Cuban flags fly beside the U.S. Interests Section in Havana on April 5, 2015. (Enrique de la Osa/Reuters)

The U.S. State Department's formally removed Cuba from its official list of state sponsors of terrorism. The move signals a significant, symbolic step toward the normalization of ties between Washington and Havana and the potential opening of embassies in both countries.

Cuba's status as a "state sponsor" of terrorism had been under review since last year, when the White House signaled its intent to forge an opening with the country's communist government after decades of Cold War animosity. Cuba's designation remained a curious one and, like much that still shapes the U.S.-Cuba relationship, was a relic of the past. Here's what you need to know about Obama's move to enter the present.

What is a "state sponsor of terrorism"?

The designation was formulated by U.S. authorities in 1979 with an aim to punish whole regimes suspected of involvement in terrorist activities. The United States maintains a separate and far longer list of foreign terrorist organizations. In both cases, a spot on the list means sanctions, bans on exports and arms sales, and other punitive measures aimed at freezing business with these supposed terrorist actors.

Why was Cuba on the list? And who else is on it?

Before the president's move, there were four listed state sponsors of terrorism: Cuba, Iran, Syria and Sudan. Cuba had been on the list since 1982. The argument used to put it there largely centered on the Castro regime giving sanctuary to a number of fugitives implicated in terrorist acts. These included militant Basque separatists from Spain and a number of Americans wanted for acts of political violence.

The most high-profile fugitive is Joanne Chesimard, also known as Assata Shakur. A member of the Black Liberation Army, she is wanted in the killing of a New Jersey police officer in 1973 and is suspected to be in Cuba. It's believed that, since at least 1991, Cuba has provided no training or armed assistance to leftist guerrilla groups in Latin America.

The latest U.S. country report on terrorism in Cuba says there is "no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups."


And what about the other countries?

Iran — deemed by the United States in 2011 to be an "active" state sponsor of terrorism — was first designated as one in 1984, the year after a suicide bombing of a U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut by a suspected member of Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy. Syria got on the list the same year that the list was created, largely for Damascus's role in fueling the sectarian conflict in Lebanon, and its continuing support for Palestinian militant groups carrying out attacks in Israel. Sudan was designated as a state sponsor in 1993 after it emerged that Khartoum was harboring militants from a slate of terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda.

Aren't there other countries that do far worse?

Indeed, yes, some say there are. It's argued that elements within the Pakistani state, for example, have tacitly enabled various militant, terrorist groups — ranging from the Afghan Taliban to al-Qaeda to terrorist groups that focus their attacks on India. Al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden was discovered living in mysterious circumstances in a leafy town not far from Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.

Yet there's never been much of a possibility of forcing this designation on Pakistan, a long-standing U.S. ally whose government regularly denounces terrorism and is in the midst of a bloody, draining counterinsurgency in the country's tribal areas along the Afghan border. So, too, Saudi Arabia, a leading U.S. partner in the Middle East, yet one that has played a role in incubating some of the more noxious strains of Islamic fundamentalism tormenting the wider region.

So, it's a question of politics?

Pretty much. The designation is a provocative, zero-sum gesture that gives the United States little diplomatic flexibility and reflects, instead, the politics of an earlier Cold War era — when U.S. policy was focused more on state adversaries rather than on non-state actors.

The list of nations removed from the list includes Iraq, freed of the status after the U.S. invasion in 2003; Libya, removed in 2006 after the Gaddafi regime stepped up counterterrorism cooperation and abandoned its suspected WMD program; and even North Korea, a move made in 2008 after supposed commitments regarding the verification of that country's clandestine nuclear program.

Another country no longer on the list? South Yemen — a nation that no longer exists but that was viewed in 1970s and 1980s by the United States as a dangerous Soviet proxy.

The question nowadays is less whether states are actively sponsoring terror than whether they are passively doing so — enabling an environment in which non-state terror groups can gain strength and conduct operations.

"Because of this complexity, the answer to the problem does not lie only in updating the State Department’s state sponsorship list to reflect current relationships — swapping out Cuba for Venezuela, say, or replacing North Korea with Pakistan," writes Middle East scholar Daniel L. Byman in a 2008 policy paper for the Brookings Institution.

Byman, instead, proposes the creation of "a list of passive sponsors and their activities in an attempt to 'name and shame' them into better behavior."

Related coverage: 

The U.S. and Cuba will soon agree to reopen their embassies. Here’s what happens next.

Poll shows vast majority of Cubans welcome closer ties with U.S.