WASHINGTON — Cuba has agreed to work on resolving the cases of U.S. fugitives harboring from justice on the island as part of the effort to normalize relations between the two nations, President Barack Obama told lawmakers as he made the case for removing the former Cold War foe from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
In a message to Congress dated Wednesday, Obama acknowledged that Cuba has gone so far as to provide housing, food ration books and medical care to some of the fugitives wanted to stand trial or serve sentences on serious charges in the United States. However, he argued that Havana has been more cooperative with the United States in some recent cases, returning two fugitives in 2011 and two more in 2013.
"Cuba has agreed to enter into a law enforcement dialogue with the United States that will include discussions with the aim of resolving outstanding fugitive cases," Obama wrote. "We believe that the strong U.S. interest in the return of these fugitives will be best served by entering into this dialogue with Cuba."
Obama's move to remove Cuba from the terror list has been met with some opposition over the fugitives. New Jersey's Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez and Republican Gov. Chris Christie have both maintained that the terror designation should remain, especially while refusing to extradite Joanne Chesimard. Chesimard, a member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army, has lived in Cuba since fleeing her 1977 conviction for killing a New Jersey state trooper.
"It is a national disgrace that this president would even consider normalizing relations while they are harboring a terrorist murderer who belongs in prison in New Jersey," Christie, a likely 2016 presidential candidate, said at a town hall meeting Wednesday in New Hampshire.
Obama's message to Congress provides a more detailed argument after he announced Tuesday that he will remove Cuba from the list after the required 45 days have passed after notification. Lawmakers could vote to block the move during that window of time, though Obama would be all but certain to veto such a measure.
Cuba was designated a state sponsor of terror in 1982 because of what the White House said was its support of armed revolution in Latin America by organizations that used terror. But Obama says there's no evidence Havana has supported terrorism in the past six months and the Cuban government has assured the U.S. that it won't support terrorism in the future.
In Wednesday's message to Congress, Obama cites Cuba's condemnation of terrorism in recent years, including rejection of global attacks including Paris and Boston, among the arguments for removing it from the list. Obama also noted that after the terror attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, Cuba expressed solidarity with the U.S. and offered airspace and airports to American planes. He cited recent speeches from President Raul Castro and other Cuban officials noting that Havana shares terrorist threat information with Washington.
Obama wrote that Cuba gave the U.S. a written assurance on April 3 committing to renounce terrorism and cooperate in combatting terror. And Obama credited Cuba with helping aid peace negotiations involving the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the Spanish Basque separatist group ETA — groups the State Department previously accused Cuba of sheltering. Obama said although Cuba still allows about two dozen members of ETA to remain in the country, it is working with Spain on resolving an extradition request and Spain has no objections to removing Cuba from the list.
Cuba's removal from the terror list will likely make it easier to get credit from non-U.S. banks, transfer funds between countries and conduct a host of other international financial transactions. The remaining nations on the list are Iran, Sudan and Syria.