On November 22-24 North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho was in Havana to meet with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and President Raúl Castro. Was this a positive or negative development for the U.S., which has simultaneous strained relationships with both countries?
Since 1960, soon after the Cuban Revolution assumed control of the island’s government, Cuba and North Korea have had close diplomatic relations. It started with a 1960 visit to North Korea by Che Guevara, who praised the North Korean regime as a model for Cuba to follow.
In 1986 Fidel Castro visited North Korea and met with the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung, and his son and successor, Kim Jong-il (the grandfather and father, respectively, of the current North Korean leader).
In July 2013, a North Korea-flagged vessel was seized by Panamanian authorities carrying suspected missile-system components hidden under 10,000 tons of sugar bags upon its return from Cuba. Cuba claimed the weapons were going to North Korea for repairs and were to be sent back. However, the next year a United Nations panel of experts concluded that the shipment had violated sanctions placed on North Korea, although Cuban entities were not sanctioned in the aftermath despite protests from the U.S.
In 2015, Cuba’s First Vice President and foreseeable successor to Raúl Castro, Miguel Díaz-Canel , was received by Kim Jong-un in the North Korean capital.
In December 2016, a North Korean delegation to the funeral of Cuban leader Fidel Castro emphasized that the two nations should develop their relations “in all spheres” — a comment that was echoed by Raúl Castro, according to state media reports at the time.
This year the Kim regime has been strengthening its ties with Cuba with a view to breaking its diplomatic isolation, before the tightening of sanctions imposed by the international community. In January, Cuban Vice President Salvador Valdés Mesa received the number three of the North Korean regime, Choe Ryong-hae. In May the North Korean trade union leader Ju Yong-gil visited Havana as part of a meeting of the World Federation of Trade Unions and reportedly returned with a message of solidarity from President Raúl Castro.
The Ho-Rodriguez Meeting
Ho’s first meeting in Cuba was with Foreign Minister Rodriguez and below is a photograph of the two men at that meeting.
Afterwards Cuba’s Foreign Ministry stated that the two officials had “reviewed the satisfactory status and positive evolution of bilateral relations, which [are] based on the traditional bonds of friendship established by the historical leaders Fidel Castro Ruz and Kim Il Sung and the links that exist between both peoples, parties and governments.” They also asserted their “respect for peoples’ sovereignty, independence and free determination, territorial integrity, the abstention or threat of the use of force, the peaceful settlement of disputes and non-interference in the internal affairs of States.”
They then “strongly rejected the unilateral and arbitrary lists and designations established by the US government which serve as a basis for the implementation of coercive measures which are contrary to international law.” In addition, they “expressed their concern over the escalation of tensions and the increased military activity in the [Korean Peninsula].”
The Ho-Castro Meeting
After the two officials’ meeting, the official note of the meeting released on Cuban official television stated, “In the fraternal meeting both parties noted the historic bonds of friendship that exist between the two nations and discussed international issues of common interest.”
Implications for the U.S.
On November 23 Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised the possibility that the North Korea-Cuba relationship was a positive development for the U.S. and the world. He said that last year he had discussed with Castro the possibility of working together to defuse global tensions with North Korea. “Can we pass along messages through surprising conduits?” Implicitly answering “yes” to his rhetorical question, Trudeau said. “These are the kinds of things where Canada can, I think, play a role that the United States has chosen not to play, this past year.”
Canada had an interest in seeking such solutions, not just because of regional security but also because the flight path of possible North Korean missiles would pass over its territory, Trudeau said.
An unnamed Asian diplomat had a similar thought: “We often ask the Cubans if they can talk to [the U.S. about North Korea].”
A more negative assessment was offered by an anonymous U.S. State Department official who said that the U.S. had made clear it wanted a peaceful resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue, but North Korea’s “belligerent and provocative behavior demonstrates it has no interest in working toward a peaceful solution.” Also skeptical was Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former U.S. Treasury Department official, who said, “A key element of the Trump administration’s sanctions effort is isolating North Korea. The U.S. should warn Cuba about the dangers of a relationship with North Korea.”
Although this blog desperately hopes for a de-escalation of tensions between the U.S. and North Korea and the avoidance of a nuclear war, I doubt that Cuba or Canada via Cuba can make a significant contribution to that objective.
On February 6th at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., President Obama affirmed that we are “all children of a loving God; brothers and sisters called to make His work our own. But in this work, as Lincoln said, our concern should not be whether God is on our side, but whether we are on God’s side.”
It was important, Obama said, that “as Americans, we affirm the freedoms endowed by our Creator, among them freedom of religion. . . . [This] freedom safeguards religion . . . [and] religion strengthens America. Brave men and women of faith have challenged our conscience and brought us closer to our founding ideals, from the abolition of slavery to civil rights, workers’ rights.”
