Since 1982 Cuba has been named a “state sponsor of terrorism” by the State Department and is accused of supporting terrorism by myriad unofficial sources. In contrast to its depiction of the six other countries on the “state sponsor” list, the State Department’s terrorism report makes no charge that Cuba is supporting terrorist operations, lending credence to the view that Cuba’s designation is exaggerated for political reasons. Apart from the debate about the “state sponsor” designation, a more important question is how the United States should address its concerns about Cuba in the context of a global war on terrorism. Officials see no Cuban role in the September 11 attacks and no Cuban connection to groups that carried it out, but Cuban cooperation could strengthen the hemisphere’s counterterrorism efforts. A diplomatic approach to Cuba would draw domestic political criticism and there are no guarantees that it would succeed, but it is an effort the United States should make, as it is doing with Syria, Iran, and others, in the interest of American security.
The State Department’s List
Few question the idea that Cuba, while aligned with the Soviet Union, represented a security threat. Cuba’s military was supplied and trained by the Soviets. Soviet forces were based in Cuba. Cuba advised and supplied Marxist insurgents in Central America and elsewhere. This threat ended in the early 1990’s when the Soviet Union dissolved, world politics shifted, and Cuba entered an economic crisis. In 1998, a U.S. intelligence assessment termed Cuba’s military capability as “residual” and “defensive.” In recent years U.S. government contingency planning for Cuba has centered not the threat of offensive military action but rather on the possibility that political instability in Cuba could cause massive, uncontrolled migration in the Florida straits.
It is also clear that Cuba remains a political adversary of the United States, most recently opposing U.S. anti-terrorism actions, U.S. trade policy, and other initiatives. Cuban rhetoric at times includes unfounded and offensive statements such as the Cuban foreign minister’s contention, voiced in the United Nations General Assembly on November 13, that U.S. military action in Afghanistan is an “endless slaughter” of “starving, helpless people” and may reflect the deliberate targeting of civilians.
But aside from its past actions and current political statements, does Cuba support terrorism today?
In its annual report on terrorism, the State Department dubs Cuba a “state sponsor of terrorism” along with Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, North Korea, and Sudan. (See Patterns of Global Terrorism — 2000, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Department of State, April 2001.)
These seven countries, the report says, “use terrorism as a means of political expression” by committing acts of terrorism, supporting terrorists directly through financing or training, or harboring them in their territory.
The “state sponsor of terrorism” designation is the most serious official U.S. statement that Cuba remains, even in post-Cold War conditions, a serious security threat.
The State Department bases Cuba’s designation on three factors: provision of “safehaven” to fugitives from American justice; provision of “safehaven” to “a number of Basque ETA terrorists;” and “ties to other state sponsors of terrorism and Latin American insurgents” including two Colombian guerrilla groups that “maintained a permanent presence on the island.” “Other state sponsors” presumably refers to Cuba’s ties to countries such as Iraq, Iran, and Libya; the report mention no operational support to these states’ terrorist activities.
In the report, Cuba’s designation stands out for its brevity; it consists of two paragraphs and is 77 words long.
The report would disappoint a reader looking for a clear, damning portrait of a terrorist Cuba. It makes no allegation that Cuba conducts or supports terrorist operations. It contains a detailed “Latin America Overview” that describes an increase in terrorist attacks in the region from 121 in 1999 to 193 in 2000. The report does not connect Cuba to these attacks. Cuba is not mentioned in this section.
Cuba’s inclusion on the “state sponsors” list has the effect of making the report internally inconsistent in several respects:
Lower standard of evidence for Cuba. The report does not make clear how Cuba actually “sponsors” terrorism because it makes no reference to operational support for terrorist activity. In contrast, each of the other “state sponsors” is cited for activities that fit the definition of “sponsorship” — planning or conducting operations, allowing terrorists to use their national territory as a base of operations, or selling arms to terrorist groups.
For other countries, equivalent or stronger evidence results in lesser charges. Several states that, according to the report, do promote terrorism or fail to restrain terrorist operations originating from their territory, are not designated “state sponsors.”
- Afghanistan is not listed as a state sponsor of terrorism even though it has long been known to be the sanctuary and operational base of Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda network.
- The report has noted since 1998 that Pakistan provides support, “especially military support,” to Afghanistan’s Taliban government, and supports terrorists in India’s Kashmir region — yet Pakistan is not designated a state sponsor of terrorism. Nor is Lebanon, despite the fact that “a variety of terrorist groups operated and trained there,” according to the report.
- Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and other states have full political relations with “state sponsors” such as Iraq and Iran, and their relations with these states may be closer than Cuba’s due to their status as major oil producers — yet the report does not criticize these countries’ ties, much less use them as a basis for a “state sponsor” designation. Similarly, press and official sources indicate that up to 100 ETA members, described as active or inactive by different sources, have resided in recent years in Venezuela, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Costa Rica — yet this is not mentioned at all in the terrorism report.
