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After Castro: The Future of United States-Cuba Relations [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service, Inc.]

Speaker: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, Inside the Cuban Revolution: Fidel Castro and the Urban Underground
Presider: Anya Schmemann, Deputy Director, Communications, Council on Foreign Relations
August 24, 2006
Council on Foreign Relations


OPERATOR: Excuse me, everyone. We now have our speakers in conference. Please be aware that each of your lines is in a listen-only mode. At the conclusion of the presentation, we will open the floor for questions. At that time, instructions will be given if you would like to ask a question.

I would now like to turn the conference over to Ms. Schmemann.

ANYA SCHMEMANN: Thank you. Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for joining us and sorry for that delay. This is Anya Schmemann, director of Communications at the Council’s Washington, D.C. office, and I’m joined here by Julia Sweig, who is the Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and director of Latin America Studies at the council. She is the author of “Inside the Cuban Revolution: Fidel Castro and the Urban Underground,” and more recently, “Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century.”

Julia, you have been a long-time observer of Cuba. Cuba’s political future was thrown into question recently by Castro’s illness and questions about political succession. Can you give us a brief overview and some guidelines of where Cuba will be going from here?

JULIA E. SWEIG: Thanks, Anya, for pulling this together, and thank you all for calling in. I’ve spoken to some of you, but not all of you, as this crisis has unfolded—or maybe it’s not a crisis at this stage. So I wanted to take an opportunity to answer some of your questions that I haven’t been able to get to and just to lay out where I see things evolving.

As you know, for those of you, I think, you’re all following this story, at the end of July, Fidel Castro turned over provisional power to Raul Castro and to six other individuals, who collectively, I think, will be running the country, as in many ways they have been now, in some cases, for decades. So in addition to Raul’s responsibility in the party and the military, we have six individuals who are managing the country’s strategic sectors of energy, finance, education, and health.

The speculation, of course, has been abounding for years about what a transition scenario might look like in Cuba. The scenario that we have before us hasn’t necessarily been anticipated. The one that’s unfolding now, in which Fidel Castro, though, I think, quite ill, seems to have laid the groundwork to orchestrate his own transition or succession, and as one friend of mine put it, he’s got a front-row seat at his own funeral.

And so with the kind of live unfolding, if you will, of this transfer, some major questions have come up on the table: What kind of leadership can we expect from Raul Castro? Who are the other individuals with whom he will be running the country? What is the significance of this for U.S.-Cuban relations? What kind of internal political and economic reforms might we see in Cuba, might not we see in Cuba? What are the tools in the toolbox of U.S. policy that exist? And of course, you know, what about the international environment beyond the bilateral relations within Latin America and the role of the Cuban exile community?

So I want to try to cover your questions and address some of these issues.

I will note to you that a lot of things didn’t happen that had been widely anticipated by some Cuba watchers. You had no big conflagration in the streets of Havana, although, yes, in Miami. There has been no refugee crisis. There has been no flood of boats from Miami. There’s been no military coup. I’m sure many of you have been with your colleagues reporting to the extent that you can, some within Havana, and the reports that you’ve gotten have been that things have been remarkably tranquil.

In my own efforts to get a sense of what’s happening on the ground—and I’ll be going there shortly—again, sort of even from people who might have expected and who have told me they expect things to be a little bit more tense, they were astounded at how tranquil things are, at least for now. Fidel Castro, in my view, is—well, we can get—let me just stop there now, and we can talk about what to expect from Fidel himself and all of these other questions and I’ll take yours.

SCHMEMANN: Okay. A question. Fidel’s brother, Raul, has mostly been in Fidel’s shadow and is not well-known to the American public. What can we expect from his interim presidency?

SWEIG: Well, you know, he has—although he has been in Fidel’s shadow, he has been extraordinarily important. He has been running the military and overseeing the intelligence in Cuba since—for some time, and in the case of—and that also means that he has a major role to play in terms of the economy. To the extent that there has been a small opening of foreign investment on the island and the opening of some pacifist market activity, Raul Castro has been an endorser of that. He has—you know, there’s been lots of discussion about Raul both as a pragmatist and as a tyrant, both as a reformer and as an orthodox hard-liner, and he just is not as knowable as somebody like Fidel is.

