Cuba and the State Sponsors of Terrorism List

President Obama has signaled that his administration may remove Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list. The change should have occurred years ago, but would be particularly appropriate now, at a time when the United States is trying to resume economic and diplomatic ties with the country. Cuba’s inclusion on the list is a major sticking point in these negotiations. 

It is reasonable to surmise that the defenders of the Cold War-era embargo, including Senator Marco Rubio and the editors of the Wall Street Journal, oppose a change in Cuba’s terror sponsor designation because they want to thwart normalization. They ignore the fact that the embargo has failed to bring about regime change in Havana, and has similarly failed to expand the freedoms of innocent Cubans caught in the middle of the running dispute between Washington and Havana. The WSJ notes, for example, that the Cuban government’s repression of political dissidents and human right activists continues, but doesn’t explain how a continuation of the status quo will force a change in Havana’s behavior. 

Indeed, the embargo hasn’t merely failed. It denies Americans their basic rights to trade with and travel to the country. It also functions as a convenient excuse for the Castros and their cronies when they are pressed to explain why Cubans lag well behind others in the Western Hemisphere in terms of economic development and basic living standards. It says a lot about the magnanimity of the Cuban people, who have been lied to for so long about U.S. intentions, and who have been told that America is to blame for their misery, that they still retain a measure of affection for their neighbor to the north. If removing Cuba from the list hastens the process toward normalization, that might be reason enough to do so.

But the best reason for removing Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list may be because Cuba does not appear to be a state sponsor of terrorism. As a story in today’s Washington Post notes, “In many ways, the U.S. designation, first imposed in 1982, is a Cold War relic. Although the United States strongly objects to Cuba’s domestic policies, it has offered no evidence for decades that Cuba is actively involved in terrorism abroad.”

This situation is not unique to Cuba. The terror sponsor list has become a catch-all for countries we don’t like very much, including for other reasons – human rights abuses, weapons proliferation, and general roguish behavior. Countries should be scorned, and perhaps even sanctioned, for such activities, but casting them as terrorist sponsors when they clearly are not renders the entire enterprise farcical. CFR’s Micah Zenko makes a great case for abolishing the state sponsor of terrorism list entirely. 

The president is unlikely to make such a dramatic step, of course, but he could push to ensure that it includes those states that actually do sponsor terrorism. An accurate list would likely include a number of long-time U.S. allies, which, no doubt, would make for some awkward embassy cocktail parties.