In addition, the President declared, “promoting religious freedom is a key objective of U.S. foreign policy.” Therefore, the U.S. must take steps to challenge the threats to that freedom around the world. “We see governments engaging in discrimination and violence against the faithful. We sometimes see religion twisted in an attempt to justify hatred and persecution against other people just because of who they are, or how they pray or who they love. Old tensions are stoked, fueling conflicts along religious lines, . . . even though to harm anyone in the name of faith is to diminish our own relationship with God. Extremists succumb to an ignorant nihilism that shows they don’t understand the faiths they claim to profess — for the killing of the innocent is never fulfilling God’s will; in fact, it’s the ultimate betrayal of God’s will.”
Specific criticisms for violations of religious freedom were directed by the President at China, Burma, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, Syria and North Korea.
The President also made a personal confession of his own religious faith. He said, God had “directed my path to Chicago and my work with churches who were intent on breaking the cycle of poverty in hard-hit communities there. . . . [The] church fed me . . .[and] led me to embrace Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior . . . [and] to Michelle — the love of my life — and it blessed us with two extraordinary daughters [and] to public service. And the longer I serve, especially in moments of trial or doubt, the more thankful I am of God’s guiding hand.”
Earlier this year the President, proclaiming January 16th as Religious Freedom Day, emphasized that “America embraces people of all faiths and of no faith. We are Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, atheists and agnostics. Our religious diversity enriches our cultural fabric and reminds us that what binds us as one is not the tenets of our faiths, the colors of our skin, or the origins of our names. What makes us American is our adherence to shared ideals — freedom, equality, justice, and our right as a people to set our own course.”
A similar statement about Religious Freedom Day was made by U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. She said, “Protecting freedom of religion is a cornerstone of American foreign policy, carried out by prioritizing accountability for religiously-motivated violence, urging governments to adopt legal protections for religious minorities, and promoting societal respect for religious diversity. And at the United Nations, we work with our partners to fight for the world’s religious minorities, including adoption of the landmark Human Rights Council resolution calling on member states to combat intolerance, violence, and discrimination based on religion.”
 The New York Times and Washington Post issued reports on the President’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. Earlier posts have discussed the work on international freedom of religion by the U.S. Department of State and by the quasi-independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
On July 31, 2012, the U.S. Department of State issued its annual report on terrorism in the world: Country Reports on Terrorism 2011. A prior post reviewed the report as a whole.
We now examine this report‘s designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism,” i.e., as a country that has “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.” This post’s analysis is also informed by the previous U.S. reports on terrorism for 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. Earlier posts analyzed and criticized the reports for 2009 and 2010.
Preliminarily I note that the latest report says that 480 of the 10,283 terrorist attacks in 2011 occurred in the Western Hemisphere and that “the vast majority of . . . [these] were ascribed to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).” There is no mention of Cuba in this statistical summary.
Nor is there any mention of Cuba in the latest report’s “Strategic Assessment” that puts all of its discussion into a worldwide context. Instead this section of the report highlights the death of Osama bin Laden and other top leaders of al-Qa’ida as putting its “network on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse.” Others specifically mentioned in this Assessment were Iran, terrorists groups in South-Asia, the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey, anarchists in Greece and Italy, dissident Republican groups in Northern Ireland and Anders Behring Breivik (the Norwegian right-wing extremist who killed 77 people last July).
Cuba As an Alleged Safe Haven for Terrorists
The first stated basis for designating Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” is its allegedly providing safe havens to individuals associated with two U.S.-designated Terrorist Organizations–Spain’s Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)–and to certain fugitives from U.S. criminal proceedings. Here are direct quotations of the report on these points:
“Current and former members of . . . ETA continue to reside in Cuba. Three suspected ETA members were arrested in Venezuela and deported back to Cuba in September 2011 after sailing from Cuba. One of them, Jose Ignacio Echarte, is a fugitive from Spanish law and was also believed to have ties” to the FARC.
“Press reporting indicated that the Cuban government provided medical care and political assistance to the FARC.”
“The Cuban government continued to permit fugitives wanted in the United States to reside in Cuba and also provided support such as housing, food ration books, and medical care for these individuals.”
Before we examine some details about these charges, it must be said that the speciousness of this charge about ETA and FARC is shown by the latest U.S. terrorism report itself. It has a separate chapter on the legitimate international problem of terrorist safe havens as “ungoverned, under-governed, or ill-governed physical areas where terrorists are able to organize, plan, raise funds, communicate, recruit, train, transit, and operate in relative security because of inadequate governance capacity, political will, or both.” The report then identifies such havens in different parts of the world. For the Western Hemisphere, it discusses Colombia, Venezuela and the Tri-Border Area (where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay come together). But there is no mention whatsoever of Cuba.
