CubaBrief: Setting the record straight on opening secure facilities, sharing intelligence with Cuban officials, and Cuba on the state sponsor of terrorism list

Cuban dictatorship officials visited control areas of Miami International Airport on May 20, 2024, in what was described as an exchange between the Transportation Security Administration and its “counterparts” on the Island. 

This language downplays the threat the dictatorship in Havana poses to U.S. national interests, and the reality that Cuba today is not Costa Rica. Cuba is a state terror sponsor with a history of  supplying U.S. secrets to America’s enemies.  

More reason for concern was the revelation by Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava that “the decision to allow Cuban officials to tour secure areas at MIA was made without the knowledge of the Miami-Dade Aviation Department.”

Worse yet, this has been going on elsewhere in the United States for some time. For example, on February 26, 2023 the Biden Administration had Cuban officials tour U.S. Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C. and the Port of Wilmington. The Port visit raised security concerns at the time from Representative David Rouzer and other Members of Congress.

The Obama Administration in its drive to normalize relations with the communist dictatorship in Cuba set up these visits beginning in 2011. Cuban aviation officials also visited Miami International Airport in 2011 and 2015, again without notifying local officials.

Granting Cuban officials access to U.S. facilities and ports where they have access to secure areas where they can gather information to provide to their allies in North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Russia should raise red flags.

Especially after Cuban officials were caught smuggling tons of weapons, including missile system components, to North Korea in July 2013 in violation of international sanctions, then “U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power described the North Korean ship incident as a ‘cynical, outrageous and illegal attempt by Cuba and North Korea to circumvent United Nations sanctions,'” but the Obama Administration downplayed this incident and continued to provide officials more access to U.S. facilities.

On March 2, 2015 news broke that the government of Colombia had seized a shipment of ammunition bound for Cuba on a China-flagged ship due to a lack of proper documentation. The BBC reported that “Officials said about 100 tons of gunpowder, almost three million detonators and some 3,000 cannon shells were found on board. The ship’s records said it was carrying grain products.” Blogging by Boz, founder of Hxagon, a consulting and technology company that provides risk assessments and predictive analysis in emerging markets, reached a reasonable conclusion: “Two big shipments of weapons seized in 20 months means that this is probably a regular occurrence.”

On May 29, 2015, despite a long history of sponsoring terrorism, and recent bad actions the Obama State Department removed Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Raul Castro had conditioned normalizing diplomatic relations with Washington on removing Havana from the terror sponsor list.

Cuban state security officials granted access to U.S. military facility fighting drug war in 2016

Carol Rosenberg reported on May 4, 2016 in her article titled “Cuban security officials toured Key West drug-war center” “that officer, Lt. Cmdr. Derek Cromwell, escorted the four-member Cuban security delegation on a familiarization tour of the so-called Joint Interagency Task Force South, or JIATF-South, at the Truman Annex of the U.S. Navy base in Key West on April 21, according to Tidd’s spokeswoman, Army Col. Lisa Garcia. They got a briefing on the work of the multi-agency, multi-national organization that has been described as Southcom’s command center in the war on drugs, toured the Joint Operating Center there and met with representatives of 18 different countries assigned there.”

The four Cuban officials “were identified as Col. Idael Fumero Valdés of the Cuban National Police, part of the Ministry of Interior; Joel Lago Oliva, first secretary of Cuba’s Ministry of External Relations; Lt. Col. Hector Gonzalez Hernandez, chief of Cuba’s Counterdrug Directorate and Lt. Col. Imandra Oceguera Coll, the chief of analysis for the Cuban Border Guard.”

Washington intensified its anti-drug efforts with Havana in 1999 despite the Castro regime’s history of drug trafficking. In 1999, the year when Washington intensified these efforts 3,186 U.S. citizens died of cocaine overdoses. In 2021, after 22 years of this “cooperation” 23,513 Americans died in 2021.

The Obama White House on October 14, 2016 made public a Presidential policy directive (PPD) on United States-Cuba Normalization. Despite the above mentioned history the Obama PPD called for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to “support broader United States Government efforts to normalize relations with Cuba, with Intelligence Community elements working to find opportunities for engagement on areas of common interest through which we could exchange information on mutual threats with Cuban counterparts.” A former National Security Agency official wrote that “Obama just opened the door for Castro’s spies.”

To claim that this approach did not compromise U.S. national security and interests is disingenuous.

