The United States has taken Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terrorism, a step that authorities in Havana had insisted upon in advance of the reopening of embassies.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry signed the order Friday, 45 days after the Obama administration informed Congress that it would remove Cuba from the list. The State Department determined that Cuba had not supported international terrorism in the previous six months, a requirement for getting off the list that now has only three names — Iran, Syria and Sudan. Cuba had been on it since 1982.
Jeff Rathke, a spokesman for the State Department, said the decision to drop Cuba from the list “reflects our assessment that Cuba meets the statutory criteria.”
“While the United States has significant concerns and disagreements with a wide range of Cuba’s policies and actions, these fall outside the criteria relevant to the rescission of a state-sponsor-of-terrorism designation,” he said.
Removing the terror designation lifts only some of the numerous U.S. trade barriers against Cuba. An economic embargo remains in effect, and reversing it requires a congressional vote. President Obama has said he hopes to work with Congress to get it lifted.
Until then, the action taken Friday will not provide a huge economic boost. It could, however, encourage some international companies and banks to do business in Cuba, as they will no longer fear running afoul of U.S. laws. Airbnb and Netflix already have nascent operations on the island.
“The embargo has grown by accretion over the decades, one brick at a time,” said Christopher Sabatini, a scholar of U.S.-Cuba relations who teaches at Columbia University. “Dismantling it is going to happen similarly.”
Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro in December announced a historic decision to renew relations, and representatives of the two countries have met four times since the announcement to iron out issues that would allow the opening of full-fledged embassies and an exchange of ambassadors.
Both countries closed their embassies in 1961, but each has maintained a pared-down interests section in the other’s capital.
It is not clear when the embassies will reopen. Last week, Cuban and U.S. officials said they still needed to settle other issues. Washington has been particularly concerned that its diplomats have the ability to travel throughout Cuba and meet with citizens, including dissidents, without fear that those Cubans will be harassed for speaking with Americans.
The removal of Cuba from the terrorism list addresses one of Havana’s key demands. Although it used to support left-wing insurgencies in other countries, Cuba viewed the designation as an affront.
This month, a small bank in Florida agreed, at the request of the State Department, to allow the Cuban Interests Section in Washington to open an account. That means the interests section no longer has to pay its bills in cash, and the move takes care of another irritant in the countries’ relations.
Reaction in the United States, on the campaign trail and in Congress, was mixed.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, presumed to be running for the GOP nomination for president next year, said lifting the designation is “a mistake.”
“I call on Congress to keep pressure on Cuba and hold the administration accountable,” he said.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the son of Cuban immigrants and a frequent critic of the administration’s Cuba policy, said that removing Cuba from the list was a “unilateral concession.”
“This approach of the U.S. giving and Cuba taking simply rewards the regime for decades of repression,” he said.
But Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), who replaced Menendez as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that “a more hopeful future is possible” with Cuba off the list.
“It is my desire that Cuba will, in turn, establish a more open society that values human rights, treasures individual freedoms and allows for the start of a new chapter in U.S.-Cuba relations,” he said.