Media Conference Call: Fidel Castro and Cuba

Media Conference Call: Fidel Castro and Cuba

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Welcome to everyone who's on the line, I'm Deborah Jerome, the deputy editor of, and I'm delighted to be here with Julia Sweig and Jeffrey Goldberg.

Julia Sweig is the director of Latin American Studies here at the Council and author of "Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know" and "Inside the Cuban Revolution."

Jeffrey Goldberg is the national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine and author of "Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror."

Jeffrey recently wrote a cover story for The Atlantic that analyzed whether Israel was likely to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. It was widely read, and as it turned out, one of his attentive readers was Cuba's Fidel Castro. Castro contacted Jeffrey and asked him to come to Havana. Jeffrey contacted his friend Julia, said the magic words "road trip," and they were off. The resulting pieces on their meeting with Castro, also for The Atlantic, have drawn a fair amount of comment.

Before we open up the phone lines for questions, I want to let everyone know that Jeffrey will have to leave at around 3:10, so make sure you get your questions for him in by then. And now I'd like to get the ball rolling by asking Jeffrey and Julia to clarify something in one of Jeffrey's pieces that precipitated a lot of talk.

At one point in their conversation, Jeffrey asked Fidel whether the Cuban model was still something worth exporting. Jeffrey reported that Fidel responded that, quote, "The Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore," end quote. This caused a lot of excitement, particularly when Fidel said he was misquoted.

Now, I think Fidel has said similar things before, notably, I believe, in a speech in 2005 at the University of Havana. So I'm not quite sure what the fuss is about. Jeffrey and Julia, could the two of you set the record straight on what --


JEROME: -- was actually said and what Castro meant by it?

GOLDBERG: Right. Well, let me --

JEROME: -- turn the floor over.

GOLDBERG: Thank you very much for this, and thank you for doing the call.

Let me correct something that you just said. He did not claim that he was misquoted. He said that he was misinterpreted.

JEROME: Misinterpreted. I'm sorry.

GOLDBERG: He said -- he said in his speech that the quote was correct, but that the meaning was the opposite of what I took it to be. As I wrote in my blog, I'm not sure how you can interpret the quote, "the Cuban model doesn't even work for us." I don't know how you can interpret that as its opposite. And of course, I was somewhat surprised by his speech in which he claimed to have been misinterpreted because not only has he said things like this before, but the on-the-ground reality in Cuba is such that that it's a truism that the Cuban model isn't working; that's why they're beginning sort of a large-scale experiment in privatization.

Julia might have something to add to that.

JULIA SWEIG: Yeah. Let me say that the misinterpretation -- his clarification last Friday as I understand it was intended to signal to certain domestic constituents that although it's not even an open secret -- it's common knowledge, widely discussed in terms of how to fix the model and where they're going to go in terms of economic liberalization -- what he wanted to say is although we're changing our model, that doesn't mean that we're importing U.S.-style capitalism. That was the fundamental clarification, my takeaway from it. And as Jeffrey mentioned, and we can talk about this later, the economic steps in terms of liberalization are now beginning to come forward. And so his acknowledgment to us and then even in the statement at the university was a recognition of that reality with his own twist.

JEROME: Okay. I think we can start taking questions now. Please make sure that you identify yourself when you join in.



JEROME: Hello!


OPERATOR: Yes. At this time, we'll open the floor for questions. If you'd like to ask a question, please press the star key, followed by the one key on your touchtone phone now. Questions will be taken in the order in which they're received. If at any time you would like to remove yourself from the questioning queue, press star, two. Again, that is star, one, to ask a question.

Our first question comes from Silvia Ayuso.

QUESTIONER: Hello. I'm Silvia Ayuso from the German Press Agency. Thank you for doing this.

Yesterday, the Cuban press said that the Cuban government is going to close like half million employ -- of state employment. Do you think that this kind of confirms their theories that the (boss ?), Fidel Castro and Raul Castro are trying to prepare the Cubans, as you said this morning on NPR, to the -- to the new situation, and how far do you think Fidel is going to let this go?

Thank you.