The Obama Administration’s Cuba policy marked two years on December 17, 2016 and U.S. diplomats in Havana had already started suffering brain injuries from attacks that began in November of 2016. Despite that on December 7, 2016 the United States and Cuba held their fifth Bilateral Commission meeting where they celebrated progress on U.S.-Cuba relations, and signed 11 non-binding agreements on health, the environment, counter-narcotics, and other areas of cooperation.  

On January 2, 2017 Cuban troops in Havana marched in a parade over which Raul Castro presided, chanting that they would repeatedly shoot President Obama in the head so many times that they would make a “hat of lead to the head.” Despite that on January 12, 2017 the Obama Administration provided further concessions to Cuba gutting the Cuban Adjustment Act and ending the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program that had bothered General Castro for years, but had helped many Cubans. 

ELN fighters in Catatumbo in 2019, Source: TV San Jorge

On January 11, 2021 Secretary Michael R. Pompeo announced that the “State Department has designated Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism for repeatedly providing support for acts of international terrorism in granting safe harbor to terrorists.” He cited three reasons:

  1. Havana has fed, housed, and provided medical care for murderers, bombmakers, and hijackers, while many Cubans go hungry, homeless, and without basic medicine. Several of them are U.S. fugitives from justice wanted on or convicted of charges of political violence (i.e. terrorism ) 

  2. Citing peace negotiation protocols, Cuba has refused Colombia’s requests to extradite ten National Liberation Army (ELN) leaders living in Havana after the group claimed responsibility for the January 2019 bombing of a Bogota police academy that killed 22 people and injured more than 87 others.

  3. The Cuban intelligence and security apparatus has infiltrated Venezuela’s security and military forces, assisting Nicholas Maduro to maintain his stranglehold over his people while allowing terrorist organizations to operate. The Cuban government’s support for FARC dissidents and the ELN continues beyond Cuba’s borders as well, and the regime’s support of Maduro has created a permissive environment for international terrorists to live and thrive within Venezuela.

Three years into the Biden Administration, and Cuba policy appears to be following the path of the Obama Administration.

The Biden State Department removed Cuba from the list of countries not cooperating in the fight against terrorism on May 15, 2024. On the same day Joseph Connor, whose father Frank Connor was murdered in a 1975 terrorist attack in New York City by a Cuban backed group, in a letter addressed to Secretary Antony Blinken asked for one of the terrorists involved in the bombing, and now harbored by Havana, to be returned to the United States to face justice. Six days later, and Mr. Connor has not received a response.

The reason given by Vedant Patel, the principal deputy spokesperson at the State Department on May 16, 2024 “that the circumstances for Cuba’s certifications as not fully cooperating country have changed from 2022 to 2023” does not stand up to scrutiny. Patel cited “Cuba’s refusal to engage with Colombia on extradition requests for National Liberation Army members supported Cuba’s NFCC certification for 2022.”

What change took place? Not the behavior of the Cuban dictatorship.

The Colombian terrorists harbored by Havana were not extradited. The new duly elected president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, a past member of the terrorist group M-19 in Colombia with close ties to the Cuban dictatorship, ordered his attorney general to suspend the arrest warrant “against 17 ELN commanders, including those whose extradition Colombia had previously requested from Cuba.” There is also a bit of historical irony. Cuba was first placed on the state sponsor of terrorism list in 1982 when Havana was implicated supplying weapons to the M19 terrorist group from profits raised from trafficking narcotics. Patel also cited that “the U.S. and Cuba resumed law enforcement cooperation in 2023, including on counterterrorism.” First, the phrase “law-enforcement dialogue” is inaccurate. In Cuba, there is no rule of law. “To keep power, the dictatorship maintains a repressive security apparatus that murders nonviolent dissidents extrajudicially. This is not ‘law enforcement.’ The Cuban dictatorship is a transnational threat, and legitimizing it does not enhance U.S. advocacy for human rights.”

What has that meant in practice?

Giving legitimacy to the Cuban dictatorship through this sham “law enforcement cooperation” led Cuban officials meeting with their American counterparts to accuse the United States of “supporting people in Miami plotting ‘terrorist’ actions against Cuba.” Biden administration officials rejected these claims, but the actions of Havana could not be described as a good faith effort, or a reason to cite the dictatorship as fully cooperating in anti-terrorism efforts. Much less grant them access to secure facilities that are of great importance to America’s infrastructure.

