Obama close to decision on Cuba terror list
US President Barack Obama closed in Thursday on deciding whether to remove Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, a major hurdle in his diplomatic thaw with Havana.
A day before a historic gathering with Cuban President Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, Obama announced that the State Department had completed its review of Havana’s inclusion on the blacklist.
But the US leader would not say whether the recommendation was to remove or keep Cuba on the list. An interagency review must be conducted before the review is presented to him.
“I won’t make a formal announcement today about what those recommendations are until I have them,” Obama said during a visit to Kingston, Jamaica, ahead of his trip to Panama.
Cuba’s name on the list has been a major sticking point in negotiations aimed at reopening embassies, which closed after the Cold War-era foes broke relations in 1961.
It has made it difficult for Cuba to have access to the international banking system.
Cuba was first put on the list, which also includes Syria, Sudan and Iran, in 1982 for harboring militant ETA Basque separatists and Colombian FARC rebels.
US Secretary of State John Kerry will arrive in Panama hours before Obama and could meet with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, which would mark the highest-level talks in decades.
An announcement about the list during the 35-nation Summit of the Americas on Friday and Saturday would add to the historic nature of the gathering.
The meeting will mark the first time that a Cuban leader attends the event, heralding a new milestone in the diplomatic thaw.
“Cuba’s presence on the list is seen in Cuba as an unfounded insult and a lie,” said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuban analyst at New York University.
Mark Weisbrot, director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research think tank, said removing Cuba from the list would be “just the beginning” of efforts to normalize relations.
“This is just a bare-minimum first step,” Weisbrot said, noting that Havana also wants Congress to lift the US embargo and Washington to abandon the Guantanamo Bay naval base on Cuba’s eastern edge.
– US Congress review –
Cuba’s removal from the list would not be immediate. Congress would have 45 days to decide whether to override Obama’s recommendation.
US lawmakers who have been critical of the diplomatic detente could seize on the review of the list to further attack Obama’s Cuba policy.
US Senator Ted Cruz, a Cuban-American Republican running for his party’s presidential nomination, has been among the most vocal critics of the rapprochement.
A scene of lingering tensions among Cuban dissidents and government sympathizers emerged on Wednesday in Panama City.
Some 100 Castro regime supporters jeered dissidents as they arrived at a Latin American civil society forum in a Panama City hotel, shouting “sell outs” and “imperialists” before leaving the event.
US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf slammed reports that Cuban dissidents were attacked.
“We condemn those who use violence against peaceful protesters,” Harf said.
– Maduro petition –
Analysts have pointed to another potential problem for Obama at the summit: The sanctions he imposed against Venezuelan officials accused of human rights abuses in an opposition crackdown.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Havana’s main ally in the region, hopes to bring a petition signed by 10 million of his citizens urging Obama to lift his executive order.
Other Latin American nations have criticized the order, which calls Caracas a US national security threat.
The White House has since said that it does not see Venezuela as a threat and that the wording is a requisite for such sanctions.
“We do not believe that Venezuela poses a threat to the United States, nor does the United States threaten the Venezuelan government,” Obama said in an interview with Spanish news agency EFE.
“But we do remain very troubled by the Venezuelan government’s efforts to escalate intimidation of its political opponents.”
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