But I think what we can expect—precisely because he doesn’t have the charisma and the historical legacy and the sort of—the kind of stature that Fidel does, and he himself has said this—that he will by definition have to run the country collectively with the other key people within the polity or in the party secretariat and within the military because he will rely on them for the political legitimacy that has been really concentrated in Fidel, but which also is rooted in other institutions, an individual outside of Fidel.

SCHMEMANN: Okay. A last question, then we’ll open it up to the group.

These last few weeks, obviously, the situation has been closely watched by Cuban Americans and others in the United States. What are the implications for Cuban-American relations? What should the U.S. role be in any further transition process?

SWEIG: Well, the United States, as a result of the last four-plus decades of ever-tightening economic sanctions and ever more hostile—well, we don’t have diplomatic ties, but the relations between the two countries are terrible, and in that sense, the United States has really cut itself out of having a role directly, at least, in shaping whatever might unfold within Cuban domestic politics on the island.

It’s got a negative role; that is, it’s very good at helping to foment nationalism, or helping the leaders to foment nationalism, but our policy options are very limited. The Congress in 1996, of course, passed the Helms-Burton law which codified the embargo, which means that the White House, should they even have wanted to lift the embargo, cannot. By law, certain things have to happen, and then—on the island in Cuba in order for U.S. policy to change, and the policy—and you can see this reflected in the kind of statements that have come out of the White House and the State Department and the findings of the Commission for Assistance to Free Cuba.

But, you know, really sort of clearing away all of the underbrush, the U.S. has limited intelligence, limited access, no one to call, very poor ties and very negative, bad credibility on the island with the Cuban public.

SCHMEMANN: Okay. All right. Thanks, Julia.

We have a number of people on the phone. We welcome your questions, so at this point, we will invite the questions.

OPERATOR: Okay. At this time, we will open the floor for questions. If you would like to ask a question, please press the star key followed by the one key on your touch-tone phone now. Questions will be taken in the order they are received. (Pause.)

Our first question comes from Sergio Davila.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Yeah, this is Sergio Davila from Folha, Sao Paulo, Brazil. Recently, The Wall Street Journal printed an editorial called “Romancing Fidel: Why The Left Loves Castro,” and I have this question to SWEIG: why do you think the left, especially the Latin American left, loves Castro, if you agree with this statement?

SWEIG: I missed what you said—the full title of the article was, Sergio. But to answer your question, you know, Fidel has sort of folkloric, rock-star status as he has aged. In a way, that’s increased because he has become much less of a—he and Cuba really no longer have an activist foreign policy that seeks to foment revolution, and so it pays to love Fidel. He has successfully defied now nine American presidents, so his anti-imperialist banner is something that the Latin American left and other lefts around the world can embrace.

His socialism, his commitments to public welfare and social welfare are something that, you know, draws a lot of attention and fans, especially in Latin America, a region with immense inequality. And his survival has also, you know—although despite the problems of human rights and the lack of democracy in Latin America, I think his survival inspires a great deal of respect.

SCHMEMANN: Okay, thank you. Next question?

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Agostino Bono.

QUESTIONER: Hi. This is Gus Bono calling from Catholic News Service. I have two related questions. The first is, what role could the Catholic Church in Cuba play in a transition, especially in terms of making any transition a peaceful one?

And the second, related question is, is there a role for the Catholic Church in Cuba and the Catholic Church in the U.S. to be kind of a bridge between the exile Cuban community and the community in Cuba in terms of fostering a future Cuba?

SWEIG: Well, Gus, as you know, that that is the conception that I think the Vatican and the American Catholic Church and the Cuban Catholic Church and even the Cuban state and many in the Cuban exile community had in the lead-up to the pope’s visit in 1998 and then the couple years subsequent to that. You know, Fidel Castro himself was trained by Jesuits, and although he purged the church in the early 1960s, he came by the late 1990s to see the church as an institution that I think could play—I think he thought could play a kind of mediating, moderating role in seeing that a transition would be peaceful, and playing that role as a bridge.

