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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Is Cuba a ‘Leading’ Sponsor of Terrorism?

Sen. Ted Cruz condemned President Obama’s announcement that he would normalize relations with Cuba, calling the communist country “a leading state sponsor of terrorism.” That’s a stretch, to say the least.

It’s true that Cuba — along with Iran, Syria and Sudan — is listed by the State Department as one of four “State Sponsors of Terrorism.” But the department’s annual Country Report on Terrorism, published in April, provided little evidence of Cuba sponsoring terrorism, especially compared with the extensive portfolio of the others on that list.

In fact, the State Department report said: “There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.” It did note that Cuba has historic “ties” to two regional terrorist groups: Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) in Spain and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). But Cuba’s ties with the ETA “have become more distant,” and it has supported and hosted peace talks between FARC and the government of Colombia, the report said.

Cuba’s Terrorist Ties

Cruz made his remarks in an interview with Neil Cavuto on Fox News hours after the president announced the U.S. policy changes on Cuba.

Cruz, Dec. 17: Look, the Castros are the ones who have decided to be brutal, repressive dictators. And we should not be taking blame for the fact that we responded to their active acts of war and hostility. They are a leading state sponsor of terrorism and just like President Obama did with Russia, just like President Obama did with Iran, he does not understand the difference between our friends and our enemies.

Others who were critical of the president’s decision, including Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, also pointed to Cuba’s designation as a “state sponsor of terrorism.”

Rubio, Dec. 17: Cuba, like Syria, Iran, and Sudan, remains a state sponsor of terrorism. It continues to actively work with regimes like North Korea to illegally traffic weapons in our hemisphere in violation of several United Nations Security Council Resolutions.

We’ll get to Rubio’s point — which is correct — about Cuba and North Korea later. But we will start by reviewing Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism relative to others on that list.

The State Department labeled Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism in 1982, “citing Fidel Castro’s training and arming of communist rebels in Africa and Latin America,” as explained in a 2010 report by the independent Council on Foreign Relations. But, as the report also says, “intelligence experts have been hard pressed to find evidence that Cuba currently provides weapons or military training to terrorist groups” and “many experts are skeptical” that Cuba still belongs on the list. An Aug. 15 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service also said: “Cuba’s retention on the terrorism list has been questioned by some observers.”

The list is not reviewed annually, so Cuba cannot be removed until either the president or Congress takes action. The president, who can remove Cuba from the list without congressional approval, has said his administration will review that designation in light of his decision to normalize relations with Cuba.

Why is Cuba on the list, and what ties does it still have to terrorists? Chapter 3 of the State Department’s 2013 Country Report on Terrorism lists just two reasons for the designation: Cuba has “long provided safe haven to members of Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC),” and it has “continued to harbor fugitives wanted in the United States.”

But the State Department report and the CRS report provide evidence of a softening of Cuba’s policies regarding U.S. fugitives and regional terrorist groups.

Let’s look first at the terrorist groups mentioned in the State Department report.

Basque Fatherland and Liberty — or Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna — was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department in 1997 and operates in northern Spain and southwestern France, as explained in Chapter 6 of the State Department’s 2013 Country Report on Terrorism. It has been primarily involved in the bombings of Spanish government buildings and assassinations of Spanish officials, and has killed more than 800 people since 1968, the State report said.

But ETA is a shell of its former self, and Cuba has distanced itself from the group. The State report said ETA’s membership has shrunk to “fewer than 100” members, with about 750 members imprisoned in Spain and France, and it is “probably experiencing financial shortages” since it stopped collecting “revolutionary taxes” from businesses in 2011. The State Department said the “taxes,” which it described as an “extortion program,” were the group’s primary source of funding.

And although the State Department report says Cuba has “long provided safe haven” to ETA members, it also says the numbers are small and dwindling as Cuba works with the Spanish government to return ETA members. “Reports continued to indicate that Cuba’s ties to ETA have become more distant, and that about eight of the two dozen ETA members in Cuba were relocated with the cooperation of the Spanish government,” the report said.

Cuba also has harbored members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which also has been on the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organization list since 1997. The State Department describes FARC as “Latin America’s oldest, largest, most violent, and best-equipped terrorist organization,” saying it “has been responsible for large numbers of kidnappings for ransom in Colombia, and in past years has allegedly held as many as 700 hostages,” including U.S. citizens.

FARC has been weakened by a Colombian military offensive in recent years, but is still active. “The FARC and the Colombian government began peace talks in 2012, but fighting continued throughout 2013,” the report said. Cuba, however, has been involved in helping to broker the peace talks.

State Department, April 2014: Throughout 2013, the Government of Cuba supported and hosted negotiations between the FARC and the Government of Colombia aimed at brokering a peace agreement between the two. The Government of Cuba has facilitated the travel of FARC representatives to Cuba to participate in these negotiations, in coordination with representatives of the Governments of Colombia, Venezuela, and Norway, as well as the Red Cross.