SWEIG: Yes. The Cuban press has reported this beginning today. They're doing a big rollout, letting the population know what it has been sort of pre-briefing for the last two years since Raul Castro took office, that the bloated state bureaucracy and the bloated state payroll is no longer sustainable, and that as a result, the sort of pre-1968 mode when small, private businesses were permitted is going to be brought back in, although in a very different context, of course.

Raul Castro is running that show, if you will.

And Fidel Castro is clearly -- isn't in the position to be able to permit or -- to permit it. He is acknowledging that it is going forward, and that's what the press is reporting today.

How far do I think it will go? I think that's very hard to say. Things move very slowly in Cuba. What has been announced over the last couple of months since July includes allowing foreigners to invest in real estate, to purchase real estate. This now licensing of 250 (thousand) to 500,000 private businesses, allowing people to employ one another, not just their family members, but an unlimited number as long as payroll taxes and social security taxes are paid.

It's quite a long list if you add it all up, and the direction that it's going in terms of how deep this process goes. I think it's very -- way too soon to tell.

JEROME: Thank you. Our next question comes from Jordi Zamora with AFP.

QUESTIONER: Hello, Jeffrey and Julia. Thanks for doing this. First question, I wonder if you -- if your sentiment of that interview with Fidel Castro has changed after this Friday unexpected rebuttal or denial from Lider Maximo. I mean, what are your thoughts after this? Second question, Jeffrey, if you're going to -- (inaudible) another installment, I understand that there was at least one further chapter pending. I hope you will do it. (Laughs.) And a third question, I mean, you were talking about domestic constituencies, but I wonder what is the role, for instance, of Chavez in that -- in that -- do you think that somehow he could be involved in that decision of Fidel Castro to deny himself or to -- not to clarify actually what he said to you?

SWEIG: Jeffrey, why don't you take that first and then I'll follow up.

GOLDBERG: Yeah, I'll just deal with the first part. He didn't issue a rebuttal. He didn't say it was -- as I said, it was not a misquote. He was adding his own interpretation to it.

I think -- what I think happened was it was a classic -- and we see this in Washington all the time, somebody floats a trial balloon, they get -- it unsettles some people, so they walk it back a little bit. I think that's all that happened in this case. But I think the underlying reality, as Julia, you know, has outlined and will outline, the underlying reality supports absolutely the idea that the Cuban government has recognized that the -- that the Cuban model doesn't work. So they're looking for another model.

Yes, I'm publishing more later in the week and then I'm going to be working on a larger -- a larger article to answer your second point. I'll let Julia deal with the third.

SWEIG: The third question about Chavez, Jordi, I don't think Chavez has one centimeter to do whatsoever with Fidel Castro's decision to offer his clarification last Friday. Not a bit.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

GOLDBERG: Well, it's interesting, by the way, if I might add, I'm pulling on Chavez, it's -- the very interesting that happened with him last week was the day after I published or two days after I published the comments Fidel made about Iran and anti-Semitism, Chavez came out and talked about his love for the Jewish community of Venezuela and he's going to meet with them. So I think that was -- I'd like to get into that if somebody has a question on that.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. If I just can follow on that, that's precisely my -- what I was thinking of, because I think that what happens inside Cuba has quite an influence in Venezuela -- not in Venezuela, the country, but in the leadership and on Chavez. I think he's -- I mean, Fidel Castro is a huge reference for him, don't you think?

GOLDBERG: Right, no, I think -- I think that's true.

I mean, we can't ever underestimate the impact of Fidel on the mindset of many Latin American leaders -- and not just Latin American, obviously. Across the developing world, the non-aligned countries. And look, I don't know, because I haven't talked to Chavez; I hope to about this. But my assumption is that, or an assumption one could make, at least, is that he understood from what Fidel was saying, what he said to me very feelingly, I think, and very sincerely about Jews and anti-Semitism, taking things too far. I think it would be plausible to say that, you know, he took that as a kind of a message from Fidel to, you know, cool it down a little bit, to cool down the -- some of the rhetoric that's been coming from Caracas on this issue.


GOLDBERG: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Your next question comes from Nicholas Casey with The Wall Street Journal.

