Council on Foreign Relations, New York City, New York
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
PATRICK DOHERTY: I want to open by thanking all of you for joining us today.
As you all know, this morning, Fidel Castro announced that he would not seek and he would not accept another term as president of the Cuban council of state and as commander in chief of the armed forces. After 49 years in power, and almost an equal number of years as a target of American sanctions, Fidel Castro will now retire, and power will change hands in a constitutional but not democratic procedure.
What happens next in Havana? What does this say about the success of American policy towards Cuba? And what should the United States do? And in an election year, what will we see the candidates do? To answer these questions, we have an outstanding group of Cuba watchers today.
My name is Patrick Doherty, and I am the director of the U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation. New America is what we call a post-partisan think tank, in Washington, that looks for new solutions to America's biggest challenges without regard to partisan advantage.
I will do a quick introduction of the group, let them each make about three minutes of comments to keep things going, and then we'll open the microphone to moderated Q&A. As we just heard, the instructions are to -- was it to hit star-one?
OPERATOR: Yes, sir, star-one.
DOHERTY: Star-one if you have a question, and the pound if you want to withdraw that question. Okay.
I'm going to quickly go through our speakers today. We have one unannounced speaker who will be joining us shortly. It's Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat from Massachusetts, 3rd District. Representative McGovern has led bipartisan congressional delegations to Cuba in the past, and has been a long advocate of improving U.S.-Cuban relations to increase trade, and the lifting of travel restrictions.
Also with us is Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, retired. He's the co-chair of our program, here at the New America Foundation, the U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative. He is the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, and returned from Cuba this past spring.
Julia Sweig is the Rockefeller senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She's the author of the award-winning book "Inside the Cuban Revolution: Fidel Castro and the Urban Underground."
Peter Kornbluh will also be joining us soon. He's the director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archives. And he's a historian looking at Latin America, and the author of a book on the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Philip Peters is the vice president of the Lexington Institute. And he's running economic programs looking at Latin America, and is an adviser to the House of Representatives Cuba Working Group, and served as a political appointee under the Reagan and first Bush administrations.
Sarah Stephens is the executive director of the Center for Democracy in America. Her center runs educational programs that do educational travel to Cuba, bringing high-level delegations to visit with high-level delegations in Havana.
Jake Colvin is the director of USA*Engage, a program of the National Foreign Trade Council, seeking a rules-based system for international trade.
And with that, I want to just check and see if Representative McGovern is on the line. He's not, so I'm going to go with Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson. He will please give about a three-minute-or-so comment, and then we'll move on to Julia Sweig, who's going to be on deck.
Thank you, Colonel.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Thank you, Patrick.
I just want to say that, picking up on, I believe, your last point, that it's clear, I think, to most Americans, even those out in the hinterland, whom I speak to and with today, that our Cuba policy is a failure.
We need desperately in some cases, because our Latin American policy is bordering on failure too, and I see Cuba as a very, as a superb opening to refurbishing that policy. We need to do something about that. And whether it's this significant event or a future significant event that tips the scales with whomever, we need to do something.
I hope -- I don't see this administration taking advantage of this, because I see this administration having a tin ear, not just to Cuba but to a host of other national security issues also.
I hope we can influence the two leading Democratic candidates, Senator Obama and Senator Clinton, and the Republican candidate, Senator McCain, to begin to think about, if nothing else, a policy review with regard to Cuba, and in January, when one of them takes the oath of office, kicking off with that policy review, and maybe even immediate changes, such as lifting the travel ban, which is unconstitutional, and maybe lifting aspects of the economic embargo, which need to be lifted a long time ago, particularly the agricultural part of it. So I would see something like that, I hope, as being as fast and as effective as we might be able to move, given this event.
DOHERTY: Great. Thank you, Colonel Wilkerson.
Julia Sweig, from the Council on Foreign Relations.
JULIA SWEIG: Thank you very much, Patrick.
I would characterize this moment as an extraordinarily important turning point. If this announcement had come last night without having had Fidel Castro ill and sidelined for the last year and half, we would be greeting this as an enormous turning point, beyond symbolic. And that's because he is doing this, as Patrick said, in a constitutional manner, really getting to manage his own succession, watch it happen, and do so, I might add, peacefully.
Having stayed around for the last year and a half and not died, what his presence has helped Raul Castro do is to manage expectations, to keep them low but to begin to put on the table internally within Cuba the issue of bread and butter -- that is, how Cubans are going to have access to better life, basic question for all politicians, whether they're elected or not, as it turns out -- and also now, as we see, the issue of political expression. The encounter that Ricardo Alarcon had recently with the students and the relationship between opportunity, jobs and sort of the kinds of options that young Cubans have is just critical.
So I see him stepping aside, and the prospect of Raul Castro becoming the head of state or perhaps Carlos Lage becoming head of state and Raul Castro simply becoming, again, the head of the armed forces as an opportunity that will probably be followed rather quickly with the kinds of economic reforms that internally within Cuba they've been talking about.