The exchange yesterday at the Budget Hearing for the Fiscal Year 2025 Request for the Department of State Meeting, Subcommittee Chairman Mario Diaz-Balart and Secretary of State Antony Blinken had an exchange of views on terrorist fugitives in Cuba, and the circumstances for Cuba’s certifications as not fully cooperating country having changed from 2022 to 2023. Secretary Blinken restated the official position of the State Department.

One of the fugitives highlighted by Congressman Diaz-Balart in the hearing that Havana still harbors today is William “Guillermo” Morales, a member of the “Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional” (FALN), who made the bomb used in the Fraunces Tavern bombing of January 24, 1975 in New York City that killed four, and wounded over 50 more. FALN was started in the mid-1960s and its members received advanced training in Cuba. According to the FBI, one of the authors of this attack, Filiberto Ojeda Ríos “spent several years in Cuba in the 1960s and received training from the Government of Cuba as an intelligence officer.”

Joseph Connor, whose father Frank Connor was murdered in the 1975 terrorist attack in New York City, asked for Morales to be returned to the United States to face justice in a May 15th letter addressed to Secretary Antony Blinken in which he wrote “I am writing because my father Frank Connor was murdered by Cuban sponsored terrorists at Fraunces Tavern on January 24, 1975 in New York City that killed three others, and wounded over 50 more. The news that Havana is now willing to cooperate with the United States on the issue of terrorism should bring accountability for this crime that I have fought for over the last three decades.”

NBC 6 South Florida, May 22, 2024

TSA confirms Cuban delegations have visited Miami International Airport 3 times 

Cuban delegations have visited American airports a total of six times since 2011

Following revelations Cuban officials toured Miami International Airport this week, NBC 6 has learned that Cuban delegations have visited the busy airport twice before, in 2011 and 2015.  

Cuban delegations have visited American airports a total of six times “with the purpose of exchanging technical information on aviation security,” a Transportation Security Administration official confirmed.  

The latest visit, this past Monday, sparked outrage among Miami politicians, who demanded an explanation from President Joe Biden’s administration. But it turns out previous visits to U.S airports happened during the Donald Trump and Barack Obama administrations.  

“I’m appalled that this took place,” said Ralph Cutie, director at Miami International Airport, who went on to disclose neither he nor Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava knew about the recent visit.  

Cutie told the County Commission that five Cuban officials got a tour of a TSA checkpoint and baggage screening area for about five hours.  

“Never, ever should this happen again,” Miami-Dade Commissioner Oliver Gilbert said during Tuesday’s heated commission hearing.  

In a highly divisive, partisan world the issue seemed to bring politicians together. 

“We need a response from this administration, from Washington, D.C. as to what happened and how are they going to make sure that this doesn’t happen again, but across the country,” Miami-Dade Commissioner Rene Garcia said.  

On Wednesday, TSA officials confirmed Cuban delegations have also visited airports in Atlanta, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, New York City and Philadelphia.  

“It makes absolutely no sense to me. It’s quite frankly disgusting,” said Miami-Dade Commissioner Kevin Cabrera.  

“I was shocked and dismayed when I learned of this late yesterday [Monday],” Levine Cava said.  

Levine Cava called the visit inappropriate especially given May 20 is Cuban Independence Day.  

“Unfortunately it does allow potential vulnerabilities to be exposed, contrary to security calls,” said Levine Cava, who added her office had reached the White House with hopes of getting an explanation. 

On Wednesday, when the story broke about the most recent visit, Congressman Carlos Gimenez was highly critical of the visit and called it a slap in the face for Cuban-Americans living in South Florida.  

NBC6 has learned the Cuban delegation visited MIA in August 2011 and September 2015 when Gimenez was mayor of Miami-Dade.  

“In August 2011Cuba inspectors conducted a reciprocal visit to observe security measures at Last Point of Departure airports at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and Miami International Airport in Miami. During this visit, the Cuban delegation presented TSA with a copy of its Civil Aviation Security Program, which was a breakthrough in sharing information,” a TSA official confirmed.  

The latest visit occurred nearly a week after the United States removed Cuba from a list of countries that do not fully cooperate in the fight against terrorism.  

On Tuesday, TSA said it routinely works with all countries with direct flights to the United States.  

“TSA hosts government officials and members of the aviation community at U.S. airports to foster a strong global aviation security posture,” the TSA said in a statement Tuesday. “U.S. and Cuban authorities jointly manage the airspace between Cuba and the United States and ensure the safety and security of travelers using our airports. The Republic of Cuba has six last point of departure airports with direct flights to the United States, and accordingly TSA continually works to strengthen the security framework with Cuba and other Caribbean nations.” 

