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A terrorism designation Cuba doesn't deserve

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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Under new rules prompted by the failed Christmas Day terrorist attack, airline passengers coming to the United States from 14 nations will undergo extra screening: Afghanistan, Algeria, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. For our first quiz of the new decade, which country doesn't fit with the others?

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The obvious answer is Cuba, which presents a threat of terrorism that can be measured at precisely zero. Cuba is not a failed state where swaths of territory lie beyond government control; rather, it is one of the most tightly locked-down societies in the world, a place where the idea of private citizens getting their hands on plastic explosives, or terrorist weapons of any kind, is simply laughable.

There is no history of radical Islam in Cuba. In fact, there is hardly any history of Islam at all. With its long-standing paranoia about internal security and its elaborate network of government spies and snitches, the island nation would have to be among the last places on Earth where al-Qaeda would try to establish a cell, let alone plan and launch an attack. Yet Cuba is on the list because the State Department still considers it -- along with Iran, Sudan and Syria -- to be a state sponsor of terrorism.

Really? Despite the fact that the U.S. Interests Section in Havana was one of the few American diplomatic posts in the world to remain open for normal business, with no apparent increased security, in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks?

The Obama administration has made many admirable moves to bring U.S. foreign policy into closer alignment with objective reality. But progress toward a fact-based relationship with Cuba has been tentative and halting, at best. Obvious steps that could only serve U.S. interests -- and, in the process, almost surely make Cuba a more open society -- remain untaken.

Last month, New York Times correspondent Tim Golden and I hosted a lunchtime conversation -- and mini-concert -- in Washington with Carlos Varela, a singer-songwriter who is often called Cuba's Bob Dylan. The event, sponsored by the New America Foundation's U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative and the Center for Democracy in the Americas, was notable for the fact that it could take place at all: Varela's only previous trip to the United States was in 1998. He wanted to come again in 2004, but the U.S. government refused him a visa.

The George W. Bush administration adopted a hard-line policy of denying visas to most Cuban artists, including some who were trying to come because they had been nominated for Grammy Awards. The fact that Varela got a visa this time is indicative of a partial thaw, but there has not yet been a full return to the pre-Bush status quo, when the question that preoccupied Cuban musicians was whether the Castro government would let them out, not whether the U.S. government would let them in.

In May, the Obama administration denied a visa to world-famous Cuban folk singer Silvio Rodriguez, who had hoped to perform at a concert in New York marking the legendary Pete Seeger's 90th birthday. I suppose it's possible to draw a distinction -- Rodriguez is known as a true believer in the communist system that Fidel Castro installed, while Varela, without explicitly criticizing the regime, uses nuance and metaphor to question the government and express the impatience of Cuban youth. But since when is the United States afraid of exposure to a competing ideology?

The Obama administration has inched forward in the right direction. Last April, the president lifted restrictions on how often Cuban Americans can visit relatives on the island and how much money they can send to family members. Basically undisturbed, however, are the main pillars of a half-century's worth of failed policy toward Cuba: the ban that effectively keeps almost all other Americans from traveling to Cuba, and the trade embargo that forbids U.S. companies from doing business there.

Granted, the president already has plenty on his plate. He may be reluctant to introduce yet another variable. It's not hard to imagine a senator or a group of House members holding, say, health-care reform hostage over Cuba policy.

But it's difficult for me to believe that Obama fails to see how insane our current policy really is. He needs to change it -- and he can begin by ceasing to pretend that looking for al-Qaeda terrorists on flights from Cuba is anything but a big waste of time.

The writer will be online to chat with readers at 1 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.



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