JULIA E. SWEIG: Good morning, everyone. I'm Julia Sweig. I direct the Latin America program here at the Council on Foreign Relations. I'm very happy to see so many of you here so early in the morning.
I'll make my introductory logistical remarks, and then we'll get right down to the subject at hand.
We're very pleased -- first let me welcome Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson and Congressman Jim McGovern. They are here with us. They have a very busy day, both of them, today up on the Hill. Of course tonight's a big night for everyone. But I'll just say early that one of the members has to depart a few minutes before our closing time because of an urgent meeting that's going to start at 9:30. But we'll go right till 9:30.
And let me ask you all to turn off all your cell phones and pagers. This meeting will be on the record, which is a good idea because in this town and elsewhere in the country, it's hard to actually get a handle on the major issues that we face when dealing with Cuba. So by putting it on the record, we hope to play a positive role institutionally in continuing to generate debate about policy towards Cuba, what's happening on the island and what to expect in the future -- which is the subject of our discussion today.
I was in Cuba -- so what we'll do is the three of us will have a bit of a conversation for 20, 30 minutes, and then we'll open it up to questions and comments from all of you.
When I was in Cuba in November, I heard a story about a discussion between Raul Castro and Fidel Castro. Fidel was in the hospital and Raul brought him a television and a DVD, new equipment. And Fidel said to him, "Could you please hang the television, when you install it, facing me in this direction." And Raul said, "Of course, you're my brother, I'll do anything for you." And then he said -- Fidel said to him, "Now, when you put the DVD up, make sure that I can see it at a certain angle so I can see when it's on and when it's off." And Raul said, "Of course, you're my brother, I'll do anything for you."
So he got it all set up and he was about to reach for the remote control and press Play for some -- I don't know, some movie -- maybe he was watching "The Godfather" or something. And as Raul reached for the remote control, Fidel said, "Dame el control!" And Raul said, "Oh, no, no, no, no, no. I'm not giving you back control." (Laughter.)
So, on that note, we'll talk about exactly what is and isn't happening in Cuba.
Six months ago, Fidel's illness was announced. Six months later, things still seem to be rolling along in Cuba. Congresswoman Emerson and Congressman McGovern have come back recently from the largest congressional delegation that's ever been to Havana. They went in December of 2006. And we'll just talk about what it is they found and get the conversation going.
Both of them have been involved as members of the Cuban Working Group on the Hill in a bipartisan fashion trying to work toward a new policy towards Cuba.
So I'll start with Congresswoman Emerson, from an agricultural state, and ask you for your perspective, what did you find when you were there? Were there any surprises?
REPRESENTATIVE JO ANN EMERSON (R-MO): I think the biggest surprise was that there weren't very many changes. And we really didn't know, I think, in advance whether or not people would be on the streets, people would feel that: “Oh, President Fidel Castro is on his deathbed and, you know, the government will be different; we'll have new freedoms.”
Everything was as calm as can be. I didn't see any more police out than we usually would. Things were very, very normal. And as we were out in neighborhoods -- I don't know if you went, Jim, out in neighborhoods -- but my husband and I started wandering back, everything -- it seemed no different than the other three times that I was there, and that had been over a period of about six years. And the people with whom we met, whether it was government officials, who assured us that, number one, Fidel did not have cancer; number two, he was not terminal, certainly reiterated the smooth transition that was occurring. But, you know, when we were also socializing with Cubans down there for dinner and the like, I sensed very much of more of the same and no agitation among the people.
So, contrary to the notion that once Fidel was gone, everything was going to be in an uproar and, you know, it was time for the Americans to come marching in, I didn't sense that at all.
REPRESENTATIVE JIM MCGOVERN (D-MA): Let me -- I agree with Jo Ann's assessment. I mean, I guess the news is, is that, you know, the first name that will change, it will go from "Fidel" to "Raul," but very little else will change in the short term. There's not going to be a huge upheaval. There's no indication that there's this burning desire by average Cubans to want to change their government or topple their government. And, you know, we met with not just kind of officials of the Cuban government, but met with a lot of average Cubans who basically are kind of taking all this in stride: you know, well look, you know, Fidel's getting older, you know, he may not come back and, you know, life will go on. And you know, and notwithstanding the fact that there are a lot of challenges in Cuba, average Cubans face a lot of problems, I don't sense at all that you're going to see much of a change in the short term.
Indeed, I was reading a news article that just came out the other day, the Army Lieutenant General Michael Maples, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testified before the Senate and basically acknowledged that -- you know, that nothing much will change; that Raul Castro is in control of a relatively stable Cuba and they don't expect any dramatic changes in the short term.
And so I think the administration is now kind of acknowledging that. A few months ago they would have told you something different. But I think now reality is setting in and, you know, what you see right now is what you get.
I told people -- I told a reporter in Cuba who asked, you know, what the difference between Fidel is and Raul, you know, I said, "Same menu, but different waiter." And I think that's probably an accurate assessment of where things are.
SWEIG: The trip that took place in December was planned back into the summer. I don't know exactly when the planning started, before or after the illness was announced, but not before the November elections. And I'm wondering whether with such a large bipartisan delegation and a change in the Congress, what are the prospects the two of you see, sitting from the Hill perspective, for U.S. policy on the legislative front again advancing?
EMERSON: Well, I think we have a marginally better opportunity to make some changes, incremental changes in policy. But I don't think that you're going to see anything enormous. I think people might have anticipated that we would see an enormous change.