QUESTIONER: Hi, how are you guys?


QUESTIONER: I just got, actually, a few questions about the half-million workers that are going to be moved over from out of the state sector. (Inaudible) --

JEROME: Could I just interrupt for just one second? Can I interrupt for just one second there?

QUESTIONER: Oh, sure. Yeah.

JEROME: Yeah, there are a lot of people on this conference call, and I'd really appreciate it if everyone could keep himself or herself to one question.


JEROME: Okay. Thanks very much.

QUESTIONER: Yes. I just would like to, you know, ask -- together here, I mean, this is -- there's a few kind of yes-or-no questions, but -- you know, can this be clawed back as other hopes for reform have been with Raul? And do you think that Raul and Fidel are on opposing sides of this issue?

SWEIG: I don't know which reforms under Raul have been clawed back that you're talking about. What I see is that he took office in the beginning of 2008. In the couple of years before that, the public discussion including by Fidel of the changes, the problems, the mistakes that had been made took on a louder and louder drumbeat.

What Raul has done since he took office is first announced what could only be described as a reform agenda. He laid that out in his inaugural speech in February of 2008 and then slowly begun to implement the pieces of that reform agenda. And that's why, you know -- and this is hard to understand from the outside, but this is not -- there's not a multi-party democracy in Cuba, but that doesn't mean there isn't a process of consultation and consensus-building. And in the case of Raul Castro doing the politics within the bureaucracy, the party, the military, the various different constituencies of making it clear what's coming down the pike with these reforms.

So to ask, can they be walked back? Sure, I suppose they could be walked back, but a lot of groundwork has been laid politically to now begin this process, and Fidel Castro -- you know, he'll -- he's -- when global capitalism takes over the entire world, he's going to be the last man standing objecting to it. But having said that, he also is not getting in his brother's way. He is in various different ways, in terms of what he doesn't get involved in and what he doesn't talk about, is signalling that the process his brother is implementing has his blessing.

That's my take on this. He is, of course, you remember, 84 years old, was very, very sick and seems, and Jeffrey can talk about this more, to be opening a new chapter in his life that does not involve governing on the day-to-day basis as he did once.

JEROME: Thank you -- (inaudible.)

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Antonio Mora with CBS.

QUESTIONER: Oh, hi, Julia, just in the context of what you just said about opening a new chapter.

If you look at everything Castro has done over the past, I guess it's been two months when he showed up on the Spanish -- on the Cuban talk show and basically spoke about the Middle East for an eternity and spoke of nothing else, the comments about anti-Semitism and Iraq, now the comments about the Cuban economy. Do you think that new chapter, that he's trying to rewrite history a little bit and set himself up for posterity as a more reasonable leader than a guy who has shamelessly violated human rights for 50 years?

SWEIG: We were asked this this morning. I'll let Jeff take some of this.

I don't see him as rewriting history, but he sure is revisiting it and he sure is reflecting on it, and as some of his public comments, whether with respect to oppression of homosexuals under his watch or now acknowledging -- and again, not for the first time -- that the economic model no longer works -- this is somebody who's obviously revisiting the last 65 years of his adult life. Is that -- I would doubt that he would think that that would have the effect of erasing the past to which you refer.

GOLDBERG: Just, you know, to add one piece of that in reference to this Jewish question, the anti-Semitism question. Yes, it is definitely true that the Cuban regime has been anti-gay and sometimes -- often in very harsh ways, and he is apologizing for that. He has not been, from what I can tell, an anti-Semite, per se. I mean he obviously is -- he's -- he broke relations with Israel in 1973. He's been not on Israel's side on anything. But in terms of anti- Semitism, personal anti-Semitism, I don't think he's trying to clean up his record on that because I don't think he has a record on it. I think he --

QUESTIONER: Well, he has a consistent record of supporting the Israeli opponents.

GOLDBERG: Yeah, no, absolutely. I just said that. He's definitely not been on Israel's side. But it's -- that's quite a different thing. It's one thing to take the Palestinian side of an argument; it's another thing to deny the Holocaust. And I think -- I have no way of judging this for sure; I can't look into a man's heart -- but I think that the idea of Holocaust denial in particular seemed to genuinely offend him -- I mean, as it should offend any sane, moral person. And I think he had a very specific, strong feeling to some of what Ahmadinejad has been saying.

