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U.S. Policy Toward Cuba: Is It Time for a Change?

Speakers: Elliott Abrams, President, Ethics and Public Policy Center, and Charles B. Rangel, Member, House of Representatives (D-NY)
Moderator: Leslie H. Gelb, President, Council on Foreign Relations
February 2, 1998
Council on Foreign Relations

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Dr. LESLIE H. GELB (President, Council on Foreign Relations): Good evening, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. Tonight we are going to have, by popular demand, a repeat of the debate held here just a little over a year ago between these two very same gentlemen. They changed each other’s minds; Charlie Rangel, here again tonight to say to tighten sanctions on Cuba; Elliott has undergone a total transformation. They were so good last time that we wanted them to come back because the issue hasn’t gone away—namely, what should our policy be toward Cuba? And it’s still an important topic for our Great Debates series.

For almost two decades—excuse me, for almost four decades, the United States has imposed economic sanctions on Cuba in an effort to bring down Fidel Castro and his government. The highly controversial Helms-Burton bill has tried to strengthen the embargo by applying U.S. laws to other countries. And what’s resulted is, the debate has heated up and the issues have even sharpened further as to whether the embargo is the best way to get rid of Castro and move on to the next phase in Cuban history or whether the embargo is standing in the way of the next phase of Cuban history.

Fidel Castro is now looking at his ninth U.S. presidentsome even think he might soon face another one—and he’s weathered all this economic strangulation despite Cuba’s economy continuing to weaken, which is one of the reasons why the debate is still a vital one, because however you feel about the embargo, his economy is weakening. The question tonight is: Is it time for a change, even a basic change, in U.S. policy regarding Cuba and the embargo? And, as I said, with us tonight, we have Congressman Rangel and Elliott Abrams. Both have been involved in this issue in the most important ways.

Let me take a moment, before I tell you a bit more about them, to thank two sets of people who have been instrumental in bringing you this debate series and these what we call Policy Impact Panels. The sponsor for these debates has been Home Box Office and two of our members, Jeff Bewkes, who is the chairman and CEO of HBO, and Richard Plepler, who is a senior vice president there. We also have a committee of members, other members we’ve worked with on this, to decide what debate topics to pick and what speakers to select, and that group includes Steve Friedman, Vincent Mai, Tom Hill, and Steve Robert. And they’re all of great help to us in this enterprise. Elliott Abrams is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. And during the Reagan administration, he supervised our policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean as assistant secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs. And tonight, Mr. Abrams will argue that the United States should continue the economic sanctions against Castro and Cuba, maybe even strengthen them. Congressman Rangel is a veteran Democrat—veteran is to say that you’re very experienced—veteran Democrat from our good city. He has played a vital role in some of the most important events in recent history: in bringing down apartheid in South Africa; in giving the people of Haiti a chance to see if they could pull themselves together and establish a democracy; and in, I guess, arranging or helping with the arrangements of the pope’s visit to Cuba. He will argue that U.S. policy should be changed and the embargo should be lifted. Each debater will speak for about five minutes. They’ll have two minutes to question each other. I’ll ask them a couple of questions. This should all end no later than about 6:35, at which point we’ll turn to you to put questions to the debaters. A couple of other things I was supposed to say. Is it on the record, Karen?

KAREN: Yes.

Dr. GELB: It’s on the record, as opposed to our usual non-attribution rule. When it comes time for the question period, please wait for the microphone before you ask your question. And if you think the speakers haven’t done you justice when you’ve asked a very brief question, we’ll see if we can get in a response so that we have some holding people to terms. And then please join us and the speakers afterwards for cocktails.

It’s very good to have you with us. Why don’t we begin with Congressman Rangel?

Congressman CHARLES B. RANGEL (Democrat, New York): Thank you. Not too long ago, I think about two weeks ago, I attended a press conference at the United States Chamber of Commerce. And 140 religious and humanitarian organizations, not-for-profits, came out begging the Congress to at least remove the embargo as related to health and food. It was very interesting that listed on the supporters of the legislation, which I’ve introduced with Congressman Torres of California, were experienced former State Department officials. And had I not had this debate tonight, I would have swiftly said that anyone in the last 30 years who had anything to do with our Latin American foreign policy had removed them from the list of being an advocate for continuing the embargo. Of course, the person here tonight probably is the last strong-out with Republicans or Democrats in believing that it’s time for some change.

This policy, incidentally, today has absolutely nothing to do with trade, and it hasn’t for the last decade. It had everything to do with which candidate wanted to get the electoral vote out of Florida. And it had everything to do with the National Foundation of Cuban Americans that was headed by the late and honorable Jorge Mas Canosa, who’s no longer with us.

It seems to me that if we were really battling communism and we thought that trade was the weapon that we should be using, that we would not be trading with Red China, as we do, giving them most-favorable-nation treatment; we would not be dealing with North Vietnam, nor would we be trading with North Korea. The truth is that we’re building a nuclear plant in North Korea. And I find it so hard to believe that these countries—where I was shot in North Korea by communist Chinese—can receive favorable treatment when nobody can even say they were mugged by any Cuban in or out of the United States.

But when the motivation really is how many checks have come in during election time, then you can readily see how our foreign policy has changed when President Clinton was campaigning against Torricelli in Miami and left Miami for Torricelli. At the same time, President Bush was getting me to fight Torricelli until candidate Clinton supported Torricelli, and then President Bush supported Torricelli. So much about foreign policy.

But when we take a look as to where we are today and take a look at these 10 million people that are out there in the Caribbean, and knowing that what we have done through Helms-Burton, that was only passed not because of our nation’s sensitivity to the threat of communism out of Cuba but because Castro’s bandits shot down two undefended airplanes that went near or over Cuba—it was the retaliation of the Congress that passed Helms-Burton, that can’t stand the light of the World Trade Organization. And it’s caused us untold embarrassment with our trading partners after going through GATT, after going through NAFTA, to say that we arrogantly hold the power to determine which of our trading partners should or should not trade with Cuba, to such an extent that we are more severe on the people of Cuba in denying them food, in denying them medical equipment, in denying them medical supplies—far worse than any that we’ve imposed on any nation in the world.

Now we come to the point that the pope has gone to Cuba, taken a look at the situation there, made a political plea to President Castro to release political prisoners, if we would just, on our side, remove some of the pain and the strain that’s there. It would seem to me, for those people who enjoyed watching the contest that would take place for elections in Florida, that this president does not stand for re-election. We have Republicans and Democrats that are supporting the removal of the embargo in its entirety, but certainly the removal as it relates to health equipment, as it relates to food. We are getting food in there through Christian and other organizations that work very closely with the poor. But it would seem to me that here we are, where our entire economic growth for the next century is based on trade—we are the partners in creating the World Trade Organizations; we are the ones that are anxious to remove barriers from all nations so that we will be able to maintain a better way of life. And yet, we are the nation that’s singling out this very small island country for the purpose of an embargo.

It is not doing anything as relates to removing a demagogue, because everything that goes wrong in Cuba, they blame it on what? The embargo, and not their form of government. But each time we make demands on Cuba, they continue to take the goalposts and move them further and further and further away. The moderator—I say moderator for lack of a better word—had implied that the Cuban economy is...

Dr. GELB: Veteran moderator.

Congressman RANGEL: Huh?

Dr. GELB: Veteran moderator.

Congressman RANGEL: Veteran moderator—that the Cuban economy is actually getting poorer as a result of the embargo. It’s not the Cuba I left last week. Every investor that you can find, from the Caribbean to Europe, from Canada to Mexico, is investing in that country and tourism is beginning to boom. The only people that are being denied the opportunities are Americans, who have more to offer in that part of the country because of proximity.

If you take a look at the imports and think of where we are in terms of beans, in terms of rice, in terms of chicken, in terms of poultry—other things, the logical exporter to that country should be the United States of America and not Europe. These are the things that we’re denying ourselves.

But finally—and the worst thing in the world—we’re denying the opportunity of travel. I think this great republic of ours is so fantastic, especially when you compare it to any poor, developing country that is still under the heels of communism—is to allow our young people and our reporters to go there and to tell these socialists and communists how great we are; to let them to be able to see our dreams and to dream it and to be able to tell them how our democracy really works. But any country like ours that’s so afraid of the power of communism in Cuba that denies us as Americans the opportunity to go there and to see for ourselves, it has to be more to it than just trade. So now it’s reached the point that our government, as a matter of policy, denies Americans and Cuban-Americans the opportunity to send American dollars back home to their family in Cuba.

It’s a bad policy. It has nothing to do with trade. I hope we remove the politics and bring Cuba back into the Caribbean with a democratic government. Thank you.

Dr. GELB: Thank you very much, Charlie.

Congressman RANGEL: Thank you.

Dr. GELB: Charlie, I was so mesmerized by the presentation, I let you go two minutes over. I’ll give you seven minutes as well.

Mr. ELLIOTT ABRAMS (President, Ethics and Public Policy Center): Is that all it was? Seems like 20 to me, but...

Thank you. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were an awful lot of people who suggested, ‘Well, China will be next,’ but it has not been next. Instead, it has remained a Communist dictatorship capable of the brutality we saw in Tiananmen Square and we see right now still in places like Tibet. How have the rulers in Beijing held on?

Well, in no small part, they have held on by providing much more prosperity to the people of China. Economic change has been critical. And it is the product of changed Chinese economic policies. To be sure, foreign investors have responded to the new opportunities, but it was Chinese policy that created it.

Now let’s turn to Cuba. There, economic policy is stubbornly unchanged, mired still in socialist doctrines that produce nothing but shared poverty. Economic reforms are shut down as soon as they achieve any success because they threaten the regime’s control. As The Economist recently put it, quote, "Reform-minded leaders have lost the argument. Private enterprise will not be tolerated," close quote. And the combination of poverty and oppression makes the regime there uncertain of its legitimacy; uncertain of its popularity, which it will never dare to test through free speech or free press or free elections; and uncertain of its future.

Now Cuba is open to foreign investment. It is open to investment from Europe and Asia and Latin America, but it doesn’t get the investment or the credits that it needs, not because of the embargo. This is partly because the European Union has limited trade with Cuba to protest against oppression there. Mostly, though, it is because Cuba offers little true economic opportunity because the government of Cuba would rather maintain doctrinal purity and total control than it would have more investment.

Let me quote The Economist again, last week. "Castro’s made it clear he will not embrace much-needed reform. Cuba will be lucky to achieve any growth at all this year; the sugar harvest is likely to be less than four million tons; the trade deficit expanded for the fifth year running; the tourism industry is too inefficient to be profitable; foreign investment is likely to be much lower than it should be; investors are finding that Cuba’s red tape is worse than they had expected. They talk of the still-heavy hand of the state and the continuing suspicion of capitalism.

"The economy may be about to enter a new recession, and if that happens, Mr. Castro might face another summer of discontent this year or next. Tempers are short in the summer heat. Add to that chronic shortages of power, sporadic interruptions in the water supply. If the commandante’s bungling causes food shortages as well, the regime may well face angry protests. Mr. Castro’s control has always rested on three pillars: his security apparatus, his economic system and his moral authority. The first is intact, but the other two look shaky," close quote.

Well, is there a way out of this box for Fidel Castro? Is there a way to save communism in Cuba? No political reform, no economic reform; yeah, there is. Sure, there is a way out: Get the Americans to lift their embargo; get them to start sending IMF and World Bank and Inter-American Bank money pouring in; even maybe some U.S. government credits around the corner and we’re in business, or at least, Fidel is in business.

The fact is that Cuba’s poverty is the result of government policy there, just as has been true in most communist countries. It is not the result of the U.S. embargo. There’s no economic freedom. There’s no rule of law. There is tremendous overspending on the military and the police and tremendous underspending on health. The embargo’s not to blame for that. A couple of numbers: The Pan American Health Organization reports that the government of Cuba devotes a smaller percentage of its budget to health than Costa Rica, Jamaica or the Dominican Republic. The U.N. Development Program reports that military expenditure, as a percentage of combined health and education—military versus health and education—in Argentina, military expenditure is 51 percent of health and education expenditure; in Panama, it’s 34 percent; in the DR, it’s 22 percent; in Cuba, it’s 125 percent. Those are Fidel Castro’s priorities. They have nothing to do with the embargo.

Is it time for a change? Yes, it’s time for a change. It is time for a change in Cuba’s policies, not ours. Before we ask the embargo be lifted, I would urge any of you to read the Human Rights Watch report or the Amnesty International report on Cuba and be sure you can say that nothing that is being proposed will help that vicious regime stay in power. To provide resources to that dictatorship now, absent fundamental political and economic reform, is to give it a lease on life that will probably last beyond Fidel’s life and is helpful to retaining a communist system in Cuba under Raul Castro.

The problem is not just Fidel; it is whether we will give them the resources to stay in power permanently by manufacturing artificial prosperity in Cuba through foreign credits and investment. Thanks.

Dr. GELB: Thank you, Elliott.

Thank you, gentlemen. Two-minute rebuttal, starting with Congressman Rangel, please.

Congressman RANGEL: Well, Elliott, you started with a quick trip to communist China, but you left so fast, I don’t know what your point was. But one thing is abundantly clear—is that we’re not trying to change their government by using trade as a tool. Now you would say that they’re doing so poorly in Cuba that nobody would invest there. That takes care of the argument. I am not an investor. I don’t represent Wall Street, and I did not call that U.S. Chamber of Commerce meeting. That was American industry saying, ‘Let the free marketplace determine where the investments are. If they’re not going to be in Cuba, let it be in Jamaica or Barbados. But don’t have the United States of America and the leader of the free trade saying that our businesspeople cannot make that decision as to whether to go there.’

Another point I’d like to make is that whether or not they get IMF credits doesn’t mean that they’re treated better than most countries. They would be treated the same as most countries. That’s even what most-favorite-nation treatment means, that we’re not going to penalize them. But the truth of the matter is that—what happened to the Kissingers and the people that worked in the State Department that you served in, that once they leave the office, they change their mind and say that we should not be the perpetrators of locking people from the opportunity to invest in Cuba? And if Cuba is such an economic basket case, then why are the hotels open? Where are these investors coming from? They’re certainly not U.S. investors. Beans are eaten there; rice is eaten there; poultry’s eaten there, and it’s being sold by somebody. Why would you not give American entrepreneurs an opportunity to make the same economic evaluation that you did? That’s what America is supposed to be all about.

Mr. ABRAMS: We have a fundamental disagreement, because I don’t agree with that. America is not about giving American investors the freedom to invest wherever they want. And we should go back and talk about South Africa for a minute, where we may have been on different sides of the issue. You don’t believe it, either. You don’t believe there should have been, ‘Just let the investors throw money into apartheid South Africa.’ I think if we look at China, the reason it’s relevant is—I’d have a consistent policy in China and Cuba. I don’t think it’s such a great idea to say to American investors, ‘Just go ahead and pour every dollar you want into China regardless of the political situation in China,’ either.

I do not work for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and after this evening’s performance, I’m even less likely to do so. But I think there should be a morality in American foreign policy that stops and asks, whether it’s a huge market like China or a tiny one like Cuba, ‘Is this right?’ Now I don’t think, by the way, that those hotels are full for the reasons you suggest. Sure, great beaches. But all you have to do is read The New York Times to know sex tourism plays a part of it, prostitution plays a part of it. What is happening to the people of Cuba—not because of our embargo; let’s not exaggerate the impact of the embargo—because of the policies that the government of Cuba continues to insist on, those hotels are full of people looking for cheap vacations which are cheap because of the horrible conditions in which the people of Cuba live.

Congressman RANGEL: I can’t wait to let Cardinal O’Connor and the pope know that their advocacy of removing the embargo is now going to lead to this sinful, sexful thing on the beaches of Cuba.

Mr. ABRAMS: If they’re not, Charlie...

Congressman RANGEL: And having said that, for my president now to fight the moral fight as to what they should be doing in Cuba, with all the problems he’s having in the White House, I think we better pass over that one. But let me get back to...

Mr. ABRAMS: He said it, not me.

Congressman RANGEL: Let me—well, he’s in charge of...

Mr. ABRAMS: I wasn’t going to touch it. I...

Congressman RANGEL: He’s in charge of the ethics committee for some think tank now, so we can have a stretch of any of your imaginations for purposes of debate only. But you mention, you know, rather swiftly that on the question of South Africa that we were on the wrong side—different sides of the question. I was advocating the embargo there and we were having companies all over the world saying that we should have this embargo, while Ronald Reagan was talking about having

just an engagement, constructive engagement with them.

But, the difference between the embargo there and the embargo in Haiti, wouldn’t you believe, that if we unilaterally are saying, we’re the only country in the Free World that’s going to exercise the embargo, automatically we’re saying it’s not going to be effective. Even parts of the Helms-Burton law, which allows Cuban American ships to sue American firms for property that they may or may not have had in Cuba in the federal courts—President Clinton refuses to allow that to lock into place. It’s bad law. You can’t enforce it. It’ll never stand up in the World Trade Organization. But the bottom line has to be if, indeed, we have the embargo and the other countries don’t, how do we enforce it against the other countries?

Mr. ABRAMS: Well, to me, it’s very striking that the main goal of Cuban foreign policy in 1997, ‘96, ‘95, ‘98, seems to be to get the American embargo lifted. I can’t believe that if the U.S. embargo were ineffective, as the Cuban propaganda sometimes claims, they would be spending their whole foreign policy on getting rid of that—that’s all they’ve got as a foreign policy now. Everything they do is dedicated to getting the embargo lifted. Castro’s not stupid. It can’t be that he would dedicate this much effort to something that would be meaningless to the future of his regime.

Congressman RANGEL: If Castro is so good that he knows how to manipulate the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and every former State Department official that was dealing with Latin America, then the guy can’t be all bad. And I have no idea of where there would be a constituency except for what is right and what is moral in removing the embargo. One of the reasons why this embargo locks into place is because most Americans don’t know there’s an embargo and don’t care whether there’s an embargo or not. The political strength for the support of the embargo has come from a handful of people that were based in Miami. And so where would Castro be getting this political support, through the Chamber of Commerce, through the pope...

Mr. ABRAMS: Well...

Congressman RANGEL: ... through Cardinal O’Connor? Where does he get this new swell of influence in this great republic of ours?

Mr. ABRAMS: He gets influence in the Chamber of Commerce the same place the Chinese get it. And, unfortunately, it is from businessmen who simply want to take advantage of economic opportunities, whether it’s China or Cuba or anywhere else, and don’t care about the political impact. It’s terribly unfortunate...

Congressman RANGEL: That’s one for Elliott...

Mr. ABRAMS: The same businessmen—now wait a minute...

Congressman RANGEL: ...one for Elliott. Now let’s go to the pope. OK, I got you there. Let’s go straight from there...

Mr. ABRAMS: You know, Charlie...

Congressman RANGEL : ...to the pope.

Mr. ABRAMS: ...let us not misrepresent the pope’s visit. The pope’s visit to Cuba was an evangelical visit in which he mentioned God or Jesus 140 times and the embargo once. But I’ll make a deal with this audience. If we’re going to listen to the pope, let’s listen to the pope, OK? So we’ll pass the—listen to the Pope John Paul II Act of 1998. He’s against abortion; we’re going to outlaw abortion. OK? He’s for lifting the embargo; we’ll lift the embargo. Let us not say, ‘Well, if the pope said it, we’re going to do it,’ because that’s not an argument...

Congressman RANGEL: I’m not saying that. You knocked over the Chamber; you knocked down the pope. I’m trying to find out—we got an old man over there running around in fatigues with a .45 on his hip. He’s not well and he’s generating all of these problems in the United States. I’m saying, how does he do this? A hundred and forty religious organizations, humanitarian organizations, the Catholic Church—you know, Jesus notwithstanding—how does this communist, how can he do these things to a great republic like ours?

Mr. ABRAMS: He’s not doing anything, Charlie.

Congressman RANGEL: Well, you say he’s generating all of this enthusiasm, and you bet your life, he is.

Mr. ABRAMS: All he’s doing is appealing to parts of the business community that are more interested in the profits that they may be able to make in Cuba, as has been true elsewhere, than they are in the conditions there. Now...

Congressman RANGEL: How did he con the pope?

Mr. ABRAMS: Look, don’t give me this stuff about...

Congressman RANGEL: How did he con the pope? That’s what I want to know.

Mr. ABRAMS: No, he didn’t con the pope. The pope’s wrong. It’s very simple.

Congressman RANGEL: Well...

Mr. ABRAMS: You think he’s wrong on a lot of issues. I may think he’s wrong on some others. But don’t give me the old man in fatigues. Today in Cuba...

Congressman RANGEL: He’s an old man. I spent five hours with him.

Mr. ABRAMS: ...today in Cuba, there is a viciously repressive government. You can read any of these human rights reports about the continuing use of psychiatric hospitals, of electro-shock therapy against dissidents, of the denial of food and medicine to prisoners, political prisoners adopted by Amnesty. So it is not amusing to think of the political situation and the human rights situation in Cuba. And he is not an amusing old guy in fatigues with a funny beard; he is a vicious dictator.

Congressman RANGEL: The way you get after these vicious people is not by locking out Americans. Let our press get in there. Let our students in there. Let our businesspeople get in there. Let us go into the hospitals and see things. But any government that tells American citizens that they can’t visit where they want and get answers to their own questions, you could be making all of this up. The thing is, how would an American ever know if our government says, ‘I can’t check out Abrams in Cuba’?

Mr. ABRAMS: You got to read The New York Times, which, as you know, is utterly reliable on foreign policy questions.

Congressman RANGEL: I am saying, Elliott, it is un-American to say that Americans can’t travel and can’t invest.

Mr. ABRAMS: Oh, wait a minute.

Congressman RANGEL: And whatever’s...

Mr. ABRAMS: Now you moved from travel to invest, which is a little bit different. Those two things...

Congressman RANGEL: Well, take either one that you want. I don’t care which one you take. It’s against the law for us to invest. It’s against the law for us to go there and spend...

Mr. ABRAMS: But Charlie...

Congressman RANGEL: ...more than 100 bucks a day.

Mr. ABRAMS: ...let’s take an example of Canada, the great noble country to the north. Sherritt International is investing in Canada, they’ve got nickel—in Cuba, they’ve got nickel operations. What do they do there? They pay people $200 a week. That’s a great salary in Cuba. Problem is that the $200 a week goes to the government of Cuba and the workers are getting $5 a week. Now...

Congressman RANGEL: Well, that...

Mr. ABRAMS: ...should American companies be able to do that? Is that your—well, that’s wonderful. That’s going to help the people of Cuba.

Congressman RANGEL: I’ve heard that argument before.

Mr. ABRAMS: It’s a true argument.

Congressman RANGEL: And would you believe, Y.T. Walker, that the apple pickers that we have in upstate New York come from Jamaica? And guess who our farmers contract with? The government of Jamaica. Oops! I mean, that’s what we do. We don’t pay the apple pickers. We pay the government. That’s what happens in Cuba. They’re looking for hard currency. No one is supporting...

Mr. ABRAMS: Charlie, that’s a...

Congressman RANGEL: ...Castro or his type of government. It’s repugnant to everything that Americans should stand for. But we should not be restricted in seeing it with our own eyes...

Mr. ABRAMS: Right.

Congressman RANGEL: ...and making our own judgment. And it shouldn’t be our government restricting us; it should be Castro doing the restriction, not our president and not our country.

Mr. ABRAMS: It should be...

Dr. GELB: Last word, Elliott.

Mr. ABRAMS: And it should not be our government or our businessmen who are giving the regime the resources it needs to stick around for another 20 or 30 years.

Congressman RANGEL: Well, I just have more confidence in our businesspeople, our religious leaders and, now that Jorge Mas Canosa’s no longer with us, the good people in Miami and Florida.

Dr. GELB: I’ll forego my question time. It was actually irresistible. And it looked like there was a high risk of their reaching a consensus. Let me just open the floor right off to questions. And I see you sitting over there, Susan Purcell. Please, could you bring the microphone to her?

QUESTIONER: Well, I didn’t have a question, but I was thinking of one.

Dr. GELB: Would you identify...

QUESTIONER: Oh, Susan Purcell from the...

Dr. GELB: ...name, rank, serial number.

QUESTIONER: ...Americas Society and Council of the Americas. I think, Congressman Rangel, your position—you accused Elliott of being inconsistent, but your position is rather inconsistent. You obviously have an inconsistent position with regard to embargoes because you support them in one case and not in the other. Your main argument against them was that they hurt the people of Cuba; yet, that didn’t keep you from supporting the embargo against South Africa. And at the same time that you say that the embargo was hurting all these people, you say embargoes don’t work because the embargo against Cuba is unilateral and, therefore, it’s ineffective. Well, how can it both be hurting the people and be totally ineffective because it’s unilateral?

Congressman RANGEL: Well, in order to bring down a government, you have to cut off their ability to trade with other countries. I think when you were talking about South Africa and the South African people made a decision that their suffering was nothing compared to the racist minority government that they were going through. And most of the world, besides our Republican administration, agreed with that. And so we had a moral coming-together in terms of an embargo that it involved more than just one country against a smaller country. But if you find all the other countries actually doing business in Cuba, it’s just that their inability to get certain things that are manufactured—certain health equipment are only manufactured by the United States of America. Certain medicines, we’re the only ones with patents on.

So I think it does make a difference that if you’re just going to say, ‘I don’t like it,’ it’s almost as bad and we should have a debate as—so if we cannot get all of our trading partners and our countries that are supporting the U.N. mandate against Iraq—if that doesn’t work, should we unilaterally just bomb them? I don’t think that we should. And so I’m taking a moral position as relates to that as well.

Mr. ABRAMS: Equally wrong on that one.

Congressman RANGEL: OK. Well...

Dr. GELB: You want to...

Mr. ABRAMS: No, that’s OK.

Dr. GELB: OK, down in front, Catherine, could you bring that down front for Ted Sorensen?

QUESTIONER: I’m Ted Sorensen of Paul Weiss, and, Mr. Moderator, you were right; there is a consensus developing, as I heard it. Elliott, you stated that the embargo is not what’s preventing foreign investment in Cuba. Charlie Rangel stated the embargo is not preventing foreign investment in Cuba. Both of them agree that the embargo is preventing U.S. investment in Cuba. So if foreign investment is coming in under the embargo, U.S. investment is not going in under the embargo, tell me again how this is serving American interests.

Mr. ABRAMS: It’s in the interests of the United States to try to move Cuba toward a stable democratic government. Giving resources to the Castro regime contradicts such a policy and runs the risk, if it creates a kind of false foreign-supported prosperity, of allowing that regime to buy its way through another couple of decades, if enough money is floating around, without much economic reform and without any political reform. The interest...

QUESTIONER: I thought you said foreign investment’s flowing in...

Mr. ABRAMS: No, I did not say foreign investment is flowing in; I said foreign investment is not flowing in. I quoted from The Economist that...

QUESTIONER: You said it’s not being prevented by the embargo.

Mr. ABRAMS: No, it is being prevented by Cuban economic policy, mostly. Obviously, there would be somewhat more economic in trade. But what is really stopping the Europeans and the Latins and the Asians from investing in Cuba is, it’s a crummy place to invest unless you’ve got a product where you’re able and willing to get what virtually amounts to, you know, penny-an-hour labor, as Sherritt of Canada is doing. There are no Sullivan Principles for Cuba, you know. You can just use people and abuse people. There are no trade unions. Isn’t it wonderful to invest in Cuba? That’s the kind of thing that we should not be in favor of for American business. Investing in that kind of country, taking advantage of the oppression of the people, is just not good policy.

Congressman RANGEL: Well, if the Europeans are not doing it, I don’t think American businesspeople would do it. If it’s a bum investment for them, then remove the embargo and it’ll be a bum investment for us, too.

Mr. ABRAMS: Oh, I don’t think that—I’ll tell you the truth, I’m less worried about the investment than the credits. It’s the money from the iffies flowing in from the multilateral banks that really gives Castro—my real problem is not—not my real problem. I have no problem with resources going to the people of Cuba—none. I have a problem with resources going to the government of Cuba.

Congressman RANGEL: How does removing the embargo allow international organizations to give credit to Cuba? The embargo is a unilateral effort.

Mr. ABRAMS: No. We...

Congressman RANGEL: It has nothing to do with the U.N.

Mr. ABRAMS: I assume, and I think it’s a reasonable assumption, that...

Congressman RANGEL: Well, I don’t know.

Mr. ABRAMS: We stopped blocking, for example, the Inter-American Bank from having Cuba in it and giving money to Cuba. But, look, Sherritt is a good example. I don’t want to lift the embargo if it means that American companies go in there and hire 100,000 Cuban workers and pay them 5 bucks a week and give all the rest of the salary to Fidel Castro so he can buy more police. That’s not good policy.

Congressman RANGEL: What makes you have such less confidence in American investors? If none of the other investors are doing it because it’s a bum deal, why would you think Americans would stoop that low to do it?

Mr. ABRAMS: Well, I think that we can see, as we look around the world and as we watch "60 Minutes," it has happened, Charlie. You know it has happened. You can get lots of reports from the AFL-CIO on the many, many places in which it has happened. And the only way to stop it is for the company to watch very carefully what’s happening. But in Cuba, you have a government that makes it a policy of doing this, that wishes to attract investors by offering up its citizens as, I won’t say slaves; I’ll say serfs.

Congressman RANGEL: Boy, you left Red China fast, because we’re talking about state-operated businesses in China...

Mr. ABRAMS: Absolutely.

Congressman RANGEL: ...and you have such a different standard between how you’re treating China...

Mr. ABRAMS: I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. I would have the same standard. I am not the...

Congressman RANGEL: Then are you prepared to say that you support Americans having unilateral, if necessary, embargoes against any country that does not enjoy at least a two-party democratic system?

Mr. ABRAMS: We’re talking about two separate things here. One of them is...

Congressman RANGEL: Well, whatever it is that you object...

Mr. ABRAMS: Wait. One of them is...

Congressman RANGEL: ...to so seriously in Cuba—whatever that is, it’s existing in North Vietnam, North Korea and China.

Mr. ABRAMS: No.

Congressman RANGEL: Would you support a unilateral embargo against those countries?

Mr. ABRAMS: I have supported and would support...

Congressman RANGEL: I mean, now we’ve got to find...

Mr. ABRAMS: ...an embargo on any of those countries if I thought the embargo would be useful in moving the country toward democracy. In those countries—China’s a very good example—you have a government that at least—at least—is doing the economic reforms that I think most of us believe will ultimately subvert the Communist government. In Cuba, you have a government that is carefully preventing the economic change that could be useful in developing democracy there.

Congressman RANGEL: When did you come to embrace...

Dr. GELB: Last word to you, Charlie.

Congressman RANGEL: Could you—well, I didn’t want to get into South Africa because you hadn’t dealt with these other Communist countries. But when did you adopt the tool of embargo as a moral force when, during all of the minority rule in South Africa, you did not believe that was a tool that at least the United States should be using?