But our Cuba Working Group, which for those of you who aren't familiar with it, for every Democrat, there is a Republican, and if you want membership in the working group, you have to bring someone of the other party with you because it's our intent to keep it as bipartisan as it has been since the outset.
And, you know, I think -- and Jim can address this better since he's now in the majority -- but I think you're going to -- you know, we're probably going to have to do things on appropriations bills again. We may --
SWEIG: Say a bit about that just for those people that may not know the history there.
EMERSON: For those of you who don't know, in the past -- and I sit on the House Appropriations Committee and Jim's on the Rules Committee. I guess he sits now on the Budget Committee too.
EMERSON: How fun. (Laughter.)
Anyway, the process has been that, you know, we would have to put what's called a funding limitation on an appropriations bill to get some new policy toward Cuba passed. So, if we're dealing -- since the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the Department of Treasury has jurisdiction over licensing for people to travel to Cuba, for example, we would actually have to put an amendment on the appropriations bill that deals with the Treasury Department saying that no funding can be used by OFAC to prevent people from traveling to Cuba. And it's a backwards way of legislating on an appropriations bill, since we're technically not supposed to legislation on an appropriations bill. But oftentimes that's the only way to get something done, or at least to make a statement on policy.
And so heretofore, we have always done that. We've dealt with travel, or we've tried to do it with remittances. It is the way that we ultimately did loosen up our ability to at least export agriculture products for cash to Cuba. It started on an agriculture appropriations bill and it kind of blew up from there. But George Nethercutt, a former member, and I kind of shepherded that through the House, and then Byron Dorgan and another of his colleagues on the Senate side did it, and that's how we actually came up with the policy, but it was not because we took anything through regular order in the House, didn't take it through the committees or the like.
Now, there probably are opportunities for us to do some legislation the regular way perhaps with regard to agriculture and trade and working on those Treasury Department regulations. But as far as getting things through the Foreign Relations Committee or -- what do we -- did we rename that?
MCGOVERN: Foreign Affairs.
EMERSON: Foreign Affairs Committee in the House, that's going to be an interesting proposition.
MCGOVERN: Well, I think Jo Ann is accurate in her analysis. I mean, we -- notwithstanding the fact that the Democrats are in control in the House and the Senate, the president is still George Bush. And so any kind of independent, freestanding bill would have to go before him, and he'd probably veto it. So the strategy has to be kind of the same strategy we used in the past, and that is look at these appropriations bills and look at some other omnibus bills, big bills that will be very difficult for him to veto if there was a Cuba component to it. And being on the Rules Committee now, we can make some of those amendments an order so that we have a little bit more leeway to -- in how we can legislate on the issue.
The fact is in the past, the House and the Senate have passed on a number of occasions amendments to essentially lift the travel restrictions. And every time we did that, those amendments would mysteriously disappear in conference committee or they'd be traded away or they'd be dropped. And we used to joke that before we demand democracy in Cuba, we should demand democracy in the House of Representatives and in the Congress. But the fact of the matter is that I think if we can do that again, the chances of these amendments mysteriously disappearing have been eliminated. I think there is a real opportunity for us to actually make some policy changes here, and it would have to go through this kind of backdoor approach.
Look, I believe that the mainstream view in the United States Congress today is that we should at a minimum lift the travel restrictions, and it may be even lighter than that. I think the mainstream view in the country, in the United States is we should lift the travel restrictions. Every poll that has been taken says that. So I think -- you know, I think it is not as controversial as some may think for us to be able to advocate that. And I'm hopeful that you'll actually see some results, and we'll see what the president does, you know, when he gets a huge appropriations bill and we have a little --
EMERSON: And the farm bill might offer some opportunity as well, as we have to reauthorize or write a new farm bill and -- the goal of which is to be completed, I think, by September of 2007.
MCGOVERN: Right. And one other thing, too, is that there'll be hearings on Cuba, and that'll be different, so that, you know, we'll be able to kind of create a political climate in Congress which I think will support our views and also educate some people who haven't really thought very much about Cuba.
SWEIG: Before we come back to Washington -- and then I want to get to Miami as well -- let's go back to Havana for a second and give me your sense -- I have my own sense, too, but you all were there and might have heard something that differs. And I'd be curious, from the -- Havana's perspective, the government's perspective, is it your sense that a full-blown process up here to go through the legislative momentum of changing policy, lifting the travel ban, beginning trade and commercial ties, that that's something that's a priority for the Cuban government today?
MCGOVERN: You know, when you go to Cuba and you meet with Cuban government officials and you meet with U.S. officials in Cuba, it's always kind of a strange, surreal experience. Because you -- you know, we met -- we had a fairly big group, and so I think if there was a frustrating part of this trip, to me it was that the U.S. officials said what you expect the U.S. officials to say, and the Cuban officials said what you expect them to say. The U.S. basically says, you know, we don't want to change our policy unless the Cuban government jumps through 92 hoops and cries "uncle." And the -- you know, the Cubans say, well, we've lived without you for almost 50 years. We don't need you. You know, we're not going to do anything, you know, to try to make your life easier or to try to help make it easier for members of Congress to -- you know, to vote for change.
And I guess my take on all of this is that I think as policymakers here in the United States, we should change our policy because it's the right thing to do. I think in the long run, it will benefit the Cuban people. I think it will open up more political space in a way that is more natural and less arrogant in terms of having the United States say, you got to do this, you go to do this. And I also think that, you know, it's beneficial to the United States.