And certainly with the exodus - not the exodus, but the trips that many Cuban exiles who are Catholic made to Cuba precisely because the pope give that kind of travel his blessing and because they were so taken with that particular moment in time, I think the church could still play a role in sort of the Cuban exile front.

Within Cuba, you know, you could see the church as still providing sort of a safe space. And of course there’s activities by Caritas and sort of basic services that the church provides. And people that are believers, not only Catholics but Protestants, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, Jews, have now the right legally to be members of the party, and religious practice by and large in Cuba—and I should not leave out Santaria—is quite common and accepted, and the church as an institution, as well.

Now, there’s been a lot of tensions, I’m sure you’ve followed it more closely, ups and downs since the pope’s visit in terms of the church on the island, but by and large I think that it’s an institution that is respected and that has a modus vivendi with the state there and with the people.

SCHMEMANN: Okay, next question, please.

OPERATOR: Okay. Our next question comes from Letta Tayler.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

What do you make of the Negroponte announcement of the Cuba-Venezuela intelligence—I think they call it a mission monitor or something like that? And is it possible that in a transition era, that Cuba could become sort of some sort of proxy battleground, hopefully not in the real sense, but in the political sense, between Washington and Caracas?

SWEIG: Hi, Letta. Well, let’s see, creating that mission to collect and analyze and stay on top of intelligence in Venezuela and Cuba and linking them together, you know, it has some domestic political resonance because—and this might sound somewhat cynical, but the Cuban exile and the Venezuelan exile communities are in touch with one another and are simpatico in a sense that they see the Chavez-Castro relationship as threatening in different ways, but ways that are linked.

On another element, you know, it is the case that the United States has very poor intelligence about Cuba, and its intelligence about Venezuela is getting worse and worse. So I think there’s an assumption underlying it that the Venezuelan and Cuban intelligence services themselves are increasingly linked and that the United States needs to see and think about the two countries’ strategic relationship more sort of systematically. Is that correct, is it incorrect is another question, but I think that’s where the drive to do this comes from.

And to your other question, I would say that not only is Cuba seen as sort of—maybe an obstacle toward the United States and Venezuela or the United States seeing Venezuela evolve in a way that the United States would like it to, but the opposite is the case too. Venezuela is seen by the U.S. as an obstacle to Cuba changing and evolving into kind of a market political democracy the way the United States would like. Cuba now receives a great deal of material support from Venezuela. They have all kinds of, you know, ideological and other sorts of institutional ties, and so to the extent that Venezuela continues to benefit from lots of oil prices and from a lot of freedom of speech, Cuba can sort of benefit from that as well.

I’m not so sure that Cuba sees its survival as dependent upon Venezuela, because I think Cuba’s much more—the Cuban regime is—sees itself as having survived for so many years and having the capacity to do so with or without Chavez or Venezuela.

SCHMEMANN: What do Venezuela and Chavez get out of the relationship? Is it purely a symbolic friendship?

SWEIG: Well, it’s more than symbolic because, you know, Chavez has sort of posited himself as carrying the mantle of Fidel Castro’s revolution or revolutionary approach of his anti-imperialism of the sort of defiance of the empire, despite all of the contradictions that are—that go with depending upon the American market for 50 percent of his oil exports. But aside from that, it’s symbolic, and it helps Chavez within the region. I believe he thinks it helps him, and of course, to sort of build this Bolivarian dream, which means financing not only cheap oil subsidies but health care and social services within Venezuela and beyond in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Well, he can’t do that without Fidel Castro’s doctors, and so it’s a really great marriage of convenience that helps Chavez promote himself through basic bread and butter issues within his borders and beyond them.

SCHMEMANN: Okay. More on Cuba and Cuba-U.S. relations. We’ll take the next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Sacha Feinman

QUESTIONER: Hi. Yes, this is Sacha Feinman from Caracas, Venezuela. I’ve got two questions for you.

The first is some analysts have speculated about the relationship between Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro not being the healthiest one, that Hugo and Raul don’t enjoy the same friendship that Hugo and Fidel do. I was wondering if there was actually any truth to that.

And the second one, I was—the second question is, if Chavez sort of relies on the legacy of the Cuban Revolution to give him this legitimacy on the left throughout the world and specifically in Latin America, can we expect him to intervene in any way in the political transition in Cuba after Castro dies? And if so, how?

SWEIG: Okay. Well, the two questions—my answers to your two questions relate to one another.

You know, I think Raul—the Raul Castro that I know—not personally, but that I’ve written about historically and watched—is very much like other Cubans in the sense that he’s extraordinarily nationalistic. And although he had strategic alliances with foreigners and foreign countries, whether Che Guevara in the 1950s and early ‘60s or later the Soviets—and now there’s something obviously—deepening ties with Venezuela—I think you would hard-pressed to find a Cuban on that island and within the leadership structure that would admit to one scintilla of political dependence upon Venezuela. And it might be that Fidel—you know, he’s—he’s a personable individual and he has seen Chavez as an opportunity for Cuba and has cultivated that relationship.

Raul, you know, doesn’t seem to be in the business of cultivating political relationships as a sort of sophisticated and charismatic way as Fidel. I don’t have personal and direct information about whether Raul and Hugo get along with one another or not.

But it goes to the broader issue of sort of your second question, will Venezuela play a role in the political transition in Cuba? And the answer—my answer is, very indirectly at best.

SCHMEMANN: Okay, thanks. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Olga Bakova.

QUESTIONER: Hi, Ms. Sweig. I have also two questions. One is about dissidents, about the dissident movement in Cuba. I read an interesting article that the movement is fragmented and sometimes they don’t trust each other. So can we count on a dissident like Vladimiro Roca or—(name inaudible), like it was in Poland with Walesa or Havel in former Czechoslovakia?

And then another question is, there is a story, I think it’s from yesterday, that the U.S. said it would lift the embargo in Cuba if Cuba fulfills certain conditions. So maybe you could tell us something about this. And what do you think about U.S. policy towards Cuba? Is it a good one? And where do they make mistakes?

Thank you.

SWEIG: Sure. Thank you. Hang on a second.

The dissident movement in Cuba is quite fragmented. It’s true that there’s a lot of mistrust. It’s also highly penetrated by Cuban counterintelligence. And if you sort of track the evolution of the dissident movement over the last 20 years or so, as I have and others have, what you see is that leaders tend to come and go; that there have been some people that have been consistent as dissidents and human rights activists, but that as they get sucked into any kind of excessive association with the United States, they either wind up leaving the country or Cuban intelligence winds up penetrating them and busting up their operation.

So it’s very hard—the Varela project, Vladimiro Roca, Elizardo Sanchez, whom I’ve not heard of since this all broke, those people, those are the ones that have been around for a while. And my assumption always is that they are allowed to exist because the Cuban state and government allows them to exist, but that the second that if there’s a decision to mop them up, they would be extraordinarily vulnerable, and especially because this $80 million and the $20 million and $30 million every year that goes to support a transition to democracy in Cuba and promote civil society, as soon as that money touches them, they are tainted.

And to go to your second question, the misconception that the U.S. government has that it’s possible to reproduce Solidarity or a Velvet Revolution within Cuba, as the United States helped to support in Europe in the 1980s, is a complete misconception. It doesn’t work in Cuba, and that’s why—that’s one reason the United States can’t really show it’s had any success, because you cannot take the Eastern European model and map it onto Cuba.

About the notion that the United States would lift the embargo in exchange for democracy? Well, maybe so. But that’s pretty much like saying, you know, tomorrow I’m going to wake up and I’m going to be six feet tall and skinny and blond. I mean, it’s asking Cuba to become— Cuba under current circumstances to become something that it’s not and has never been. And so it’s a movement of the goalposts, but it’s more than that. It’s just extraordinarily unrealistic, given how institutionalized the revolution has become and given that a second- and third-generation is now and has been running the country with Fidel for so long. So it’s not really the opening of a political negotiation. It’s just a rhetorical statement by the United States that says we’re not interested in actually seriously talking with you, the current Cuban government.

So you can tell from my answer what my view is of U.S. policy toward Cuba. And I said this at the beginning—I don’t think that the United States has had any successes in Cuba. I mean, the most successful thing that’s happened in the last 13 years is that Ricardo Aracon and Peter Tarnoff negotiated a bilateral migration accord, which has allowed for 20,000 to 22,000 Cubans to come here safely and legally each year since. But, you know, we are—the United States is not trusted. We’re not seen as an honest broker. We’re not seen as having credibility in terms of whatever the body politicking Cuba wants to become—however that transition may look five, 10 years down the road—the United States is not seen generally as a positive player in that, and that’s because our policies have been to isolate and to punish, and we haven’t isolated or punished Fidel Castro, by the way.

MS. SCHMEMANN: Julia, what are we to make of Raul’s comments last week, his first public comments since assuming the interim presidency, where he blasted U.S. policy and the Bush administration, and said that he had mobilized troops to prepare for a U.S. invasion. Was this just hot air and posturing? Or is there anything that we can read in there that could be hopeful or promising?

SWEIG: One thing that I should have said is that, you know, Cuba policy—U.S.-Cuba policy, from both parties and through successive presidents, has really been driven by domestic politics. The difference right now is that in this administration, there’s an ideological component that maybe hasn’t existed as strongly as in the past.

On this matter of Raul’s statement, well, you could say that his statement about being favorably disposed to—you know, blasting the United States, but saying that in principle, on the basis of what’s best in reciprocity, he’s prepared to talk. You could say that’s as abstract and unrealistic as the American statement that will it would trade the embargo for democracy. He was reiterating a statement that Cuban officials have been making for the last 15 years. And what I think both of those statements indicate is that in order for some kind of rapprochement to come, it’s going to require an enormous amount of face saving, and there’s going to be a lot of hot air and a lot of posturing.

But what’s also true is that the United States, the executive branch, is not in the position to fundamentally alter bilateral relations because of the codification of the embargo. But in the last five years, you’ve seen the Congress pass pieces of legislation that have gotten threatened by a veto and therefore not made it to the White House or have been stripped in conference lifting pieces of the embargo. We have had until the chill of the last 18 months to two years a totally reshaped bipartisan consensus in this country that spans both parties and reflects economic interest in this country, that goes beyond the Cuban exile community to begin to open up and have trade and tourism and ties with Cuba. And once that—when that gets back on track—and I think it will—when that gets back on track, what that will do is pose to this new grouping of people, that’s not new in any case, a challenge of how to deal with the United States. And I think that they’ve been preparing for that, and surely, you all know that the Cuban government has lobbied very heavily at times in this city to make that happen.

SCHMEMANN: Okay. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: As a reminder, if you would like to ask a question, you may press the star key, followed by the one key on your touchtone phone.

Our next question comes from David Brooks.

SCHMEMANN: David, do you have a question? (No audible response.) It looks like we’ll have to move on.

Next question.

OPERATOR: Okay. Our next question comes from Carol Williams.

QUESTIONER: Hi. I wanted to know whether you think there are any existing bridges or points of contact between the U.S. government and the Cuban government. I mean, since the migration accords ended, is there any opportunity to either float the possibility of, you know, taking a different path in relations?

SWEIG: Well, I—hi, Carol. I’m not sure that accords have formally ended. What’s ended is that they used to meet—the two governments used to meet twice a year to—


SWEIG:—do the implementation, and the Bush administration suspended those meetings. But the United States continued to give the visas and people are coming here and the Coast Guard is continuing to pick people up. And so the sort of management of the security, you know, issue in the Florida Straits is under control, more or less. We can talk about the details of migration if you want.

We have had—although I think this has been suspended, but I’m not sure—somebody from the Coast Guard who has been based at the interest section in Havana that’s been going out on runs with the Cuban Coast Guard, but I suspect that that has also atrophied. There used to be a monthly meeting at the gates of Guantanamo, between the commander—the U.S. commander of the American side of the gates and the local Cuban commander. To my knowledge, that hasn’t continued.

