U.S.–Cuba relations may dominate the summit. Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro will meet in person for the first time since they announced renewed diplomatic relations in December 2014, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson confirmed on Friday that there would be an “interaction” between the two leaders. Meanwhile, Cuban dissidents have been invited to a separate meeting for civil society at the summit. Cuban dissident Rosa María Payá A. stated on Twitter yesterday that Panamanian authorities stopped and searched her at the airport upon arrival in Panama, and she was released after several hours.
Petition against Obama’s Action on Venezuela Gains Ground: Critics of President Barack Obama’s March 9 executive action that declared Venezuela a national security threat have circulated a petition that had gained over 8 million signatures by Saturday. The petition began in Venezuela, although many countries throughout the region have expressed their support for Venezuela. In March, all member nations of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) rejected Obama’s action against the country, which also included sanctions against select Venezuelan officials accused of human rights abuses and corruption. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro thanked supporters via Twitter on Sunday. Growing tension between the U.S. and Venezuela, which have not had full diplomatic relations since 2008, threatens to overshadow other issues to be discussed at the Summit of Americas this week.
Argentina’s Central Bank Sends Inspectors to Citibank for Supervision: On Monday, the Argentine Central Bank sent regulators to Citibank headquarters in Buenos Aires for an inspection. Central Bank president Alejandro Vanoli said that the inspection aimed to ensure that Citibank would be able to run normally without CEO Gabriel Ribisich, who was dismissed by the Central Bank on Wednesday for not following local regulations regarding Argentine interest payments on restructured debt. The Central Bank gave Citibank 24 hours to find a replacement for Ribisich, but the deadline was extended to Monday, due to the closure of banks for local holidays. Local entities, such as the Argentine Banks Association, the Argentine Business Association and the United States Chamber of Commerce in Argentina expressed their support for Citibank and criticized the decision. Citibank could still appeal the decision today.
With the conclusion on Tuesday of the first formal talks between Cuba and the United States on human rights, both countries agreed that they were capable of holding a “respectful, professional [and] civilized conversation” on the issue of human rights.
Representatives from both countries met yesterday in Washington DC in the first of many dialogues to be held between the U.S. and Cuba as part of the process to normalize bilateral relations, first announced by U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro on December 17, 2014.
The U.S. delegation was led by Tom Malinowski, the U.S. undersecretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Meanwhile, Pedro Luis Pedroso, deputy director of multilateral affairs and international law at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, headed the Cuban delegation.
Cuban Ambassador Anaysansi Rodríguez Camejo acknowledged “differences” between the two sides in terms of how human rights “are protected and promoted in their respective countries as in the international arena.”
Cuba is the Groundhog Day of the twentieth century. That the United States’ policy of isolation and permanent embargo went on into the 21st century is testimony to the endurance of both Americans and Cubans in making a failed policy become a third rail in U.S. domestic policy.
Not that there weren’t attempts at reconciliation over the last five decades. Nevertheless, changes are taking place now that will finally help move the United States beyond the outdated Cold War posturing to the realpolitik that its policy toward Cuba deserves.
Roughly three months have passed since President Barack Obama announced his policy shift on Cuba. The December 17 announcement, which took many by surprise, was long in the making. It reflected a cautious diplomacy that ended fifty years of a failed policy.
Almost everyone connected with Obama’s simple logic that if something has not worked after fifty years, it was time to try something new! But creating something new after such a long period of propaganda and disinformation will take hard work on the part of both the U.S. and the Cuban government.
After 50 years of Cuba’s isolation, it will take time to build trust between the two governments.
U.S.-based IDT Domestic Telecom, Inc. and the state-run telecommunications compnay Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba, S.A. (Cuban Telecommunications Enterprise, S.A.—ETECSA) have re-established a direct telephone link between the two countries. ETESCA announced the connection via a press release on Wednesday, but did not specify when the service went into effect. “The re-establishment of direct communications between the United States and Cuba will help offer greater ease and quality of communications between the people of both nations,” the statement said.
This marks the first commercial agreement between the two countries since the Obama administration announced in December 2014 that it would allow telecoms to operate in Cuba as part of its broader rapprochement with the island. However, IDT’s efforts to re-establish direct calls to Cuba precede these changes. “We had conversation for a period of years hoping there would be interest and nothing happened,” said Bill Ulrey, IDT’s Vice-President of Investor Relations, according to the Miami Herald. “But then we submitted it to them again last year and we began to negotiate it but it’s not clear whether their willingness was a part of the ongoing negotiations.”
Previously, calls between the U.S. and Cuba needed to be routed through a third country, elevating costs. IDT has not yet announced new rates for international calls.
On Saturday, Senator Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vermont) led the first official congressional delegation to Cuba since the restoration of diplomatic ties with the Caribbean island nation on December 17. Leahy’s office stated that the objective of the trip is to “seek clarity from the Cubans on what they envision normalization to look like, going beyond past rote responses such as ‘end the embargo.’”
The delegation—composed of five Democrats from Capitol Hill—boarded its flight to Havana one day after the U.S. Departments of Treasury and Commerce published their new regulations on travel to and trade with Cuba.
Although no formal agreements were reached and there was no indication that the embargo will be lifted, the tone of the delegation’s visit has been friendly and marked by guarded optimism. The American legislators talked with various government officials, including Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, as well as anti-government dissidents, to hash out the details of establishing relations in trade, communications and agriculture.
While insisting that Cuba will maintain a one-party political system and centrally planned economy, Rodriguez was reportedly “open to every single issue,” welcoming the full package of new economic links. Meetings with non-governmental actors—such as Elizardo Sánchez, head of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission—may have prevented the delegation from sitting down with President Raúl Castro, but they yielded a list requesting the release of 24 long-term prisoners in addition to the 53 just released by the Cuban government as part of the policy reset deal.
Tonight, President Obama will deliver the annual Statue of the Union address to Congress. Foreign aid contractor and recently returned political prisoner Alan Gross will be seated beside First Lady Michelle Obama—a good indication that the president will address Cuba policy in his speech. Tomorrow, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson will travel to Havana to negotiate the reopening of the U.S. Embassy, which was officially closed in 1961 but has remained partially active as a “special interests section” since 1977. The State Department is considering removing Cuba from the list of states that sponsor terrorism and will continue to dismantle embargo-related sanctions.
Americas Society/Council of the Americas published “Open letter to President Obama: Support for a New Course on Cuba” yesterday, cosigned by 78 stakeholders, policy experts and former U.S. officials, applauding the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba and urging the U.S. government to continue working with Congress to update legislation.
The United Nations General Assembly voted for an end to the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba for the twenty-third time on Tuesday. For the second year in a row, 188 countries voted in favor of a non-binding resolution calling for the end of the embargo, with Palau, Marshall Islands and Micronesia abstaining. Only two countries—Israel and the U.S. itself—voted against the measure.
The vote, which has become an annual occurrence in the General Assembly, was first approved in 1992, with 59 votes in favor, three votes against, 71 abstentions, and 46 countries refused to participate at all. Since the end of the Cold War, however, support for the embargo has waned. The European Union lifted sanctions on the island in 2008, and agreed to begin negotiations to restore bilateral relations with Cuba on February 10 of this year, leading to speculation that the U.S. would follow its lead through executive action.
While it would take an act of Congress to formally repeal Helms-Burton, which codified the U.S. embargo into law, President Barack Obama has recently taken steps to ease travel and remittance restrictions for Cuban-Americans and reinstate people-to-people travel to the island.
Brazil is betting on an eventual opening in Cuba. The bet is more than economic; it’s linked directly to a larger geopolitical project intended to draw Cuba toward its own model of economic and political organization as Cuba wakes up from its 55-year slumber under the Castro regime.
The process has already started with a series of market-oriented reforms initiated by Raúl Castro—brother to Fidel—and will only accelerate with the passing of the octogenarian Castro brothers and their guerrilla field comrades. Unfortunately, as Brazil engages in a wise game of hemispheric chess, the U.S. is playing solitaire: the result of the self-imposed embargo that has prevented economic, diplomatic and even routine contact with an island 90 miles away from the United States.
In the last five years, Brazil financed the majority of the $957 million deep water Mariel port project in the northwest of the island built by infrastructure giant Odebrecht. The port, and the 180-square-mile free-trade and development zone that surrounds it, is intended to service wide draft ships that will be able to pass through the expanded Panama Canal—a requirement that many U.S. ports won’t be able to meet when the updated canal completes its expansion by 2015. And it’s only the beginning. Recently, when he was in the country to tour the facility, former President of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced the acquisition of the iconic beer company Bucanero by the Brazilian beer giant, InBev, and there is talk that Brazil’s recent investments in Cuba’s Mariel port facility and free trade zone are only the tip of the iceberg.
Author's Note: A year ago, I wrote a blog about a handshake between U.S. President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba. While the gesture was one of courtesy and little else, I expressed the hope that the relationship of isolation and embargo, started in 1960, would be replaced by one of engagement. Today, both countries restored full diplomatic relations. One of the remaining relics of the Cold War era is now a matter of the past. This is an historic day .
Pope Francis, who did some significant behind-the-scenes diplomacy , was quick to express his support. Canada is also said to have played a significant role, and this should not be a surprise. Canada has maintained a relationship with Cuba despite the U.S. embargo.
There remain some outstanding issues to be resolved. There may have been a humanitarian component behind the release of Alan Gross, the imprisoned American aid worker, but this was, above all, a political event and diplomacy at its best.The embargo remains with some easing, but the future is most promising. This will be part of Obama's legacy and marks the beginning of a new dynamic in Latin America.
I invite you to re-read my blog post on December 16, 2013. It is still relevant.
During the course of the first leg of the Mandela funeral celebrations last week, one event made news around the world—U.S. President Barack Obama shaking hands with Cuban President Raul Castro. Speculation immediately surfaced about whether it was a planned event, and whether it meant an eventual new beginning for Cuban‒U.S. relations.
Judging from the reactions of both presidents’ spokespeople, it was a circumstantial meeting. To not shake hands would have been more significant.
Back in the spring of 2012, both Canada and the United States could not agree with their Latin American and Caribbean partners on a communiqué about the outcome of the sixth Summit of the Americas—in part because both the Canadian and American leaders opposed the formal inclusion of Cuba at the next summit. Last week’s event between Obama and Castro should not be interpreted as a change of heart.
Yet, basking in the accolades and homages to Nelson Mandela and his spirit, one cannot escape the thought that Mandela himself would have approved of the gesture as a first step to an eventual normalization of relations between these two antagonists.