US calls for Cuba to open embassy in Havana by April

Cuba says it must be removed from US terrorism list before embassy opens

Washington is eager to re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba before a regional summit in Panama in April, when president Barack Obama will meet Cuban leader Raul Castro for the first time since 2013. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Washington is eager to re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba before a regional summit in Panama in April, when president Barack Obama will meet Cuban leader Raul Castro for the first time since 2013. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

 

The United States is pressing Cuba to allow the opening of its embassy in Havana by April despite the Communist island’s demand that it first be removed from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.

A refusal by Cuba to allow the United States to quickly establish an official embassy for the first time in half a century could complicate talks between the Cold War foes, reflecting enduring mistrust as they move to end decades of confrontation.

Striking Cuba from the terrorism list could take until June or longer, although the White House is pushing officials to move quickly, according to two US officials with direct knowledge of the State Department’s review to take Cuba off the list.

Washington is eager to re-establish diplomatic ties before a regional summit in Panama in April, when president Barack Obama will meet Cuban leader Raul Castro for the first time since 2013, the officials said.

The two leaders announced a historic deal on December 17th to restore relations. US and Cuban diplomats will meet this month or in early March in Washington for a second round of talks.

While renewing diplomatic relations could happen quickly, the process to normalize, including removing the US trade embargo, will take far longer.

Cuba has not made removal from the list a condition for restoring ties, US officials said. But Havana made clear during the first round of talks last month that it first wants to be removed from the terrorism list.

Getting off the list

For Cuba, which considers its designation an injustice, getting removed from the list would be a long-coveted propaganda victory at home and abroad.

Washington placed Cuba on the list in 1982, citing then President Fidel Castro’s training and arming of Communist rebels in Africa and Latin America. The list is short: just Iran, Sudan, Syria and Cuba.

But Cuba’s presence on the list has been questioned in recent years. The State Department’s latest annual “Country Reports on Terrorism” says Cuba has long provided a safe haven for members of the Basque separatist group ETA and Colombia’s left-wing FARC guerrillas.

But ETA, severely weakened by Spanish and French police, called a ceasefire in 2011 and has pledged to disarm. And the FARC has been in peace talks with the Colombian government for the past two years, with Cuba as host.

Even the State Department acknowledged in its report that Cuba has made progress. “There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups,” it said.

It is rare, though not unheard of, for the United States to remove entities or countries from its list of terrorist supporters. One entity which was removed following a lengthy and intense lobbying campaign was the Mujahiddin e Khalq, a controversial and cult-like Iranian group.

The designation also comes with economic sanctions, and can result in fines for companies that do business with countries on the list, such as a record $8.9 billion (€7.7 billion) penalty that French bank BNP Paribas paid last year for doing business with Sudan, Iran and Cuba.

As part of the US shift in policy toward Cuba, the White House ordered a State Department review of Cuba’s listing as a state sponsor of terrorism, the US officials said.

To finalize Cuba’s removal, Mr Obama would need to submit to Congress a report stating Havana had not supported terrorism-related activities for six months, and that Cuba has provided assurances that it will not support terrorism in the future. Cuba would be automatically dropped from the list 45 days later.

Converting the six-story US interests sections in Havana into a full-fledged embassy after 53 years would require ending restrictions on the number of US personnel in Havana, limits on diplomats’ movements and appointing an ambassador. It would allow the US to renovate the building and have US security posted around the building, replacing Cuban police.

Cuba also wants the United States to scale back its support for Cuban dissidents when the sides meet again. US administration officials have stood firm both publicly and privately that they intend to keep supporting the dissidents.

Reuters