On July 19, 2017, the U.S. State Department released its Country Reports on Terrorism 2016. One of its chapters lists these three countries as “state sponsors of terrorism:” Iran, Sudan and Syria. Other chapters discuss the terrorism records of most countries in the world.
This Reports document, however, made no mention of Cuba or statement as to the reasons for this omission. This was in sharp contrast to previous reports for the years 1981-2013, that listed Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” (i.e., the government of a country that has “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism”) and the removal of Cuba from that category for 2014 and 2015.
At the press briefing on the latest Reports, a journalist asked whether Secretary of State Tillerson himself had made the decision not to put Cuba back on the list of state sponsors since at his Senate confirmation hearing he had testified that he “wanted to examine the criteria under which Cuba was removed from the list” in 2015 for the year 2014.
The State Department official responded: “Cuba was removed, and there is no requirement within the report for an individual chapter on every single country around the world. We produce chapters in the Country Reports based upon material, frankly, to include in the report. So it was assessed that there was not sufficient information there to provide a report this year on Cuba, but it was removed from the state sponsor list previously.”
The non-inclusion of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” in this latest report, in this blogger’s opinion, is the proper conclusion and perhaps is a sign that the Trump Administration’s rhetoric about Cuba is louder and stronger than its bite. Let us hope.
Moreover, the statement that the State Department did not have sufficient information about Cuban counterterrorism efforts to include Cuba in the latest report is disingenuous. From December 2014 through January 19, 2017 (the last full day of the Obama Administration), the U.S. and Cuba held discussions about their respective counterterrorism efforts, and on January 16, 2017 the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Law Enforcement that provided for cooperation on various matters, including “the fight against terrorism.” These discussions, although not a matter of public information, must have provided the U.S. with significant information about Cuba’s counterterrorism efforts.]
On July 1, 2015, the U.S. and Cuba announced an agreement to restore diplomatic relations. This post will discuss the U.S. announcement and reactions. A subsequent post will do the same for the Cuban announcement and reactions.
In the White House’s Rose Garden, President Obama announced the plans to reopen the embassies. Here is what he said:
“More than 54 years ago, at the height of the Cold War, the United States closed its embassy in Havana. Today, I can announce that the United States has agreed to formally re-establish diplomatic relations with the Republic of Cuba, and re-open embassies in our respective countries. This is a historic step forward in our efforts to normalize relations with the Cuban government and people, and begin a new chapter with our neighbors in the Americas.”
“When the United States shuttered our embassy in 1961, I don’t think anyone expected that it would be more than half a century before it re-opened. After all, our nations are separated by only 90 miles, and there are deep bonds of family and friendship between our people. But there have been very real, profound differences between our governments, and sometimes we allow ourselves to be trapped by a certain way of doing things.”
“For the United States, that meant clinging to a policy that was not working. Instead of supporting democracy and opportunity for the Cuban people, our efforts to isolate Cuba despite good intentions increasingly had the opposite effect -– cementing the status quo and isolating the United States from our neighbors in this hemisphere. The progress that we mark today is yet another demonstration that we don’t have to be imprisoned by the past. When something isn’t working, we can -– and will –- change.”
“Last December, I announced that the United States and Cuba had decided to take steps to normalize our relationship. As part of that effort, President Raul Castro and I directed our teams to negotiate the re-establishment of embassies. Since then, our State Department has worked hard with their Cuban counterparts to achieve that goal. And later this summer, Secretary Kerry will travel to Havana formally to proudly raise the American flag over our embassy once more.”
“This is not merely symbolic. With this change, we will be able to substantially increase our contacts with the Cuban people. We’ll have more personnel at our embassy. And our diplomats will have the ability to engage more broadly across the island. That will include the Cuban government, civil society, and ordinary Cubans who are reaching for a better life.”
“On issues of common interest –- like counterterrorism, disaster response, and development -– we will find new ways to cooperate with Cuba. And I’ve been clear that we will also continue to have some very serious differences. That will include America’s enduring support for universal values, like freedom of speech and assembly, and the ability to access information. And we will not hesitate to speak out when we see actions that contradict those values.”
“However, I strongly believe that the best way for America to support our values is through engagement. That’s why we’ve already taken steps to allow for greater travel, people-to-people and commercial ties between the United States and Cuba. And we will continue to do so going forward.”
“Since December, we’ve already seen enormous enthusiasm for this new approach. Leaders across the Americas have expressed support for our change in policy; you heard that expressed by President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil yesterday. Public opinion surveys in both our countries show broad support for this engagement. . . .
“Here in the United States, we’ve seen that same enthusiasm. There are Americans who want to travel to Cuba and American businesses [that] want to invest in Cuba. American colleges and universities . . . want to partner with Cuba. Above all, Americans who want to get to know their neighbors to the south. And through that engagement, we can also help the Cuban people improve their own lives.”
“Americans and Cubans alike are ready to move forward. I believe it’s time for Congress to do the same. I’ve called on Congress to take steps to lift the embargo that prevents Americans from travelling or doing business in Cuba. We’ve already seen members from both parties begin that work. After all, why should Washington stand in the way of our own people?”
“Yes, there are those who want to turn back the clock and double down on a policy of isolation. But it’s long past time for us to realize that this approach doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked for 50 years. It shuts America out of Cuba’s future, and it only makes life worse for the Cuban people.”
So I’d ask Congress to listen to the Cuban people. Listen to the American people. Listen to the words of a proud Cuban-American, Carlos Gutierrez, who recently came out against the policy of the past, saying, ‘I wonder if the Cubans who have to stand in line for the most basic necessities for hours in the hot Havana sun feel that this approach is helpful to them.’”
“Of course, nobody expects Cuba to be transformed overnight. But I believe that American engagement — through our embassy, our businesses, and most of all, through our people — is the best way to advance our interests and support for democracy and human rights. Time and again, America has demonstrated that part of our leadership in the world is our capacity to change. It’s what inspires the world to reach for something better.”
“A year ago, it might have seemed impossible that the United States would once again be raising our flag, the stars and stripes, over an embassy in Havana. This is what change looks like.”
“In January of 1961, the year I was born, when President Eisenhower announced the termination of our relations with Cuba, he said: It is my hope and my conviction that it is ‘in the not-too-distant future it will be possible for the historic friendship between us once again to find its reflection in normal relations of every sort.’ Well, it took a while, but I believe that time has come. And a better future lies ahead.”
The same day Secretary of State John Kerry from Vienna, Austria also discussed the plans, including his intent to travel to Havana for the opening of the embassy later this month. His statement included the following:
“Later this summer, as the President announced, I will travel to Cuba to personally take part in the formal reopening of our United States Embassy in Havana. This will mark the resumption of embassy operations after a period of 54 years. It will also be the first visit by a Secretary of State to Cuba since 1945. The reopening of our embassy . . . is an important step on the road to restoring fully normal relations between the United States and Cuba. Coming a quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War, it recognizes the reality of the changed circumstances, and it will serve to meet a number of practical needs.”
“The United States and Cuba continue to have sharp differences over democracy, human rights, and related issues, but we also have identified areas for cooperation that include law enforcement, safe transportation, emergency response, environmental protection, telecommunications, and migration. The resumption of full embassy activities will help us engage the Cuban Government more often and at a higher level, and it will also allow our diplomats to interact more frequently, and frankly more broadly and effectively, with the Cuban people. In addition, we will better be able to assist Americans who travel to the island nation in order to visit family members or for other purposes.”
In addition, the State Department conducted a special briefing by a senior official on this historic development. This individual said, “We’re confident that our embassy in Havana will be able to operate similar to other embassies operating in restrictive environments. We will be able to meet and exchange opinions with a variety of voices and views both within the government and outside. We’ll be able to engage a broad range of Cuban civil society and citizens.” The conditions for “access to diplomatic facilities, travel of diplomats, and the level of staffing . . . are acceptable for carrying out the core diplomatic functions necessary for implementing the President’s new policy direction on Cuba.” There were not any agreed “constrains or restrictions” on the exact types of programs or facilities that each of our embassies conducts.