So, you know, I guess the answer to your question is I think that there are a lot of Cuban officials who would like to see a change, but they're not going to do anything to help facilitate that change. And I think there are some Cuban officials -- some in the government, some of the hard-liners who, quite frankly, I think deep down are a little reluctant for change, because it's something they won't be able to control. I mean, I think the two words in the English language that the hard-liners in Cuba fear the most are "spring break." I don't think they would know what to do.
EMERSON: Exactly. (Laughter.)
MCGOVERN: And, you know -- and I think -- so I think there's some that say they want change, but, you know, in the past, every time we've gotten close, they've arrested a bunch of political dissidents or they've shot down a plane.
So I think -- you know, I think from our point of view, it's a -- you know, it doesn't matter what the Cubans want to say or do. We should do what we think is right, and we should do what we think will help facilitate positive change on the island.
EMERSON: I agree. I agree with Jim totally on that.
You know, it is interesting, though, because I think the thing that the Cubans heard from us that perhaps was a wee bit unexpected was that we didn't think it would be as easy to get legislation passed through the Congress as they thought, simply because there was a change. But when you work with the Cubans and, you know, you start building relationships and trust -- and I mean, you know, there are a handful of us who actually know these folks and have met with them on numerous occasions, people who will be running the government after Fidel dies, and it's very, very interesting. And so you have these conversations, as Jim said, back and forth, and, you know, you see this little teeny opening and then you just have to keep meeting and meeting and meeting. And the patience level, I think, on the part of the Cubans is much more than our patience level, and we just want to get things done immediately.
But I have seen, you know, based upon the difference in the first meeting we had years ago and today -- not only does there seem to be an acceptance and, you know, willingness to meet with us and consider us people with whom they can communicate and who will pass along ideas and be honest and open about those ideas, I do sense a little bit more independence. And I don't know that it's because of this -- you know, assistance from countries like Venezuela or China. There doesn't seem to be this need, perhaps as much as after Hurricane Michelle, for example -- there isn't this need for their economic recovery to have the U.S. as involved as before, unless it's all smoke and mirrors. But I sense -- when you just listen to them, I sense that they just figure they don't need us anymore.
SWEIG: Well, they have -- I think you're right. The incentives have changed by comparison to 1997, 1998, the pope's visit in '99.
SWEIG: And as the anti-sanction state began up here, that was prior to -- Chavez had been elected, but it was certainly prior to the price of oil going up and the subsequent numerous re-elections that Chavez has had.
So the incentive financially -- long term, strategically probably remains for them. But in the short- and medium-term, they've got a bit of a cushion, not only on the Chavez front but sort of geopolitically, they have a cushion within Latin America.
Cuba's star has risen a bit also more broadly. Its beef and its tension with the United States is one that other countries share, even America's allies. And I think they see it as sort of demographic and political writing on the wall in our country, which is the Cuban American community's demographics is changing -- has changing, and the sort of support for humanitarian and family ties in the Cuban American community is evident and majoritarian now, they see that. And they see the polls in the United States showing -- I mean, my guess -- I don't know. If there was a secret vote tomorrow in the Congress, probably if it were secret, there would be a bipartisan support for getting rid not only of the travel ban but --
EMERSON: Of everything.
MCGOVERN: The embargo.
SWEIG: -- probably everything.
So they understand that. And they do have patience.
The real sort of outliers here is the executive branch today. Now, one could also argue that the real -- that the executive branch itself, would argue that the outlier is the Castro government, that all they needed to do are make a certain amount of changes, and then U.S. policy will change. But, given the nature of the Castro regime, we know that that's not a realistic expectation.
SWEIG: So we have a kind of dynamic now where the conditions on the ground are changing even in Cuba. They are certainly changing here, but we have holdout. And I wonder if the Democratic Party, once we got through a 2008 election, would be necessarily any more willing to challenge the conventional wisdom that you can't jeopardize those votes in Florida, the electoral votes.
MCGOVERN: Well, I hope --
SWEIG: I'm looking at you.
MCGOVERN: Yeah. No, I hope --
SWEIG: (Inaudible) -- answer that question -- (laughter).
MCGOVERN: I hope that the Democratic Party and I hope, you know, the Republican Party, quite frankly, you know, we're at a point where we're willing to challenge kind of the status quo. Look, I mean one of the problems -- and you see this on display when you visit Cuba and you talk to some Cuban officials and some U.S. officials -- is you get the sense that you'd like to get some grownups into the room to actually talk sense.
You know, when you drive through Havana, you see these pictures of George Bush and Adolf Hitler, you know, posters all around the place. Now, I don't like George Bush and, you know, I think he's the worst president in my lifetime, but I find it offensive to see those posters. And then you see what the U.S. Interests Section does. I mean, they put up this ticker tape sign on the embassy and it spews kind of, you know, what the Cubans call propaganda, but clearly it's like poking them in the eye.
And you go back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, and it's immature and it's silly. And you just want to scream sometimes and say, you know, can you get some grownups in this room and just talk about ways we can improve, you know, our relationship?
I mean, we have a lot in common. We should improve our relationship in terms of dealing with drug trafficking. I mean, clearly that should be something where, I don't care what your position is on Fidel Castro, that's in our interest. Immigration is another area where we need to come together.
You know, cultural activities. I'm working on a project right now to try to protect Ernest Hemingway's collection and writings and his house in Cuba, and we have this great collaboration going on. The Cubans have done an incredible job on their own, and we have U.S. support. But it's hard to get licenses from my own government to support some of the activities to save Ernest Hemingway's home. I mean, boy, I mean, I don't think that's particularly subversive, but yet, you know, we run into a lot of difficulties.