Now, it won't happen -- we're not going to see Jimmy Carter monitoring an OAS election down there any time soon, nor are we going to have an IMF restructuring plan. But I do think that this moment starts the clock ticking for the beginning of putting on the table for Cubans on the island the prospects for a better material life and for discussion about the kind of body politic they want to have.
This doesn't mean, in terms of policy options for the United States -- look, I've supported an end to the embargo for a very long time, an end to the travel ban, engagement on a number of fronts. But we shouldn't mix the kind of policy steps that Colonel Wilkerson is talking about with the notion that that will be democracy tomorrow in Cuba, but it does go straight to the issue of what kind of policy we need to have to play a positive influence in Cuba and, as he said, also more broadly, to recast our policy toward Latin America.
I -- the final point I'll say is that, in my view, as a historian of Cuba, U.S.-Cuban relations, the Cuban-American role in that, no matter whose in power in Miami, Havana or Washington, the fight over what kind of place Cuba (isn't ?) going to continue indefinitely, in my view, and well after January of 2009.
DOHERTY: Great. Thank you, Julia.
SWEIG: Thank you.
DOHERTY: I just wanted to check and see if Representative McGovern is on the line. (Short pause.) He's not. So we're going to go to -- is Sarah Stephens there?
SARAH STEPHENS: Hey, Pat. Yeah, Patrick, you know, I think the Congressman is on the line, but we just can't hear him for some reason.
OPERATOR: If he is on the line, he can press star one and I can open his line.
DOHERTY: (Inaudible) -- McGovern?
REPRESENTATIVE JIM MCGOVERN (D-MA): Can you hear me?
DOHERTY: Congressman McGovern, thank you for joining us.
MCGOVERN: Thank you.
DOHERTY: The floor is yours.
MCGOVERN: Well, thank you for doing this for this call.
Our policy toward Cuba is a relic from the Cold War. It makes no sense, and quite frankly, it's embarrassing. It accomplishes nothing other than preserving the status quo, and U.S. policymakers and U.S. politicians have historically been timid when discussing any changes in U.S. policy, in large part because of their unhealthy and irrational obsession with Fidel Castro. Well, he's now leaving the scene and we should use this as an opportunity or an excuse to review our entire policy. It is time for a grown-up policy.
Today, we are releasing a letter signed by over 100 members of the United States House of Representatives, a bipartisan list of members of Congress. It is a letter to Secretary of State Condaleezza Rice, asking her for a thorough review of our policy. This is an opportunity for us to have a discussion about what a more mature, what a more rational U.S. policy should be all about.
And I hope that all of us, you know, who are in positions of government in the United States will seek this opportunity to have that discussion. I hope the administration will take our advice and begin to think creatively and out of the box about how we can have a more sensible policy. And if not, I hope the members of the United States Congress will take it in their own hands to pursue a more rational, a more mature, and a more sensible policy.
DOHERTY: Thank you, Congressman McGovern. I just want to check and see if we have Peter Kornbluh or Phil -- if Peter's on the line. Is that a -- if you're on the line, if the operator would just say some instructions for getting on, if they're on the wrong --
OPERATOR: He can press star one. And I'm not showing them --
DOHERTY: And we're not showing --
OPERATOR: -- unless they're on the line with Chris Nelson, is that possible?
DOHERTY: I don't think so -- Phil and Chris. Okay, we're going to turn to Sarah Stephens, from the Center for --
QUESTIONER: Hello, Operator?
QUESTIONER: Hello, this is Chris Nelson, can you hear me?
DOHERTY: Hello, Chris.
QUESTIONER: Yeah, hi. I think you're having trouble getting people even on the conference call. When I called in, they claimed no knowledge. I had to give them the list of speakers' names. They then spent 10 minutes hunting. I wasn't put on until 12:10, actually, so you may be having quite a problem here with people.
DOHERTY: Okay. I appreciate that.
QUESTIONER: Well, that's great. So I'm sorry, but -- so I missed entirely Larry Wilkerson's presentation, I do apologize for that. I think something we're all interested is, are there chances for legislative movement this year -- if Larry wouldn't mind repeating a little bit of what he was suggesting might be happening in Cuba. You know, things that might actually change the political dynamic here this year is what we're -- that's really what I'm concerned about.
DOHERTY: Actually, Colonel, if you could respond to Chris, and then we'll go to Sarah.
WILKERSON: Yeah, Chris, I was simply saying that I don't believe this administration, with its tin ear, to such as you -- is going to be productive in any way. I hope I'm proven wrong. But I do believe this might spark the two Democratic candidates and perhaps the Republican candidate to, again, a policy review that would be able to more or less hit the ground running in January, and that we might see at least, as a minimum result of that policy review, unrestricted travel -- after all, the ban is unconstitutional.
And we might see too a lifting of the embargo in some key areas, such as agriculture, where we have a lot of Midwesterners and Westerners. I recently testified with a farmer from Montana, for example, to the Senate Committee on Judiciary Affairs, I believe it was. Oh, I'm sorry. It was the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus's committee. And we talked about how we need to open up for grain sales and other agricultural sales to Cuba. So I would see that as being something that surely is feasible and something that could be done, as a result of a policy review, quite swiftly.
