TACSTRAT

President Obama indicated Thursday that he is preparing to announce Cuba’s removal from the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, a move that should quickly lead to a full restoration of diplomatic ties and the opening of embassies in Havana and Washington.

Speaking at a gathering of Caribbean leaders here, Obama said the State Department had finished a review of the issue. There is little doubt that it recommends he drop Cuba from the list, and the only real question is when the announcement will be made.

That could come as early as this week, as Obama attends a summit of Latin American leaders that for the first time will be joined by Cuban President Raúl Castro. Administration officials said a decision on when the president will take action has not been finalized and awaits formal consultation with other affected government agencies.

But anticipation is already running high, and Caribbean leaders with whom Obama met on Thursday voiced strong approval for the new era in U.S.-Cuba relations.
In Washington, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement saying he welcomed what he said was the positive State Department recommendation.

Obama confirmed that the White House had received the review but said he would “not make an announcement today.” He added, “I do think we’re going to be in a position to move forward on opening embassies.”

As he began a meeting with Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, Obama noted that a new poll of Cuban public opinion, published in Thursday’s edition of The Washington Post, demonstrated “overwhelming support” for the normalization process and “overwhelming interest by most Cubans to put one era behind us and move forward.”

A positive announcement on the terror-list decision would be welcomed at the two-day Summit of the Americas, which Obama will attend on Friday and Saturday in Panama with up to 35 other leaders from across the Western Hemisphere. The summit is held every three years, and this will be Castro’s first time in attendance. It will be Obama’s third time, following meetings in 2009 and 2012 that were overshadowed by U.S. insistence that Cuba be excluded.

Administration aides have strongly hinted that Obama and Castro will meet for more than a handshake at the summit, but they have not specified the nature of the encounter.

In preparation for that meeting, Secretary of State John F. Kerry met with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla late Thursday in Panama City, the Associated Press reported.

As delegations gathered on the eve of the summit, the presence of communist Cuba made for some extraordinary and also ugly scenes.

In one part of town Thursday, at a forum for the chief executives of major U.S. companies including Facebook, Coca-Cola and Boeing, a Cuban trade official invited America’s corporate leaders to visit the island, telling them his country was open for business.

But at a parallel event at a different location, raucous pro-
Castro crowds disrupted a gathering of nonprofit and civil society groups, blocking Cuban dissidents from participating and denouncing the event’s organizers for daring to invite them.

The tensions, which had boiled over into a wild melee Wednesday in a city park, were a reminder that Cubans’ deep divisions will persist long after the United States reopens an embassy in Havana.

“We are deeply concerned by reports of attacks targeting civil society representatives in Panama for the Summit of the Americas exercising freedom of speech and harassment of those participating in the Summit of the Americas Civil Society Forum,” said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, adding that the U.S. “condemns those who use violence against peaceful protesters.”

The situation was also a sign that while the Castro government is increasingly willing to tinker with its economic model, the experiment doesn’t extend to politics. The government also remains determined to stifle critics well beyond Cuba’s borders.

But Rodrigo Malmierca Díaz, Cuba’s minister of foreign trade and investment, said in a speech that although U.S. sanctions continued to limit American business with the island, Obama’s recent moves were “a positive step.”

Malmierca said the Castro government is seeking more than $8 billion in foreign investment in its new effort to spur growth.

Once Obama approves the recommendation to delist Cuba, Congress will have 45 days to consider the proposal. But legislators have no power to alter such a recommendation except through new legislation, a move that is seen as unlikely. The administration has made the case to Cuba that Obama’s decision — even before the end of the 45 days — should be enough for the two countries to move forward on reopening embassies.

Cuba has said it cannot envision having full diplomatic relations with a country that has charged it with supporting overseas terrorism. In many ways, the U.S. designation, first imposed in 1982, is a Cold War relic. Although the United States strongly objects to Cuba’s domestic policies, it has offered no evidence for decades that Cuba is actively involved in terrorism abroad.

Leaders of 14 of the 15 members of the Caribbean Community, known as Caricom, met here with Obama. Those in attendance ­welcomed the broader move toward normalization, which ­Simpson Miller called “a bold and courageous move . . . for the good of all of our people.” Obama, she said, is “on the right side of history.”

While the focus of the Caricom talks covered regional security and economic development, Obama’s visit here is also part of a larger plan, which includes his outreach to Cuba. The move is directly related to the administration’s efforts to improve U.S. standing in the region and to undermine Venezuela’s attempts to draw the Caribbean states into its orbit. For years, Venezuela has used cut-rate oil to buy anti-
American support from cash-strapped Caribbean governments.

In recent weeks, Caracas, with money problems of its own, has rolled back energy subsidies to Caricom members. With an energy security program announced in January by Vice President Biden, the Obama administration hopes to help fund island infrastructure to receive and use U.S. gas and petroleum, and then to subsidize U.S. sales of energy products to the Caribbean.

As they try to wean island governments away from Venezuela, administration officials have also attempted to play down their difficulties with Caracas. Thomas A. Shannon, a senior aide to Secretary of State John F. Kerry, was in Venezuela on Thursday for meetings with President Nicolás Maduro. The visit aimed to give at least the impression that the United States is trying to smooth over its differences with the Maduro government before the Caricom meeting and the larger Summit of the Americas.

By Karen DeYoung and Nick Miroff

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