So it's kind of like -- I think what we need is a more mature approach and to start talking -- you know, not hurling insults at each other, not putting up posters that are -- you know, that are incendiary, but dealing with the realities. And I think that's the challenge that both, right now, the Cuban government and the U.S. government have. I mean, stop the rhetoric, you know, stop the stereotypes, stop the shouting, and let's get into some real discussions about real issues.
SWEIG: Jo Ann, let me, before I give the floor back to you -- it seems that the Bush administration could get an enormous global and hemispheric bump from taking a new tack with Cuba. And in the next two years, what, really, has this White House to lose?
EMERSON: Nothing except promises made, perhaps? I don't know. But the frustrating thing is, I mean, you know, when we met, for example, with Yadira Garcia -- forgive me, I don't speak Spanish, but the Minister of Basic Industries, talking about energy exploration and the blocks in the waters that companies are bidding on for oil, and not even the frustration at our companies not being able to bid on these, but just common-sense little things based on American law that was passed before Jim and I were in Congress with regard to, you know, deepwater oil exploration platforms that are American made. And so there's a part that's broken, and these companies from other countries who have these American platforms can't get a part to fix them because of our law saying it's illegal, you'll be a terrorist.
Number two, the other day the Japanese Ambassador to the United States was in our office talking about a problem with regard to an art contest that they sponsored through the U.N. And a Cuban young person won the art contest, and the Japanese government was going to give them a Nikon -- the child a Nikon camera as a present for winning, and couldn't do it because there were American-made parts in this. (Laughter.)
Now, this is the stupidest policy I ever heard in my whole life. And it hurts us. I mean, if we would just simply not only quit penalizing or -- we need to change the law so that we aren't penalizing our allies for selling a product that has two American parts in it to the Cubans. I mean, it just doesn't -- there's no common sense. And this is -- in my opinion, that is childish.
And I would love to be able to get our arms around that particular issue and actually work on it this year. And it might be a fun thing to try. I don't know that we would have much success. I wish I could say we would, but, you know, then us trying to deal with the Senate is a whole new ballgame. I mean, that's sometimes as difficult as dealing with the executive branch. But nonetheless, it is important for us to at least try to do some of these things because it not only hurts American companies but it certainly makes us look a little foolish in the eyes of our allies.
SWEIG: Jim, you have worked a great deal on human rights issues in Latin America, in Colombia and Central America. And I guess I don't want to let this conversation go without stopping for a second on the issue of human rights, and specifically political prisoners in Cuba. It seems to me that across the board on a number of issues, if there is to be an indirect or a direct negotiation between two governments, maybe not now but later, there have to be some face-saving issues for all parties on a number of issues, but on the human rights issue it's very sticky. What are your views on how to navigate those water?
MCGOVERN: Well, you know, I'm very concerned about the human rights situation in Cuba, and our entire delegation was. We provided a list of names to the Cuban government, people that we're particularly concerned about.
But let me say that most of the dissidents that we have met with over the years favor changing U.S. policy. They believe more exchange, more U.S people coming down to Cuba opens up political space. Indeed, you know, my first visit to Cuba was in 1979. Cuba today is a very different place, you know? There's more political space. Not anywhere near as much political space as any of us would like, but it's not uncommon to have a cab driver tell you, you know, all the problems that the Cuban government has created. You have people that will be critical in a way that in 1979 you didn't sense.
My own view is that if you can normalize relations, if you could lift the travel restrictions, if you can have better relations with the country, you remove an excuse that the Cuban government uses to justify the arrest of these political dissidents. They say that, you know, they're all trying to overthrow the government, they're agents of the United States, they're doing all this kind of stuff at the request of the U.S. Interests Section. Well, you take away the excuse. Call their bluff. And again, I think the more we can have people there, you know, the less opportunity you give the government to be oppressive.
One final thing. You know, I was there when the pope visited, and I'm going to tell you, the pope's visit in Cuba has had a dramatic impact. I mean, the Catholic Church is more relevant today than, I think, at any other time since the Revolution. And Cardinal Jaime Ortega told us basically that the Catholic Church can do whatever he wants. He was very proud of the fact that he could tell us that there were leading members of the Communist Party who were churchgoers, were active members of the Catholic Church. And his plea to us was, "Look, I'm worried about the people in this country. The church is concerned about the condition of the people. And your embargo and your policy hurt the people; you need to change that.”
So I think to the extent that we can be successful, you open things up. And I think, you know, the pope's visit opened things up for the church, and I think the presence of Europeans and Canadians have helped kind of open things up in a lot of other areas. And I think that's the way you're going to encourage change down there, not by the U.S. saying, "Look, you got to do this, and if you don't, we're not going to deal with you." I think it's terribly arrogant.
And one of the things that I think Jo Ann and I have come to appreciate over the years is the Cuban people, you know, are very proud. Just like we're very proud of being Americana, they're very proud of being Cuban. They're very nationalistic, and the one thing that can bring everybody together, even those who don't like Fidel Castro, is the threat of the U.S. coming in and doing anything. They don't want us to do anything. They want to do -- they want change on their own. And I can understand -- I think anybody could understand that. It's a very natural feeling.
EMERSON: Yeah, I know. I mean, I think I totally agree with Jim. It makes me think about the fact that in 1968, when I was a senior in high school, my high school -- part of our class went to the Soviet Union, to Moscow, Leningrad; to Warsaw, to East Berlin, to Prague. And I mean, it was pretty bad in those years, but yet here was the high school -- a group of high school students who were there, and we got to meet with students in of all the countries and actually engage in dialogue.