Earlier U.S. reports provide another reason for discounting these charges. They admit that “Cuba no longer supports armed struggle in Latin America and other parts of the world” (1996, 1997, 1998, 2008, 2009 reports) and that there was no evidence that Cuba had sponsored specific acts of terrorism (1996, 1997 reports). They also report that in 2001(after 9/11) Cuba “signed all 12 UN counterterrorism conventions as well as the Ibero-American declaration on terrorism” (2001, 2002, 2003 reports).
Let us now examine details about each of these specific assertions about alleged safe haven which have been made by the U.S. since at least 1996.
The weakness of the U.S. charge regarding ETA implicitly is admitted by the latest report itself when it states there “was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training for” ETA. Similar admissions were made in the U.S. reports for 2005 (“no information concerning terrorist activities of [ETA] on Cuban territory”); 2008 (“no evidence of . . . terrorist financing activities”); 2009 (“no evidence of direct financial support”); 2010 (“no evidence of direct financial or ongoing material support”).
In addition, the latest U.S. report adds that there is evidence”[suggesting ] that the Cuban government [in 2011] was trying to distance itself from ETA members living on the island by employing tactics such as not providing services including travel documents to some of them.”
Earlier U.S. reports also reflect the limited nature of this charge. There allegedly were only 20 ETA members living in Cuba (2001 report), some of whom may be there in connection with peace negotiations with Spain (2009 report). In May 2003, Cuba publicly asserted that the “presence of ETA members in Cuba arose from a request for assistance by Spain and Panama and that the issue is a bilateral matter between Cuba and Spain” (2003 report). In March 2010 Cuba “allowed Spanish Police to travel to Cuba to confirm the presence of suspected ETA members” (2010 report).
Moreover, in March 2011 the Spanish Ambassador to Cuba told former U.S. President Jimmy Carter that Spain was “not concerned about the presence of members of . . . ETA . . . in Cuba.” Indeed, the Ambassador maintained that this enhances his country’s ability to deal more effectively with ETA. In fact, the Ambassador added, some ETA members are there at the request of the Spanish government.
Again the new U.S. report implicitly admits the weakness of its FARC allegations by the report’s stating there “was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training for” FARC. Similar admissions were made in the U.S. reports for 2005 (“no information concerning terrorist activities of [FARC] on Cuban territory”); 2008 (“no evidence of . . . terrorist financing activities”); 2009 (“no evidence of direct financial support”); 2010 (“no evidence of direct financial or ongoing material support”).
In addition, the 2008 report said in July of that year “former Cuban President Fidel Castro called on the FARC to release the hostages they were holding without preconditions. He has also condemned the FARC’s mistreatment of captives and of their abduction of civilian politicians who had no role in the armed conflict.”
There is no indication in the reports of the number of FARC members allegedly in Cuba, but some may be there in connection with peace negotiations with Colombia (2009 report).
Moreover, in March 2011 the Colombian Ambassador to Cuba told former U.S. President Jimmy Carter that Colombia was “not concerned about the presence of members of FARC . . . in Cuba.” Indeed, the Ambassador maintained that this enhances their ability to deal more effectively with FARC.
3. U.S. fugitives
There apparently were or are over 70 individuals living in Cuba who are fugitives from criminal charges in U.S. relating to violent acts in the 1970’s purportedly committed to advance political causes, but pursuant to a 2005 Cuban government statement, no additional U.S. fugitives have been permitted on the island. In a few instances Cuba has extradited such fugitives to the U.S. (2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 reports).
None of these fugitives apparently is affiliated with U.S.-designated terrorist organizations. The issue of whether or not they will be extradited to the U.S. is an appropriate issue for bilateral negotiations between the two countries. But, in my opinion, it is not a legitimate basis for designating Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.”
Cuba’s Alleged Financial System Deficiencies
The other asserted ground in the latest U.S. report for the designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” is new.
This other ground is Cuba’s having been identified by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) as “having strategic AML/CFT [Anti-Money Laundering/Combating the Financing of Terrorism] deficiencies. Despite sustained and consistent overtures, Cuba has refused to substantively engage directly with the FATF. It has not committed to FATF standards and it is not a member of a FATF-style regional body.”
According to its website, FATF “is an inter-governmental body established in 1989 by the Ministers of its Member jurisdictions. [Its] . . . objectives . . . are to set standards and promote effective implementation of legal, regulatory and operational measures for combating money laundering, terrorist financing and other related threats to the integrity of the international financial system. The FATF is therefore a ‘policy-making body’ which works to generate the necessary political will to bring about national legislative and regulatory reforms in these areas.” Thus, it apparently is a voluntary international organization, not one established by a multilateral treaty.
