Rescinding Cuba from “State Sponsors of Terrorism” List: The First Step in Normalizing Relations and Alleviating Undesirable Human Rights Effects

By Ena Cefo

On April 14th, 2015, President Barack Obama recommended that Cuba be removed from the U.S. government’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism”—following a review and report by the State Department, which found that Cuba met the criteria for rescission from the list. Until now, Cuba had remained on the list along with just Iraq, Sudan and Syria. The removal of Cuba from the list will “eliminate some sanctions, including restrictions on foreign assistance, a ban on defense exports and other financial regulations, though the embargo remains in place [because lifting the embargo requires Congressional action, such as the proposed bipartisan bill by Senator Klobuchar].”

Three statutes authorize the Secretary of State to designate a “state sponsor of terrorism”: (1) the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 §620(A), stating that “no assistance shall be furnished under this act to the present government of Cuba”; (2) the Arms Export Control Act §40 which prohibits the export or transfer of munitions or technical assistance for munitions, as well as any financial assistance in regards to the acquisition of munitions; and (3) the Export Administration Act of 1979 §6(j) which requires validated licenses for the export of goods or technology to a state sponsor of terrorism. President Obama certified to Congress that: (a) Cuba has not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding 6 months and (b) Cuba has provided assurances that it will not support acts of terrorism in the future. Following President Obama’s April 14th certification, Congress now has 45 days to pass a joint resolution prohibiting Cuba’s rescission from the list; otherwise, the rescission takes effect.

President Obama’s decision has met controversy in Congress. Supporters of the rescission such as Senator Dick Durbin “believe that opening up the island to American ideas, vibrancy, and trade is the most effective way to see a more open and tolerant Cuba.” Meanwhile, opponents of Cuba’s rescission from the list have been critical in part due to Cuba’s refusal to extradite American fugitives and in part due to their continued opposition to the Castro regime and its poor human rights record.

Opponents of the rescission believe that Cuba’s classification as a “state sponsor of terrorism”—in addition to the sanctions and embargo—is necessary to coerce Cuba to improve its human rights. Admittedly, Cuba’s human rights record has been poor. Human Rights Watch reported that Cuba continued to suppress political dissidence through arbitrary arrest and detention, political imprisonment, and harassment. The State Department’s report criticized Cuba’s suppression of civil liberties and political rights—the freedom of speech and press, the freedom of peaceful assembly and association, the right of citizens to change their government, and the denial of civil society groups to function. Amnesty International reported that peaceful demonstrators, journalists and activists are detained, access to the media is limited, and political opponents are penalized through several measures including the denial of travel visas and arbitrary detentions.

Yet, the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism,” the sanctions and the embargo have also had undesired effects on the rights of Cuban civilians—by imposing indiscriminate hardship and poverty on the entire Cuban population. The designation of “state sponsor of terrorism” has deterred financial institutions from engaging with Cuba and has damaged Cuba’s ability to conduct international financial transactions. Human Rights Watch has consistently criticized the classification, sanctions and embargo as failing to bring improvements to human rights and being counterproductive to U.S. interests in Cuba, while providing the Castro regime with an easy excuse for Cuba’s bleak situation. The UN General Assembly most recently adopted Resolution A/67/118 on the “[n]ecessity of ending the economic, commercial, and financial embargo imposed by the United States against Cuba” with a vote of 188 to 3. Several countries (and organizations) cited the embargo as having an adverse effect on the human rights of Cuban civilians by exacerbating the challenges of poverty and hunger, unemployment, and access to healthcare and education. The UN Children’s Fund also cited the adverse impact of the embargo on children’s health and education. Additionally, the travel ban imposed by the U.S. to cut off financial benefits to the government from travel to the country has also impeded the right of Cuban-Americans to return to their own countries.

While the U.S. will likely continue to have differences with the Cuban government, removing Cuba from the list of “state sponsors of terrorism” opens the door for engagement between the two countries and reduces the undesired effects of U.S.-led isolation on Cuban civilians.