- Unless the State Department is refraining from citing evidence of operational support, Cuba’s ties to Colombian insurgents seem similar to the ties Mexico maintained with Salvadoran and Guatemalan communist insurgent leaders in the 1980’s and 1990’s — provision of sanctuary and a political platform — yet Mexico’s conduct was not criticized by Washington, and American and other diplomats held discussions with these groups in Mexico as peace negotiations proceeded. American diplomats held meetings with Colombian insurgents during the Clinton Administration, although not in Cuba.
As a result of these inconsistencies, the State Department’s report falls short of being an objective ranking of states according to their degree of support for terrorism, where uniform standards are evenly applied. The Cuba designation lends credence to the view of some current and former U.S. officials, that Cuba is on the terrorism list for domestic political reasons. In past Administrations and now, their logic goes, it has been judged politically convenient to call Cuba a “state sponsor,” and politically impossible to remove Cuba from the list.
There are other allegations in the public domain.
IRA/Colombia. Last August 11, three Irish Republican Army members were arrested in Colombia and charged with training Colombian guerrillas in the use of explosives for urban attacks. They were allegedly found with traces of explosives on their persons. One of the three is Niall Connolly, who is described in press reports as now residing in Havana or having resided there in recent years. U.S. officials have focused mainly on the IRA’s actions, which came at a time when the IRA had withdrawn its offer to disarm and the Colombian guerrillas were turning toward urban operations. In response, Cuban officials acknowledge that Connolly lived in Havana; he was the Sinn Fein representative for Latin America and until a few years ago lived in Havana in that capacity, they say.
Sale to Iran. According to an October 10 Miami Herald report, a Cuban émigré who directed a biotechnology lab says that between 1995 and 1998, Cuba sold technology to Iran that was developed to produce medications and vaccines for hepatitis, cancer, viral diseases, and heart attacks. According to the émigré, Jose de la Fuente, this technology could be used to produce biological weapons by Iran. In his interview with the Herald, de la Fuente did not claim that Cuba is developing such weapons, nor did he claim Cuba made the sale to further an Iranian military program. “My worry is not that Cuba actually sold the technology, but what can be done once they [Iran] have the technology,” he said. In response, a Cuban official acknowledged that Cuba has exported biotechnology products but denied that any of its exports are of military use.
Biological weapons development. There are also allegations that Cuba has a biological weapons program. Indeed, it is clear that Cuba, like any country with advanced scientific research capability and a pharmaceutical industry capable of producing original vaccines and drugs, could develop such a program. At an October 24 Congressional hearing, Secretary of State Colin Powell was asked about such a Cuban capability and responded, “I don’t think that they present that kind of threat to us now.” At a November 19 United Nations conference in Geneva, the State Department named a series of countries that have biological weapons programs or are suspected of having such programs; Cuba was not on the list.
Cayman case. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, U.S. media reports told of three Afghans who had traveled to the Cayman Islands via Cuba and were detained by British authorities, and who were possibly linked to the September 11 attacks. (Cuban officials say the individuals did not travel through Cuba.) A Cayman press report said that prior to September 11, a local radio station had been tipped to their possible involvement in a major terrorist operation. British and U.S. authorities investigated and found no evidence to this effect. The three had arrived in the Caymans in August 2000, were detained for immigration violations, released, detained again after September 11, questioned, and re-released. They have asked for political asylum and the British government is evaluating their claims. U.S. officials express no disagreement with the British decision to release them.
Weighing the charges
In interviews, several terrorism experts noted that while Cuba’s activities are much reduced compared to those that took place during the Cold War, the indications of continued ties to radical groups are troublesome, arguing that one rarely finds conclusive proof of support for terrorist operations. On the other hand one must weigh the State Department’s lack of allegations of support for such operations, and the fact that such support would place Cuban national security at risk to the extent that they could give the United States a reason to act against Cuba as it did against Panama when General Manuel Noriega supported the drug trade and attacked U.S. forces.
The British government disagrees with the U.S. “state sponsor” designation; “We are not in agreement with the U.S. view that Cuba sponsors terrorism,” Energy Minister Brian Wilson said October 13 at a Havana news conference.
Regarding the terrorism report, it is not unusual that a State Department report that purports to provide an objective account on world conditions would be skewed by other factors. The annual narcotics “certification” process is widely acknowledged to be distorted by diplomatic and operational imperatives, where countries are “certified” as partners in the anti-narcotics effort not because of an unblemished record of cooperation but because the United States needs to preserve its ability to work with the elements in those countries that are effective allies.
In the case of Cuba and the terrorism report, considering the large gap between the State Department’s account of Cuba’s conduct and any common definition of “sponsorship” of terrorist action, it seems clear that domestic politics is a distorting factor.
The most compelling factor may be a negative one. If United States officials suspected that Cuba were actively promoting terrorism, or had information about the September 11 attacks, or possessed useful information about al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations, one can assume that Washington would be acting on that suspicion — either by threatening Havana or by trying to induce its cooperation. But no such activity is taking place. U.S. officials have spoken to Cuban officials about terrorism, but not at a high level, and not as an urgent priority.
