HAVANA (AP) — The U.S. and Cuba will open talks about two of America's most-wanted fugitives as part of a new dialogue about law-enforcement cooperation made possible by President Barack Obama's decision to remove Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terror, the State Department announced Wednesday.
Cuban officials and ordinary citizens alike hailed Obama's action to remove the island from the list, saying it heals a decades-old insult to national pride and clears the way to swiftly restore diplomatic relations.
State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said Cuba had agreed to talks about fugitives including Joanne Chesimard, aka Assata Shakur, who was granted asylum by Fidel Castro after she escaped from a U.S. prison where she was serving a sentence for killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973. The U.S. and Cuba will also discuss the case of William Morales, a Puerto Rican nationalist wanted in connection with bombings in New York in the 1970s.
"We see the reestablishment of diplomatic relations and the reopening of an embassy in Havana as the means by which we'll be able, more effectively, to press the Cuban government on law enforcement issues such as fugitives. And Cuba has agreed to enter into a law enforcement dialogue with the United States that will work to resolve these cases," Rathke said. The dialogue is also expected to address cooperation on more routine crimes, officials said.
A Cuban government spokesman did not immediately return calls seeking comment Wednesday, but Josefina Vidal, Cuba's top diplomat for U.S. affairs, recently ruled out any return of political refugees.
Still she said Tuesday night that "the Cuban government recognizes the president of the United States' just decision to take Cuba off a list in which it should never have been included."
Cuban and U.S. foreign-policy experts said the two governments appeared to have taken a major leap toward the reopening of embassies in Havana and Washington after four months of complex and occasionally frustrating negotiations.
"This is important because it speaks to Obama's desire to keep moving forward," said Esteban Morales, a political science professor at the University of Havana. "Now there are no political obstacles. What remains are organizational and technical problems, which can be resolved."
In a message to Congress, Obama said Tuesday that Cuba's government "has not provided any support for international terrorism" over the last six months and has given "assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future."
Cuba will officially be removed from the terrorism list 45 days after the president's message was sent to Congress. Lawmakers could vote to block the move during that window, though Obama would be nearly certain to veto such a measure.
Rathke said Cuba had also provided assurances that Basque nationalists living in Cuba would never be allowed out to carry out future attacks against Spain.
What remains to be seen is whether Cuba will allow U.S. diplomats to move around Cuba and maintain contacts with citizens including dissidents, the second point of contention in the negotiations on restoring full diplomatic relations.
Cuba is highly sensitive to any indication the U.S. is supporting domestic dissent and that issue could prove considerably tougher than amending the terrorism list. The Obama administration made little pretense in recent years that it believed Cuba was still supporting terrorism.
Cuba was put on the list in 1982 because of what the U.S. said were its efforts "to promote armed revolution by organizations that used terrorism." That included support for leftist guerrilla groups including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the Basque separatist movement ETA in Spain.
Cuba renounced direct support for militant groups years ago and is sponsoring peace talks between the FARC and Colombia's government. Spain no longer appears to be actively seeking the return of inactive ETA members who may be in Cuba.
For Cubans, the terrorism list was a particularly charged issue because of the U.S. history of supporting exile groups responsible for attacks on the island, including the 1976 bombing of a Cuban passenger flight from Barbados that killed 73 people aboard. The attack was linked to Cuban exiles with ties to U.S.-backed anti-Castro groups, and both men accused of masterminding the crime took shelter in Florida, where one, Luis Posada Carriles, lives to this day.
"It's really good that they finally took us off the list even though the reality is that we never should have been there," said Rigoberto Morejon, a member of the Cuban national fencing team who lost three training partners in the bombing. He added that the hoped "we can keep advancing in the re-establishment of relations."
Beyond the emotional impact, the terrorism list hobbled Cuba's ability to do business internationally.
A 1996 law that strips sovereign immunity from nations on the list that engage in extrajudicial killings exposed Cuba to huge judgments in U.S. courts when mainly Cuban-American families accused the Cuban government of responsibility for the deaths of loved ones, said Robert Muse, a Washington-based lawyer who specializes in U.S. law on Cuba.
The perceived and real risks of doing business with a country on the list also made it highly difficult for Cuba to do business with foreign banks. The Cuban Interests Section in Washington has been forced to deal in cash since it lost its bank in the U.S. last year. The ability to reopen a U.S. bank account is one of Cuba's most urgent demands in the negotiations to reopen embassies. While that decision falls to individual banks, removal from the list will make it easier.
The listing also prevented U.S. representatives at the World Bank and other global financial bodies from approving credit for Cuba, which is increasingly strapped for cash.
Obama's decision was welcomed on the streets of Havana.
"Finally!" said Mercedes Delgado, a retired accountant. "The door's opened a little more. That's always good."
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Lee reported from Washington. Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana contributed to this report.