Debate Over Tying Cuba To Terrorists
By Paul Richter, Times Staff Writer
WASHINGTON -- With public and congressional support for the 40-year economic isolation of Cuba steadily diminishing, embargo advocates are pushing a new line: that the island nation 90 miles from Florida has become a dangerous "comfort station" for terrorists.
Advocates in the Bush administration and Congress maintain that while the United States has been mobilizing a global war on terrorism, Cuban President Fidel Castro has been providing shelter and possibly aid to Basque separatists, Irish Republican Army members, leftist Colombian guerrillas and perhaps Iranian agents and others.
They contend that in light of the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States needs to hold a firm line against a country that could become a terrorist incubator like the onetime Taliban-run Afghanistan.
Opponents of the embargo scoff at these arguments as yet more of the overheated rhetoric that surrounds the politically charged issue of Cuba. They note, for example, that not even the Bush administration claims any Cuban ties to Al Qaeda or other Islamic terrorist groups.
These critics contend that the embargo's defenders are playing the "terrorist card" in desperation because fewer Americans believe that Cuba should be cut off from U.S. tourism and trade.
The allegations about Cuban involvement in terrorism are not about foreign policy but rather "about domestic politics," said Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.), a leading embargo foe.
In the administration's view, Havana has become a bustling terrorist way station even as U.S. military authorities have been locking up accused foreign terrorists at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay on Cuba's southeastern end.
In its most recent report on the subject, the State Department listed Cuba as one of seven "state sponsors" of terrorism because of its role in offering sanctuary and support to insurgent groups.
The report said Castro's government has been treating 20 members of the Basque separatist group ETA, which is seeking independence from Spain, as "privileged guests" and providing "some degree of safe haven and support" to the two principal guerrilla groups in Colombia.
It said that Niall Connolly, one of three IRA members facing trial in Colombia on charges of teaching bomb-making to the Colombian guerrillas, lived in Cuba for five years as the Irish group's Latin America representative before being jailed.
Although Cuba has signed a U.N. anti-terrorism convention, Castro continues "to view terrorism as a legitimate revolutionary tactic," the report said.
Some embargo supporters in Congress have asserted that Cuba was a transit point for Iranian terrorists who are alleged to have bombed a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994, killing at least 85 people. But the State Department report makes no mention of that connection, or any other link to Islamic terrorists.
Some critics argue that the presence of terrorists, even if true, is no reason to keep the embargo in place. To the contrary, open trade and communication could make it harder for clandestine groups to operate, this argument goes.
Yet even some experts who are skeptical about the embargo acknowledge that any traffic of terrorist groups through Havana raises troublesome questions about the Cuban government's clandestine activities with anti-government organizations.
Officials with the Cuban Interests Section in Washington did not return calls for comment. Cuba has denied supporting terrorist activities of the IRA, Colombian guerrillas or the Basque separatists. But Castro traveled through the Mideast after Sept. 11 and has been trying to cultivate relations with several nations on Washington's list of terror-sponsoring countries, including Iran, Libya and Syria.
Administration officials say they believe that there are dozens of foreign terrorists in Cuba and that they receive special treatment from the government, making their lives more comfortable than those of ordinary Cubans.
They suspect that these foreigners are collaborating with the Cuban government on intelligence matters. Noting that Cuba had a network of terrorist training camps as recently as the 1980s, they say they suspect the foreigners may be receiving military and intelligence training as well.
But U.S. officials have not publicly argued that they have proof the groups have active terrorist camps in Cuba or are using a Cuban sanctuary as a base for activities elsewhere.
The new visibility of the issue comes as pressure builds for a change in the longtime U.S. policy on Cuba. As trade grows with such remaining Communist nations as China and Vietnam, and the aging Castro remains securely in power, a growing number of Americans think it is time for a change.
Reflecting the strength of this sentiment, late last month the House passed, by a 262-167 margin, language that would lift restrictions on travel. If the Senate adopts similar language, as expected, and congressional conferees follow suit, President Bush could face a tough choice between exercising the first veto of his term or accepting a major weakening of the embargo.
Last week, in a significant defection, retiring House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) said he believes the United States should open trade with Cuba.
Cuba policy is important to the president's political fortunes-and those of his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush-because of Florida's influential and staunchly anti-Castro Cuban American community.
But critics of the embargo contend that the administration's case against Cuba is weak and vaguer than those against other governments accused of sponsoring terrorism.
Philip Peters, a former State Department official now at the Lexington Institute research and consulting organization, notes that in contrast with the six other countries it listed, the recent State Department report did not accuse Cuba of involvement in any specific terrorist operations.
Yet some analysts say the Cuba-terrorist connections can't be explained away entirely.
Richard A. Nuccio, who was President Clinton's top advisor on Cuba, said that while he has not seen evidence that the IRA has used Cuba as a training or staging ground for operations, the IRA's ties to the Castro government "should be cause for concern" and should be taken up by U.S. officials with Cuba.
Whether Cuba is actively supporting international terrorism is "an open question," he said. "It bears watching and monitoring."
A senior Bush administration official, who asked to remain unidentified, acknowledged in an interview that the extent of Castro's active support for such groups remains unclear.
Nevertheless, "I'm interested that Havana has become the preferred transit point for people of this dubious profession," he said. "That's got to raise a serious set of questions."
The official noted that from the time of Castro's revolution in 1959 through the 1980s, Cuba was active in supporting and financing revolutionary groups in Central and South America and Africa, and even trained insurgents on its soil.
He said that with the fall of the Soviet Union, most Americans have felt less threatened and "there's been a kind of forgetfulness that Cuba played this role."
IRA members who allegedly taught Colombian guerrillas how to make mortars from propane tanks may have learned some of their skills in Cuba, he said.
"I can't say that the three IRA men in Colombia were trained in Cuba," he said. "But ... if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck ... "
The administration official said he knew of no link between Cuba and Al Qaeda or related extremist Islamic groups, although "I hope the intelligence community is asking those kinds of questions."
The issue of Cuba's role in supporting terrorism came in for a full-scale debate in Congress on July 23, when House members considered the proposal, offered by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), to lift restrictions on travel to Cuba.
As the embargo's congressional defenders looked for ways to stop the proposal, Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.) offered a motion that the restrictions shouldn't be lifted unless the president certified that, among other things, Cuba was not offering "support or sanctuary to international terrorists."
Goss is chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, a role that embargo supporters had hoped would add credibility to his proposal. But even Goss acknowledged that whether Cuba is a terrorist sponsor today "remains a difficult, open question, and one which our executive agencies are working on."
His proposal was defeated easily, 247-182. Interestingly, Republicans on the intelligence committee, who presumably have the best access to classified intelligence on the Cuban threat, narrowly voted against Goss' proposal, 6 to 5.