HAVANA — A year after he took office, President Ronald Reagan placed Cuba on a list of state sponsors of terror for backing leftist guerrilla groups in Central and South America.
Cuba remained on the list as the Soviet Union fell, Fidel Castro stopped aiding insurgents and the global focus on terrorism turned to the Mideast. For outside observers, Cuba's place on the list was a Cold War relic that showed the power of the communist government's enemies in Congress. For Cuba, it became the most potent symbol of what many here call five decades of bullying by the superpower to the north.
Now, as the two countries move to end a half-century of acrimony, President Barack Obama has made clear that he will take Cuba off the terror list, saying in a televised address on his new Cuba policy late last year that "at a time when we are focused on threats from al Qaeda to ISIL, a nation that meets our conditions and renounces the use of terrorism should not face this sanction."
Cuba's top diplomat for U.S. affairs heads to Washington next week for a second round of talks on restoring ties. Cubans ranging from President Raul Castro to ordinary citizens describe their country's removal from the list as one of the most important elements of that detente, one that could help heal a great injustice. In Cuban eyes, they are the victims of terror, not the U.S.
For Cubans, the worst act of aggression against the island since its 1959 revolution occurred when 73 people aboard a Cuban passenger flight from Barbados to Havana died in a 1976 bombing blamed on exiles with ties to U.S.-backed anti-Castro groups. Both of the men accused of masterminding the crime took shelter in Florida, where one, Luis Posada Carriles, lives quietly to this day.
"This is a small country and everybody knows somebody who knows someone who was on that plane," said Juan Carlos Cremata, a film and theater director who was 13 when his father, a 41-year-old airline dispatcher, was killed in what Cubans call "the Crime of Barbados."
"The U.S. is going to show that it's an intelligent country because the most absurd, the most stupid thing in the world, is to put Cuba on a list of terrorist nations," Cremata said.
Removal from the U.S. list could provide Cuba protection against lawsuits inside the United States because inclusion on it strips countries of important immunities that U.S. courts normally grant to foreign governments.
With Cuba and the U.S. moving to tighten trade ties, protecting Cuba and any U.S. corporate partners from lawsuits by people claiming to have been harmed by the Castro government could prove essential.
"From the Cuban point of view, resolving this problem of the list also resolves this type of concern," said Jesus Arboleya, an international relations professor at the University of Havana who served as Cuban consul in Washington from 1979 to 1982. "It isn't convenient for anyone that they call Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism."
While removal from the terror list would have no direct impact on U.S. sanctions against Cuba, it could also make it easier for international banks to justify doing business with Cuba, said Robert L. Muse, an attorney specializing in U.S. laws on Cuba.
The bank that handled transactions for Cuba's interests section in the U.S. closed its account last year, leaving its diplomats dealing almost exclusively in cash. 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 terror list will make it easier.
"Its continuing presence on the list harms U.S. national interests because it prevents a rapprochement," Muse said. "Cuba should be taken off the list because it doesn't belong."
The other countries on the list are Iran, Sudan and Syria. Removing Cuba requires Obama to send Congress a report certifying that the island hasn't supported international terrorism for the past six months. Forty-five days later, Cuba will be taken off unless the House and Senate pass a joint resolution to block the move. Such a resolution appears highly unlikely, although Cuban-American legislators in Congress remain vehemently opposed to taking Cuba off the list because they say Havana's behavior hasn't changed, even if circumstances have.
"Cuba continues to harbor members of foreign terrorist organizations as well as fugitives from US justice who are responsible for the deaths of Americans," said Brooke Sammon, a spokeswoman for Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. "Senator Rubio has seen no indication that the Castro regime has fundamentally changed its behavior and is deserving of being removed from the list."
Recent State Department reports on the list mention Cuba's sheltering members of the Marxist guerrila group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the Spanish Basque separatist group ETA. They make little pretense that the U.S. actually considers Cuba to be a state sponsor of terror.
"There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups," the State Department said in 2013.
Cuba is sponsoring ongoing peace talks between the FARC and the Colombian government in Havana. And Spain's interest in members of the Basque group living abroad has dwindled considerably in the last decade, given a definitive ETA cease-fire in 2011 and the rising threat posed by Islamist radicals.
The biggest potential problem for Cuba is posed by black and Puerto Rican militants who fled there after carrying out attacks in the United States. The fugitives include Joanne Chesimard, who changed her name to Assata Shakur and was granted asylum by Fidel Castro after she escaped from the prison where she was serving a sentence for killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973.
Cuba has made clear that it has no intention of returning Chesimard, particularly since the man it accuses of orchestrating the "Crime of Barbados," Posada Carriles, has been living in Miami since a Texas federal jury in 2011 acquitted him of lying to U.S. officials about his role in a string of 1997 Havana hotel bombings that killed an Italian tourist. The U.S. government has refused to turn him over for trial in the Cubana bombing.
While few Cubans expect the U.S. to extradite Posada Carriles, many call removing Cuba from the terror list a welcome measure nonetheless.
"It would be an extraordinary event for me, for my family and I think for all the relatives of the victims," said Camilo Rojo, a lawyer who was 5 when his father, an airline security guard, died on the flight.
Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana, Ciaran Giles in Madrid and Curt Anderson in Miami contributed to this report.Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein