Cuban-American lawmakers press White House to keep Cuba on terror list

Cuban-American lawmakers are pressing the Obama administration to keep Cuba on its list of state sponsors of terrorism as the State Department prepares to release its annual assessment next week.

The four Cuban-Americans in the House are drafting a joint letter to Secretary of State John Kerry laying out why they think the communist island still meets the criteria established by the 1979 sanctions law. And the Senate's three Cuban-Americans are also vocally opposed to delisting Cuba, which was first added in 1982.

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Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) told The Hill she's collaborating with Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), Albio Sires (D-N.J.) and Joe Garcia (D-Fla.) on a letter urging the State Department to retain Cuba alongside Iran, Syria and Sudan. The push comes amid reports – vehemently denied by the State Department – that U.S. diplomats have concluded Cuba should be removed from the list to pave the way for better relations with President Raul Castro.

“We will be laying out a very concrete plan in this coming week about why Cuba deserves to maintain its place in this rogues' gallery,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

She said she was particularly encouraged by Thursday's news that the Justice Department has indicted a former U.S. Agency for International Development employee, Marta Rita Velazquez, for allegedly helping a convicted former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst spy for Cuba. The Obama administration is seeking her extradition from Sweden.

“It's a recent indication again of the threat that the Castro regime poses to U.S. national security interests,” Ros-Lehtinen said. It “means that somebody in the administration is still aware of the threat that Castro poses.”

To delist a country, the State Department must make the case to Congress that a country has seen a change in leadership and policies or that it has not engaged in acts of international terrorism in the past six months and has provided assurances it won't in the future. Cuba says it has stopped supporting Colombia's leftist rebels and is hosting peace talks, but U.S. lawmakers say the country is still running afoul of the law by serving as a safe haven for fugitives from U.S. law and keeping USAID contractor Alan Gross in prison on charges he sought to undermine the Cuban state by distributing communications equipment.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he is also drafting a letter to Kerry.

“We've certainly communicated with them, we have,” he said. “We think it's critically important they remain on the list, for multiple reasons.”

“But certainly I think Cuba continues to classify as a country that supports terrorism and has actively supported it in the past – increasingly against its own people, unfortunately,” Rubio said, a reference to recent incidents such as the death of Cuban activist Oswaldo Payá in a car crash. His driver has said he was driven off the road by a car with government license plates.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declined to share what outreach he's been engaged in.

“I would expect that there would be no change, because all the elements of why Cuba was on the terror list in the first place still continue to be the same,” he said. “We'll look forward to the State Department's decision but I would not expect a change.”

Likewise, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) declined to detail his interactions with the State Department but has made his feelings about the Castro regime clear.

“Hopefully, in the not too distant future, Fidel Castro and Raul Castro will join Hugo Chavez, and all three will face the ultimate judgment,” he told the annual Cuba-Democracy PAC luncheon in Miami last month, according to Florida's Shark Tank blog. America, he said, needs a “president that will stand up today and say, Mr. Castro, let the Cuban people go. Mr. Castro, open up the ballot box. Mr. Castro, empty the jails.”