AP Interview: Cuba summons top US diplomat to protest extra screening for air travelers

By Paul Haven, AP
Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Cuba protests US screening of airline passengers

HAVANA — Cuba summoned the top U.S. diplomat on the island Tuesday to protest extra screening for Cuban citizens flying into the United States, calling the rule a “hostile action” meant to justify America’s trade embargo.

The new dispute comes after several setbacks that have all but snuffed out hope for a quick resolution to the half-century of antagonism between Cuba and the United States, and as Cuban officials have been increasingly sharp-spoken about their disappointment in President Barack Obama.

Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, director of the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s North American affairs office, said the new security controls were “discriminatory and selective.”

“We categorically reject this new hostile action by the government of the United States against Cuba,” she told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview.

Vidal Ferreiro said she lodged the protest in an afternoon meeting with Jonathan Farrar, the head of the U.S. Interests Section, which Washington maintains in Cuba instead of an embassy. Cuba’s top diplomat in Washington delivered a similar message to State Department officials earlier in the day, she said.

The United States imposed the airline security measures Monday following an apparent attempt by a Nigerian man to blow up a passenger jet as it approached Detroit on Christmas Day.

Among the 14 nations whose citizens will face increased scrutiny are four — Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria — that the U.S. government considers state sponsors of terrorism.

Cuba has been on that list since the 1980s, but has always maintained its inclusion had more to do with the United States’ antagonistic policy toward the communist-governed nation than with evidence that it sponsors terrorism.

Washington and Havana have been at odds since shortly after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba on New Year’s Day 1959. The United States has maintained a trade embargo on the island — which the Cuban government refers to as a blockade — for 47 years.

“The arguments the U.S. uses to keep Cuba on the list of state sponsors of terrorism are totally unfounded,” Vidal Ferreiro told the AP. “Everyone knows they are politically motivated and only designed to justify the blockade against Cuba.”

She said Cuba has a spotless record against terrorism, adding that Washington maintains a double standard because it harbors several individuals Cuba considers to have committed terrorist acts on the island.

Gloria Berbena, a spokeswoman at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, had no comment on Vidal Ferreiro’s statement, and said she could not confirm whether Cuba had lodged a formal protest.

Speaking before news of Cuba’s protest came out, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Havana’s inclusion on the terror sponsor list was justified.

“Cuba is a designated state sponsor of terrorism, and we think it’s a well-earned designation given their long-standing support for radical groups in the region,” he said, highlighting Havana’s support for Colombian rebel groups.

While there are no direct commercial flights between Cuba and the U.S. because of the trade embargo, several companies operate charter services to take Cuban-Americans to the island. The security measures would presumably apply to such flights.

The new dispute over air security measures is the latest sign that a once promising effort at U.S.-Cuban rapprochement may be in danger.

Obama took office offering to extend a hand of friendship to America’s traditional enemies. He quickly lifted financial and travel restriction on Cuban-Americans wishing to visit relatives on the island, and the two governments initiated talks to restart direct mail service.

Discussions on counternarcotics and disaster relief cooperation appeared to be in the offing, and there were fresh calls in Congress to lift travel restrictions on all Americans wishing to visit Cuba.

But the good feelings didn’t last.

In November, the State Department denounced an alleged assault by Cuban security agents on a dissident blogger, and Cuba later held war games that it said were meant to defend the nation from a possible U.S. invasion.

Last month, Cuba jailed an American citizen accused of providing communications equipment to dissident groups while working as a U.S. government contractor. Cuba waited three weeks to allow the man access to U.S. consular officials, and President Raul Castro said the case showed Washington still actively seeks to topple the island’s communist government.

Cuba’s stance toward Obama has also changed. After initially praising the U.S. leader as a breath of fresh air, Cuban officials have turned highly critical.

Fidel Castro lashed out at Obama in December, saying his “friendly smile and African-American face” are hiding Washington’s sinister intentions for Latin America.

The former Cuban president also criticized Obama’s performance at the climate conference in Copenhagen and said the U.S. leader’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize was “a cynical act” — since it came after his decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.

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