So yeah, I think this -- I think this process that Julia and I experienced down in Havana -- I think it's Fidel wanting to insert himself onto the international stage a little bit more, but I don't think this was a case of trying to clean up an old record on a -- on a particular issue.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Yun Wu (ph) with Post Daily (ph).

QUESTIONER: Hi, hello. Thanks for the two speakers. My question is about the U.S. policy. From what you said, it seems to me that there are change going on in Cuba. My question is, following the U.S. government's small changes of its policy towards Cuba, do you foresee any other change that will come from the government?

SWEIG: Look, I think it's time for the United States to recognize that 50 years of one policy haven't achieved the intention, which was to block the revolution, stop them from exporting it, overthrow, et cetera. I think it's time to take yes for an answer.

And I think, to be fair, that this administration, the Obama administration, while moving very slowly, recognizes that this is an obsolete policy, but confronts, first of all, a set of other huge priorities internationally and domestically, but more importantly, the very stability of the succession in Cuba has made this not an especially urgent set of policies to change, number one.

And number two, this is not even a foreign policy. Cuba policy is domestic politics. It has to do with the perception of the importance of the Cuban-American vote in presidential, electoral politics, especially in Florida and the weight of campaign finance money being thrown around -- Republican campaign finance money going into Democratic Party coffers to keep the status quo in place. And I'll tell you, those two things really have little to do with foreign policy, with national security strategy, but they -- they have until recently dominated.

Do I expect things to begin to change? Well, the Congress has voted in one committee to lift the travel ban against Cuba. The administration now allows Cuban-Americans to travel there without any restriction. There are -- there are lots of things the president can do without the Congress, lifting the embargo, and I think it's just, frankly, now a matter of time and Washington waking up to its increasing marginality and marginalization from events within Cuba.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Jacq (ph) Albert-Simon with Politique International.

QUESTIONER: Hello, my question was related to U.S. foreign policy and -- just as the previous question was. And what I -- I agree completely that it is not foreign policy, that it is U.S. politics-dominated, but it does appear to the rest of the world as foreign policy. And so what influence would other countries' politics towards Cuba have towards American policy in Cuba?

GOLDBERG: Julia, do you want to deal with that?

I don't -- (inaudible) -- the question.

SWEIG: Sure. Well, I mean, the answer is, precisely because this is domestic politics, very literal -- little.

Having said that, this is an administration that came into office indicating a decent respect for the views of others, and that's particularly resonant in Latin America. The Latin Americans, led by Lula in Brazil, on the one hand, but also Calderon in -- on -- in Mexico and the other -- even Uribe, who's a conservative politician in Colombia, just left office. But the point is, of an ideological wide range -- Latin America, Canada, the rest of the world -- has been on record saying your policy makes no sense; it's time to change. And in the Latin American case, I think the strategic imperative, especially given the left in power throughout the region, of the United States finally turning a new -- opening a new chapter on its policy toward Cuba would be very, very favorable.

To go back to the Chavez question, it would throw a wrench in Chavez's world view, were Washington to move closer to Havana. It would open some doors in Latin America that are currently closed to the United States, especially given the iconic mythological nature of Cuba and the Cuban Revolution still.

So all things being equal, there is some degree to which Latin America's point of view does matter. But to date it hasn't trumped domestic politics.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Rory Carroll with the Guardian.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Yeah, thanks again for making the time for this today.

SWEIG: (Don't worry ?).

QUESTIONER: Fidel's -- what he's been up to the last couple of weeks and months, I mean, his return to the public stage -- to what extent do you think it's part of a thought-through strategy by him, his advisers and the government? And to what extent is it -- it's, you know, an old man and maybe the caprices of an old man just doing what he wants to do? I mean, how much of it is strategy and how much is it Fidel just indulging himself?