The State Department report on Cuba was brief — just three paragraphs, and concluded by saying there’s no evidence that Cuba has provided training or weapons to terrorist groups.

The language in the latest report isn’t much different from the 2008 report, in which the State Department wrote that Cuba “no longer actively supports armed struggle in Latin America and other parts of the world.” That report also said the U.S. “has no evidence of terrorist-related money laundering or terrorist financing activities in Cuba.”

Compare the 2013 report on Cuba with these excerpts from the lengthy reports on Iran and Syria:

  • Iran: Iran continued its terrorist-related activity, including support for Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza, and for Hizballah. It has also increased its presence in Africa and attempted to smuggle arms to Houthi separatists in Yemen and Shia oppositionists in Bahrain. Iran used the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) and its regional proxy groups to implement foreign policy goals, provide cover for intelligence operations, and create instability in the Middle East.
  • Syria: [T]he Asad regime continued its political support to a variety of terrorist groups affecting the stability of the region and beyond, even amid significant internal unrest. The regime continued to provide political and weapons support to Hizballah and continued to allow Iran to rearm the terrorist organization. The Asad regime’s relationship with Hizballah and Iran continued to grow stronger in 2013 as the conflict in Syria continued. … Statements supporting terrorist groups, particularly Hizballah, were often in Syrian government speeches and press statements.

Sudan was described in the State Department report as a “generally cooperative counterterrorism partner.” But the report goes on to say that in 2013 al Qaeda “inspired” terrorist groups remained in Sudan and the country “continued to allow members of Hamas to travel, fund raise, and live in Sudan.” It also said the “Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is likely operating” in Sudan. And, as the New York Times noted in a Dec. 17 article, Sudan President Omar Hassan al-Bashir “has been indicted on a charge of genocide and other crimes at the International Criminal Court because of mass killings and atrocities in the Darfur region.”

As for Cuba harboring fugitives wanted in the U.S., the Congressional Research Service report notes that Cuba in recent years has returned some fugitives on a “case by case basis.” CRS provided three examples from 2011 and 2013.

“For example, in 2011, U.S. Marshals picked up a husband and wife in Cuba who were wanted for a 2010 murder in New Jersey, while in April 2013, Cuba returned a Florida couple who had allegedly kidnapped their own children (who had been in the custody of the mother’s parents) and fled to Havana. In November 2013, William Potts, an American citizen who had hijacked an airplane from New Jersey to Havana in 1984, returned to the United States to face air-piracy charges,” the CRS report said.

Cuba, however, has refused to return fugitives that it deems “political prisoners,” such as Joanne Chesimard, a Black Liberation Army member who is wanted for killing a New Jersey State Trooper in 1973, according to the CRS report. Chesimard became the first female added to the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list in 2013.

The CRS report also noted that Cuba is a regional member of the Financial Action Task Force, an international group that was formed to combat the financing of terrorism. In 2012, Cuba joined the Financial Action Task Force of South America, now known as the Financial Action Task Force of Latin America. The U.S. is a member of the FATF.

Cuba’s North Korea Connection

The State Department report on Cuba’s terrorist activities in 2013 does not mention Cuba’s ties to North Korea — even though, as Rubio correctly mentioned, Cuba sought to provide arms to North Korea in violation of a United Nations’ weapons ban.

Rubio was referring to an incident in the Panama Canal in July 2013, when a North Korean ship carrying undeclared Cuban weapons was seized by the Panama Canal Authority. In February, North Korea paid a fine of nearly $700,000, and the ship was allowed to return to Cuba.

On March 6, the United Nations released a report that provided details on the arms shipment. The report said the ship was transporting 25 containers of Cuban military equipment, mostly originating from the former Soviet Union. The containers included two Soviet-era MiG-21 aircraft, command vehicles, and components for defense systems and surface-to-air missile systems, including rocket launchers and missile components. The U.N. panel of experts that prepared the report said the arms shipment violated a U.N. resolution “prohibiting the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea of all arms and related materiel.”

Cuba insisted that it sought to have the military equipment repaired by North Korea and was not trying to sell or transfer the arms. The panel said it was “unconvinced by Cuba’s rationale” in part because the weapons were undeclared and hidden under bags of sugar.

Footnote: The Bush administration removed North Korea from the state sponsors of terrorism list in 2008 at a time when the U.S. was seeking to negotiate a deal with North Korea to halt the country’s nuclear weapons program. The deal fell through, and North Korea continues work on its nuclear weapons program.

We take no position on Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba or even on whether the communist country should remain on the state sponsors of terrorism list. After all, Cuba harbors U.S. fugitives and tried to supply North Korea with military equipment. But “a leading state sponsor of terrorism”? Cruz went too far in that description.

Update, April 14: Obama informed Congress on April 14 that he has removed Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.

— Eugene Kiely