And you know, one thing leads to another, and those were very good exchanges. Not only did it make me appreciate my country more, but I think it also gave the children -- the students with whom we were meeting the entire time an appreciation for us. And we were very interested and curious because there wasn't -- we didn't know very much back in those days. And you know, things eventually did open up in those countries. And certainly dialogue and communication, irregardless of the dissident policy that Cuba has, is really important.
And I think, quite frankly, we were making pretty good progress by having all of the university groups go on -- I think this was pre-2003. And there were a lot of Americans there. Remember -- I mean, everywhere we would turn, we would see groups of Americans. And that was a good thing.
And it's really too bad now. I mean, obviously the human rights issue is an important one, but I don't think that our country has the right to put conditions quite in the way we have with regard to Cuba.
SWEIG: There's incredible bipartisanship, as you can see, this morning --
SWEIG: -- at least on this issue, which is refreshing for this town.
The time has come now for us to open up the discussion and questions to all of you. And so I will acknowledge you, and please be sure to introduce yourself and ask your questions concisely.
So yes, Nelson first, if you can stand up. The mikes will come to you as well.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. Nelson Cunningham with Kissinger McLarty Associates. Every four years the presidential political process has a way of reminding us why it's hard to change our policy toward Cuba. Since we already seem to be in the thick of the political presidential process now, what advice would you give or will you be giving to candidates -- presidential candidates in both parties to how to develop a policy toward Cuba that doesn't tank them in Florida? (Soft laughter.)
EMERSON: Well, I'm not sure any of the candidates will be seeking my advice. But I think perhaps one thing that I would suggest is that if in fact they really want to know the true story of what's going on in Miami or even in New Jersey -- that they need to meet with all of the different Cuban-American groups, because you'll find that the community is very split on the issue of travel, for example, on the issue of remittances and the like. And then you just have to go and listen, and instead of just meeting with one group or the other.
And I know there's this huge fear of this gigantic vote bloc, and heaven knows, you know, I don't want to alienate them.
But I think among the Cuban-Americans in Miami that the travel ban and what we have -- what the government has done in preventing the Cuban-Americans from going back to visit their family -- now only once every three years -- has been a hugely negative policy. And so there's one place, I think, that they can totally win over people, regardless of what party you're in.
But you got to listen to all sides, because there's a huge group of Cuban-Americans and particularly the younger folks, who don't really connect at all with Cuba -- that that's a very important thing to do and that they may be very surprised to find that the Cuban-American population will vote Democrat as much as they'll vote Republican, depending.
MCGOVERN: You know, I agree with Jo Ann. I mean, I think there's also a transition happening in, you know, South Florida and in New Jersey. I mean, the Cuban-American exile population, I guess, is becoming older. Some of them are a little bit mellower. Their children are kind of less kind of dogmatic on this issue.
The issue of the U.S. government preventing Cuban-Americans from being able to travel to Cuba has been a very divisive issue. I mean, people -- it's really a cruel policy, when you think about it -- the fact that you're limited to travel to Cuba once every three years. So if you have a sick mother, you go visit her, and then, you know, if she dies six months later, you can't go and travel to the funeral. I mean, it's just -- you know, talk about family values. I mean, this kind of goes -- flies in the face of that.
The other thing is, you know, I think Medicare -- (chuckles) -- has become a bigger issue in Florida these days than Cuba. And so there are other issues.
And my advice to a presidential candidate -- and again, presidential campaigns have a way of making otherwise very intelligent people say silly and stupid things to get voted -- to get elected. But I mean, there are a lot of other issues that are in play.
But I think one of the things that those of us in Congress who want a change, I think, have come to realize is that we want to move on these issues quickly, because we don't want them to become fodder in a presidential campaign, where someone could demagogue them. We want Congress to move quickly. We want to do something this year, and that's our hope. We want to move as quickly as possible.
SWEIG: Yes, you -- please stand up and the mike will come to you. And we do have members of the press here as well. I can't necessarily know who you are, but --
QUESTIONER: Yes. I'm one of them. (Chuckles.) I'm Maria Pena, and I'm with EFE News Services in Washington. It's really a two-part question. One, you seem to be willing to do something in Congress this year to try to start a dialogue and opening up relations. So any thought about whether or not the Cuba Working Group will become active again in pursuing the lifting of the travel restrictions?
And also, if you can comment on your trip to Cuba, what are the economic conditions? Should the U.S. try to, you know, support or help dissident groups in transforming the economy long-term?
SWEIG: I'm going to take the second question, if you don't mind, and let you all do the first.
MCGOVERN: Okay. Sure.
EMERSON: Well, you know, we just had our -- we had our first -- we've been back -- how long have we been back? Three weeks?
MCGOVERN: I can't remember.
EMERSON: I don't know. It seems like a year. But we had a meeting last week, our first meeting back of the Cuba Working Group, and actually outlined several legislative policies that we were going to pursue at different levels, depending on what the issues were and the appropriate committees. Some committees we have more of an ability to actually discuss, as Jim said earlier, having hearings. But we have already reactivated our Cuba Working Group for this session.
MCGOVERN: Yeah. The Cuba Working Group is still active. I mean, it's never ceased to be active, and we meet on a regular basis. And I think it's fair to say that much of the focus of our discussion is going to be on lifting the travel restrictions. I think that's something that we think is -- we've won on that issue before. We expect to win again. And that's something that we want to move forward.
