Former U.S. diplomat Patrick Ryan: Time to drop Cuba from terror list

As a former U.S. diplomat who authored the 2007-09 Country Reports on Terrorism for Nigeria and visited Cuba many times on official business, I believe keeping Cuba on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism is absurd and highly political, particularly given its glaring omissions. 

Where is North Korea, which has conducted small-scale attacks against the South over the past several years — and recently threatened a nuclear first strike against the United States? Despite the fact that Cuba maintains a capable espionage network, no credible intelligence sources claim it is currently a security threat to us. Cuba’s listing is about Florida electoral politics. 

A small minority of Cuban-American politicians has been dictating U.S. foreign policy toward one of our most geographically proximate neighbors for too long — and using the highly questionable terrorist listing to justify continuation of the Cold War-era embargo. 

Ironically, these members of Congress support Cubans’ ability freedom to travel to the United States but not Americans’ freedom to travel to Cuba, and use the terrorist justification for this. If we truly want to undermine the Castro regime, the best way would be to end the listing, including the embargo and travel ban, and flood Cuba with American visitors, as well as our products and democratic ideas. Ending the restrictions would also demonstrably help the Cuban people — a stated aim of these same politicians. 

In comparison, most Vietnamese-Americans — who also lost a civil war to communists, 16 years after the Cubans — long ago accepted reality and supported the 1994 normalization of relations with Vietnam. The U.S. buried the hatchet and engaged a country whose human rights record, like Cuba’s — and China’s — has been disappointing, and with whom we were actually involved in a war that took the lives of more than 58,000 Americans. 

So why not Cuba? 

The fact that members of the Basque separatist group ETA have retired to the island with the blessing of the Spanish government, that FARC members are residing in Cuba during peace talks hosted by Havana and supported by the Colombian government and that various fugitives from American justice — none of whom have been accused of terrorism, by the way — have lived in exile there since the 1970s, are simply not credible arguments for maintaining the designation.

Frankly, it’s well past time that U.S. policymakers had the courage to tell the most vocal Miami exiles to acknowledge reality and move on, as many of them already have. Fortunately, the younger generation of Cubans in Miami isn’t as obsessed with the island as their forebears — and Cubans are no longer a majority of the Latin American population in South Florida.   

President Obama won Florida twice, and is in a unique position to remove Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism and push Congress to end the embargo in his second term. As Cuba continues its sporadic offshore oil exploration with foreign partners, including U.S. allies, it would seem advantageous for it to be a part of the process, in order to help ensure there will not be another disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, not to mention the economic benefits it would receive from increased exports to the island. The only way to do so is to take Cuba off the terrorism list.

The Castros have used the listing and embargo as excuses for their economic mismanagement and the dismal plight of ordinary Cubans for decades. The last time momentum existed in the U.S. Congress towards lifting it, the Cuban government shot down two small planes flown by the exile group “Brothers to the Rescue” that allegedly violated their airspace, ensuring the embargo and listing would continue. 

I am well aware of the poor human rights record of the regime and am not an apologist for it. The incarceration of Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor who brought communications gear into Cuba, contrary to Cuban law, is regrettable, but should not hold U.S.-Cuban relations hostage. Nevertheless, it’s time for a new approach, as the current anachronistic policy has failed miserably for more than a half century.

Ryan is a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service who previously worked on Capitol Hill. Recently having returned after 14 years away, he has a degree in International Studies from Johns Hopkins and is currently consulting in D.C. on issues that have nothing to do with Cuba, the embargo, or potential business interests there.