The relationships that the interest section staff have with government officials are also extremely limited and take place at the low level. No comparison to what took place for most of the existence of that interest section starting in the late ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. You know, are there any back channels at the moment? I have no idea. I doubt it. My suspicion is that this government, the U.S. government, does not have an updated Rolodex, and that’s a very, very big problem because when we get to a point—if we get to a point when Fidel Castro does physically die and there’s another uptick in interest in Miami in trying to see that the succession is interrupted—and that’s U.S. policy, too—there’s all kinds of scenarios in which chaos and violence could be provoked in order to draw the United States and Cuba into a direct conflict.

And under those circumstances, we wouldn’t—that is, the U.S. government—wouldn’t know who to call. I mean, they’d call Ricardo Alarcon, but the kind of ties between the military, for example, that were beginning to be constructed in the 1990s and then on the diplomatic level, and then all of the unofficial exchanges that existed through about 2002, those have all but disappeared.

SCHMEMANN: Okay, thanks.

Another question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Olga Bakova.

QUESTIONER: Hi, Ms. Sweig again. Olga Bakova. You mentioned just now that there are different scenarios of what might happen after Fidel Castro is dead. I would like to ask you, what do you think will happen? Is there going to be Raul, and is he going to be acceptable? Or maybe, you know—what might be the role of Cuban Americans? Is another leader coming from abroad? Basically, how do you see the next step?

SWEIG: Well, acceptable to whom, Olga?

QUESTIONER: To—you know, that sometimes leaders are coming from abroad, from exile, and they’re accepted. Sometimes they’re not. So is there a chance that an American Cuban would be accepted as the new leader in Cuba one day?

SWEIG: Maybe one day. But it’s really hard for me to conceive of a time in, I don’t know, in the next generation in which somebody that’s lived abroad would be accepted by the Cuban population as their legitimate leader. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t Cubans living abroad that aspire to that. There are, and some of them are members of Congress, like Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who has deep family ties and has been very committed to ending the Castro regime and probably does have political ambitions. But I don’t think that somebody like that or somebody from abroad at all would be remotely accepted.

And would Raul—will Raul, you said, be accepted well by the Cuban population? So far, yes. But here’s the tension that he has to manage: because he’s not his brother, he has to, as I said earlier, run the country collectively with what I sort of conceive of as like a civilian military Junto, with the top people that—to whom Fidel delegated provisional authority and the others in the party and the military. He has to do that in a way that balances this tension. But Cuba’s demographic is extraordinarily young highly educated by comparison to almost any country in the developing world, so you have people with a lot of talent, a lot of promise who don’t feel that they have an opportunity, that they feel that they’ve living in this regime for 50 years that gives them, you know, barely any political space and barely any economic opportunity.

Under Fidel—well, he’s the master at sort of keeping a consensus and keeping things under control. But Raul, I think, is going to have to start delivering, like any politician, on bread and butter issues and on the notion of that there’s some hope and future that you get if you buy into seeing the perpetuation of the system. And so on that basis, he’s going to have to figure out some way to continue to open up or to begin to open up further.

Right now, they have a lot of confidence on the ground in Cuba, “they” the government. The economy has improved. They have a lot less need, I think. They conceive of themselves as having less need for an approach more directly with the United States than they might have had a few years ago. Part of that is because of Chavez; part of that is because of the environment in Latin America. They have trade and ties that are developing with China. They’re pursuing a totally new energy approach, and so they’re just more confident.

I talked about the balancing act that Raul’s going to have to maintain, and so far, you know, the leaders that are emerging are already in place. But I can’t guess into the future about whether there’s some Cuban on the island that might emerge, nor what kind of competitive political system would allow him to emerge. I mean, so far there is no competitive political system; everything happens with the party. And I don’t see that changing as long as the keepers—the guardians of the status quo perceive the external environment to be as hostile bilaterally as they perceive it.

SCHMEMANN: But in the short term, we can expect to see continued stability and political continuity.

SWEIG: Absolutely.

SCHMEMANN: Okay. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from David Brooks.

QUESTIONER: Yes. Apologies for that. I had my mute button on. This is David Brooks of La Jornada.

SWEIG: Hi, David.

