LatAm Trip Will Test Obama’s Push for Ties With Cuba

As President Obama prepared for a summit meeting in Panama, White House officials signaled a decision was near on whether to remove Cuba from a list of terrorism sponsors

President Obama’s push for a historic opening with Cuba faces its first major test this week as he travels to a summit meeting in Latin America, where he hopes to highlight momentum toward ending a half-century of isolation from the island nation.

Even before Mr. Obama was to board Air Force One on Wednesday, White House officials signaled that the administration was nearing a decision on whether to remove Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. That left open the possibility that the president could use the Summit of the Americas in Panama to clear a major sticking point in the effort to restore diplomatic ties between Washington and Havana.

The move would pave the way for the reopening of embassies that have been closed for more than 50 years, a crucial step in the easing of tensions between the United States and Cuba that Mr. Obama announced in December.

Mr. Obama will travel first to Jamaica before going to Panama for the summit meeting, which begins Friday. Cuba is attending the meeting for the first time after being expelled from the Organization of American States in 1962 at the behest of the United States. Mr. Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba will face each other in official meetings for the first time, interacting at summit events and on the sidelines of the gathering.

Although White House aides said no formal one-on-one meeting between the two men was scheduled, top Cuban and American officials are expected to hold talks, building on months of behind-the-scenes diplomatic negotiations. And with or without any change in the terrorism designation, the meeting will offer a stage for a powerful moment and some closely watched body language.

“When you have two countries that haven’t really spoken to each other like this in over 50 years, you have a lot of issues to work through,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser.

Mr. Rhodes said the State Department, which oversees the list of state sponsors of terrorism, “is likely in the final stages” of reviewing Cuba’s inclusion in it at the president’s direction.

Mr. Obama strongly suggested this week that he was inclined to remove the designation, which has limited Cuba’s access to banking services around the world and, more symbolically, relegated the nation to a rogues’ gallery that includes Iran, Sudan and Syria.

“The criteria is very straightforward,” Mr. Obama told NPR on Monday. “Is this particular country considered a state sponsor of terrorism — not, do we agree with them on everything, not whether they engage in repressive or authoritarian activities in their own country.”

“I think there’s a real opportunity here, and we are going to continue to move forward on it,” Mr. Obama said of opening relations with Cuba.

His trip, during which he will discuss energy cooperation with Caribbean nations in Jamaica and visit the Panama Canal, is emerging as a crucial milestone in his effort to turn the page on a Cold War-era grudge that his advisers say has led to policies that are ineffectual and harmful to American interests.

“It made no sense that the United States consistently essentially made the decision to isolate ourselves from the rest of the Americas because we were clinging to a policy that wasn’t working,” Mr. Rhodes said. “We would anticipate that this does help begin to remove a significant impediment to having a more constructive engagement in the hemisphere, because we demonstrated an openness to engage all the countries in the Americas, to include Cuba.”

Julissa Reynoso, who served from 2009 to 2012 as a top State Department official in charge of Cuba policy, said, “When I was involved, having one or two meetings with Cuban government officials per year was a significant event, so the fact that these folks are talking continuously is in itself an important thing.”

But Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona and a leading proponent of re-establishing ties with Cuba, said he thought that Mr. Obama would have acted by now to remove Cuba from the terrorism list. “Movement on that front would really signal that we’re pushing ahead,” Mr. Flake said in an interview, adding that the opening of embassies could not be far behind.

Ms. Reynoso, a partner at the law firm Chadbourne & Parke who is a former ambassador to Uruguay, said the Cuba opening could be a game changer for American relationships throughout Latin America.

“It’s an important historical moment for the entire region,” she said. “Folks are going to be very focused on the body language, the gestures, any form of contact” between Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro.

If Mr. Obama recommends that Cuba be removed from the terrorism list, he will have to send a report to Congress certifying that Cuba has not supported international terrorism in the last six months. Congress would have 45 days to review the removal of the designation, and it could either do nothing, in effect allowing the removal to occur, or try to block it with a joint resolution.

Cuba was first put on the list in 1982 because of its support of leftist insurgents in Latin America.

The most recent State Department report, issued in 2013, said Cuba had “long provided safe haven” to Basque separatists from the group known as ETA and to the FARC rebels in Colombia, and had harbored “fugitives wanted in the United States.” But the report said that Cuba’s ties to ETA had become “more distant” and that the nation was trying to broker a peace agreement between FARC and the Colombian government.


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