Obama to Remove Cuba from Terror List After Latin American Outcry, Will the Embargo Follow?

April 15, 2015


Carlos Alzugaray Treto

former Cuban diplomat who served as ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg, and as head of the Cuban Mission to the European Union. He is a scholar and writer and former Havana University professor. He is now an editorial board member of Temas, a leading journal of social sciences and the humanities in Cuba.

President Obama has told Congress he will remove Cuba from a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, clearing a major obstacle to restoring diplomatic relations with Havana for the first time in a half-century. Obama’s move comes just days after he and Cuban President Raúl Castro sat down at a summit in Panama for a historic meeting. Cuba was placed on the terrorism list in 1982 at a time when Havana was supporting liberation struggles in Africa and Latin America. While Cuba is being removed from the terrorism list, the trade embargo remains in effect. To discuss the thawing of U.S.-Cuban relations, we are joined from Havana by former Cuban diplomat, Carlos Alzugaray Treto.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama told Congress Tuesday he intends to remove Cuba from a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, clearing a main obstacle to restoring diplomatic relations with Havana for the first time in half a century. Obama’s move came just days after he and Cuban President Raúl Castro sat down at a summit in Panama for the first meeting of its kind since Dwight Eisenhower and Fulgencio Batista met in 1958 before the Cuban Revolution.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This shift in U.S. policy represents a turning point for our entire region. The fact that President Castro and I are both sitting here today marks a historic occasion. It is the first time in more than half a century that all the nations of the Americas are meeting to address our future together.

AMY GOODMAN: At their meeting, Cuban President Raúl Castro urged Obama to remove Cuba from the terrorism list.

PRESIDENT RAÚL CASTRO: [translated] We have expressed, and I repeated it again here to President Obama, our willingness for respectful dialogue between both states within our profound differences. I see as a positive step his recent statements that he will quickly decide to remove the existence of Cuba from a list of countries that sponsor state terror, and on which we should never have been included.

AMY GOODMAN: Cuba was placed on the terrorism list in 1982 at a time when Havana was supporting liberation struggles in Africa and Latin America. In his letter to Congress, President Obama wrote the Cuban government, quote, "has not provided any support for international terrorism," quote, in the past six months, and has, quote, "provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future," unquote. Once Cuba is officially removed from the list in 45 days, Iran, Sudan and Syria will become the only countries on the list.

Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s top diplomat responsible for dealing with the U.S., said, quote, "The Cuban government recognized the fair decision made by the president of the United States to eliminate Cuba from a list that it never should have been included on, especially considering our country has been the victim of hundreds of acts of terrorism that have cost 3,478 lives and maimed 2,099 citizens," she said.

For decades, the United States has supported anti-Castro militants who have carried out airline bombings, assassinations, attacks on hotels. In 1976, militants blew up a Cubana Airlines flight, killing all 73 people on board. The mastermind of the attack was a CIA operative named Luis Posada Carriles, who’s still living in Florida.

While Cuba is being removed from the terrorism list, the trade embargo remains in effect. Since 1962, companies have been banned from doing business with Cuba.

To talk more about the thawing of U.S.-Cuba relations, we go directly to Havana, Cuba, where we’re joined by the former Cuban diplomat, Carlos Alzugaray Treto. He served as ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg, and head of the Cuban Mission to the European Union. He’s also taught at the University of Havana and serves on the editorial board of Temas, a leading journal of social sciences and the humanities.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! Can you start off by talking about the announcement that Cuba will be taken off the U.S. terrorism list? What is your response?

CARLOS ALZUGARAY TRETO: Amy, thank you for having me. I think this is a major step by President Obama. I think it is probably the major step in concrete acts that he has taken since he announced his decision, together with President Raúl Castro, to normalize the relation. We can say that this is a first step to normal relations, taking Cuba out of a list where Cuba shouldn’t have been, never. I mean, in 1982, when Cuba was included in the list, it was a Reagan administration searching for some kind of excuse to attack Cuba. As a matter of fact, Secretary of State Alexander Haig said at the time that they wanted to go to the sources. Now we know he told President Reagan in private, "Give me the order, Mr. President, and I will turn Cuba into a parking lot."

