President Obama told Congress on Tuesday that he is removing Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, the latest action in his drive to normalize relations with the island but one that paves the way for a showdown with Congress.
Obama said Cuba has not provided any support for international terrorism in the past six months and has given him assurances that it will not do so in the future, the two conditions necessary for a country to be removed from the list, which also includes Iran, Sudan and Syria. President George W. Bush removed North Korea from the list in 2008 in a failed effort to get that country to give up its nuclear program.
Congress now has 45 days to override the move or to do nothing and allow it to proceed. Even if Congress takes action against Obama’s decision, he could veto it.
U.S. officials declined to specify when they believe Cuba last sponsored or assisted an act of terrorism. The substance of a State Department review, which was delivered to Obama last week, remains secret.
Obama telegraphed the move over the weekend at a summit in Panama, where he sat down for an hour with Cuban leader Raul Castro, the first such meeting between the nations’ leaders in more than half a century. But while taking Cuba off the terror list carries heavy symbolic value, its practical impact may not be great.
Cuba remains under a U.S. economic embargo, and efforts to lift that embargo are gaining little traction in the Republican-controlled Senate and House of Representatives. A series of Cuba-specific sanctions imposed by the Treasury Department over the years also remain in effect.
Obama ordered the State Department to review Cuba’s presence on the terrorism list – where it had been placed in 1982 – on Dec. 17, when he and Castro announced plans to normalize relations, which were severed in 1961.
“As the president has said, we will 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,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement.
Tuesday’s action brought condemnation from many Republicans and support from Democrats and some in the business community.
Whether the action would affect the timetable for re-establishing embassies in Havana and Washington was unclear. The two nations have held three rounds of talks to discuss issues related to that goal but sticking points remain, including how many diplomats would be authorized for each embassy and whether Cuba can offer assurances of freedom of movement for U.S. diplomats around the island.
In its 2013 terrorism report, the State Department concentrated most of its attention on the activities of al Qaida and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement and devoted only a short section to Cuba, noting that “Cuba has long provided safe haven to members of Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).”
But the report also noted that Cuba had hosted and supported peace negotiations between the FARC and the Colombian government and said Cuba’s ties to ETA, which is blamed for more than 800 deaths in its push for independence for Spain’s Basque region, have become more distant.