Let me just say one other thing, if I could. The other thing we've got to do is try to press the Bush administration to -- you know, to start focusing on some of these other areas where we think, you know, we'll be helpful, I think, in promoting the kind of positive changes in Cuba that we all want. I mean, I mentioned the issue of drugs and immigration. But I mean, I really think it would be an important gesture for the administration to remove Cuba from the State Department's terrorist list. I mean, Cuba is not accused of planning or financing or sponsoring or carrying out international terror. It doesn't belong on the list, and yet it's there, mostly for political reasons. I think it would be a sign of maturity and it would also be a sign of honesty. I think it would also bring new credibility to the terrorist list if we would remove a country that doesn't belong there.
And that's the kind of stuff that I think, you know, we need to be pushing the administration -- just because they're, you know, putting up a hard line on a lot of these issues doesn't mean we shouldn't pressure them and get them to try to explain why -- you know, why they won't do that. And up to this point they haven't given us a very good reason.
SWEIG: It would be the kiss of death -- on your second question -- to begin to open trade and commercial ties but to say that the United States is only going to have transactions with dissidents on the island -- the best thing, in my view, the United States can do for the entire country is to end economic sanctions -- and kiss of death, by the way, for dissidents on the island.
I would commend to you a very important article in The Wall Street Journal two weeks ago that looks at the economic reform debate that's taking place in Cuba and identifies the sort of fault lines. And there are people involved in this debate who not 10 years ago were purged by Raul Castro himself, and these people are at the front line, not within the government but outside of the government, of moving forward on sort of how to get the state out of some of the major and minor economic activities that it has performed for the last 10 years. So to sort of pigeonhole dissidents and saying that this is -- that these are the pioneers of right thinking on economic reform I think would be a big mistake.
Next question. Yes, sir.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. Peter Trooboff from Covington & Burling. My question concerns the legislative possibilities and, in particular, incremental steps. The Berman amendment worked because it took off licensing for movement of freedom of speech in effect, publications in the like. What about incremental legislation that would, for example, remove licensing requirements for food, medicine, medical products, other non-hi-tech products, where the absence of licensing, the removal of that bureaucratic step would make a big difference and open up a path?
EMERSON: Actually, my colleague, Jerry Moran, and I are working on a -- the agriculture portion. We're going to do a stand-alone bill that addresses some of the things that you've mentioned. Ultimately, our goal would be to get it folded into the farm bill, but we are actually doing stand-alone, and it'll probably also go -- address financing as well. I mean, one of the things that we would like to do is, quite frankly, to have direct banking now between the U.S. and Cuba. To have something cost 20 percent more because we've got to through some third country is ludicrous. But these are changes that we're interested in trying to do.
QUESTIONER: My question really was to move beyond just the agricultural front, to medicine, to medical products, to all the low-tech products, the so-called EAR99 --
QUESTIONER: -- the things that aren't controlled.
On the travel side, similarly, is there an incremental process possible, one that would at least reopen the university exchanges, the exchanges that are non-terroristic in nature, that were rather propitious, and again, a Berman-type approach that didn't require licensing as opposed to the endless delays that I've lived with professionally. That would, again, make a big difference. And I'm just wondering whether an incremental legislative approach as opposed to let's just open up travel generally has some possibility of at least focusing on areas where some progress could be made and there'd be some consensus.
MCGOVERN: Let me just add, I think your proposal's a good idea. I'm not ready to concede that we need to go so incrementally yet, and I'd like to -- but clearly, if -- you know, if we need to compromise, I mean that's certainly an area. I agree with you. I mean, look, I mentioned this Hemingway stuff. I mean, you're talking about, you know, food and medicine, but it has been frustrating beyond belief and ridiculous to have to, you know, justify, you know, every piece of paper, every pen and pencil that you send down there. I mean, we had an argument over air conditioning units; whether or not we can send an air conditioning unit or a dehumidifier to the Hemingway house. It became this issue where the Department of Defense got involved with it.
So this is -- it is not -- (laughter) -- so I think, you know, the issue of licensing I think absolutely is something that we need to figure out. And again, I mean, we mentioned travel; that doesn't mean we're not going to a whole bunch of other things. I mean, there are a number of vehicles moving through, and we're going to look at everything. But I think your idea is a good idea.
SWEIG: More questions. Yes, Karen.
QUESTIONER: Karen DeYoung from The Washington Post. The administration has started a lot of initiatives for transition planning, and we have new mission managers for Cuba and Venezuela in the intelligence community. I wonder if you have any interface at all with any of this transition planning that's going on. Are people of the working groups sought out, or are they simply getting advice from people who don't travel to Cuba? And do you have any sense of what's going on in that process?
MCGOVERN: I think it's safe to say that we have not been sought out on that issue.
EMERSON: Nor would we be.
MCGOVERN: Nor -- yeah. And you know, we have questioned them about some of their transition planning and told them that we believe it is unhelpful. We believe it is counterproductive, that it makes it more difficult to actually encourage the kinds of improvements on the island that we all like. We think it's arrogant what the administration's tact has been. When you go to Cuba, you meet with Cuban officials. We spent an awful lot of time listening to their complaints about how arrogant the United States is planning for their transition, and they find it offensive.
And so, look, I mean, if -- you know, one of the kind of great ironies of our policy toward Cuba has been that it has done more to keep Castro in power than anything else. I mean, it has been used as an excuse to justify, you know, crackdowns of political dissidents. It has been used as an excuse to justify difficult economic times. And when people up here in the United States and Congress give these crazy speeches that imply that we're going to go in and do something and dictate the future of Cuba, believe me, those speeches get pretty wide circulation.