According to the State Department spokesperson, there will be future discussions or negotiations with Cuba over human rights, telecommunications, health issues, fugitives, law enforcement, U.S. claims for property expropriation, Cuban claims for damages under the embargo and U.S. broadcasts to the island. Until there is a nomination and confirmation of an ambassador, Jeffrey DeLaurentis will be the charge d’affaires and will lead the embassy.
Also earlier the same day Cuba’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that the head of the US Interests Section in Cuba, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, had delivered to the Acting Foreign Minister, Marcelino Medina, a letter from President Obama to Army General Raul Castro confirming “the restoration of diplomatic relations and the opening of embassies in the respective countries” on or after July 20. Here is the text of that letter:
“I am pleased to confirm, after high-level talks between our two governments, and in accordance with international law and practice, that the United States of America and the Republic of Cuba decided to restore diplomatic relations and permanent diplomatic missions in our respective countries 20 July 2015. This is an important step forward in the normalization process, which started last December, with regard to relations between our two countries and peoples.”
“In making this decision, the United States are encouraged by the mutual intention to enter into friendly and cooperative relations between our two peoples and governments, consistent with the purposes and principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, in particular those relating to equality sovereign states, the settlement of international disputes by peaceful means, respect for the territorial integrity and political independence of States, respect for the equal rights and self-determination of peoples, non-interference in internal affairs States as well as promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.”
“The United States and Cuba are parties to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, signed in Vienna on April 18, 1961, and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, signed in Vienna on April 24, 1963. I am pleased to confirm the understanding the United States that the above conventions apply to diplomatic and consular relations between our two countries.”
Although the U.S. can easily change the plaque on its building in Havana to one proclaiming that it is the Embassy of the United States of America, the State Department has said it needs $6.6 million to retrofit the building to make it suitable as an embassy. This may require a supplemental appropriation by Congress.
The U.S. will need an Ambassador to Cuba, and such an appointment needs to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. In the meantime, as just noted, the U.S. has a capable career diplomat running the interests section, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who will be in charge.
Reactions to the Announcement
The announcement of re-establishment of diplomatic relations drew widespread praise. Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ) stated, “It’s long past time for U.S. policy toward Cuba to be associated with something other than five decades of failure. It is difficult to overstate the importance of resuming diplomatic relations with Cuba, in furthering our own national interests, benefiting our relations in the region, and encouraging a positive future for the Cuban people. I am confident that this move will lead to increased travel and contact between U.S. citizens and everyday Cubans, to the benefit of both.” Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN), a co-sponsor of a bill to expand U.S. travel to Cuba and the author of a bill to lift the trade embargo, said, “This is the first step that must happen in order to lift the embargo.” Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy (VT) and Benjamin Cardin (MD) issued similar positive statements.
Engage Cuba, a bipartisan public policy organization dedicated to coalescing and mobilizing American businesses, non-profit groups and concerned citizens for the purpose of supporting the ongoing U.S.‐Cuba normalization process and enacting legislation to reform U.S. travel and trade restrictions with Cuba, issued a statement of support. It said, “We applaud this important step in bringing the U.S. and Cuba closer together, and urge Congress to hasten the day when American travelers and companies have the freedom to engage with one of our nearest neighbors. Opening embassies in Washington and Havana is an important step toward the day when Americans can make their own decisions on where they travel, and our businesses can compete with the rest of the world. We are making history by making it clear that America’s engagement isn’t a concession, it is a show of strength and the best way to promote our values and create opportunities for both Americans and the Cuban people.”
Moreover, said Engage Cuba, “A vast majority of the American people – and 97% of the Cuban people – support re-establishing diplomatic relations. Today is a great day for the American and Cuban people who seek a brighter future for their two countries. After 54 years of a failed Cold war policy, better days finally lie ahead.”