FATF currently has 34 member jurisdictions (or only about 18% of the U.N. member states) plus 2 regional organizations (the European Council and the Gulf Co-Operation Council) representing most major financial centers in all parts of the globe.
Starting in 1990,”FATF has developed a series of Recommendations that [it claims] are now recognised as the international standard for combating of money laundering and the financing of terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. They form the basis for a co-ordinated response to these threats to the integrity of the financial system and help ensure a level playing field. First issued in 1990, the FATF Recommendations were revised in 1996, 2001 [additional measures regarding terrorist financing], 2003 and 2012 to ensure that they remain up to date and relevant, and they are intended to be of universal application.”
To this end, FATF promotes the global adoption and implementation of the FATF Recommendations.
In June 2012 FATF issued a Public Statement that identified Iran and the Democratic Republic of Korea [North Korea] as jurisdictions “subject to a FATF call on its members and other jurisdictions to apply counter-measures to protect the international financial system from the on-going and substantial money laundering and terrorist financing (ML/TF) risks emanating from [these] . . . jurisdictions.”
The June 2012 Statement also listed 18 other countries, including Cuba, as jurisdictions “with strategic AML/CFT deficiencies that have not made sufficient progress in addressing the deficiencies or have not committed to an action plan developed with the FATF to address the deficiencies. The FATF calls on its members to consider the risks arising from the deficiencies associated with each jurisdiction.”
The latest U.S. terrorism report made an important concession on this point by noting that in 2011 Cuba “did attend a [FATF] meeting on Money Laundering in South America meeting as a guest and prepared an informal document describing its anti-money laundering/counterterrorist financing system.” But this U.S. concession did not go far enough, for the June 2012 FATF Statement said, “Since February 2012 Cuba has officially engaged with the FATF and has also attended [the meetings of the relevant regional organizations] CFATF [Caribbean Financial Action Task Force] and GAFISUD [Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering in Latin America] . . . . The FATF urges Cuba to continue its engagement with the FATF, and to work with the FATF to develop and agree on an action plan in order to implement an AML/CFT regime in line with international standards.”
I assume that the issues being addressed by the FATF are important ones for the international community and that its Recommendations are reasonable ones to address the real problems of money laundering and financing of terrorism. I also assume that the Cuban financial system is not as sophisticated as those in the U.S. and other international money centers and that it along with at least 17 other countries that are not “State Sponsors of Terrorism” is not in compliance with the FATF Recommendations.
But these facts, in my opinion, do not support designating Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.” If it were, then the 17 other countries on the two FATF lists should be added to the U.S. list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism.” (Of the 20 countries on the two FATF lists, only Iran, Syria and Cuba are now U.S.-designated “State Sponsors.”)
Moreover, as noted above, the U.S. terrorism reports have indicated there was no evidence of Cuban financing of terrorism in the covered years. In addition, some of the reports reference Cuban laws permitting the tracking, blocking, or seizing terrorist assets (Cuba’s Law 93 Against Acts of Terrorism and Instruction 19 of the Superintendent of the Cuban Central Bank) (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 reports). In addition, in its response to this latest U.S. report, Cuba has asserted that it “regularly provides precise, truthful information to the appropriate United Nations bodies charged with addressing these issues and others related to confronting terrorism.”
The whole FATF issue raised in the U.S. terrorism report, in my opinion, is a “red herring.”
Not surprisingly the Cuban government comes to the same conclusion. It says “the only reason Cuba is kept on this list is exposed as an attempt to justify the U.S. blockade of our country, as well as the adoption of new measures to limit our financial and commercial transactions, to strangle the Cuban economy and impose a regime which responds to U.S. interests.”
Whatever legitimate issues are raised by these U.S. reports, I submit, are appropriate subjects, among many, for the bilateral negotiations that a prior post recommended should occur between the U.S. and Cuba to the end of reconciliation and restoration of normal relations. As Cuba pointed out after this U.S. report was released, Cuba repeatedly has proposed that the two countries “agree upon a bilateral program to confront terrorism,” but the U.S. government has not responded.
More generally, Cuban President Raul Castro on July 26, 2012 (the 59th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution) reiterated his country’s willingness to engage in negotiations with the U.S. as equals. He said no topic was off limits, including U.S. concerns about democracy, freedom of the press and human rights in Cuba so as long as the U.S. was prepared to hear Cuba’s own complaints. In response the U.S. repeated its prior position: before there could be meaningful talks, Cuba had to institute democratic reforms, respect human rights and release Alan Gross, an American detained in Cuba.
 Cuba has been so designated since March 1982.The U.S. terrorism reports listed above are those that are accessible on the U.S. State Department’s website. I would appreciate detailed comments from anyone with knowledge about the reports for 1982-1995 although they are less relevant due to the passage of time.