What to do?
Whether one takes a benign view of the charges against Cuba or assumes that the worst-case scenarios are true, there is a strong case that the United States should engage in discussions with Cuba on the terrorism issue based on Cuba’s proximity to the United States, its political ties, and the current U.S. imperative to pursue every possible source of information on international terrorism.
The United States would be likely to ask Cuba to explain its ties with the IRA, Colombian insurgents, the ETA, and others; to adhere to international anti-terrorism agreements; to assure that its biotechnology industry is not a source of international proliferation of weapons-producing materials or technologies; and to turn over fugitives from U.S. justice.
Cuba would be likely to state:
- that its ties with “state sponsor” countries do not promote terrorism;
- that the ETA members in Cuba are there as a result of a request made by the Spanish government under former Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez; that the ETA members are not permitted to engage in terrorist operations; that “if they set foot outside of Cuba they will never return again,” according to a senior Cuban official (indeed, the Spanish government has not requested that these individuals be turned over, but is now reviewing the issue);
- that the Colombian insurgents’ presence in Cuba is not a secret; that in Cuba they take part in the dialogue with Colombian officials as part of that country’s peace negotiations;
- that as of October 2001, Cuba subscribes to all United Nations anti-terrorism agreements;
- that fugitives from American justice are subject to negotiation if the United States is willing to consider a new extradition agreement with Cuba.
Surely, Cuba would also raise a matter that would make the entire discussion politically sensitive in Washington: the fact that Cuba has been a victim of terrorist attacks, and Cuba views U.S. policy as inadequate, in terms of statements and enforcement action, in responding to this terrorism. In 1976, a Cuban airliner was downed en route to Barbados, killing 73 on board. In the 1990’s, Cuban hotels and tourist installations were attacked with bombs and gunfire, killing an Italian tourist and injuring others. In 1992 a Miami-based group, “Comandos L,” issued a statement to the press shortly after a Varadero hotel was sprayed with gunfire; the statement vowed the actions would “continue until Cuba is liberated.” Cuba alleges that the United States harbors perpetrators of the 1976 actions, including Orlando Bosch, a man once jailed in Venezuela in connection with that attack, and whom the U.S. Justice Department termed “unwavering in his advocacy of terrorist violence.”
Cuba would also likely state its disagreement with U.S. actions in Afghanistan, and would argue that the United States should instead follow a consensus forged in the United Nations General Assembly.
There is a current precedent for U.S.-Cuba cooperation on security issues. The two nations collaborate in drug interdiction, and have had notable successes, but their degree of cooperation is limited, and expanded cooperation has been blocked by U.S. political considerations. Britain, Canada, France, Spain, and other U.S. allies work more intensively with Cuba; their officials express satisfaction with the cooperation they receive from Cuba’s anti-drug and law enforcement personnel.
In terrorism as in drug interdiction, there is no guarantee that an intensive U.S. diplomatic effort would result in strong Cuban cooperation. But in the context of a global effort against terrorism, it seems imprudent not to explore such a dialogue with Cuba, as is today being done intensively with Iran, Syria, and others. In the Cuban case, it is likely that the more confidential the discussions would be, and the higher level at which they would take place, the greater their chances for success.
A practical first step could be to explore increased cooperation in combating alien smuggling across the Florida Straits, a phenomenon that is illegal in its own right, and can easily facilitate both drug trafficking and terrorism. Considering al Qaeda’s success in infiltrating its operatives into the United States, it would also make sense to discuss other measures to monitor the flow of people from the Middle East.
If Secretary of State Colin Powell were to arrange a high-level approach to Havana, he would probably not solve the core of our immediate terrorism problem: finding those who attacked New York and Washington and eliminating all their potential sources of weapons of mass destruction. But he might advance America’s long-term interest in creating a safer hemispheric neighborhood — and he might discover that this is an issue where, for all the fundamental differences that separate the two nations, the United States and Cuba could cooperate.
 Cuba’s entry in the State Department report reads as follows: “Cuba continued to provide safehaven to several terrorists and US fugitives in 2000. A number of Basque ETA terrorists who gained sanctuary in Cuba some years ago continued to live on the island, as did several US terrorist fugitives. Havana also maintained ties to other state sponsors of terrorism and Latin American insurgents. Colombia’s two largest terrorist organizations, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army, both maintained a permanent presence on the island.”
 A recent Washington Post article explains why Afghanistan was not added to the “state sponsors” list even after the 1998 al Qaeda attacks on U.S. embassies, and how officials viewed the list as a bargaining chip rather than an objective report on the Taliban government’s conduct. See “How Afghanistan Went Unlisted as Terrorist Sponsor,” The Washington Post, November 5, 2001.
— PHILIP PETERS, a State Department official during the Reagan and Bush administrations, is vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.
Find Archived Articles: