Removing Cuba From U.S. Terrorism List Would Be Mostly 'Symbolic' NPR's Audie Cornish talks about the history of how Cuba ended up on the state-sponsored terrorism list.

Removing Cuba From U.S. Terrorism List Would Be Mostly 'Symbolic'

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President Obama will soon decide whether to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of governments that sponsor terrorism. Right now, there are only four countries on that list - Sudan, Syria, Iran and Cuba. It was added 33 years ago during the Reagan administration. The Cuban government has denounced the designation as a hostile, politically motivated move. But, until recently, the State Department said it was justified. William LeoGrande is a professor of government at American University and co-author of the book, "Back Channel To Cuba: The Hidden History Of Negotiations Between Washington And Havana." Welcome to the program.

WILLIAM LEOGRANDE: Glad to be with you.

CORNISH: So remind us exactly why Cuba was put on the list in the first place.

LEOGRANDE: Cuba was put on the list in 1982 by President Reagan, who was unhappy with Cuban support for revolutionary movements in Latin America, especially Central America, because the war in El Salvador had really escalated at that point. And that was a central focus of Reagan's foreign policy.

CORNISH: So what has been the U.S. justification for keeping it on the list for so long, even after the country is believed to have stopped supporting groups abroad?

LEOGRANDE: Well, the Cubans did, in fact, stop supporting foreign revolutionaries in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And the rationale has changed. If you look at the annual reports that come from the State Department, in the last report there were really only three reasons cited for Cuba still being on the list - their harboring of FARC guerrillas from Colombia, their harboring of ETA Basque terrorists from Spain and their harboring of several fugitives from justice in the United States.

CORNISH: So tell us more about those fugitives that Cuba has taken in.

LEOGRANDE: Well, there are about 70 fugitives from the United States in Cuba. Most of them are common criminals, but there are several who are very high-profile political criminals. One, Joanne Chesimard, who was convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper - she was a member of the Black Liberation Army - and William Morales, a Puerto Rican nationalist, who was charged with bombings in New York. Now, the Cubans have given them political asylum, so it's unlikely that Cuba would be willing to surrender them. But there's a history of Cuba being willing to return common criminals to the United States. And all that's really required, I think, is a deepening of cooperation between law enforcement agencies in the two countries to make progress on that issue.

CORNISH: Among the most vocal critics of this idea is Senator Marco Rubio. He says it would be a grave mistake to delist Cuba. Is there any way for Congress to block a decision in favor of delisting?

LEOGRANDE: It is possible, but it's unlikely. The president will report his determination to the Congress, and Congress has 45 days before the president's decision goes into effect. And they can try to overrule that decision, but it will require them passing a law to that effect, and Obama can veto that, of course. So opponents of his decision would have to be able to muster veto-proof majorities in both houses of Congress. I think that's very unlikely.

CORNISH: Finally, what would a delisting mean for U.S.-Cuba relations, given that there' still an economic embargo in effect?

LEOGRANDE: Well, I think delisting is mostly symbolic. The Cubans take it as a real insult because they don't believe that they've been involved in supporting terrorists. There are financial sanctions that attach to being on the terrorism list, but those sanctions are actually less stringent than the sanctions that Cuba already faces under the U.S. embargo. So, in that sense, the sanctions won't really go away, even when Cuba is delisted. However, because it's symbolic, it may make some U.S. banks willing to take the chance of engaging in transactions with Cuba that are licensed by the United States government.

CORNISH: William LeoGrande - he's a professor at American University. He joined us from upstate New York. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

LEOGRANDE: My pleasure.

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