So, this is fair that this is being done, but it opens the way for the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and the opening of embassies. It’s not—there are still some small steps that have to be taken, like, for example, facilitating that the future Cuban Embassy in Washington and the mission at the United Nations can have a bank with which to deal, which has been something that over the last two years has been a problem, and also the question of what’s going to be the embassy in Havana going to do. An embassy in Cuba is a problem, because American embassies sometimes tend to interfere in the internal affairs of the countries to which they are accredited, something that they shouldn’t do. So, obviously, we have to still work on a lot of things, but I think this is a big step. We are moving forward. And hopefully we will have diplomatic relations and eventually walk the path, the long path, towards normalization.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the embargo? While Cuba is being taken off of the U.S. terrorism list, the embargo is not being lifted. Can you talk about the significance this has had on the people of Cuba?

CARLOS ALZUGARAY TRETO: Oh, it’s a major problem for Cuba. President Raúl Castro mentioned it at the summit. And, in fact, President Obama recognized that the embargo had caused suffering. Remember, when the embargo was established in 1962, the logic behind it was really clear in a document from the State Department that basically said we have to bring—to put sanctions in place that will bring about hunger, desperation and the overthrow of the Cuban government. So, the embargo has been there to cause us damage, and it has. It has been very difficult for Cuba, for example, to acquire medical equipments in different—even not only in the United States, but in different countries, because sometimes the companies that sell those equipments are subsidiaries of American companies. It is a long list. We suffer the embargo. And hopefully it will be totally lifted.

Right now, President Obama, he has been the first president who actually said the embargo has failed. I would have liked him to add, "And it is wrong that we had an embargo on a small neighbor." But, well, OK, I’ll take it. And then, he obviously is interested in lifting it, which is only fair. I mean, there shouldn’t be, between two neighborly countries who have so much in common, this kind of relationship, which are basically dependent on unilateral actions by the United States. And this is one of the big problems that we face.

AMY GOODMAN: At a business forum alongside Summit of the Americas, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg mentioned plans to spread the social network into Cuba.

MARK ZUCKERBERG: Now, there are some countries that don’t have open econmic policies today and where it’s not possible for us to operate. But, you know, one day, as Cuba starts opening up, it will be something that we might consider over time, and it definitely fits within our mission. But I just don’t have much more specifically to say about that today.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. Can you talk about the significance of what he said, Carlos Alzugaray, as well as the other companies that are pushing for a lifting of the embargo—I mean, not to mention the U.S. Chamber of Commerce?

CARLOS ALZUGARAY TRETO: Well, the embargo has been one of the most important obstacles in the way of connecting Cuba to the Internet. It’s not the only one, of course, but it is a very important one, because it makes it very expensive for the government to develop the necessary infrastructure to produce it. The government has said, and it’s the official policy of the Cuban government, to bring Internet to everyone at an affordable price. It’s going to be difficult. It’s going to be a tough way to do it. But, obviously, the political will of the Cuban government is there. Now, the problem is: Can we connect, for example, to the cables that pass close to Cuba which connect the rest of the Americas? We haven’t been able to do that, and then we are forbidden to have access to the technologies that exist in the United States.

So—but let me tell you, social networking is increasing in Cuba. I, myself, have a Facebook account, a Twitter account. I know a lot of my colleagues who have it. We need to have a better access, but there is no prohibition or censorship in what we do in the social networks. And that’s increasing at a very fast rate. It should increase at a faster rate. So, I like what Mr. Zuckerberg—his intention of facilitating the steps. Let’s work on it. But the embargo has to be lifted so that we can work on that as best we can.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, but when we come back, I want to ask you, Dr. Carlos Alzugaray, about why you think President Obama has made this decision, why U.S. policy is thawing towards Cuba for the first time in 50 years. We’ll be back with the former Cuban diplomat, as we speak to him in Havana, Cuba, in a moment.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking to Dr. Carlos Alzugaray Treto, a former Cuban diplomat who served as ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg, head of the Cuban Mission to the European Union, scholar and writer and former Havana University professor. I wanted to ask you why President Obama, you believe, made this decision. Do you think pressure from other Latin American countries played a role? Benjamin Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said, "Our Cuba policy, instead of isolating Cuba, was isolating the United States in our own backyard." Can you talk more about this?

CARLOS ALZUGARAY TRETO: Well, I think basically what Mr. Rhodes said is right. Cuba has a relation with most countries in the world. Recently, for example, the Solomon Islands opened an embassy in Cuba. The Solomon Islands, a small country in the Pacific who might probably have five or 10 embassies and opens an embassy in Havana, this is a signal of how out of step the policy of the United States towards Cuba was. The United Nations has condemned the embargo for—since 1992; it’s every year. So, I think it made sense.

And I think President Obama, besides what Mr. Rhodes said—obviously, the international community, and specifically the Latin American and Caribbean region, had been saying, "You have to fix the relation with Cuba; otherwise, the relation with us won’t be better." And it has been a problem, even with relation with allies of the United States, like the European Union, like Canada. But I think President Obama is a person who, in the past, when—in 2004, as a senator, he spoke against the embargo. In 2008, during the presidential campaign, he said he was ready to talk to Raúl Castro. In 2009, already president, at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, he said he wanted a new beginning. So I think he had it in his mind to do it. But, of course, the problem in the United States system was that this small minority of right-wing Cuban Americans and other conservatives were blocking him by—by, one might say, political terrorism, basically, political terrorism tactics. So I think he realized that it was arriving to the last two years of his presidency, and he hadn’t moved in the direction that he wanted.

At the same time, the Latin American and Caribbean countries had said at the summit of Cartagena in 2012, "If Cuba is not present at the summit of Panama in 2015, we are not going." So here you had the United States facing a major diplomatic setback, because the Summit of the Americas process was created by the administration of President Clinton back in 1994. So, you had a number of things. And it was obvious that the policy was wrong, was not getting anywhere. Most people recognized that it was—it had failed. President Clinton, himself, in private, had said so. So, I think he actually did something that was right and was the correct thing to do.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Dr. Alzugaray, talk about the substance of the meeting between the two leaders, between President Obama and President Raúl Castro. Again, they were meeting for the first time in more than half a century, a U.S. and a Cuban leader, since President Eisenhower met with Batista.

CARLOS ALZUGARAY TRETO: Well, that’s two different—two different meetings. I am surprised that people compare them. I mean, in 1956, when President Eisenhower met with Batista, Batista was what FDR said once of the Nicaraguan dictator, "You’re a SOB," the SOB that had been serving the purposes of Cuba. So that meeting didn’t have a really real significance, because it was the hegemon talking to the guy who was representing U.S. interests in Cuba at the time.

This was, the conversation between Raúl Castro and Barack Obama, was a conversation among equals. And this is very important. For Cubans, it is very significant that the president of the United States did what he promised, by the way, in the election of—in the campaign of 2008, which was talking to our president in respectful terms. And I see a movement in that direction. I think—whenever I have been asked in the past, "What do you want from the United States?" is respect—I answer, "Respect." Well, this is it. President Obama is treating the Cuban president with respect, and I think the spirit of that was very well—has been well signaled by President Raúl Castro. He said, "We want a civilized relationship where we learn the art of accepting our differences."

And as a matter of fact, there are a number of regions in which Cuba and the United States can cooperate for the benefit of both countries—on counternarcotics; on protection of marine life; on environment; on cooperation on disaster or cooperation, for example, of—demonstration of what both countries did on Ebola in Africa. We can have a good relationship even if we have differences, if we do what both presidents are signaling they want to do. They want to cooperate on those issues that are of common interest, and then try to contain the differences to the reasonable, civilized level. People should talk to each other about their differences.


