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A Cuba beyond the Castros? (+video)

News from Cuba this week that Raul Castro will step down in 2018 is offering fodder for critics of US policy towards Cuba who say Washington is stuck in the Cold War.

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This week in Washington, sparks flew around one of those fossilized elements of US Cuba policy, designating Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism. Cuba has been on the list since 1982, originally for its support of armed leftist groups in the Americas. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than 20 years ago, whose patronage made such Cuban adventures abroad possible, the State Department has repeatedly admitted that Cuba was no longer providing such support. While many analysts have repeatedly called for its removal, no administration has dared take that step. And then there was this story out last week, which suggested the Obama administration might actually be preparing to take that step soon:

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“There is a pretty clear case ... that they don’t really meet the standard anymore,” said a senior administration official with direct knowledge regarding US-Cuba policy who was not authorized to speak publicly. “They have neither the wherewithal nor are they doing much.”

The Boston Globe, which cited “top US diplomats” in breaking the story, emphasized that no formal decision had been taken, and noted that Kerry was reviewing US policy toward Cuba.

But State wasn’t ready to be outed, and spokeswoman Victoria Nuland tried to shut down the story. “I saw that report. Let me say firmly here it is incorrect. This department has no current plans to remove Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list.”

“We review this every year, and at the current moment we – when the last review was done in 2012 – didn’t see cause to remove them. We’ll obviously look at it again this year, but as I said, we don’t have any plans at the moment,” she added.

That technically accurate statement obscures the fact that there is in fact such "cause" to consider with the upcoming review.  And by "cause," we really mean an action-forcing event that provides a timely justification for Cuba’s removal, rather than just admitting that we’ve had nothing on them for years.  That timely justification is the leading role Cuba is playing in new peace talks between the Colombian government and the leftist FARC rebel group Cuba offered training and support to decades ago and has since called on to lay down its arms. That group has been designated a terrorist group by the United States, and Cuba’s connection to it has been a key pillar of the US case for continuing to consider Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism.

Was this week’s admission by more than one (unnamed) administration official a trial balloon? A message to Cuban authorities holding Alan Gross? Whatever it was, it seems to have been oddly managed, but nonetheless, the toothpaste may well be out of the tube. In a bit of particularly good timing, the Washington-based Latin America Group has just launched a petition to the White House seeking the removal of Cuba from the list. If they reach the number of signatures to expect a response, what will the White House say? If there truly is a real push from the State Department to finally de-list Cuba, whether as a means of getting Alan Gross back or simply because Secretary Kerry can’t abide signing off on something he doesn’t believe to be true, a White House petition coming at this precise moment might just be a handy way to continue to roll out infinitesimally nuanced statements that will pave the way for the real pivot in the months ahead.

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