And as I said before -- I mean, I remember I met a -- I have an artist down there who I always thought was pretty critical of the current Cuban government, and the last time I saw him he was much more critical of the United States. I mean, there's this impression based on what the administration is saying -- we up here say maybe not -- it's not a realistic impression, but down there, there's a real belief that this administration might take some sort of proactive, aggressive action against them, some military action, come in there and do something. And I'll tell you, that has united the Cuban people, pro-Castro and anti-Castro, together to say, you know, "United States stay out."
So this is very counterproductive what they're doing.
EMERSON: I would tend to agree with it. I mean, we're talking about a sovereign nation, and we don't have the right to impose ourselves on them, in spite of the fact that there are a lot of people -- there are several of people with whom we work and a lot of people in the administration who would not agree with that statement.
But it -- every time we do say that, as Jim says, every time -- you know, I think the Cubans feel threatened that somebody is going -- wants to come in on their white horse, marching in and say, "I am now the proclaimed president of this country." And if there is anything that does bind people more together its feeling that your sovereignty is threatened or that you're not good enough to be able to determine your own destiny, if you will.
SWEIG: Karen, I don't think there's any transparency whatsoever to this transition planning. They don't talk about who's a member of the commission, who they consult to come up with their conclusions. The consultation is minimal not only with the policymakers in Congress, but more broadly --
EMERSON: Well, I would contradict you for a moment. There are some policymakers in the Congress who are a very big part of this.
EMERSON: Sorry. (Laughter.)
QUESTIONER: Jim Jones with Manatt Jones Global Strategies. My question goes to your impressions of the transition and the leadership in Cuba, what you found out. My last trip to Cuba two or three years ago, clearly -- in sort of ex-polls man-on-the-street interviews, clearly, Fidel Castro was revered almost unanimously. The government was despised almost unanimously -- a high percentage. Raul Castro, despised to a great deal, and yet the transition will be with Raul.
Did you get any impression that the transition would be Raul for a short period of time and then someone else -- Lage, Perez, Roque or whomever? And that's one part -- what was your impressions of the next leadership.
And the second part is, undoubtedly, you've been briefed by our intelligence agencies and what have you on their impressions of Cuba. Is our intelligence in Cuba as good as it was in Iraq or better? (Laughter.)
EMERSON: About the same.
MCGOVERN: I mean -- look, I mean, I think on the issue of the transition to Raul, it is -- you know, as we said in the beginning here, I think, it is as smooth a transition as you could have, and I don't think -- there's good -- there's much active dissension against the fact that Raul's going to take over. How long? I don't know. He's not a young man, so I mean, he -- you know, what is he 76 or 70 -- yeah. So I mean, you know -- and so I mean, I don't know how long he'll be on the scene, and I'm not sure who's next in the line. I don't think they know who's next in line.
But -- and I think you're right. I mean, I think the average Cuban has a high regard for Fidel Castro. I don't think that that's -- I think, you know, people may disagree with him, but I've heard people who disagree with him say -- refer to him as a grandfatherly figure, that he's been there so long. I mean, he's kind of an icon. And even those who disagree with him, you know, I think have a certain respect for the fact that he's been so long.
And the other thing is, in terms of intelligence, yeah, I think our intelligence is probably as about as good as it was in Iraq. We don't know the condition of Fidel Castro. I mean, that -- to give you an example of how bad our intelligence is, we have no idea. Now, we've said --
EMERSON: Maybe that reflects on how good their security is.
MCGOVERN: Yeah, it may. Yeah, but you know -- but again, we don't -- you know, we have been told by U.S. officials that he has cancer, you know? We have been told that he is dying. Well, I've been told that since 1979, so I don't know. But clearly, our intelligence is not that good in Cuba and their security is actually fairly good, given the fact that we don't know anything.
SWEIG: Let me add to the intelligence question. I wrote a piece recently in Foreign Affairs, and there's a line in there that I got in trouble about from some in the intelligence community that says that the intelligence community has indulged Washington's wishful thinking: that the second Castro goes, the whole thing is going to blow like a house of cards. And my sense, from numerous trips in many kinds of dimensions over the last more than 20 years to that island, is that the United States is totally isolated from what's happening on the ground.
Most of -- I mean, most of us rely on open sources to get what we do know about Cuba. But then in addition to what's published in Cuba, that I'm not even actually sure is read by the analysts -- I mean, there are a number of publications which, if you read them -- and I'm not talking about Granma, but I'm talking about academic, sort of, cultural journals, you can see clearly what the debates are and how they're unfolding on that island. They're just not read, and I've tested this.
Plus, the fact that we have -- I mean, the most obvious thing is that since we have no ties there, we can't get human intelligence in an accessible way. And there's a kind of selectivity, is my sense, on the part of who Americans in the intelligence community here talk to about what makes that machine tick, and who on the island our American officials and the Interests Section, which has an enormous staff, chooses to speak to. So a lot of time is spent with the dissident community and the Cuban government, it's my understanding, in a kind of tango with the United States, has clamped down on their intellectuals' and academics' access to American officials, to a certain extent. But there's an enormous amount of isolation and a sense, fundamentally, that undergirds this notion that the regime has no legitimacy whatsoever, and that it would blow. That's driven by this intelligence community's isolation.
So that's my two cents on that point.
Back to you. Questions? Yes. I want to try to -- calling on members and calling on the press. And so some of your faces I don't recognize, so I don't know if you're press or a member. So now I'm going to take a press question, and then I'm going to go back to a member’s question. So somebody raise your hand from the press. Yes. And introduce yourself.
