Does including Cuba on the State Department's list of terrorism sponsoring nations serve the United States' national interest?

Lawrence B. Wilkerson and Arturo Lopez-Levy

According to a New York Times story , in his recent visit to Havana, former Governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson told Bruno Rodriguez, Cuban Minister of Foreign Relations, that by releasing Alan Gross, Cuba could begin a process of being removed from the state sponsors of terrorism list. Since both Richardson and the State Department have repeatedly declared that they have been working together on this issue, this is practically a confession that Cuba’s inclusion on the state sponsors of terrorism list is a sham.

The list of terrorist sponsoring nations should be a bargaining tool for dealing with, well, countries that engage in or sponsor terrorism. The misuse of an otherwise effective foreign policy tool must give pause to responsible members of Congress and the Washington intelligence community.  First, it focuses efforts and resources in the wrong direction, taking eyes and dollars from where the real threats are. Second, it sends the wrong message to other countries, diminishing the impact of a warning to countries such as Iran and Syria and the groups they sponsor such as Hezbollah and Hamas.  Third, it weakens the capacity of US allies like Israel , who are real targets of terrorist threats, to make a case for the isolation or monitoring of countries such as Iran whose presence on the list is justified.

It is positive that the Obama Administration is considering removing Cuba from the list. Cuba’s inclusion on the list is based on bogus allegations that undermine the credibility of the mechanism. The list was intended to be an effective foreign policy tool for warning Americans and the international community against countries that “repeatedly provide support for international terrorism” (as was the purpose of Section 6 (j) of the 1979 Exports Administration Act) and sanctioning them.  By placing Cuba on this list with Syria, Iran, and Sudan—real sponsors of terrorism—the list becomes nothing more than another official method for some South Floridians to express their hostility to Cuba. If the goal is to provide right wing Cuban Americans a venue for psychological catharsis, there are other ways for them to vent their frustrations that are less harmful to US national security.

Moreover, the language of the The three Cuba Reports (2008, 2009, and 2010) written by the State Department Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism under the Obama Administration is more an argument for removing rather than for keeping Cuba on the list. This is particularly evident in the discussion of Cuba’s alleged links with three groups connected to international terrorist activities: The FARC and the ELN from Colombia, and the Spanish ETA. The presence of members of these groups in Cuba is positively recognized by the Spanish and Colombian governments as part of their respective peace processes.

Cuba’s appearance on the list of terrorism sponsoring states is particularly hypocritical if one contrasts it with the absence of governments such as Lebanon and Saudi Arabia that do engage in, tolerate or provide physical refuge and ideological support to terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah who are responsible for the deaths of American citizens. The presence of Cuba on the list is even more scandalous given that the Bush Administration removed Kaddafi’s Libya and Kim Jong-il’s North Korea based on some mysterious criteria.

Washington’s persistent discourse that characterizes Cuba as a terrorist state hinders the development of a strategic vision for addressing the challenges Cuba presents to US foreign policy. Post-Cold War Cuba is not a military threat to American lives or US interests at home or abroad. The island is a country in transition that is carrying out market oriented economic reforms without changing its centralized, one party system. This situation calls for policies completely different from those required for dealing with a terrorist menace.

“The principal responsibility of the thinking man is to make distinctions,” William F. Buckley wrote. “Physics primers remind us that ‘all of the progress of mankind to date has resulted from the making of careful measurement’”.  Secretary Clinton, who is well known for her methodic and organized approach to politics, has the opportunity to leave a positive legacy in this area.  Cuba’s presence on the state sponsors of terrorism list must end.

Dawn Gable contributed to this piece.