Debate Forum: 04/28

Forum Center: We’ll always have Havana

By Sarah Sidlow

President Obama announced in December that the United States would end its 54-year embargo against Cuba. American-Cuban relations have been tense for the last half-century, punctuated by Cuba’s inclusion on the United States list of state sponsors of terrorism in 1982. But last week, Obama declared he would remove Cuba from the list of states that sponsor terrorism. Cuba’s placement on the list, during the height of the Cold War, was due primarily to its alleged provision of safety and support to Marxist revolutionary movements, particularly in Latin America. The goal of the embargo was to promote democratic regime change. As a state sponsor of terrorism, Cuba was denied such things as foreign aid and defense sales.

The removal was the result of a review and recommendation from the State Department, as well as a weekend summit between Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro.

To prove it was time to be removed from the list, Cuba declared it had “not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six-month period,” Obama explained in a message to Congress, and it had “provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.”

Congress now has 45 days to consider Cuba’s removal from the list, but it is unlikely the move will be overturned. Only three countries will remain on the list: Iran, Syria and Sudan.

Those in favor of removing Cuba from the list say this decision was a long time coming. They say redefining our relationship with Cuba will end a measure that was not only ineffective, but outdated; the embargo hasn’t done anything in 50 years – a Castro is still in power and communism prevails – and it is unlikely to do anything in the next 50 years. Opening up relations with Cuba, they say, will promote economic growth that will benefit both countries. An estimated 6,000 jobs will be created as a result – particularly in the fields of agriculture and telecommunications. American companies will have a new market alleged to generate over $1 billion annually, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

But opponents of Cuba’s removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism – led by Cuban American senators Robert Menendez and Marco Rubio – claim the move sends a bad message to Cuban leadership and other leaders the world over. Cuba hasn’t made democratic reforms, they say, and America is rolling over.

Moreover, they argue, Cuba has refused to extradite American fugitives who have resided there, in some cases for decades – a gesture they say qualifies as supporting international terrorism. One such fugitive is Joanne Chesimard, a Black Liberation Army militant who fatally shot a New Jersey State Police trooper in 1973 and escaped from prison after being convicted of the crime. Cuba is allegedly also hosting additional members of leftist guerilla groups like the Armed Forces of National Liberation (or FALN), Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the Basque separatists – the very groups of whom Cuba’s support got them added to the list in 1982.

As travel restrictions to Cuba become more and more relaxed, and American businesses begin venturing into the new Cuban corporate landscape, it is not a matter of if, but when – and to what extent – America’s relationship with Cuba will become normalized.

Reach DCP Editor Sarah Sidlow at

Debate Forum Question of the Week:

Is it indeed time for Cuba to be removed from the list of states that support terrorism?

Debate Left: The castrate regime

Response By Ben Tomkins

I would be willing to bet that, until the issue of removing Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism list actually came up in the public forum, most people wouldn’t have even guessed it was on there. I have no problem with it being removed, and given advances in their social policies in the last 10 years and the antiquated nature of our adversarial relationship in most minds except those of Cuban exiles, I don’t see much of a reason to pursue an antagonistic relationship.

What we think of as the terror threat and the kind of activities Cuba has engaged in in the past don’t exactly line up any more. Frankly, Guantanamo has been by far the most prominent focal point of terrorism in Cuba, and that doesn’t really have much to do with the Cuban government.

I am one of the last of the children of the Cold War, and it was during my early childhood that many Cubans left Cuba due to political and economic conditions. During the ’60s, the Castro regime supported and was supported by the Soviet Bloc, and was the subject of, well, let’s just say “several prominent international incidents relevant to Soviet/U.S. relations.” My mother grew up in Seal Beach, California during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and my understanding is that, although everyone got under their desks during nuclear attack drills, most people in town considered this to be most useful as a flexibility and calisthenics diversion.

During the ’70s and ’80s, Castro brought Cuba closer to Berlin and Moscow, as well as supporting countries like Argentina in the Falklands and various other anti-capitalist regime moves. As socioeconomic conditions became intolerable following a drop in the price of sugar cane, millions of people fled the country. Even to this day there are defectors from Cuba walking out of hotel rooms and into embassies. In the last five to ten years, there have been several instances of Cuban boxers – multiple world champions, in fact – leaving their rooms during international competition and asking for asylum so they could actually make a little money for their families. Ironically, Sugar Ray Leonard can attribute a gigantic portion of his income to the fact that he beat a Cuban for the gold medal in the Olympics.

None of this has even begun to speak of the human rights abuses of the Castro regime. For years, in the interest of promoting Cuban socialism, religious and political persecution infected the Cuba’s internal politics. Despite being one of the initial signers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Castro brothers routinely arrested government opposition on trumped up charges, held them without trial for years, and often tortured or executed them. Free speech definitely has limitations similar to those of any socialist political structure, and it extends to art, the freedom to assemble, etc.

Since my childhood, that’s what Cuba has been. However, if you pressed me, I would have to say that the reason I had that image of Cuba squarely in my head up until a few months ago is because I haven’t given Cuba a second thought since about 1991. Ever since the Gulf War cranked up, Americans have been watching movies about militant Islam, not Communism. I will give a nod to Russia, but Cuba wants no part of that.

I definitely knew our Cuban political policies were softening, but when my editor Sarah told me it was being removed from the state sponsors of terror list, my response was something like “durf?” I actually had no idea it was on there, and it’s the kind of thing that would have cost me free beer at a team trivia game. As a matter of fact, I can name precisely three incidents where the presence of Cuba on that list has actually affected my adult life.