DOHERTY: Okay. Thank you, Colonel.
Sarah, Sarah Stephens from the Center for Democracy in the Americas.
STEPHENS: Yeah. Hi. Well, I don't want to repeat, so I'll just make a couple comments: first, that just Castro's retirement is precisely the event that our policy was designed to prevent happening. And I don't think there could be a greater demonstration of the failure of our policy than the fact that it failed to stop this retirement and a peaceful transition to a new government in Cuba.
On the merits, the question isn't whether Cuba is changing. The question is whether our policy works. And the fact is that it just has not worked.
Second, just the impact on our own country. It seems to me that after the timid and status quo statements by the U.S. administration, what the American public sees is, there's a peaceful transition in Cuba, the international reaction is to embrace that transition, and our country, the United States, is utterly voiceless and is sitting on the sidelines.
I think this is a teachable moment for our people and our leaders, and I think the impact of it will be that hopefully we'll have a greater understanding that the policy has failed and that we need a new approach.
I applaud the 104 members of Congress that Congressman McGovern mentioned who are calling for a policy review. I think they should act more boldly, though.
I agree with Colonel Wilkerson. Americans should have their constitutional right to travel restored. Cuban-Americans should get their right back to freely travel and see their families. U.S. businesses should be able to trade with Cuba, and we should really take steps to normalize the relationship between our two countries.
Let's hope that a new U.S. president will have the courage and common sense to try something new.
DOHERTY: Okay. Thank you, Sarah.
Jake Colvin from USA*Engage.
JAKE COLVIN: Thank you.
Look, I -- (inaudible) -- U.S. policy towards Cuba the day after Fidel will be different than the day before, than our previous policies, and realistically, as we've all said, that's not going to happen, I think largely because there's this enormous Cold War hangover that ties up how we feel about Fidel Castro. We've never been able to get over him, as Congressman McGovern just said.
And I think, as result of that, the business community, which is where USA*Engage comes in, has largely set aside whatever interest it had in Cuba. There's really no point getting excited about a relatively small market when the U.S. government has made it expressly clear that businesses shouldn't even think about going there.
I think now that we see Cuba setting the stage for gradual change, there's some reason to start to pay attention again for the business community, and particularly if we see the types of internal economic change that Julia had talked about.
Unfortunately, no one's going to get really excited until there's a hint of flexibility when it comes to U.S. policy. And I think what Fidel's stepping down allows us to do is to start a conversation about a post- -- (inaudible) -- Cuba.
Sarah is right; this is a tremendous teaching moment right here. And we really think -- need to think it out and express and (convince ?) policymakers what's in our national interest and what's in the interest of American businessmen and our citizens, as well as the Cuban people.
We like to say that American visitors and workers and students and all the rest are the best ambassadors of freedom and values. I hope that our presidential and congressional candidates will think about that, as well as the current government. And you know, we -- the current administration got a deal with North Korea and who'd have thunk that? So I guess hope springs eternal.
DOHERTY: Thank you, Jake. I wanted to check and see if Peter Kornbluh or Phil Peters are on the line.
OPERATOR: If you are, please press star-1.
DOHERTY: Okay. What we're going to do is, if the operator could just let me know if those -- either of those two gentlemen join us, what I would like to do is open it up to questions. First I wanted to ask my own question of the group to start things off. So if the moderator could first reiterate how the queuing for questions works.
OPERATOR: Certainly. Once again, if you'd like to ask a question, please press star-1 on your telephone keypad.
DOHERTY: Thank you very much. I think -- my question to Colonel Wilkerson and to Representative McGovern -- there's a lot of talk -- I think it's on the Democratic side -- about reframing, reintroducing America to the world once the Inauguration happens in January 2009. Cuba seems to be one of those great symbols of an antique foreign policy and ripe for a unilateral change. We don't have to withdraw troops. We don't have to get Israelis and Palestinians to come together and make peace. We just have to change our own behavior.
What do -- Representative McGovern and Colonel Wilkerson, I guess in that order, what do you think about that possibility? Do you think we'll see something dramatic just because it's so easy for America to do it come January 2009?
WILKERSON: Who do you want to answer first?
DOHERTY: Representative McGovern, if you would.
MCGOVERN: Yeah. Okay. I'm hoping that the new administration, whoever he or she may be, will change our policy, because I think our policy has been such a clear failure. But you know, I'm hoping that we will hopefully -- that Congress will take it upon itself to try to force movement before we get a new president of the United States. I mean, that new president wouldn't take the oath of office until next January. You know, I think that we can just do -- we need to take action sooner.
I think that Colonel Wilkerson is correct that, you know, we should be moving more aggressively on lifting the travel restrictions, which I do believe are unconstitutional -- that we go around telling everybody how important freedom is, and yet we deny our own people the freedom to travel to Cuba. We talk about the importance of family reunification, yet we frustrate efforts by Cuban-Americans to spend any time with their families. It is a stupid policy.
