-- President Obama recommended today that the United States government reverse its long-standing policy designating Cuba a state sponsor of international terrorism.
The White House issued a statement declaring the administration's "intention to rescind Cuba’s State Sponsor of Terrorism designation" several days after the president returned from the Summit of the Americas in Panama where he met with heads of state from across the region, including for the first time with Cuban President Raul Castro.
"As the president has said, we will continue to have differences with the Cuban government, but our concerns over a wide range of Cuba’s policies and actions fall outside the criteria that is relevant to whether to rescind Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement. "That determination is based on the statutory standard – and the facts – and those facts have led the President to declare his intention to rescind Cuba’s State Sponsor of Terrorism designation."
The momentous policy shift paves the way for Cubans to open an embassy in the United States and represents the latest attempt by the Obama administration to restore relations with the Communist stronghold after more than five decades of a diplomatic freeze.
Administration officials say the decision to remove Cuba from the list is based on a recent assessment by the State Department which concludes Cuba has not supported any international terrorism for the past six months and on assurances from the Cuban government that it will not support terrorism in the future.
“Circumstances have changed since 1982, when Cuba was originally designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism because of its efforts to promote armed revolution by forces in Latin America,” Secretary Kerry said in a statement following the announcement. “Our Hemisphere, and the world, look very different today than they did 33 years ago.”
Cuban officials had made clear during the course of recent negotiations with Washington that relations could never be fully normalized as long as the country was designated as a sponsor of terrorism by the U.S. State Department.
Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes tweeted about the rationale for the president's decision:
The policy review began following Obama's announcement in December to begin normalization dialogue with the island nation.
"I've instructed Secretary Kerry to review Cuba's designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. This review will be guided by the facts and the law," he said during the announcement. "Terrorism has changed in the last several decades. At a time when we are focused on threats from al Qaeda to ISIL, a nation that meets our conditions and renounces the use of terrorism should not face this sanction."
Obama will send his decision to Congress, which has 45 days to consider the new policy before the reversal takes effect. Should Congress seek to block the measure, it would need to pass a veto-proof joint resolution declaring Cuba remains a state sponsor of terrorism. It's unlikely Congress has votes to complete such a task.
The Communist Cuban government was added to the terror list in 1982 after the State Department determined the country repeatedly provided support to terrorist organizations in Latin America, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. But the State Department acknowledged recently those ties had "become more distant."
Syria, Sudan and Iran are the only other countries remaining on the list.
The decision is expected to draw criticism from those opposed to normalizing relations with the Castro regime in Cuba.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, said after the December announcement that changes to the terror designation would serve to "tighten this regime's grip on power for decades to come."
Cuban officials, meanwhile, have said not only was the designation unwarranted, but removing it is also critical to the process of restoring relations. Until recently the financial sanctions have been so strict that Cuban diplomats can't even use credit cards while visiting Washington, D.C. or the United Nations in New York, and Cuba's interest section cannot process credit cards for visa applications. By removing Cuba from the terror list US banks will be more inclined to work with Cuban banks.
Cuba's leading diplomat told ABC News in February that the decision to put them on the list has always been political.
"People are in disbelief every time they realize that Cuba has been included in the list of so called state-sponsors of terrorism," Josefina Vidal told ABC News' Jim Avila in an exclusive interview. "It has always been a political decision, not a decision based on real facts. Because it's a fact of life, that from the territory of Cuba, terrorism has never been organized, financed, or executed or implemented toward any country in the world including the United States."