Is Cuba closer to removal from list of terrorism sponsors?

WASHINGTON — Cuba made the State Department's annual list of state sponsors of terrorism Thursday — but with tempered language that may reflect an Obama administration interested in improving relations with Havana.

Critics of U.S.-Cuba policy have championed Cuba's removal from the list, saying the country no longer meets the criteria. The other countries on the list: Iran, Syria and Sudan.

But the report says that while Cuba "no longer actively supports armed struggle in Latin America and other parts of the world,'' the government "continued to provide safe haven to several terrorists."

It notes that members of ETA, the FARC, and the ELN remained in Cuba during 2008, "some having arrived in Cuba in connection with peace negotiations with the governments of Spain and Colombia" and that "Cuban authorities continued to publicly defend the FARC." But it singles out former Cuban President Fidel Castro for calling on FARC in July 2008 to release the hostages it was holding.

"He has also condemned the FARC's mistreatment of captives and of their abduction of civilian politicians who had no role in the armed conflict," the report states.

It also notes that the U.S. "has no evidence of terrorist-related money laundering or terrorist financing activities in Cuba, although Cuba has one of the world's most secretive and non-transparent national banking systems."

The report comes two weeks after President Barack Obama lifted travel and gift restrictions on Cuban Americans in a bid to thaw relations between the two countries and Cuba watchers suggested it may be a first step toward removing Cuba from the list.

"It's a big gesture on their part to recognize Fidel Castro's statements about the FARC," said Philip Peters of the Lexington Institute. "It sounds to me like Cuba is on its way to coming off the list."

Asked about that possiblity at a State Department briefing, Ronald Schlicher, the acting coordinator of counterterrorism, said the report is a "snapshot of the terrorism-related activities" and was not "laying the groundwork for anything."

After the briefing, a State Department official said, "It's a new administration and they're examining the language a little more carefully."

The report notes that the Cuban government continued to allow U.S. fugitives, including members of U.S. militant groups to live legally in Cuba. But it added that, "in keeping with its public declaration, the government has not provided safe haven to any new U.S. fugitives wanted for terrorism since 2006."

The 2007 report also noted that Cuban government continued to allow U.S. fugitives to live in Cuba "and refused almost all U.S. requests for their return.'' It also went on to characterize the fugitives as "convicted murderers (two of them killed police officers) as well as numerous hijackers, most of whom entered Cuba in the 1970s."

"The Cuban government,'' the 2007 report said, "stated in 2006 that it would no longer provide safe haven to new U.S. fugitives entering Cuba."

(Warren Strobel contributed to this article.)