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Lauren Carroll
By Lauren Carroll March 24, 2016

Paul Ryan says Cuba is a 'safe harbor' for fugitives and terrorists

As President Barack Obama works to restore relations with Cuba, opponents of the policy shift cite Cuban practices that they see as contradictory to U.S. interests.

"To this day, this is a regime that provides safe harbor to terrorists and fugitives," said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., in a March 17 news conference.

We were curious about Ryan’s claim, particularly because last year the Obama administration removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Cuba first made the list in 1982, when the country was actively supporting communist revolutions in the thick of the Cold War.

There are some U.S. fugitives and a handful of terrorists living in Cuba, but experts told us these are more remnants of the Cold War rather than a staple of modern Cuban policy.

Ryan’s statement is "accurate but outdated," said Ted Piccone, senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Project on International Order and Strategy and Latin America Initiative.


We weren’t able to pin down a more recent number, but the State Department said in a 2008 report that more than 70 U.S. fugitives lived in Cuba, some receiving protection and resources from the Cuban government. The list includes individuals accused of murder, hijacking and even insurance fraud.

Piccone said it’s fair to say these fugitives are under "safe harbor" in Cuba.

Joanne Chesimard might be the most high-profile U.S. fugitive living in Cuba. Chesimard, a member of the Black Liberation Army, was convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973. She escaped prison and fled to Cuba in 1984. There’s also William "Guillermo" Morales, a member of Puerto Rican militant group Armed Forces of National Liberation, who was convicted on weapons charges in New York in 1979.

A State Department report published in 2015 said Cuba has been more cooperative with the United States on this front in recent years, and the two countries have engaged in talks about returning some of these fugitives.

While Cuba has been returning wanted criminals to the United States on a case-by-case basis, the Cuban government generally has declined to return fugitives they perceive as political, according to a 2016 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

The Cuban government also believes the United States harbors Cuban fugitives, like Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile convicted of bombing a Cuban airliner in 1976, who now lives in Miami. And if fugitive exchange talks are to move forward between the two countries, Cuba will want its fugitives to be on the table, Piccone said.


Who are the "terrorists" who live in Cuba?

Featured Fact-check

About two dozen members of Spanish separatist group Basque Fatherland and Liberty, designated by the State Department as a foreign terrorist group, live in Cuba with permission from the Cuban government. There’s no evidence to show that Cuba has allowed these individuals to conduct terrorist activity while in Cuba, according to the State Department.

In his statement, Ryan was referring to this group, a spokesperson said.

Cuba has significantly ratcheted back its support for U.S.-designated terrorist groups since the early 1990s, said Frank Mora, a professor at Florida International University and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Western Hemisphere under Obama.

During the Cold War, when Cuba sided with the Soviet Union, Cuba supported what it perceived as liberation movements around the world. But the United States viewed many of those communist groups as terrorist organizations, like the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

When the Cold War ended in 1991, however, Cuba recalculated, Mora said. Cuba pulled out of these movements in order to focus on internal economic problems and, in part, to not give the United States any reason to amp up its anti-Cuba policies.

"In recent years, Cuba has taken a number of steps to fully distance itself from international terrorism and has taken steps to strengthen its counterterrorism laws," the State Department found.

For example, Cuba has enacted policies to criminalize terrorist financing. And Cuba has shared counterterrorism intelligence with the Obama administration and condemned various recent terrorist attacks, according to the CRS report.

"Cuba has not been identified for several years for supporting international terrorism," Piccone said.

While Ryan’s statement is technically correct — as there are U.S. fugitives and some members of a U.S.-designated terrorist group living on Cuban soil — his phrasing doesn’t capture the positive change in this arena that has happened in Cuba over the past quarter century, Mora said.

"He’s implicitly suggesting there’s a flow of fugitives and terrorists coming to Cuba, and that’s not true," Mora said.

Our ruling

Ryan said, "To this day, (the Cuban government) is a regime that provides safe harbor to terrorists and fugitives."

There are some U.S. fugitives and members of a Spanish separatist group living in Cuba with the Cuban government’s permission.

But Ryan’s statement misses an important nuance: In the past couple decades, Cuba has been more cooperative with the United States in terms of returning fugitives, and the country has cut ties with foreign organizations designated by the United States as terrorist groups. Significantly, the United States recently removed Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Ryan’s statement is accurate but could use that additional clarification, so we rate it Mostly True.

Our Sources

Associated Press, "Obama's Historic Trip to Cuba Rife With Risk, Opportunity," March 19, 2016

State Department, Country Reports on Terrorism 2014, April 2015

State Department, Country Reports on Terrorism 2007, April 2008

CRS, "Cuba: Issues for the 114th Congress," March 15, 2016

CRS, "Latin America: Terrorism Issues," Aug. 11, 2015

Washington Post, "Obama removes Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism," April 14, 2015

White House, "Certification -- Report to Congress with Respect to the Proposed Rescission of Cuba's Designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism," April 14, 2015

Interview, FIU professor Frank Mora, March 23, 2016

Interview, Brookings senior fellow Ted Piccone, March 22, 2016

Interview, University of Miami professor Jaime Suchlicki, March 23, 2016

Email interview, Ryan spokesperson AshLee Strong, March 23, 2016

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Paul Ryan says Cuba is a 'safe harbor' for fugitives and terrorists

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