The decision marks a tepid yet symbolically significant move by the Biden administration, which has largely maintained Trump-era restrictions thus far. 

By way of a spokesperson, the Cuban government called the visits part of an ongoing exchange between the two countries.  

“This visit is nothing new and aligns with bilateral cooperation that has historically existed between U.S. and Cuban officials when it comes to aviation security. As part of the exchange, members of the TSA have also regularly traveled to Cuban airports,” said Press Advisor Abel Derivet. 

Prior to the most recent visit, a three-member Cuban delegation last visit visited U.S. aviation facilities in 2018 when Trump was president. During that visit, the Cuban delegation “visited Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Systems Integration Facility (TSIF) in Arlington VA, TSA Training Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and Philadelphia International Airport.” 

https://www.nbcmiami.com/news/local/tsa-confirms-cuban-delegations-have-visited-miami-international-airport-three-times/3317503/ 

House Foreign Affairs Committee, May 20, 2024

McCaul, Green on Biden Administration’s Decision Declaring Cuba Compliant with U.S. Counterterrorism Efforts

05.20.24

Media Contact 202-226-8467

Washington, D.C.  — Today, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) and House Homeland Security Committee Mark Green (R-TN) issued the following statement on the Biden administration’s determination that the Cuban regime is in compliance with U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

“The Biden administration’s decision to declare the communist Cuban dictatorship—a legally established state sponsor of terrorism—compliant with U.S. counterterrorism efforts not only rewards a hostile regime but emboldens our other adversaries as well,” wrote the lawmakers. “Over the last year, Havana has been caught spying on our highest levels of government, hosting a Chinese espionage facility in Cuba, and sending their citizens to fight for Russia in Ukraine. Only a completely delusional administration would determine that such a brutal, anti-American, and tyrannical regime is supporting U.S. efforts to counter global terrorism.”

https://foreignaffairs.house.gov/press-release/mccaul-green-on-biden-administrations-decision-declaring-cuba-compliant-with-u-s-counterterrorism-efforts/

State Department Press Briefing – May 16, 2024

Vedant Patel, Principal Deputy Spokesperson

May 16, 2024

MR PATEL:  Nick, go ahead.

QUESTION: On Cuba.

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: State removed Cuba from the list of countries not fully cooperating against terrorism.

MR PATEL: That’s right.

QUESTION: Can you explain a little of that rationale? And also, is this a prelude to Cuba no longer being considered a state sponsor of terror?

MR PATEL: Let me start with that second part first. So the designation of a state sponsor of terrorism is a totally separate process from an NFCC certification. There have been countries certified as NFCCs without being designated as state sponsors of terrorism, and vice versa. U.S. law establishes specific statutory criteria for rescinding any state sponsor of terrorism designation, and any review of Cuba’s status on this would need to be based on the law and the criteria established by Congress.

So to take a step back on this NFCC progress, the – process, sorry – the department determined that the circumstances for Cuba’s certifications as not fully cooperating country have changed from 2022 to 2023. First, Cuba’s refusal to engage with Colombia on extradition requests for National Liberation Army members supported Cuba’s NFCC certification for 2022. In August of 2022, pursuant to an order from Colombian President Petro, Colombia’s attorney general announced that arrest warrant would be suspended against 17 ELN commanders, including those whose extradition Colombia had previously requested from Cuba. Moreover, the U.S. and Cuba resumed law enforcement cooperation in 2023, including on counterterrorism. Therefore, we’ve determined that Cuba’s continued certification as a not fully cooperating country was no longer appropriate. I will also tell you that just since you’ve given me the opportunity, Nick, sales of defense articles to Cuba will continue to be restricted under Section 40 of the Arms Export Control Act given Cuba’s status as a state sponsor of terrorism. Moreover, Cuba remains subject to a incredibly comprehensive embargo still.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up that?

MR PATEL: Sure.

QUESTION: I mean, Pompeo when he added Cuba back to the list, he explicitly raised the ELN issue as a reason that it was being added to the state sponsor of terror. I realize there’s a different process for that, but the Cubans have said that this is a political decision to keep them as a state sponsor. I mean, are – is it? I mean, is it? How can they still be considered a state sponsor of terrorism if they are cooperating on counterterrorism, as this report says?

MR PATEL: So you can still – you can be a cooperator on counterterrorism, but we still believe that there are actions that they are undertaking that of the support of terrorist activities. I’m not going to get into those specifically from up here. But again, Shaun, should any statutory criteria change on rescinding the SST designation, we would work on that based on the law and the criteria established by Congress.

QUESTION: Can you just say is there anything specifically you need them to do to remove that state sponsor of terrorism?

MR PATEL: I just wouldn’t speak to the deliberative process on that from up here.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you.

https://www.state.gov/briefings/department-press-briefing-may-16-2024/#post-560250-CUBA

U.S. Department of State, January 11, 2021

U.S. Announces Designation of Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism

U.S. Department of State
Office of the Spokesperson
For Immediate Release
Statement by Secretary Michael R. Pompeo
January 11, 2021

The State Department has designated Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism for repeatedly providing support for acts of international terrorism in granting safe harbor to terrorists.

The Trump Administration has been focused from the start on denying the Castro regime the resources it uses to oppress its people at home, and countering its malign interference in Venezuela and the rest of the Western Hemisphere.

With this action, we will once again hold Cuba’s government accountable and send a clear message: the Castro regime must end its support for international terrorism and subversion of U.S. justice.

For decades, the Cuban government has fed, housed, and provided medical care for murderers, bombmakers, and hijackers, while many Cubans go hungry, homeless, and without basic medicine. Members of the National Liberation Army (ELN), a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, traveled to Havana to conduct peace talks with the Colombian government in 2017. Citing peace negotiation protocols, Cuba has refused Colombia’s requests to extradite ten ELN leaders living in Havana after the group claimed responsibility for the January 2019 bombing of a Bogota police academy that killed 22 people and injured more than 87 others.

Cuba also harbors several U.S. fugitives from justice wanted on or convicted of charges of political violence, many of whom have resided in Cuba for decades. For example, the Cuban regime has refused to return Joanne Chesimard, on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists List for executing New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster in 1973; Ishmael LaBeet, convicted of killing eight people in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1972; Charles Lee Hill, charged with killing New Mexico state policeman Robert Rosenbloom in 1971; and others.

Cuba returns to the SST list following its broken commitment to stop supporting terrorism as a condition of its removal by the previous administration in 2015. On May 13, 2020, the State Department notified Congress that it had certified Cuba under Section 40A(a) of the Arms Export Control Act as “not cooperating fully” with U.S. counterterrorism efforts in 2019.

In addition to the support for international terrorism that is the basis for today’s action, the Cuban regime engages in a range of malign behavior across the region. The Cuban intelligence and security apparatus has infiltrated Venezuela’s security and military forces, assisting Nicholas Maduro to maintain his stranglehold over his people while allowing terrorist organizations to operate. The Cuban government’s support for FARC dissidents and the ELN continues beyond Cuba’s borders as well, and the regime’s support of Maduro has created a permissive environment for international terrorists to live and thrive within Venezuela.

Today’s designation subjects Cuba to sanctions that penalize persons and countries engaging in certain trade with Cuba, restricts U.S. foreign assistance, bans defense exports and sales, and imposes certain controls on exports of dual use items.

The United States will continue to support the Cuban people in their desire for a democratic government and respect for human rights, including freedom of religion, expression, and association. Until these rights and freedoms are respected, we will continue to hold the regime accountable.

https://ru.usembassy.gov/u-s-announces-designation-of-cuba-as-a-state-sponsor-of-terrorism/

The White House, October 14, 2016

Presidential Policy Directive — United States-Cuba Normalization

October 14, 2016

SUBJECT: United States-Cuba Normalization

I. Introduction

On December 17, 2014, I announced that the United States would chart a new course with Cuba, ending an outdated policy that had failed to advance U.S. interests and support reform and a better life for the Cuban people on the island over several decades. Under the new policy, the United States expands and promotes authorized engagements with Cuba to advance cooperation on areas of mutual interest, and increase travel to, commerce with, and the free flow of information to Cuba. The objective of the new policy is to help the Cuban people to achieve a better future for themselves and to encourage the development of a partner in the region capable of working with the United States to confront regional challenges, such as climate change, disease, and illicit trafficking.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) will continue to develop air and surface transportation links between the United States and Cuba in support of transportation providers, authorized travelers, and commerce, while providing required regulatory and safety oversight of transportation providers and systems.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) will support broader United States Government efforts to normalize relations with Cuba, with Intelligence Community elements working to find opportunities for engagement on areas of common interest through which we could exchange information on mutual threats with Cuban counterparts.

[ Full text ]

https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/10/14/presidential-policy-directive-united-states-cuba-normalization