CARLOS ALZUGARAY TRETO: And I think that’s what they are signaling. And hopefully—yeah, sorry, I get a little bit passionate about these issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, last week in Panama at the summit, Cuban delegates protested over reports that former CIA-backed paramilitary officer Félix Rodríguez, who was sent to kill Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967, was meeting with opposition groups in Panama City. The last picture of Che Guevara alive has Félix Rodríguez standing next to him. What is your understanding of this?

CARLOS ALZUGARAY TRETO: Well, it was obvious, an insult for Cuba to have a guy like Félix Rodríguez, who was a CIA operative, who actually was present when Che Guevara was murdered. And, well, the versions are different. Somebody said that he gave the order. Somebody said that he actually shot Che Guevara after he had been killed. This is a very significant thing for Cubans. It’s an insult to us. It’s a humiliation that the organizers at Panama accepted that this guy should be there. It was a clear provocation. And as Eusebio Leal, one of Cuba’s most significant intellectuals, the historian of the city of Havana, said, it’s like throwing mud into our faces. So, the reaction of our people in Panama may be a little bit over the top, but it’s perfectly understandable when you realize what the presence of this guy—this guy represented everything that the United States did against Cuba in the ’60s, that persecution of Che Guevara. Anyone who knows how the United States intelligence agencies persecuted Che Guevara until they got him killed can—must feel very bad about what happened.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio blasted the Obama administration’s plan to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Well, the decision made by the White House today is a terrible one, but not surprising, unfortunately. Cuba is a state sponsor of terrorism. They harbor fugitives of American justice, including someone who killed a police officer in New Jersey over 30 years ago. It’s also the country that’s helping North Korea evade weapons sanctions by the United Nations. They should have remained on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. And I think it sends a chilling message to our enemies abroad that this White House is no longer seriously—serious about calling terrorism by its proper name.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who himself is Cuban-American. He has just announced for president of the United States, throwing his hat into the Republican primary. Your response to this, Dr. Carlos Alzugaray?

CARLOS ALZUGARAY TRETO: Well, in the first place, Mr. Rubio is not Cuban-America. He was not born in Cuba. He is the son of Cuban immigrants, and he doesn’t know anything about Cuba.

Secondly, he should worry about having terrorists, a terrorist like Luis Posada Carriles, living in Miami. He has the terrorism not 90 miles from Florida; he has it, one, in Miami. He doesn’t complain.

And, you know, he’s lying. He’s basically lying, saying that—all these things that he said. Cuba has never—Cuba has been the victim of terrorist attacks. And that should worry—if he is really Cuban-American, he should be worried about that. He claims to know Cuba. He doesn’t know anything about Cuba. And I think, at the same time, he—I believe he said a few months ago, at the beginning in December, that even if 99 percent of the people were for normalization of relations, he would be against it. Is that democratic? Is that a sign of being a democrat? I don’t think so. I think he is—and the other thing, I might add, he is accusing Hillary Clinton of being someone from the past, and he is repeating accusations and allegations, not proven, by the way, from the past. Come on. Come on. That’s crazy.

AMY GOODMAN: Will Cuba be calling for the extradition of Luis Posada Carriles, who lives in Florida? And for an audience in the United States who doesn’t know who he is, if you could explain, Dr. Alzugaray?

CARLOS ALZUGARAY TRETO: Well, he is the guy who was behind the bombing of a Cubana Airlines plane in 1976. He said so to Ann Louise Bardach at The New York Times. He said, "I am not sorry." He was behind the bombings of Havana hotels in 1997. He tried to bomb the University of Panama because Fidel Castro was talking there. He has been arrested and convicted in Venezuela and Panama. This guy is a terrorist, no doubt about it, and the U.S. government knows that he’s a terrorist. There are even documents of the Justice Department accepting that. And yet, he is free in Miami. This guy simply shouldn’t be on the streets. He should pay for everything that he has done. What was the second part of your question about Posada Carriles?

AMY GOODMAN: Would Cuba call for his extradition?