So I'm -- you know, I hope that the new administration will move aggressively to change things, but I'm hoping that, you know, before we get to the new president that Congress will show some spine and some backbone and stand up to this administration and say enough is enough. The Cold War is over. It's time to move forward. It's time to pursue a more grown-up policy toward Cuba.
DOHERTY: Thank you, Congressman.
WILKERSON: No reflection on the good congressman, but I haven't seen this Congress as a body, in either house, stand up to this president very effectively on almost any issue in a long time. So I just don't think without the White House's movement we're going to be able to do very much. I welcome it, if we can, and I would encourage Congressman McGovern and Congressman Flake and others who are like-minded to move out smartly and do the best they can. I offer any assistance I could give. But I just think it's probably going to take a new president, and it's going to take a new opening, and it's going to take a president who feels like, in his heart and soul, or her heart and soul, what Congressman McGovern just said, and that is that America needs a new morning.
We are suffering all across this globe from seven years of unilateralism, of ultranationalism, call it what you will. I call it utter ineptitude. And to get out of this, we're going to have to make some rather bold moves, I think, and early on, to satisfy what I sense all across the globe, from Tokyo to London to Paris, is a real interest, desire, even a craving for America to return to the past, where multilateralism, internationalism, foreign policy that makes sense was her hallmark, rather than this -- what we've had for this last seven years.
And I see as a marvelous way to initiate this process vis-a-vis Latin America, where people like Lula in Brazil are just running circles around us in public diplomacy, in power politics, you name it -- and Lula, by the way, just left a billion dollar line of credit in Havana -- no fool he. We need to counter this. We need to step into some of this power vacuum that exists in our own hemisphere, and one way to start that brilliantly would be the beginnings of a rapprochement with Cuba.
Julia, any comment before I open it up to the questions from the callers?
SWEIG: No, I fully agree with that. I think that the United States would get an enormous boost globally and especially in Latin America if we were to put this battle aside with Cuba, and I think the real trick is going to be to figure out politically what kind of face-saving measures would be possible so that Raul Castro or Carlos Lage can find a way to frame domestically whatever the United States might put on the table not as a concession to the empire but as a step forward, and that will be a fascinating dynamic to see.
Likewise I think we're going to have to figure out what the politically face-saving measures are going to be here so that who's ever in the White House can work his or her own domestic political constraints that I think we're all well aware of. But I think that we -- that are changing themselves.
DOHERTY: Great. Thank you.
I think we can take our first caller. That would be great.
OPERATOR: Your first question comes from Carol Williams.
DOHERTY: Go ahead, Carol.
QUESTIONER: Hi, this is Carol, with the Los Angeles Times. My question is whether any of the analysts think that there have been signals from Fidel Castro that the presidency will pass beyond Raul to somebody like Carlos Lage. With the references he's made in his recently reworked and released memoirs and the things he's said about the need to pass on the leadership to a new generation, do you think he's prepping the world for a leader other than another Castro?
DOHERTY: Julia, do you want to take that?
SWEIG: Yes, I -- thank you. I absolutely think that's the case, Carol, and you and I have talked about this. But -- not only in the memoirs but also in Raul's statements and statements by others, such as Carlos Lage, I think there's clear consciousness that because Fidel and Raul are only a few years apart and because they want what they have -- Raul has said is to both lead the next generation but also yield to it -- I think that's the exact quote -- that they -- that he is looking for a way to showcase that the next second and third generation of leadership in Cuba is ready.
So I think this weekend we may see not necessarily Raul assuming the position of both commander in chief of the armed forces and head of state, but perhaps only the former, while leaving open the head of state role perhaps to Lage. He has been showcased globally, going to inaugurations, playing a big role on the international scene, has established relationships on the international investments front and domestically also because he's of another generation and also has a lot of credibility, is clearly a potential -- so I think that if it doesn't happen now, we'll see other -- there will be other data points to analyze shortly, where we'll see that Raul knows that he ain't the only game in town and wants to demonstrate it.
DOHERTY: Okay, thank you. Does anyone else want to respond to Carol?
WILKERSON: Patrick, this is Colonel Wilkerson. I've got to run, so let me just say one thing. When I was in Cuba I had opportunity to talk to Ricardo Alarcon at length. And one of the things that struck me about what he said was how Raul is energizing the bureaucracy. That is to say, he's letting the ministers, he's letting the National Assembly, he's letting the people who actually make things happen within the bureaucracy do that, instead of having fiats from el comandante y jefe or fiats from other people around him, like the young turks. He's energizing and making responsible for specific functions and actions the bureaucracy. That's very encouraging, whoever happens to be -- Carlos Lage or Raul or whomever happens to be ultimately the head, because that's what you have to do, I think, to reform the economy and at the same time perhaps reform some of the political constraints that restrain the economy.
DOHERTY: That's great. That's great.
Okay. Well, thank you, Colonel, for participating, and we'll talk to you soon.
The next question?
OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Andrea Merta (sp).
DOHERTY: Hello, Andrea. Go ahead.