GOLDBERG: I -- it's a good question. I've been thinking about that myself, actually. It seemed when -- it seemed, by my whole experience and our whole experience, seems very spontaneous. In other words, I don't think this was a foreign ministry-derived plan, let's bring a journalist down to Fidel to talk to him about Iran and let's see what happens. I think this is -- if you know Fidel, it's good to be, in essence, the retired king. And I think a lot of it is spontaneous.

I've no doubt that the council of state, the foreign ministry, various other people, would like to harness his new energy, because that's what we're talking about, a very recent phenomenon, Fidel out of the hospital, essentially. So I have no doubt that they would want to harness that in ways that they thought were productive.

But I just got the impression, in the days that I was there, that this is all sort of Fidel wants to talk about Iran on Sunday and he wants to go to the aquarium on Monday, and that's what he's going to do.

SWEIG: Yeah. And I would say also that one thing that we observed and I observed, in a number of different ways, is that Fidel -- excuse me, Raul Castro is running the foreign diplomacy and foreign policy and foreign relations of the country, as he is on the domestic front. And the now emergence of Fidel creating a role for himself on big international issues really does seem to be happening spontaneously, as Jeffrey said, but not in contradiction to what President Raul Castro is doing on the foreign policy front.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

Our next question comes from Larry Luxner with CubaNews.

QUESTIONER: Hello. Hello?



QUESTIONER: Yes, I'm sorry. Larry Luxner, editor and publisher of CubaNews.

Did at any time the subject of Alan Gross and his imprisonment come up in your discussions with Fidel? Do you believe his sympathetic comments regarding Jews might in any way signal an intention to release Mr. Gross before the end of this year?

GOLDBERG: I'll let Julia answer most of this. She knows this issue better than I do.

We did not talk about that with Fidel. We did -- I did talk about it with other people in Cuba. My impression of that -- and Julia will correct me if I'm wrong -- my impression is that the Cubans are looking for a way to end that problem and figure out a way to get him back to the United States.

I (think ?) it's possible to -- it is -- it is plausible, let's say, to make the assumption that part of this approach, a very public approach toward the Jewish community of Cuba, is a way of signaling, hey, this is not about Jews. And, in fact, the Cuban position is that the arrest of this particular individual was not about Jewishness at all; it was about what he was doing on behalf of other parties. But Julia knows more about it than I do.

SWEIG: The -- Jeff's characterization, I'll just reinforce it, that I agree with that. The -- it was clear to me -- and I was there for the week -- from a range of conversations that Gross is definitely top of mind. The perception there is that Gross is part of a broader policy environment or -- environment (of ?) a set of U.S. policies, and that he's a manifestation of that.

I did speak with many Cuban officials and many officials from other countries down there about his case, and it does seem to be that there is some process towards some sort of resolution of his case.

But there seems to be, and I'll share this, very little so far disposition to recognize in Washington that the programs that he was there for are seen as highly provocative in Havana. The regime change programs funded by USAID -- and I call them regime change programs because they were conceived under the last administration, the Bush administration. There are $45 million that are spent, quite explicitly but without any operational control or accountability, spent by private subcontractors, Beltway bandits, if you will, to pay people like Gross who is surely well-meaning, to go down and conduct operations that are aimed at changing that regime.

That was the context that was characterized before I went down by some people that have looked at it up here, and I think he is seen as a casualty of that and that the bilateral solution -- that a solution to Gross getting out of jail has to be worked out bilaterally between the two countries.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Paul Haven with AP.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Many of my questions have been taken, so I'll just ask Jeffrey. Can you just give us a little bit more of a sense of what happened after Fidel made that comment to you? You don't really say, like, what your reaction was.

GOLDBERG: Well no, it was -- yeah. It was -- it was sort of -- it was a comment in the middle of a large and informal gathering at a lunch. It was not done -- it was not in the formal interview. And he knew I was quoting it, obviously, but it was -- it was kind of -- I don't want to call it a throwaway line. But it was -- it was said in the midst of a -- kind of a semi-stream of consciousness statement that he was making about completely -- some other -- some other issues.

And he has a very interesting -- (it was ?) my first time experiencing it -- he has a very interesting conversational style. He will -- he will go down many paths, sometimes all at the same time. And so that was in the midst of one of those. And that was the -- that was the context of it.

QUESTIONER: So you didn't ask -- you didn't, at the time, ask him what he -- what he meant?

GOLDBERG: No, no, no, no, I didn't at the time. Later on we talked about Batista a little bit, and we talked about that period, and he talked about how terrible that period was. And then there were separate conversations about capitalism versus socialism. But not in that moment, for reasons that are just too -- both too boring and obscure and complicated to explain why I couldn't insert a question at that moment. (Inaudible word.) Okay.

SWEIG: We were also talking about Latin America as well.

GOLDBERG: Well, we were -- yeah, this was -- this was in the context specifically -- I mean, my question was about export. It wasn't actually about domestic-economy issues. That was sort of something important to know.

QUESTIONER: I see. Thank you.

OPERATOR: Your next question comes from freelance writer Jeff Morley.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Thank you. Jeffrey, I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit more about sort of the implicit, if not explicit, analogy that Castro drew between the situation that President Obama finds himself in in Iran and the situation President Kennedy faced in the Cuban missile crisis. Is that -- do you see that as a valid analogy?

GOLDBERG: Yes. Yeah, you know, you -- and you put it in a very -- in a very cogent and concise way. We spent hours talking about this question, and, you know, he started -- when I asked one question about the missile crisis, we were off to the races.

And there was quite a long -- quite a long discussion and soliloquy also on this.

But yes, I think he sees an analogy here between Obama and Kennedy, I think it's his -- and Julia, you jump in if I'm getting the history wrong or my impressions of the history wrong. But he understands as I do that there were people around Kennedy, around President Kennedy, Curtis LeMay and people like that, who were far more gung ho about an invasion of Cuba or even of having a preemptive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, and he saw Kennedy as the kind of person putting the breaks on that. And I think that's what he wants Obama to do, not only with Israel, but with other factions or other groupings within the U.S. government, his administration even, Congress, where he can -- where he sees Obama's job is to slow that, slow that train down.

Again, I don't want to put words in his mouth because these ideas came -- came through in a more indirect way than I'm putting and certainly more indirect than the way you put your question. But I definitely think that he is in this, so this is why I talk about this period of self-reflection. I think he's thinking a lot about that period and looking at the Middle East and projecting, not only his experience, but also some of his fears onto the situation in the Middle East.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Doug Henwood with WBAI Radio.

QUESTIONER: Yes. Thank you. I was just curious if you have any sense -- I guess this is mostly for Julia -- if you have any sense of what models the Cubans have for economic reform. Are they looking to China or the Asian developmental states like Korea? Are they -- do they have foreign advisers or is this basically a homegrown experiment?

SWEIG: But the word "model," of course, implies that there's a model that others were emulating when Cuba had it and that Cuba might now emulate or import. But I'll tell you something. This is a Cuban -- this is a home-grown Cuban experiment.

And one of the things that happened in the 1980s and the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Socialist Bloc, and the transition, for example, from authoritarian, statist regimes to market democracies in Latin America, and the sort of rise of the Asian tigers, is that the Cubans sent their own people around the world to study the transitions, to study what happened. They drew some lessons from the perils of an excessively rapid economic transition. And they have drawn some conclusions, and as a result, from what I can see, are putting into place something that is pretty uniquely Cuban, but, having said that, is taking place in the world economy in which, so far, there is small amounts of foreign investments going into the country, but sectors increasingly opening up.

But unlike China or Vietnam, which is half the world away -- and in Vietnam's case, 40 million people; in Chinese -- China's case, a billion -- but Cuba is 90 miles from the United States; has a significant portion of its population living in the United States; is part of this part of the world. And so I think the kind of geopolitical lessons of the last 50 years are: Don't depend on any one major suitor for too much, because that imperils your independence; and don't just import some model that might well not suit your particular -- your particular conditions.

Actually, Castro has spoken -- many Cubans that I know in and out of government have spoken about the mistakes that they made just importing the Soviet model, lock, stock and barrel.

Before Perestroika and Glasnost, Fidel, in fact, was warning about emulating those models, and started talking about perfecting their system. Now Raul Castro talks about evolving their system. And I really think it's a hybrid that is evolving, that it can't be said to be any one thing.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

Our next question comes from Joel Wendland? with People's Weekly World.

QUESTIONER: Yes. That's People's World, actually.

But I'm wondering, for either speaker, if -- you've talked about some of the domestic issues in Cuba that made this controversy what it has become, or personal motives on the part of Fidel. But what -- is it possible to say that his reaching out is -- to you specifically is an attempt not just, you know, like a whim, but more of an organized attempt to reset or begin a process of resetting relations between the U.S. and Cuba?

GOLDBERG: I can take that quickly, and then I'm going to have to jump off this call, unfortunately. And Julia, please add afterward.

But I -- I think we hinted at this before. It was very hard to see the deliberateness of what we experienced when we were there. It might be true that there is a deliberateness or that, you now, Fidel certainly didn't do what he did and say what he did without Raul's knowledge and approval. Those things are all possibilities. We had no way of discerning that.

Maybe Julia has more insight into that, but I have no way of discerning that. I mean, functionally, yes, I would have to say that some of the things that he's doing could -- could set the stage for a slightly different relationship between the U.S. and Cuba.

SWEIG: Yeah, I -- thanks, Jeff. I would agree with Jeff it's impossible to know, on the first set of questions, whether this was some sort of deliberate plan. On the second front, you know, this can really cut both ways, I would say. On the one hand, Fidel Castro is expert at getting international media attention and interest, as this last week or so has shown. And of course some of that is in the United States, and perhaps that will focus Washington's attention a bit.

But Washington's attention, to the extent that it is and will remain focused on Cuba -- I want to just go back -- I think really has less to do with this particular moment or Fidel Castro coming back on the stage, and more to do with figuring out how to extract from the thicket of domestic politics a sensible policy framework to deal with the new Cuba that is slowly emerging and to make sense of Fidel's role in it. Fidel putting himself into the discussion focuses the attention a little bit more, but I wouldn't make too much out of its capacity to really drive the bilateral relationship forward.

GOLDBERG: Right. Let me just add one point -- semi-related point, and then I'm going to get off. But the point I was going to make is that this moment is so interesting journalistically because you have an ex-leader, Fidel, who by -- you know, we thought was dying, and he thought he was dying, and now he's essentially come back to life and he is this enormous figure, obviously, in Cuba and out, and he's trying to figure out what role he can play. He's not seizing power back or asking for power back from his brother, obviously. And so I just think we're at the -- we're at the very beginning of -- assuming his health holds for a while, we're at the very beginning of a -- of a -- of a very interesting process of watching this.

And it could go any possible way. It could go any of the directions that we've been speculating on here.

Anyway, thank you very much for calling in. I appreciate it.

JEROME: Thanks very much, Jeff.

GOLDBERG: Okay. Bye-bye.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Diana Molineaux with Office of Cuba Broadcasting.

QUESTIONER: Yes. Good afternoon. Thanks for -- (inaudible) -- this call for us. I want to go back to the Iran thing. Because Venezuela has this good relationship with Iran, whether this is not a kind of indirect warning to Chavez that this is not the way to go?

SWEIG: I think that Jeffrey, who unfortunately just had to run, said exactly that earlier in the discussion. It may not be an intentional, explicit warning, but this is -- it is possible that Fidel's statement with respect to respecting the history of the Jews and acknowledging the Holocaust and the State of Israel will be heard in Venezuela and by Chavez and taken to heart.

QUESTIONER: Okay. Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question from Maria Pena with EFE News Service.

QUESTIONER: Thank you for taking my call. I think you addressed this somewhat before, but I'm going to try again. In terms of any change in U.S. foreign policy towards Cuba, we hear again and again from the State Department and other, you know, Obama administration officials that, you know, they are willing to and they're seeking to have a broader exchange between the two peoples, you know -- the U.S. and Cuba.

So what -- when you were down there, what was the perception in terms of whether or not the president will make an eventual announcement on, you know, liberalizing academic, cultural and religious trips or exchanges with Cuba?