CARLOS ALZUGARAY TRETO: Oh, yes, the extradition thing. Well, we have let Venezuela ask for the extradition, because in Venezuela he was actually tried and convicted for the Cubana bombing of 1976. By the way, that process was the result of a common investigation between Cuba, Barbados, Guyana and Venezuela. And it was not the Venezuela of Hugo Chávez; it was the Venezuela of Carlos Andrés Pérez. And they found him guilty. But he got out of jail. In 1999, he was convicted in Panama. And later, President Mireya Moscoso, who has been receiving money from Miami, pardoned him. This guy shouldn’t be on the street. He’s a danger, even though he’s very old now. But obviously, he has not paid for his crimes. He cold-bloodedly murdered Cubans, and he’s simply around. And he laughs about that. It’s terrible. It’s something that is—it gets you very mad that a guy like this has been protected by the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what will normalization look like? What—on the ground, what kind of difference will it make for the Cuban people? What are we going to see over the next months?

CARLOS ALZUGARAY TRETO: Well, Amy, this is not going to happen very quickly. There are a lot of things to solve—the embargo being one; the old policy of subversion that the U.S. government has in place, including, for example, the transmissions, the TV transmissions of Tele Martí and Radio Martí, which are propaganda stations in the Cuba, that nobody sees or watches in Cuba, and unfortunately the American taxpayer pays.

There is a question of Guantánamo. We want Guantánamo back. We want the territory. We are ready to talk with the United States about how can we get Guantánamo back, even with an American presence in Guantánamo. In the 1970s, during the Carter administration, we started to negotiate that, and the Americans said, not without reason, that they wanted some guarantees that Cuba would not hand the base to the Soviets. And we said, "OK, let’s establish there a research center for tropical disease, manned together by Cuban and American health workers under Pan American Health Organization sponsorship." And the American side said that that is a great idea.

So, as you can see, we can turn these bad things into good things. President Raúl Castro said the other day in Panama, "We can disagree today on something, and maybe next week we will agree." I think the most important thing is that we are talking to each other. It’s going to be a long way, because these are—there are all these issues. There is the Cuban Adjustment Act, that is—that is a stimulus for a brain drain from Cuba, and we want that repealed. As a matter of fact, in 1994, 1995, when we negotiated that with the American—with the Clinton administration, it was agreed that the United States will try to get the Cuban Adjustment Act repealed. That’s the act that allows Cubans to stay in the United States, a privilege that nobody else has. So, there are also many issues that have to be discussed. Eventually, we should have trade, maybe a large trade. We can export a lot of things to the United States. We can import a lot of things from the United States.

But I think the most important thing will be tourism. What I have seen shows that probably there is a market for about three million, five million Americans to come to Cuba. It is a challenge, a big challenge. We are getting right now two million tourists, mainly from Canada. Canada is our best market. So, three or five million Americans coming to Cuba, that’s going to be interesting. That’s going to be very significant. Raúl Castro, himself, he said, "We are looking forward to our people visiting each other." I, myself, have a daughter and two grandsons in New York, so I would like to see more connection, more interconnection, to flights to be cheaper, visas to be easier, so that we can connect between the two countries. I think this will be a great thing, even though I am aware of the problems of tourism. Tourism can be a problem, but if we handle correctly—Americans want to come to Cuba. That’s my experience with the ones that I am talking to now. They want to come to Cuba to see our culture, to see the places that they have read in history books. They have read in history books about San Juan Hill and the Battle for Santiago de Cuba. Well, they could come and visit San Juan Hill and see everything that is there. By the way, they will know that there were three armies in San Juan Hill—the Cuban army, the American army and the Spanish army. And Santiago de Cuba is a beautiful city. I believe that most Americans will be very happy with that.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Carlos Alzugaray Treto, we thank you for being with us, former Cuban diplomat who served as Cuban ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg, head of the Cuban Mission to the European Union. He’s a scholar and writer, former Havana University professor, speaking to us from Havana, Cuba.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’ll talk about the issue of police brutality, mass protest around the country yesterday. We’ll talk with the head of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Khalil Muhammad. Stay with us.

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