QUESTIONER: Sue Pleming from Reuters.
SWEIG: Will you stand up?
QUESTIONER: Do I have to?
QUESTIONER: Sue Pleming from Reuters. You mentioned travel restrictions and licensing issues and spare parts. I wonder if you could give -- provide a list of, say, five areas where you think there could be changes in Congress, and where you would get bipartisan support.
EMERSON: Well, I think the couple of iterations of lifting travel restrictions, perhaps not the total lifting of all travel restrictions and/or licensing, because it goes hand-in-hand, but certainly as far as Cuban-Americans go, and then perhaps we can make a little bit of progress, at least getting back other non-Cuban-Americans to where we were, you know, a once-a-year type visit.
Secondly, I think perhaps there's an opportunity to do some finessing with the OFAC regulations with regard to definitions for agricultural trade purposes and/or medical devices, et cetera.
Three, there may be some opportunities on the banking/financial services front. Let me see if I can think of --
MCGOVERN: There might be some opportunities on, you know, dealing with, you know, better cooperation in terms of drug --
MCGOVERN: -- counter-drug interdiction. Immigration may be another area where we might be able to have, you know, some progress. Obviously, the licensing issue that we talked about. And so I think there are a lot of different areas that we're all looking at, and we're going to -- you know, we're talking to some of our colleagues. And you know -- but I think you're going to see a lot more legislating on Cuba this year, on a variety of vehicles, and certainly more so than you have seen, I think, probably ever before, because I think there are a lot of people who believe it is time to change our policy.
Let me just say one thing -- you know what, one of the -- we had breakfast with the head of our Interest Section and the entire team, U.S. team in Cuba. And one of the questions that I asked, which I thought was a pretty simple question, was: Is U.S. policy a success? And then I reworded it: Is it succeeding? You know? And then I reworded it again, you know, can you say something good about it? (Laughter.) And the silence was incredible.
Look, I mean, I think for Democrats and Republicans, people who have had various positions on Cuba over the years, I think after nearly five decades you have to ask the question: Is this working? Is this doing anything that it's supposed to do? And I think the answer to that is, no. This is a failure. You know, there's no even gray area. This policy has failed. And I think what we're trying to do is, we're acknowledging that fact and trying to give members of Congress, you know, ways to be able to, you know, to change that policy, to make it more constructive. And that's what our goal is going to be.
SWEIG: I would say it's notable that here in Washington, too, the Bush administration officials that manage Cuba policy at the State Department do very little to defend the policy. In the last six months, it's been remarkable.
EMERSON: You know, let me also say, you know, we have an opportunity to educate our colleagues, and the business community could be very helpful in doing that. But I've also found that when there are a myriad of issues that the business community is working on that somehow, Cuba is not one in which they want to fall on their sword. And so that hinders our ability, in many respects, from getting as much done as we would like.
MCGOVERN: So if anybody knows anybody in the Chamber of Commerce, ask them to score these votes on Cuba. That would help. (Laughs.)
SWEIG: We have time for one final question, maybe more, but if the -- you're from the diplomatic community, correct?
QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)
QUESTIONER: Yes, I'm Jose Marco from the Embassy of Spain. Raul Castro made a speech recently.
SWEIG: The microphone.
QUESTIONER: Raul Castro made a speech recently, about a month ago, talking about negotiating with the United States. I mean, what's your take on that? Was it just rhetorical, or is there some serious intent?
EMERSON: I don't know the answer to that, but certainly there was, perhaps with one exception -- on our trip, all of us felt that that was a good thing to do, and that we should open up a dialogue. It never hurts to talk. And you know, we're not talking about a terrorist country. As Jim said, I don't believe Cuba is a terrorist country. And we have so much in common, certainly with the number of Cuban-Americans that live here. I mean, what's it going to hurt?
Now they have had discussions with -- the Coast Guard works very closely on counter narcotic -- we need to open that up more. And so there is some discussion and a good working environment on those couple of types of issues. But in a big picture way -- I mean, it's ridiculous that our government would say, well, no, not until Raul or Fidel die. I mean, come on?
But I know it's frustrating for your countries to have to deal with this kind of policy that makes it -- that really has no basis in common sense. At least, I think that's the interpretation of most people, that it is purely politics-driven.
MCGOVERN: Can I just respond to that by saying that I thought that was a good sign, and I think the ball is now in the U.S. court. It is up to us to make the next move. And you know -- and I believe that we should, you know, take them up on it, talk to them. I believe, you know -- go back to what I said before. I mean, you know, we all were advocating for a change of policy. I think there were some hardliners in Cuba that may be nervous about changing policy. Let's call their bluff, you know? Let's change this policy.
And so I think the ball is in the U.S. court. I think to the extent that we're successful in making some of the changes that we have advocated here, I think is going to result in a better human rights situation in Cuba, you know, a better life for the Cuban people. I think it's, you know, a win-win, and it's good for us, too. You know, we all talk about what Cuba could benefit from us. We could benefit from Cuba, too. You know, there's incredible medical research going on the island. There are also other things that we can learn from the Cubans on.
And you know, so, you know, a better relationship and more exchanges, I mean, is beneficial to both of us. I mean, it's not just we're giving the Cubans something. They'd give us something, too.
SWEIG: Well, I think on that note, we're going to thank our guests very much for coming and spending the morning with us, and thank all of you. Thanks so much.
EMERSON: Thank you.
MCGOVERN: Thank you.
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