QUESTIONER: (Inaudible) -- Sao Paulo in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I would like to ask Julia whether she thinks that Fidel Castro is going to maintain a certain level of influence or power even on the backstage after the resignation.
SWEIG: He said it himself; he intends to weigh in on a regular basis in this battle of ideas. But I think the gesture of stepping aside and resigning is a signal that there's going to be more space for others -- Raul, Lage, Felipe, the others that are working within the communist structure to make that party more of a legitimate instrument. In terms of governing within the bureaucracy, he's not going to have as large of a role.
Now, having said that, he's Fidel Castro, so even after he dies, or probably especially when he dies, his role will become, you know, downright mythological, especially among the revolutionary cadre. And it's the sort of hard-core, committed revolutionary cadre to whom I believe he is addressing these writings that he's publishing so frequently. It's their sort of buy-in and their commitment that he's interested in securing and that he will be so important to Raul and Lage and others in terms of maintaining cohesion while moving forward at the same time. So I expect him to play a role, but obviously a lesser one.
DOHERTY: Anyone else on that question of Fidel's role in the background? (No response.)
Okay, if we can go to the next question.
OPERATOR: Your next question comes from Andy Sullivan.
QUESTIONER: Hi, there, folks. I'm wondering if you've seen a significant difference so far in the statements by Obama and Clinton and McCain versus current Bush administration policy. Do you have reason to believe that either of these folks would pursue a substantially different policy?
DOHERTY: I've seen the Obama position. I have not seen other positions.
Julia, have you seen the other campaigns?
SWEIG: Sarah, do you want to take this question?
STEPHENS: Well, you know, I think if you look at their statements, you don't really -- there's nothing that's concretely encouraging to me. I do think, though, that it's such a difficult political moment in the United States. And, you know, I think all the candidates are looking at getting elected, and I really think we're going to have to wait and see, you know, after January 20th whether a new leader understands what a huge opportunity there is here to do something new. I don't know, Julia, if you feel different about that, but --
SWEIG: No, I think that's right. I mean, I think on the Democratic side both of them are still saying that they both support the embargo and that they want to look for changes on the ground before the fundamental guts of the embargo change. Beyond that, they might be slightly different in terms of, you know, they both support Cuban-American family travel. It seems to me that Obama is saying that he would support more people-to-people contact earlier.
But both of them are also saying -- and here I'm talking on the Democratic side -- that with respect to that broad policy review -- and this is certainly the senator -- Senator Clinton's position -- that they're well aware that changes on the ground are going to require a broad policy review up here. I think it's just a matter of timing and the breadth of that broad policy review. But I think that they both support the embargo and also understand that the future requires a policy response.
MCGOVERN: This is Jim McGovern. If I could, I would just I would just say this. I think both Hillary and Barack have open minds when it comes to a lot of issues dealing with our foreign policy. And I think that both of them would move us away from this era of cowboy diplomacy where, you know, it's all based on rhetoric and saber-rattling and threats and, you know, irrational policies that really cannot be justified.
So look -- and I mean, I think what Sarah and what Julia have said is absolutely correct. I don't think we're going to know for sure until one of them gets elected. But you know, I think, you know, in terms of, you know, looking at the evidence objectively, looking at our policy objectively, you know, I do think that we're more likely to have, you know, some changes that will, I think, be more sensible from a U.S. and from the perspective of the average Cuban people than we have right now. So I'm hopeful that either one of them would be a welcome change to what we have right now.
DOHERTY: Okay. Thank you.
We can answer the next question.
OPERATOR: The next question comes from Tod Robberson.
DOHERTY: Hello, Tod.
QUESTIONER: Hi, this is Tod Robberson from The Dallas Morning News. I wanted to know, first of all, if it's safe to assume that whoever succeeds Fidel Castro, whether we can expect that person to pursue a more pragmatic approach to relations with the United States. What would be the kind of tangible effects of such an approach? And secondly, I'd like to know what would be the panel's assessment of Cuba's future relationship with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Do you expect any changes there?
MCGOVERN: Can I -- this is Jim McGovern. If I could respond to that by saying, you know, I think we're asking the wrong question. I think the issue -- I think the ball is in the U.S. court right now.
The fact of the matter is that if we want things to change in Cuba, then I think we have to change our policy. Our policy for the last 50 years has ensured the status quo, and in that respect, it has been a miserable failure. And I've joked over the years that I think that the two words in the English language that the Cuban government fears the most are "spring break." I mean, they wouldn't know what to do.
The fact of the matter is that, you know, I think it is up to us to act. If we act in a smart and intelligent and sensible way about tearing down some of these barriers, encouraging more people-to-people exchanges, lifting the travel restrictions, you know, pursuing an easing of the economic restrictions, then I say -- you know, I oppose this embargo, but, you know, trying to work within the -- kind of the realm of reality here, you know, I think things will change. The more interaction, the more contact from the outside world that has taken place in Cuba, the more things have changed, in most cases for the better.