1. (Insert something about Cuban cigars, with an asterisk indicating that the worst thing you can do to the smell of a cigar is light it.)

2. I had a friend visit Cuba, and when I asked her if it was illegal she said, “you just go to Mexico first.”

3. There was something else

Even as someone who was well into grade school before East Germany fell apart, I’m at a point where all of the Cold War era stuff has faded out of my caring. Vladimir Putin is literally the only human on the planet that seems to be interested in returning to that state of affairs, and given that, it actually makes sense for the U.S. to open up ties to Cuba. The last thing we need is for Russia to have a communist ally in the West, although it’s not like we’re ever going back to the ’60s again.

I’m not surprised the two Cuban American congressmen are against this, and in a way, even if they were for it their hands would be tied politically. Memories are still long, but there’s hardly a downside to opening up a huge new market off our shores that’s headed by a government that’s nowhere near as bad as many of our Middle Eastern allies have been in recent years. The issues we have with Cuba are mostly generational, and at some point in time it was inevitable that things were going to change. If anything, it feels a bit silly that it’s gone on as long as it has.

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at

Debate Right: We can live without cigars for now

Response By David H. Landon

The timing couldn’t be more transparent. With his foreign policy in shambles, President Obama desperately needs a positive story coming out of his State Department to distract the American public from the tortuous, steady drip of bad news coming from overseas. After 18 months of secret negotiations between Cuba and the United States, last week President Obama announced the first steps of his proposed new policy towards Cuba, with a goal to begin a thawing of the Cuban-American relationship, strained for the past 50 years. Last December, the State Department recommended removing Cuba from the U.S. list of state supporters of terror. 

If President Obama intends to achieve the full normalization of diplomatic and economic relations, he’s going to have to improve his negotiation skills, if the leaked information regarding his administration’s recent attempt to negotiate an end to Iran’s nuclear desires is any indication. Forgive me for being skeptical that Obama can begin this new relationship with Cuba without giving away the farm (or the bay, as the case may be).

Most Americans would like to see a better relationship with our southern neighbor. The question is, at what price? I think we can give them a pass on their form of government. After all, we do business with other communist/socialist countries. But before we sing Kumbaya, we need to insist on significant progress in the area of democratic reform. If they can’t move toward some improvements on free elections, free speech and their human rights violations including the release of all political prisoners, should we make it easy for the Castro regime to flourish? There is reason to be worried about just how much Obama is willing to cede to the Castro boys.

And there is the legitimate concern that Cuba will continue to export revolution and terror throughout South America. For decades, Fidel Castro sent mercenaries across South America to continue the revolution for communism. Cuba supported revolutionary movements in Spanish speaking countries and Africa. Havana has openly advocated armed revolution as the only means for leftist forces to gain power in Latin America. Castro’s Cuba played an important role in facilitating the movement of men and weapons throughout the region. Havana has provided support in many ways including training, arms, safe havens and advice to a wide variety of guerrilla groups. Only the collapse of the former Soviet Union has slowed their deadly game of exporting revolution, as the USSR was the bank financing Castro’s mischief.

Not that the Castros aren’t attempting to show the U.S. they can do the right thing. For the past two years they have been attempting to negotiate a peace agreement between FARC, a Marxist rebel group that has been engaged in Columbia in a five decade long civil conflict, and the Colombian government. FARC is one of the groups the Castro boys have supported in the past. Within hours of Obama’s announcement last week concerning the U.S.–Cuba initiative, FARC attacked a government compound in Columbia killing 10 and injuring many more. Evidently they are not happy with the announcement. It may take a long time to “un-ring” the bell of revolution for which Cuba for so long played such a supporting role.

So where are the negotiations at this point in time? The preliminary steps announced last week are really nothing of great consequence. The problem will be in going forward. Cuban leader Raul Castro has conditioned further negotiations with the U.S. on the following pre-conditions: the lifting of the U.S. embargo, the return of Guantánamo Bay naval base and compensation for “human and economic damage” incurred as a result of the U.S. embargo. That’s what we need to agree to in order to just get him to the table.

Obama could make history by changing the relationship with Cuba, but he must not concede the following issues. First, Obama should make no compromises on the Guantánamo Bay naval base or agree to restitution to the Cuban government for its use. It’s a strategic base for the security of the U.S. southern coast. Don’t give it up.

Secondly, despite Cuba’s strong objection, the U.S. should continue to financially support Cuba’s democratic opposition and independent human rights activists. The Cuban government opposes Washington’s support for dissidents. They are using the U.S. support of anti-Castro groups to block the president’s desire to open an embassy in Havana.

Third, the U.S. should move slowly in removing Cuba from the list of countries that are state sponsors of terror. Cuba has a half-century of exporting revolution and terror. It has maintained support and a close relationship with countries such as Syria, Iran and North Korea. They may find exporting terror is a hard habit to break.

Fourth, there is the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act, current U.S. law, signed by Clinton in 1996 and already being circumvented by Obama, which would require Cuba to demonstrate it will hold free and fair elections, free all political prisoners and guarantee free speech and workers’ rights before the Cuban embargo is repealed. Obama must enforce this bipartisan law as part of any agreement.

Finally, not one U.S. cent should be paid for reparations. 

Watching this unfold is like watching Obama as Charlie Brown and Castro as a bearded Lucy Van Pelt. President Obama, don’t be a blockhead. We know how this ends. He’s going to pull the football away and you’ll end up on your derriere.

David H. Landon is the former Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party Central Committee. He can be reached at

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Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at

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