QUESTIONER: Hi. One of the questions—just to follow up on what you’ve been saying on U.S. policy, is there—how optimistic are you of a possible policy transition in the U.S., as Cuba goes through political transitions? And what are the political options that you think are realistic right now or are there—are they to be discounted for the future for the term of this administration?

SWEIG: You mean, the political options in Cuba or—

QUESTIONER: No, in the Washington.

SWEIG: Oh, okay.

QUESTIONER: That is, both what you think is possible and also what you would recommend if you were asked.

SWEIG: Oh. Thank you.


SWEIG: I was just asked!

QUESTIONER: Oh, good. See?

SWEIG: By you!

QUESTIONER: (Laughs.) I wish I had more power anyway.

SWEIG: Yeah, right. Me too.

I cannot imagine that in the next 18 months, which will—here, which will be colored by a mid-term election and then a presidential election, that there will be any political space for a new approach to Cuba. You can already see from both parties—and you know, somebody like Senator Chris Dodd, who has—is probably one of the people who—would he ever get to the White House, would be most likely to try a different approach. These guys are in their own election mode, and they’re—they may criticize the Bush administration for not having a policy, but I think that they will sort of walk right up the line, talk about reconciliation between Cubans on the island and Cubans here but absolutely try to tie a real change of U.S. policy to political change on the island, which means that it would be in the short term no relaxation of U.S. policies.

Now, having said that, precisely because there are economic interests in agriculture, in tourism, in manufacturing and infrastructure and telecommunications, in medicine, in biotechnology—that is, there’s a whole range of potential bases of support for a new policy toward Cuba, which could be pretty—in the United States—which could be pretty easily reignited with just some different signaling coming out of the White House and out of the Congress.

And so I would say that getting past the midterm and then the presidential election, I could imagine a scenario where if you had, you know, the Republicans in control of one of the—either the House or the Senate, and the Democrats in the White House, you might have a situation in which legislation would leave conference, get to the White House, and not be vetoed—that is, embargo-loosening legislation. And you might have a return to—remember in 1998 and 1999, the Clinton administration carved out these 13 categories of licenses that would allow Americans—Cuban-Americans and others to travel to Cuba and spend money in Cuba, so that these kind of exchanges, people-to-people exchanges, really burgeoned up until about 2001. And you could go back to that, and I do see that as possible.

My—you know, my recommendation, flat out, is that the Cuban body politic has no breathing space. Right or wrong, one reason for that is because of U.S. policies. We have no influence on that island, and if what we really, as a country, as the U.S., the United States, want to do is see an opening there, the thing to do is to relax our hostility. And so chipping away at the embargo aggressively would be my approach. That’s not chipping away, hammering away at it.

And that doesn’t—you know, not arguing that if we lift the embargo, suddenly Cuba becomes a multi-party market democracy. That’s not true.

But what we do is give space to those people on the island who would like to have a debate about what kind of society and body politic the island wants to become, we give some space to those people to make that happen and not be accused of being sellouts to the imperial—to the empire of the north.


SCHMEMANN: All right. Thank you, David.

Any other questions?

OPERATOR: Yes. We have our next question from Letta Tayler.

QUESTIONER: Yeah, I just wanted to get back to one of your questions on Venezuela and Cuba, one of my questions previously. You had said you don’t see Chavez as playing a big role in a transition, and you outlined some of the reasons. But I’m still curious as to why you don’t see Cuba sort of becoming a focus of the accelerating tug of war between the United States and Venezuela right now, at least as I can see.

SWEIG: No, no, I do see Cuba becoming a focus of the accelerating tug of war between the United States and Venezuela. Absolutely.


SWEIG: I think I said that. But that’s different than saying that Chavez actually has the effectiveness or impact or capacity to really affect the political—a political transition in Cuba.

I don’t think that Cubans on the island would want to give him that much of a role. I think they’re happy to have the benefits that go along with the relationship, but I think that, you know, it’s such a nationalistic place and they’ve spent 150 years, you know, getting rid of the Spanish, getting rid of the Americans, having to suck it up and deal with the Soviets but then getting the Soviets out of there, and I just don’t see a kind of relationship of political ties being desirable from the perspective of the Cuban population or the Cuban government. And that’s why he’s not going to—even if Chavez wants it, he’s not going to have a big role in any kind of transition on that island.