So you know, I don't think we should be sitting around waiting for Raul Castro to -- you know, to, you know, make some, you know, stunning proclamation that everything is going to change overnight. I think, you know, the onus is on us. I think we need to take some proactive action now, not wait. This is something we should have done a long time ago.
DOHERTY: Does anyone else want to take a crack at this?
Now the question about the relationship with Chavez -- does anyone want to apply to that?
SWEIG: Well, what was -- ask the question again, if you please.
QUESTIONER: Can you hear me?
QUESTIONER: Yeah. The question is just in the future can we -- I mean, obviously Hugo Chavez has had a very close and personal relationship with Fidel Castro, regards him as his -- almost like a father figure. I'm just wondering: will that close relationship necessarily transfer to whoever is his successor? Do you expect the large amount of aid coming from Venezuela to continue?
SWEIG: Can I jump in, or Sarah, do you want to take this?
STEPHENS: I'll follow you.
SWEIG: I would say that I wouldn't necessarily assume that this a close and intimate and personal relationship. I think what you see in the photo ops is one thing and then the second thing is, what is the strategic benefit that Cuba gets from having this relationship, the financial relationship, that it gets from Venezuela and also the sort of having, if -- Hugo Chavez out there sucking up all the rhetorical leftist, anti-imperialist oxygen while at the same time the Cubans have been able to sort of undertake a very, very stable succession? The assumption has been that there's a one-way dependence, Cuba on Venezuela, but the truth is that Cuba has been enormously influential within Venezuela in helping Chavez to consolidate his own power and to institutionalize it.
I think the strategic calculation, in my view, within Cuba is that, you know, they will diversify their portfolio to the extent that they can, because that helps them hedge against having the embargo and the hostility with the United States. That helps explain the line of credit that's just been extended that they have welcomed from the Brazilians.
And you know, I think that the Venezuela relationship is tactical, and it's great that it's got a kind of overlay of ideological coincidence. But you know, long-term, you know, it'll last as long as it needs to last from the Cuban strategic national interest perspective.
STEPHENS: Well, yeah, I agree. I would just add, you know, I think that -- I think that economic diversification is so important for Cuba and became clearer to them in -- on December 1st, when the Venezuelans voted down the constitutional reform package that Hugo Chavez was trying to get through. You know, I mean, Hugo Chavez will be out -- could very well be out of office in 2012. Then what happens? You know, does the oil keep coming? Does the arrangement keep happening with Cuba? I mean, the Cubans need to make sure that they're taking care of themselves, no matter what happens to Hugo Chavez.
QUESTIONER: If I can ask the panel, what are those first economic steps that we think are going to happen on the island, once this new government is in place? What are they going to be doing? How fast are they going to move? What's it really going to result in?
SWEIG: I'll take this and then I have to jump.
SWEIG: Lookit, Raul Castro started talking over the summer about the agricultural sector. And they don't use the word "privatize," whether in respect to the agriculture or with respect to small businesses that are currently state-operated businesses. But I think what we will see in agriculture and in the realm of the small businesses that are state-run is the beginning of a redefinition of property rights. Let's put it that way. You see this and it just -- of course, I'm sorry Phil Peters isn't here on the call.
But if you look over the last few years, even before Fidel got sick, they're starting to talk about, to recognize the need to get the state out of the way; to still have the state provide for the basics, in terms of social and educational and health and that kind of thing, but to give the Cuban people the possibility of running their own businesses; small-and-medium-sized producers in the agricultural sector to buy, sell, cultivate without having to run it through the traps of the government bureaucracy. So I think that's where we're going to see the beginning of some movement.
DOHERTY: Great. Thank you so much, Julia.
We can take the next question.
OPERATOR: Your next question comes from Luke Engan.
QUESTIONER: Hello, this is Luke Engan from Inside U.S. Trade. Can you hear me?
QUESTIONER: I just wanted to ask the panel a little bit more about the presidential candidates. Are they also being asked, through any written correspondence, like the administration is being asked, to take a look at this? Or is even the notion that they might take a look at it behind the scenes something that is unlikely to happen before November?
MCGOVERN: I think the presidential candidates, you know, should be thinking about this, and we're all familiar with the political realities that exist. But nonetheless I think that anybody who's running for president should be thinking about what they're going to do when they take office, and how they're going to deal with this new reality.
I mean, the bottom line is this. We've had a policy in place for 50 years that has been a magnificent failure. And, you know, my hope is that we're going to have a president, whoever he or she may be, who has the maturity to be able to correct our mistake.
And so, you know, I have no doubt that those who support Hillary and those who support Obama will be, you know, trying to weigh in with them. You know, how much is made public, you know, in terms of what their views are, you know, is unclear.
But look, in many respects, you know, and I know that it's a long shot that George Bush will do anything positive. But in many respects, I mean, you know, he is kind of the person who has the least to lose politically. I mean, he could actually make an important gesture, you know, toward changing our policy, toward ending this relic from the Cold War, you know, by looking at the travel restrictions, at a minimum, the travel restrictions for Cuban Americans.
I mean, how do you justify telling the Cuban Americans that they can't go back and they can't, you know, visit their family members, whether they're sick or whether they're in, you know, they just want to kind of, you know, get together again? How do you justify that.
So, you know, I mean, you know, I think we need to keep the pressure on everybody. But, you know, look, we're in the now right now, and we need to keep the pressure on Congress and on Bush.
SWEIG: I just would add that there are a couple of websites to take a look at. One is run by the Latin America Working Group. It's lawg.org, and they have posted a -- it's not a scorecard, but they've posted the positions of the various presidential candidates on Cuba policy there. And then also the Cuban American National Foundation, canf.org, has actually circulated a questionnaire to the candidates. And several of them have responded to it on Cuba policy.
DOHERTY: All right. Thanks.
Jake, do you want to take a whack at that one?
COLVIN: Yeah, just for a moment. Luke, hi.
I think there's got to be a Plan B for Cuba policy. And regardless if you go to it now or later or not at all, I mean, all the candidates are thinking about -- (off mike) -- besides the status quo. And not only the presidential candidates, but the candidates for Congress as well -- if you look at south Florida, there's a lot going on down there with folks challenging, I guess, the incumbents in Miami. And so I think there's a lot of thought that's already been given to this. There's a lot more thought that's going to go into it. And while it might not make for a very robust debate and informed discussion in the presidential or congressional elections, I think there's some serious thought given to all of this.
As to your question about whether or not we're writing the candidates, just from my personal -- from my organization's perspective, it's generally not something that we do, and so we're staying out of that. We're sticking to the elected officials.
DOHERTY: Great. Thanks.
PETER KORNBLUH: This is Peter Kornbluh. Can I make a comment?
DOHERTY: Hey, Peter, welcome to the call. Please do.
KORNBLUH: Thanks. You know, Cuba will no doubt become a political football in the campaign, particularly now that Fidel has resigned and there's a lot of (focus ?) on Cuba. And you can expect any Democratic candidate to tack more to the center, if even not to the right -- (inaudible) -- not repeating the, you know, catastrophe of Florida in the November 2000 election.
But whoever becomes president thereafter, no matter what they say during the campaign, is going to face the realities of Cuba policy, which my esteemed colleagues have already talked to you about when they (stay president ?) -- when that person becomes the president. And that is a failed policy, a world community that has a very different approach to Cuba and a somewhat new leadership in Cuba that is approachable.
DOHERTY: Okay. Peter, did you want to get any other of your main points in, since you are just joining us now?
KORNBLUH: No, I just wanted to answer that question.
DOHERTY: Great. Thanks.
If we could take the next question.
OPERATOR: Your next question comes from Monica Campbell.
DOHERTY: Hello, Monica.
QUESTIONER: Hi. This is Monica Campbell with the San Francisco Chronicle. I am interested on Julia or perhaps Peter's view on the announcement -- the recent announcement by the Cuban government of an impending release of two independent journalists who were part of the 75 dissidents who were jailed five years ago. I'm wondering what -- how you see that move, if you see it as -- if you read it as an opening to any more freedom of speech and expression in Cuba, or is this a political move for Spain or the impending visit of the secretary of the Vatican? How do you see this recent announcement?
DOHERTY: I just want to check and see. Is Julia still on the line? No, she's not. Peter, do you want to take a crack?
KORNBLUH: You know, our experience with the Cuban leadership is mostly that their motivations are domestic rather than international. And it may well be that they feel that given that the transition has been smooth and that there has been no upheaval since Fidel got sick, that they have the confidence that there is, you know, only gains to be made by freeing as many as people as possible and setting the stage for the next leadership not to have the type of pressure on from the international community on human rights that there might otherwise be.
STEPHENS: I also think it's another example of what -- of the kind of role the U.S. could play if we would just engage. I mean, these political prisoners have been released as the result of negotiations and meetings with Spain. And you know, this is a positive role that the international community can play, and we should be part of that.
DOHERTY: Great. Okay, if I could take the next question.
OPERATOR: The next question comes from Maria Pena.
QUESTIONER: Ah, yes. Thank you for taking my call. I was just wondering if Representative James McGovern or anyone else in particular can respond to the fact that, you know, you said you're sending out this letter to Secretary Rice today, but there's a feeling among many experts that the hard-liners, the Cuban-American hard-liners in Congress, will continue pushing for continuity in the actual foreign policy and to maintain that embargo. And you know, assistant secretary of State said this morning as well that, you know, he doesn't foresee the embargo being lifted. So with that prospect, what changes do you foresee coming next year, for instance?
Thank you for taking the --
DOHERTY: Could you also identify yourself, Maria?
QUESTIONER: Yes. Maria Pena with EFE News Services.
DOHERTY: Thank you very much.
MCGOVERN: Well -- this is Jim McGovern. Look, I mean, there is no doubt that the hard-liners in Congress are going to continue to be hard-liners. You know, I don't think that what has happened is going to change their view. Nonetheless, that doesn't mean that, you know, that we shouldn't try to change it today.
Look, over the years in Congress we have had debates and votes in which Congress has voted to lift the travel restriction. Congress has voted to ease up some of the economic sanctions. And you know, oftentimes the Bush administration has frustrated those attempts. But you know, we've gone -- you know, we've had actually some positive votes over the years. And so, you know, I think that the case needs to be made that this is an opportunity and that we can't squander this opportunity. And in many respects the ball is in our court; that if in fact we want to see positive changes, you know, the more we engage, the more we're going to see those positive changes.
The question was asked earlier about, you know, releasing dissidents and arrested journalists. Look, I think all of us, especially those of us who want a change in our policy, believe that all these political prisoners should be released. But as Sarah Stephens pointed out, we don't have any leverage. We give speeches and rattle the sabers and threaten, you know, and issue threatening statements, but the bottom line is, there's no negotiation going on. We have no leverage to try to encourage the release of any political prisoners or any journalists. The fact of the matter is -- and this is kind of an ironic -- (inaudible) -- I remind my -- some of the biggest defenders of the current policy in Congress said this all the time -- that many of the dissidents who have spent time in Cuban jails believe, as we do, that the policy should change; that our policy right now is counterproductive.
So you know, I think this is an opportunity first to make a renewed effort to try to change the direction of our policies.
DOHERTY: Great. Thank you, Representative.
We can take the next question.
OPERATOR: Your next question comes from Tim Harper.
QUESTIONER: Hi, good afternoon. Thanks for taking my call. I'm with the Toronto Star, and I just wondered whether anybody there would see a role from a hemispheric partner, Canada, which has a distinctly different Cuban policy, in building some type of bridge between Havana and Washington, if we're moving into a transition period, in other words, beyond its broker role in the hemisphere. Is there room for that?
KORNBLUH: If I could answer that question for a second -- Peter Kornbluh. In previous administrations behind the scenes, Washington has organized what it calls a group of friends, other countries that have relations with Cuba. Canada certainly is one of them; Spain, Mexico and others. Certainly there is a role for other countries to play not only in urging Washington to adopt a different posture, but in facilitating communications for the next administration, someone behind the scenes to get started.
DOHERTY: I just want to reiterate what Peter was saying -- this is Patrick Doherty -- that if a new administration is going to try to capture the momentum of being new and get something done within those first hundred days, that leaves precious little time to actually hammer out some type of -- (inaudible) -- understanding with the Cuban regime between the November election and the inauguration. So to the extent that a group of friends would be interested in something like that, it may be necessary to -- (inaudible) -- looking for it just yet, but to the extent there would be something out there, it could be a big help.
MCGOVERN: This is Jim McGovern. I'd also just say that, you know, friends can sometimes be -- (off mike). And to the extent that some of our friends and some of our allies, you know, who see pretty clearly that our policy has been a failure, can take this opportunity to kind of renew their view that U.S policy should change. That would be very welcome.
So if the Canadian government wants to communicate to the U.S. government that -- you know, to take advantage of this opportunity, you know, begin to review your entire policy, I think that would be very welcomed by a lot of people not only in Congress, but I think there are some people even in the Bush administration who don't say this publicly but quietly believe our policy is a miserable failure.
DOHERTY: Thank you.
Could we take the next question, please?
OPERATOR: Certainly. Your next question comes from Andrea Merta (sp).
QUESTIONER: Hi. This is from -- (word inaudible) -- Sao Paulo in Brazil again. Again about the dissidents inside Cuba. I wondered how much this change will strengthen their position and if they are able now to push for the changes in the -- (inaudible).
DOHERTY: The role of dissidents now that some have been released. Although I think these have been -- there are the dissidents that were gathered up, and then there are the dissidents that are allowed to stay home.
STEPHENS: Well, this is Sarah Stephens, and I'm not an expert on the dissidents. But it's my impression from knowing some of them on the island, and having talked to Oswaldo Paya and Oscar Espinosa Chepe and Miriam Leiva, it's not my impression that they lead with economic demands or economic issues. They're talking about political rights and frankly don't seem to have much of a movement behind them, because the majority of the Cuban people are much more concerned and preoccupied with those economic rights, just the basic bread-and-butter issues that Julia talked about earlier. So it's hard for me to imagine the release of this handful of dissidents as having too much of an effect on what happens on the island, in terms of the dissident movement.
DOHERTY: Anything to add on that, on the dissidents?
KORNBLUH: I don't. It's been covered by you all better than me.
Okay, if we could take the next question.
OPERATOR: Once again, if you would like to ask a question, please press star-one on your telephone keypad.
DOHERTY: Okay. We'll give it just a minute, and if there's no other questions, okay. I want to thank everyone for joining us. I want to thank the panel.
Representative McGovern, thank you very much for joining us. It's been great having you on.
Peter Kornbluh with the National Security Archive, Sarah Stephens with the Center for Democracy in the Americas, and Jake Colvin with USA*Engage. I think that's everybody who's remaining on the line. Thank you very much.
There will be -- we've recorded this. We're going to try to provide some recorded excerpts on our website at www.newamerica.net, and those should be up later on today.
With that, thanks so much.
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