Mr. ABRAMS: Absolutely not. I was absolutely persuaded by Chet Crocker and the policy of constructive engagement that he had a better way to help move South Africa in the right direction.

Congressman RANGEL: I know, but that was without the embargo.

Dr. GELB: Let me hold you here. We’ll come back to you and your final statements.

All the way over on the right by the door.

QUESTIONER: I’m Kenneth Bialken. I appreciate that foreign policies are full of inconsistencies and so we shouldn’t object to them, but there are two here. Elliott, you suggested that there were aspects of society in Cuba that made it unacceptable to us and, therefore, we ought to embargo them. But as I listened to you, you were describing some of our best friends around the world having similar kinds of policies with civil rights and other failures. I mean, start with Saudi Arabia; start with places like even Jamaica. I mean, there are places where there are inconsistencies. So I think that boycotts or embargoes can be sustained only when we have a foreign policy interest in doing so. And so I would appreciate it if you would articulate what you think is our foreign policy interest in doing so. And the obverse of that is, I don’t think Mr. Rangel’s point that we should lift the embargo simply because it’s a humanitarian thing to do carries any weight because whenever there’s an embargo, there is suffering. And are you going to suggest that we lift the embargo on Iraq because the people of Iraq are suffering? So there are those inconsistencies, but I think we need to rationalize some...

Dr. GELB: Thank you, Ken.

Mr. ABRAMS: Well, the foreign policy goal is transition to a stable democratic government in Cuba, which is very much in the interests of the United States. Among other things, better economic and political policy in Cuba would alleviate the immense humanitarian problem of constant, unsafe, indeed murderous, efforts to migrate in rubber tires and so forth from Cuba. Therefore, I am opposed to any policy that is likely to give resources to the Castro government so that it can stay in power longer. I’d add one other thing, though, because your question, I think, is a very good one. I think that people who are enemies of the United States, who make a career out of being enemies of the United States, should be treated like enemies of the United States. I would say it about Saddam Hussein, who is a dangerous enemy because of the biological weapons, and I’d say it about Fidel Castro who, at this point, is not a dangerous enemy. But when you make a career and a life out of hating America and spewing venom and trying with every resource that you at least used to have in the Soviet Union, then I think that we ought to say, ‘OK, you’ve made yourself an enemy of the United States. Now we’re your enemy. We would like to see you out of power. We think the world would be a better place and Cuba would be a better place.’ I don’t think it is good for a superpower to have a policy of saying to its enemies, ‘Let’s let bygones be bygones.’ I think that way, you end up having more enemies.

Congressman RANGEL: Pain and suffering, of course, is caused by any embargo. It’s when you cause the pain and suffering and you’re not moving any other economic or political agenda the way you would want. But this is more than just an embargo. It is a national policy that we punish sovereign countries, our trading partners, when they participate in trade with Cuba, and that’s a part of the embargo, and it doesn’t make sense.

Dr. GELB: Ambassador Luers down here—microphone, please.

QUESTIONER: Elliott, at the outset, when you talked about China, you raised the issue of whether or not the Chinese form of transition from communism was the better or the worse form, say, than the Soviet, the Russian form of transition. I would argue that the Russian form has been a disaster for the world and for Russia because they weren’t prepared for it. The Chinese form is to prepare the economic basis for transiting from a communist government to a capitalist form of government. Now I think one of the major issues in Cuba is what kind of transformation will take place in Cuba over the next decade. We know Fidel will die. We know that Alarcon and Raul probably can’t maintain that government for very long. The danger of having people fly in from outside to occupy the country is serious. That country has to be ready for transition. Lifting the embargo, having the United States more involved, having American private investors and private organizations involved in that country, since we are the most important neighbor they have—it seems to me to be a vital way to help make the way for this vital transition.

Dr. GELB: You got this question here.

Mr. ABRAMS: Yep. Yep.

Dr. GELB: Elliott. Thanks, Bill.

Mr. ABRAMS: If you could persuade Castro of that and you could come to me, Bill, and say, ‘Here’s the deal. We’re going to have a tremendous change a la China in Cuban economic policy. We’re going to open the place up. We’re going to rip it open.’ But, as you know, this has not happened. When the Spanish socialist representative of the European Union went to Cuba to discuss wider trade ties, he met with some dissidents and, as soon as he left the island, they were arrested. When Axworthy of Canada went, the dissidents were arrested while he was still there. So the message is clear. We’re not going to do this. If you could get that deal where, in my language, we would be subverting the Cuban government and preparing the way for a future, you’d have something to talk to me about. What you have now, though, is no economic reform, merely throwing resources at Castro. And I don’t think that prepares the way for a better transition; I think it postpones it another couple of decades.

Dr. GELB: Down front here, please, Catherine.

QUESTIONER: I’m Adam Aron, chairman of the Board of Colorado-based Vail Resorts, formerly CEO of Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Line; went on a tourism trade delegation in Havana two years ago. First, I’d just like to say as a preamble, I love hearing a liberal Democrat take a pro-business position. Thank you very much. And, Mr. Abrams, I think you have no faith in our people. If we invade Cuba with our dollars, with our television and our people, that regime won’t last five minutes. And so my question to you is this: Your position is actually quite principled, because no one likes the Castro regime. This is the policy that the United States has been pursuing for 38 years unsuccessfully. When are you going to give up and say that perhaps a change in tactics might achieve the same objective which I believe both of you seek? And specifically, if we had the same approach to Vietnam, we would still have another 10 years to go in the Vietnam War.

Dr. GELB: Thank you. Elliott.

Mr. ABRAMS: The notion that the government of Cuba wouldn’t last five minutes if there were an invasion of American travelers and businessmen is completely belied by China, where there has really not been any lifting of totalitarian control to speak of. So I just don’t believe that. I just don’t believe it. I do think that over the long run—not in five minutes, over the long run—yes, an economic opening can subvert communism, and it is going to do that in China. But that is what Castro is absolutely forbidding. That’s why I said Bill and I can negotiate this, Bill Luers and I. But just saying, ‘Well, what the hell? Let’s give him the money’--that, to me, is not good. I also disagree with the notion that we’ve been pursuing this policy since the day Castro came to power. In fact, what has happened is, I think, pretty clear. The Russians gave him the money that we took away, the Soviets did. Now there are no Soviets, and the policy is really biting. And it is not I; it is The Economist which is now saying, ‘He’s in trouble.’ And he is in trouble because the economy is in such bad shape. And with the pope’s visit, perhaps, his moral authority is undercut. And right now, this is not the moment to declare defeat and give him the money.

Mr. ARON: So my quick comeback would be this. Let’s get...

Dr. GELB: Microphone, please. Make it very short, please.

Mr. ARON: It will be. My quick comeback is this. Let’s say you’re right. How many months from today do you want to try your policy? And at what point will you then give up—one year, two years, three years, seven years, 12 years? Because you said, ‘Just a little more time, that’s all we need.’

Mr. ABRAMS: No, no, no, no. I said it would not take five minutes; it would take some time, as we see in China, if there were a complete or even a la China economic opening. But the obvious answer to your question is, I think the way to help build democracy in Cuba is to be sure that no resources go to Fidel Castro. And as long as he is running that government, with these policies, I would continue the current American policy with one exception. And as I said before, I think it’s great to give more resources—you want to subvert Castro—more resources to the Cuban people, not the government. Should Cuban-Americans be permitted to ship more money to their relatives in Cuba, out of the hands of the government? Yes. Should more money be able to go for food or should food be able to go through Caritas to the Church of Cuba? Yes. Nothing for the government. That policy I would continue as long as Fidel’s around.

Congressman RANGEL: Do you support Helms-Burton in its present form?

Mr. ABRAMS: I support Helms-Burton in its present—well, not in the sense that I would like to have larger exceptions for more resources directly to the people if you can get around the government of Cuba.

Congressman RANGEL: OK, I just wanted the record to be straight.

Dr. GELB: OK, question all the way in the back.

QUESTIONER: I’m Bill Doherty. I’ve been involved with both American and Cuban labor for many years and I have a great respect for the Congressman and also for Elliott. I frankly think the issue of the embargo is moot. Both of you agree that if the lifting of the embargo and all of its consequences will support the people of Cuba, you’re in agreement. And the truth of the matter right now is that the people of Cuba cannot be supported unless it’s by dollar remissions to the relatives down there or through the church institutions that can distribute food and medicine to the people of Cuba. Now the people of Cuba are only going to benefit if they got dollars, because Castro made two fatal mistakes: He dollarized the economy and allowed the pope in. And he’s on his way out. The more the people of Cuba got dollars to buy products that emanate or work for firms that invest in Cuba, then they’re going to be in business. So I think what we have to do is concentrate on how the workers and the people of Cuba—I happen to believe through collective bargaining and real, decent unions, of which, Charlie, you know there are none and, Elliott, you know there are none right now—that the people of Cuba can benefit if they got dollars in their pocket. Fifty percent of them already have a couple of bucks and some of them many. But the Cuban military control the tourist industry, and that’s where most dollars are owned. You got to get the Cuban military out of the tourist industry and you’ve got to get—well, frankly, Sherritt International not giving 3 bucks a week, Elliott, to the workers when the government has paid $9,500 a year for every worker that works in the nickel mines. So I’m with both of you. Let’s get the embargo lifted, people of Cuba assisted. Thank you.

Dr. GELB: Thank you, Mr. Doherty. First thing is, what do you think of that?

Mr. ABRAMS: Well, years ago, I learned the lesson that you disagree with Bill Doherty at your peril; he’s usually right. I think there is some common ground here, and the common ground, as I understand what you’re saying, is, again, you focus on the people of Cuba and getting around their government. Now you want to come to me, Bill—we can do the two Bills here. You want to come to me, Bill, and say, ‘Here’s the deal. I have got a collective bargaining thing worked out with the government of Cuba. They’re going to have real trade unions. Would you allow an American company to do a deal with one?’ I think you would have me logically, because that money goes to the people. Bill, you’re not going to get it from the dictator of Cuba, not as long as he’s alive. I wish you well. Keep up that fight. We should all be fighting the fight. But because he won’t do it, that is precisely why I think we need to maintain an embargo.

Congressman RANGEL: And if he did do it, how in the hell are you going to enforce it?

Mr. ABRAMS: Well, we would try to enforce it. And I...

Congressman RANGEL: How?

Mr. ABRAMS: Oh, I think—get Doherty down there. That’s...

Congressman RANGEL: No, no, no, no, because, I mean, the only thing we know how to enforce is with, you know, introduction of troops. I mean, if we’re not doing it with sanctions and you’re saying that, all you need is an agreement. Well, the communists will tell you anything you want.

Mr. ABRAMS: No, I’m talking about serious...

Congressman RANGEL: You know, you can’t trust them. What kind of contract are you going to get for elections in Cuba? The same one you have in China and North Korea?

Mr. ABRAMS: Not for elections. Not for elections.

Congressman RANGEL: For what?

Mr. ABRAMS: He was talking about collective bargaining. You can start collective bargaining industry by industry, enterprise by enterprise, and it’s an experiment. It is...

Congressman RANGEL: And who will be doing the organizing?

Mr. ABRAMS: The workers.

Congressman RANGEL: We’ll put that on the fast-track bill, that we’re going to have negotiations...

Mr. ABRAMS: Well, it has been true...

Congressman RANGEL: ...industry by industry with the government of Cuba.

Mr. ABRAMS: It has been true for a long time and it’s still true today that if you want to judge the degree of oppression in a country, how forcefully they oppress free trade unions is probably the best single way to judge.

Congressman RANGEL: And evaluators of that would be whom, as to whether or not they oppress the unions or not?

Mr. ABRAMS: Let’s start with the ILO in Geneva. I’ll take their judgment.

Dr. GELB: Question all the way down here, Meher.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Jeff Laurenti with the United Nations Association. Picking up on the discussion right here, if free trade unions are the measure, then perhaps we should be having an embargo on investment in Indonesia. I don’t think that that’s really so much the argument. But it does bring us to the question of whether the international financial institutions which, Elliott, I think you had pointed to as the real fears, not so much that the people will invest, because I think you’re right fundamentally. Cuba, under its doctrinaire socialism, is going to be a terrible investment for almost anybody. But whether that is fundamentally bound up with the extension of credits, particularly from the multilateral system—and, indeed, as we see in Indonesia and elsewhere now, the international financial institutions have more conditionality and have more power to promote economic change and other kinds of change than even bilateral aid programs. And tied to that is the question of the legitimacy of the Castro government, whether, in your judgment, the embargo has really eaten at that legitimacy or whether it’s been the multilateral system under your actual leadership back in the ‘80s of going to the U.N. Human Rights Commission year after year. The largest number of complaints filed with the U.N. Human Rights Commission each year are against the Castro government; that it is this taking its toll, kind of blindsiding the rapporteurs, U.N. investigators that have deprived him of this romantic revolutionary hero image and made him more and more a tired and oppressive-looking figure worldwide. It seems that, if legitimacy is what we’re aiming at cracking, that’s the route where we have more success than we have had by looking like the bully, as for much of the world we seem to be, with this embargo. And tell me if you think that’s, in some way, fundamentally flawed or perhaps some truth to it.

Mr. ABRAMS: Well, I think there is clearly some truth to it, but I am not so much worried about the rest of the world. I remember when we were trying to get economic pressures against Pinochet in Chile in the ‘80s, and the French and the Italians and the Germans—they didn’t want to hear about it. So, you know, I just don’t give a damn if they want to continue to do this. And I support the provisions of Helms-Burton that you said were so terrible. I do not see why we have to sit idly by while they traffic in stolen property, which is what they’re doing when they take those factories and other assets that the Cuban government stole from people and trade in them. So I don’t think it should be our job, really, to try to combat Castro’s legitimacy through the embargo. That you do, as you say, at the U.N. Human Rights Commission, although, of course, how much of that gets through to Cuba, I don’t know. Our job, it seems to me, is to prevent resources from prolonging the life of that tottering regime.

Congressman RANGEL: Elliott, I cannot possibly believe where you and I would want to make certain that there’s repatriation for any United States citizen’s or company’s property that’s been taken illegally by a government—that you believe that the democratic way to achieve that goal is for that individual on his or her own to go into our federal courts to make their claim against a foreign company doing business in Cuba. Now you cannot believe that that’s going to work.

Mr. ABRAMS: Oh, no, I believe it will work when the foreign company is doing business in America, and that’s all we’re talking about. When that foreign company comes here to do business, we have a right to say to them, ‘Wait a minute. There’s an American here who has stolen property you just bought from the government of Cuba.’ You can’t have it both ways.

Congressman RANGEL: And how do they present their case in the federal court that the property that was taken by the Cuban government was illegally taken and you’re going now after a third party that is doing business with that government?

Mr. ABRAMS: Well, I don’t...

Congressman RANGEL: How do you make your case in the federal court?

Mr. ABRAMS: I think you have lots of history in the federal courts in the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission of how you prove that there was a taking without compensation. It’s against international law.

Congressman RANGEL: But we’re not saying that the foreign firm that we’re suing took it.

Mr. ABRAMS: We are saying that the foreign firm bought it from the government of Cuba, which took it without compensation. It’s stolen property.

Congressman RANGEL: And so they have to answer in our courts...

Mr. ABRAMS: Only if they want to do business here.

Congressman RANGEL: ...how they took a Cuban’s property in Cuba. You know, if the American Indians...

Mr. ABRAMS: Only if they want to do business here.

Congressman RANGEL: ...ever find out about this, you know...

Dr. GELB: Let me hold you at this point. The compliment: No one has made a move to leave. So let me hold you just for five minutes more and give them a chance to conclude. So let me lead you each into a conclusion, two minutes each, with a different question to each of you. You started, so let me begin the question with you. I won’t ask you the same one. What do you expect would happen, Elliott, if we pursued your policy and, let’s say, squeezed harder and harder and Castro was overthrown? Do you think that there would be a peaceful democratic transition in that country or do you think there would be a replacement of Castro by similar folks or do you think there’d be civil war? What would be the result of following the line you prescribe?

Mr. ABRAMS: I am not asking for a tightening. That’s an erroneous statement of my position. My position is that any loosening of the embargo must direct resources at the people of Cuba so that we are leading toward a peaceful, democratic transition. If we can do that, if we can begin to break down this system by forcing or giving incentives for economic change a la China, in the medium run, we will be leading to a more democratic Cuba. It is not going to lead to a more democratic Cuba to strengthen the Castro regime with its unchanged repression and its unchanged economic policies. It is not going to lead to a peaceful transition to give that government more resources.

I just want to close with one thing.

Dr. GELB: Yes.

Mr. ABRAMS: And just a very quick reminder from Friday’s New York Times. It’s about a doctor named Desi Mendoza, who was just sentenced to eight years in prison for disseminating enemy propaganda. He’s a physician and human rights advocate, and his crime was to publicize an outbreak of dengue fever. The government did not want foreigners in Cuba to know about this outbreak and it didn’t give a damn whether the people of Cuba got treatment for the disease. There is nothing amusing about it—eight years in prison. He’s just been adopted by Amnesty International, which called it—‘We thought it was a pretty much open-and-shut case.’ That’s what’s going on in Cuba. Please, do nothing, support nothing, ask for nothing that gives that government an additional resource of any kind and prolongs its stay in power. That’s the argument.

Dr. GELB: Charlie, let me ask you a different kind of question. Tell us what you think of Fidel Castro and whether or not you think it’s an acceptable outcome, it’s an OK outcome, for the United States if his supporters essentially succeed him. And is that where...

Congressman RANGEL: It’s difficult to tell. I’d just like to say briefly, though, I’m really moved by the attention that you’ve been able to give one prisoner in Cuba, because I got 1.6 million Americans that I’d like to give you some case studies on so that we can see exactly how we treat government if it means how they treat the people that are locked up. We don’t know who’s going to succeed Castro. We do know the speaker of the parliament there, Alarcon, is supposed to be one. He claims his brother is supposed to be another. It would seem to me that the best way to determine what the politics are in Cuba is not to exclude American reporters, not to exclude American businesspeople, not to exclude American tourists, and for God’s sake, don’t exclude the American student. But we’re running a risk there that if Castro was to drop dead today or tomorrow, we don’t even have an ambassador there to discuss what our next move is going to be. So I would believe that even if you wanted to put all of those restrictions on businesspeople from doing business with the government of Cuba, at least as it relates to tourism, relatives and students and educators, then we ought to remove all of that and let us go there and see what Cuba’s really like.

Dr. GELB: Thank you, Charlie.

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