Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism

by Megan Bridges

The following article was also featured in The Spectrum as the final installment of a five-part series, titled Spotlight on Cuba.

On April 14th, 2015, President Obama sent a report to Congress calling for Cuba to be removed from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, an undeniable relic of the Cold War. The small and impoverished island nation earned this nefarious title 33 years ago when President Reagan became angered by Cuba’s support of revolutionary movements in Latin America, which threatened to undermine the centerpiece of his foreign policy agenda. The designation has not only tarnished Cuba’s image on the world stage, but it has also prevented Cuba from joining the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, memberships essential for full integration into the global market. To put it simply, the State Sponsor of Terrorism classification is the political equivalent of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s scarlet letter. In addition to the implicit consequences of the designation, it also entails four official sanctions. They include restrictions on U.S. foreign aid, a ban on the export and sales of arms, controls over the export of dual-use items (that is, products that can be used for civilian and military purposes), and miscellaneous financial restrictions. Countries on the list are also subject to lawsuits under Section 1605 of the Foreign Services Immunity Act (FSIA), which states that a foreign state is not immune from jurisdiction in a suit:

in which damages are sought against a foreign state for personal injury or death that was caused by an act of torture, extrajudicial killing, aircraft sabotage, hostage taking, or the provision of material support or resources… for such an act if such act or provision of material support is engaged in by an official, employee, or agent of such foreign state while acting within the scope of his or her office, employment, or agency, except that the court shall decline to hear a claim under this paragraph (A) if the foreign state was not designated as a state sponsor of terrorism…

The unfortunate truth of the matter is that even if Cuba’s status is revoked, more stringent sanctions still exist under the U.S. embargo that will persist until they are lifted. While President Obama’s gesture is largely symbolic, it is a necessary first step in normalizing diplomatic relations with our neighbor off the Florida coast.

Although Cuba has not supported insurgent activities since 1992, its designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism remains a contentious issue. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and South Florida Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen vehemently oppose the president’s decision to remove Cuba from the list. Not long after news broke of the decision, the congresswoman stated that she and her colleagues plan on introducing roadblocks to Obama’s Cuba policy. Furthermore, Sen. Rubio stated, “I think [the decision] sends a chilling message to our enemies abroad that the White House is no longer serious about calling terrorism by its proper name.” The senator’s remarks are problematic in two ways, which I will explicate below. The first is that the United States has never been serious about “calling terrorism by its proper name,” and the second is that Cuba should not have been designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in the first place—it does not meet the necessary criteria. Despite opposition from the right, it is unlikely that members of the GOP will successfully overturn Pres. Obama’s ruling. Congress would need to pass a veto-proof measure, which would require over a two-thirds majority in both houses.

The decision to add or abstain from adding a country to the State Sponsors of Terrorism list is politically motivated, and consequently unevenly applied. There are several states that belong on the list but are deliberately kept off of it, such as Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Somalia. Due to their privileged status, they are immune to the sanctions and lawsuits that accompany the State Sponsor of Terrorism title. A slew of evidence exists, however, to charge these countries, among others, as State Sponsors of Terrorism. In the case of Saudi Arabia, fifteen of the nineteen September 11th hijackers, as well as Osama bin Laden, were born in Saudi Arabia. The state was also slow to respond to terrorist money laundering allegations. Furthermore, a United States citizen, Mr. Nelson, filed a suit against Saudi Arabia in 1996 after he was imprisoned, tortured, and denied food after uncovering that a Saudi hospital was violating safety codes. The suit failed, however, because the Supreme Court concluded that the United States did not have jurisdiction over Saudi Arabia since it was not listed as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. There exists little incentive to add it to the list, however, because the United States benefits from the Saudi oil industry.

Cuba is the inverse of Saudi Arabia; although it does not belong on the list, it has made its way on it regardless. In February 1982, one month before Cuba was classified as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, the State Department released a memo that claimed that Cuba supported guerrillas in El Salvador and Guatemala that aimed to overthrow the established governments. However, a high-ranking Cuban official indicated that Cuba had suspended all arms shipments to Central America by December 1981. The State Department’s statement sounds eerily familiar to the United States’ support of the 1954 coup d’état to replace the democratically elected president of Guatemala. Furthermore, during the Guatemalan Civil War that erupted afterwards, the CIA provided military training and financial support to the Guatemalan army, which was responsible for the murder of as many as 200,000 unarmed civilians, the detainment of tens of thousands, and the displacement of over one million people. If Cuba is a State Sponsor of Terrorism, then the United States ought to be as well.

Furthermore, in 1997, the State Department acknowledged that Cuba did not support armed resistance and was not a direct sponsor of terrorism. Despite this, action to revoke its title as a State Sponsor of Terrorism was not taken because Cuba remains a “safe haven for… terrorists.” These terrorists include members of the Basque separatist movement ETA, the Colombian guerrillas of the ELN and FARC, and approximately 70 American fugitives. However, a number of the Basque separatists have been repatriated to Spain, and Cuba has been enabling peace talks between the Colombian government and FARC. Moreover, regarding the American fugitives, no requirement exists to place countries that do not extradite fugitives to the United States–such as Indonesia, The People’s Republic of China, Kuwait, Vietnam, and Cambodia–on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Additionally, it remains unclear if the fugitives in question have committed terrorist acts that are international in character. It is important to note that the United States also harbors exile terrorists, such as the Cuban Orlando Bosch, who has been involved in approximately thirty cases of terrorist acts in the Americas.

The president’s decision to remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list ought to be lauded. Cuba has demonstrated its disapproval of terrorism by ratifying all 12 international counterterrorism conventions, and offering to provide medical and humanitarian assistance to the United States after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. Furthermore, the FSIA violates due process, as well as the doctrine of separation of powers by allowing the State Department, a part of the Executive Branch, to “create or destroy jurisdiction of the lower courts (by adding to or deleting from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism).” Overwhelming evidence exists that the list itself is unconstitutional, and Cuba’s place on it is unjustifiable.

Works Cited