A similar supportive statement came from the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), which is “devoted to changing U.S. policy toward the countries of the Americas by basing our relations on mutual respect, fostering dialogue with those governments and movements with which U.S. policy is at odds, and recognizing positive trends in democracy and governance” and which is a member of Engage Cuba. CDA stated, “”This is a moment we have been working toward for many years. The restoration of diplomatic relations between our countries is a major achievement that will help to heal decades of mistrust and will open opportunities for the U.S. and Cuba to collaborate on issues of mutual interest like immigration, environmental conservation, and regional trade. We applaud the tireless work of Cuban and U.S. diplomats, policymakers, academics, and activists who have helped make this possible. We are ready to work with all our allies to defend these positive steps initiated by President Obama and to move forward with removing the embargo once and for all.”
The day before this announcement, President Obama held a joint press conference at the White House with the visiting President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff. In his opening remarks, Obama said, “As President, I’ve pursued a new era of engagement with Latin America where our countries work together as equal partners, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. As we saw at the recent Summit of the Americas, the United States is more deeply engaged in the region than we’ve been in decades, and I believe the relationship between the United States and Latin America is as good as it’s ever been. We’re focused on the future — what we can accomplish together.”
After he had reviewed the many ways that Brazil and the U.S. cooperate, Obama commented, “And finally, we’re working together to uphold democracy and human rights across Latin America. I very much appreciate President Rousseff and Brazil’s strong support for our new opening toward Cuba. I updated Dilma on our progress, including our work to open embassies in Havana and Washington. And I believe that Brazil’s leadership in the region, as well as its own journey to democracy and a market economy can make it an important partner as we work to create more opportunities and prosperity for the Cuban people.”
In her response President Rousseff remarked about “the importance for Latin America of the recent decision made by President Obama and by President Raul Castro, even with the partnership with Pope Francis to the effect of opening up relations with — or resuming relations with Cuba, a very decisive milestone and point in time in U.S. relations with Latin America. It is really about putting an end to the lingering vestiges of the Cold War. And it ultimately elevates the level of the relations between the U.S. and the entire region. May I acknowledge the importance of that gesture to all of Latin America and also to world peace at large. It is an important example of relations to be followed.”
These thoughts were echoed in the subsequent Joint Communique by the two presidents: “President Rousseff praised President Obama’s policy changes towards Cuba, and the Leaders agreed that the latest Summit of the Americas (held in Panama, on April 10 and 11, 2015) demonstrated the region’s capacity to overcome the differences of the past through dialogue, thereby paving the way for the region as a whole to find solutions to the common challenges facing the countries of the Americas.”
As anticipated, however, Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), a Cuban-American, immediately issued a press release condemning the agreement. It said:
“Throughout this entire negotiation, as the Castro regime has stepped up its repression of the Cuban people, the Obama Administration has continued to look the other way and offer concession after concession. The administration’s reported plan to restore diplomatic relations is one such prized concession to the Castro regime. It remains unclear what, if anything, has been achieved since the President’s December 17th announcement in terms of securing the return of U.S. fugitives being harbored in Cuba, settling outstanding legal claims to U.S. citizens for properties confiscated by the regime, and in obtaining the unequivocal right of our diplomats to travel freely throughout Cuba and meet with any dissidents, and most importantly, securing greater political freedoms for the Cuban people. I intend to oppose the confirmation of an Ambassador to Cuba until these issues are addressed. It is time for our unilateral concessions to this odious regime to end.”
I am glad that my recent concern about the delay in announcing resumption of diplomatic relations has been alleviated. This is an important development in the reconciliation of our country with Cuba. Now all advocates for reconciliation need to notify their senators and representatives to oppose any of the measures put forward by Senator Rubio and others to try to block this important move.
 Senator Rubio in a letter to Secretary Kerry in June “vowed to oppose the confirmation of any ambassador until issues like human rights, fugitive terrorists and billions of dollars of outstanding claims were resolved.” The Senator said it is “important that pro-democracy activities not be sacrificed in the name of ‘diplomacy’ just so that we can change the name of a building from ‘Interest Section’ to ‘Embassy,’ ” Similar negative press releases came from other Cuban-Americas in the Congress: Senator Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ) and Republican Representatives from Florida, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart.