If you happened to have found yourself in possession of a hijacked airplane circa 1970, chances are that you would have steered it to Cuba. From 1968 through 1972, over 80 American civilian jetliners were hijacked to the communist island. So popular was Cuba as a destination for airline hostage takers that the British Sun newspaper once featured a photograph of a flight attendant with the caption, “Coffee, tea, or—Castro?” on its front page.
This history is relevant in light of the Obama administration’s announcement Tuesday that it will remove Cuba from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Obama had called for a review of the listing back in December, and the move comes as part of his broader push for normalizing relations between the two countries. De-listing Cuba will make it much easier for U.S. financial institutions to conduct business in Cuba and for Americans to use their credit and ATM cards on the island. It will also pave the way for Obama’s ultimate goal—the upgrading of the Cuban interests section in Washington to an embassy—as Cuban diplomats were unable to open bank accounts due to the sanctions.
To date, the United States has received nothing substantive in return for the raft of concessions it has made to the Castro regime. Taking Cuba off the state sponsors of terrorism list without any reciprocal moves from Havana on human rights issues is a logical next step. But removing Cuba is not only poor negotiating strategy, it’s also wrong on the merits. Havana is still harboring dozens of terrorists—including several Americans.
On Wednesday, the State Department announced that “Cuba has agreed to enter into a law-enforcement dialogue with the United States that will work to resolve these cases.” By “resolve,” it must mean “ignore,” because Washington has already lost nearly all leverage it has with Havana. The Cubans have long stated that they will never turn over the terrorists they consider political refugees. Having been given nearly everything they want by the Obama administration—short of the closing of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, which, considering the way these “negotiations” have progressed, may be the next unilateral concession Washington will make—there is even less reason for them to give an inch now. As long as President Obama wants normalization more than the Cubans do—which he evidently does, given the secretive way he went about the negotiations leading up to the announcement in December—then normalization will occur, regardless of American national interests.
Cuba was originally placed on the terrorism list in 1982, as punishment for its support of communist insurgencies in places ranging from Nicaragua to Angola. In recent years, it shared a place on that list with just Iran, Sudan, and Syria. (The Bush administration controversially removed North Korea in 2008.) There are some 70 American fugitives from justice living in Cuba today, though not all are terrorists. And while Cuban soldiers may no longer be fighting American-backed proxies in Southern Africa, Cuba remains something of a Star Wars cantina of violent Cold War-era radicals.
The most prominent figure in this rogue’s gallery is JoAnne Chesimard AKA Assata Shakur, godmother to the late Tupac Shakur and a distinguished member of the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists List, where she has the dubious honor of being the first and currently only woman. In 1973, Shakur, then a member of the Black Panther Party, participated in the execution-style killing of a New Jersey State Trooper. In 1979, members of another black radical nationalist group busted her from prison; five years later she resurfaced in Cuba, where she had won political asylum. According to a fellow at New York University’s Center for the United States and the Cold War who has met with her, Shakur lives under the constant watch of Cuban security along with one of her accomplices, Nehanda Abiodun. Though there exists a $2 million bounty for her capture, a Cuban journalist who visited the American interests section in Havana wrote several months ago that the FBI Most Wanted sign beseeching her capture is no longer even posted in the building. It’s likely a signal that the Obama administration does not plan to make her extradition a condition for improved relations.
Another terrorist assumed to be living large under the protection of the Castro brothers is William Morales, a bomb maker for the Puerto Rican FALN separatist organization. According to the FBI, the group perpetrated over 100 bombings throughout the 1970s and ’80s. In 1978, Morales lost nine fingers when one of his projects blew up prematurely; the following year he was convicted in federal court of possessing illegal explosives and weaponry and sentenced to 89 years in prison. Morales escaped to Mexico, and he is now believed to be hiding in Cuba.
Then there’s Charlie Hill, a black power militant involved in the murder of a policeman in 1971. On the run, he and two comrades stole a tow truck at gunpoint, crashed it through the gates onto the runway of Albuquerque airport, and hijacked a TWA plane. Told by the pilots that it could not fly all the way to Africa—where the men originally wanted to flee—they instructed the crew to take them to Cuba instead. “If anything went down, you went to Cuba,” Hill recently told CNN. He added that he misses the French fries back home, but if he waits long enough, he may be able to enjoy the glories of McDonald’s in Havana, much to the displeasure of Western leftists scrambling to visit the island prison fast before American businesses and tourists “plague” the poverty-stricken country with their money and infrastructural investments, as MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry fretted.
It is not only American terrorists who find safe haven in Cuba. Over a dozen members of the State Department-listed Basque terrorist group ETA reside on the island, though the Cuban government has repatriated several members back to Spain. Last month, however, the Spanish government requested that the United States try to persuade Cuba to extradite two ETA leaders; it’s difficult to see how that will ever happen now that Washington has surrendered even more leverage to Havana by removing it from the State Department list. Cuba also shelters a number of insurgents associated with the FARC, a Marxist-Leninist terrorist organization long at war with the Colombian government. In 2013, the Panama Canal Authority seized a North Korean-flagged ship ferrying undeclared weapons and armaments—including two Soviet-era MiG fighters and surface-to-air missile systems—from Cuba. According to a United Nations report on the seizure, commissioned in respect to Havana’s violation of a Security Council-imposed arms embargo on the North, the shipment “constituted the largest amount of arms and related materiel interdicted to or from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea since the adoption of resolution 1718,” prohibiting the transfer of various weapons.
North Korea is not the only rogue regime aided and abetted by Cuba. A 2014 report by the Washington-based Center for a Secure Free Society alleges that Cuban state security had assisted Venezuelan officials with passport technology information to help provide new identities to nearly 200 individuals from the Middle East. Cuban intelligence officers serve as the Praetorian guard of President Nicolas Maduro’s chavista regime in Venezuela, where they were involved in the murderous crackdowns on pro-democracy demonstrations last year that led the Obama administration to issue sanctions on Venezuelan officials last month. The White House statement announcing the measures declared a “national emergency with respect to the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States posed by the situation in Venezuela.”
When I visited Cuba recently, a massive campaign was underway, orchestrated by the Venezuelan government with the support of its lackeys in Cuba, to gain signatures for a petition protesting the sanctions, to be hand-delivered by Maduro to Obama at last week’s Summit of the Americas in Panama. In a lame attempt at assuaging the feelings of Latin American populist thugs, deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, the point man for Obama’s opening to the Castro regime, explained away the Executive Order as just so much bureaucratic language. “The United States does not believe that Venezuela poses some threat to our national security, we frankly just have a framework for how we formulate these executive orders,” he said, calling the wording “pro forma.” Last year, the administration similarly contradicted itself with regard to the behavior of a rogue Latin American regime when Secretary of State John Kerry declared that Cuba is “not cooperating fully with United States antiterrorism efforts,” only to look past that declaration with this week’s announcement.
After shaking Raul Castro’s blood-drenched hand last week in Panama, Obama explained his rationale for the change in relations he is seeking. The Cold War, he said, “has been over for a long time, and I’m not interested in having battles that, frankly, started before I was born.” It was a typically narcissistic remark from the president, whose interest in diplomatic history extends only insofar as it can be used to fault his own country. But history matters very much to the Castro brothers, who have ruled over a tropical totalitarian dictatorship for over five decades. Before legitimizing the Cuban government with normalized relations, the Cuban regime ought first address this “history” and extradite the American terrorists in its midst.