SCHMEMANN: Letta, are those your own observations? What’s your opinion?

QUESTIONER: Well, no. I mean, it seems to me that there is a lot of money coming in from Venezuela, and if that money continues and it’s a way to kind of say, “Up yours” to the United States, then it might still be desirable, just as the Soviets were sort of a lesser evil but there was that relationship of dependency even if Fidel was making statements against the Soviets as he took the money.

So I kind of wondered whether Venezuela is some sort of card in the hands of the Cubans that allows them to rebuff certain overtures from the United States during a transition period.

SCHMEMANN: Okay, thanks Letta.

Let’s take another question. Any other questions?

OPERATOR: Yes, we have one more. Our next question comes from Mariano Castillo.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. I’m with the San Antonio Express News.

For many years, Mexico has been caught between its ties to Havana and its closeness to U.S. administrations. What effects might be felt in Mexico after Castro’s death? And do you expect Mexico to play a large role in a post-Castro transition?

SWEIG: Well, Mexico has its own problems at the moment, right? I mean, domestic politics in Mexico, although Calderon played the Hugo Chavez card pretty well and it hurt Lopez Obrador during the campaign, I don’t see Mexico playing any role right now as any kind of an arbiter within Mexico. I mean, formally, Mexico-Cuba relations are terrible, have gotten terrible in the last two years. You know that story very, very well.

And since I can’t foresee when this kind of uber-political transition is going to happen in Cuba and I don’t think it’s going to happen in the near term, I don’t see Mexico playing much of a role. I mean, once the dust settles within Mexico, my guess is that, you know, Calderon will, you know, resume kind of frosty diplomatic relations. There will be economic ties between the two countries. The Mexican left will continue to want to see, you know, a closer relationship between the two countries, and the Cuban government, which is very, very hostile to the PAN, will continue that hostility. So that’s—I don’t really see Mexico as a big factor today.

SCHMEMANN: Okay, thanks.

Any other questions?

OPERATOR: No, ma’am, I’m not showing any more questions at this time.

Oh—we have one more. Hang on one moment.

Our next question comes from Augustino Bono.

QUESTIONER: Just a follow-up question to my previous one. Could you just explain a little bit—what were some of the reasons for the ups and downs after the pope’s visit in terms of the Cuban government and relations with the Catholic Church?

SWEIG: I’ll try. But a lot of it has to just do with the kind of—you know, as much as the Cuban government and party opened up to the Catholic Church and gave it some space, the tension was exactly over how much space. The Catholic Church probably wanted a lot more than the state was willing to give it, and it might have, you know, manifested in arguments over the role of the archbishop or, you know, this or that—(audio break)—church—it really—probably the Vatican was anxious to play a—continues to deepen its role, and the Cuban state had its limits that it wanted to impose.

I’m sorry. That’s too general of an answer, but that was really the basis of the tension, right? Yes.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you.

We’re getting close to our closing hour here, so if there are any last questions, here’s your chance.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Letta Tayler.

QUESTIONER: Sorry. It’s me again.

If you had to bet on one politician within the inner circle right now to succeed Raul after a transition period, if all of this were to happen relatively quickly now, who would it be? Who really might have a shot at a top job after this power sharing arrangement?

SCHMEMANN: The danger of being a pundit here, I think. (Laughs.)

SWEIG: Yeah, come on, Letta!

(Note: This part of the transcript is off the record.)

(Note: The meeting returns to on the record.)

SCHMEMANN: Okay. Any final questions?

OPERATOR: At this time, I’m showing no further questions.

SCHMEMANN: All right. Last chance.

Yes, we’ll take that last part off the record on speculation about future leadership of Cuba.

Thank you all for participating and for calling in this afternoon. We appreciate it. And thank you very much, Julia, for spending the time with us.

SWEIG: Thank you, Anya.

SCHMEMANN: Good afternoon, everyone.








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