In other words, you know, Cuba has taken some steps that are seen as positive. Even Governor Richardson said it last week. Did you get any inkling that the U.S. -- that the U.S. government is any closer to making an announcement in that respect? Thank you.

SWEIG: Sure. The -- in -- 10 years ago, from sort of the late 1990s until about 2003, we had what is colloquially referred to as people-to-people -- a people-to-people policy which allowed Americans and religious, cultural, educational, artistic and other sorts of institutions to go to Cuba under license -- not for tourism, but for substantive exchanges with their counterpart organizations. The Bush administration cut that off. I say that just by way of background for the other people on the call.

When the Obama administration came into power, some within the administration indicated publicly and privately that they were going to go back to what's called the Clinton people-to-people program -- (referenced ?) to President Clinton -- but last year instead only opened up Cuban-American travel.

For about as far as I can tell, at least the last nine or 10 months or more, there's been this attempt in the administration to get the -- back on the burner and implement (it ?) as a policy, those people-to-people ties at the same time, you know, the regulations and the policy announced -- at the same time that Congress has been studying -- looking at legislation to lift the travel ban.

The administration is very slow to move. And to me, at this point, this is inexplicable. I have talked about domestic politics as the context. But the policy moves that that would require -- licensing American institutions to allow their members to go down to Cuba -- we've already had that in place once.

So in a sense, we're still only talking about treading in water and getting back to the status quo ante that we had up until about 2002, 2003.

But in addition to the people-to-people ties, there's a long list of things this administration could and, in my view, should be doing that has to do with what's on the bilateral agenda, that has to do with deepening our discussions and cooperation with Cuba on neighborhood security issues. Don't forget the neighborhood that Cuba lives in, that we all live in, where organized crime and networks that transport illicit goods and people are rife. Cuba spans the -- such a large portion of the Gulf of Mexico; I think it is critical for national security that we work much more directly with Cuba.

In addition, we ought to have a broader political dialogue with Cuba. The release of the political prisoners -- that has started; that is my understanding -- should be complete and fully complete by November of this year, ought -- does set the stage for a discussion that should involve Alan Gross, it should involve the Cuban Five, it should involve anything that either country wants to bring to the table. And why that isn't happening has to do with, I think, a lack of interest, priorities elsewhere, and a kind of, let's say, lack of energy to do some very difficult things, which is to acknowledge that after 50 years the policy objectives that we've had in place for so long -- call them regime change or call them impose a liberal democratic order -- are just no longer feasible and to therefore figure out what are American policy objectives for its relationship with Cuba. That really fundamental question has not be -- been answered by this administration.

QUESTIONER: Okay. Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Silvia Ayuso with the German Press Agency.


QUESTIONER: Hi. Thank you again. Continuing with this subject with the U.S., I was wondering if there -- Fidel -- between your meetings with Fidel Castro, if he -- what questions did he make to you? What did he want to know? And did he also have a message to the U.S., if you can reveal that to us, of course?

SWEIG: Well, you know, most of the questions went from Jeff Goldberg to Fidel, number one.

Number two, was there a message? Again, you know, we would have to extrapolate from between the lines if there was an explicit message, but one of the observations that I take away from spending the week there and seeing him on a couple of different occasions in public and also in these private exchanges is that the sort of deep, contentious, intractable issues between the United States and Cuba, although important, are not the only things on his agenda.

And I say that because the bilateral relationship -- and this goes back to my earlier point about Raul Castro running foreign policy -- really is not, from what I can see, not on his plate, not on his agenda, not on his portfolio in terms of how to tackle x, y, or z dimension of the relationship. It sets the context to a certain extent, but, as I said earlier, Castro's a guy that feels comfortable on the global stage. Cuba's too small for him. International issues have always been something that has grabbed his attention. So the sort of -- the here and now of the bilateral relationship, by virtue of leaving it unaddressed, I take to mean it's not directly in his sphere.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

Our next question comes from Bennie Evan (sic) with the New York Post.

QUESTIONER: Hi. This is Benny Avni from New York Post, Julia.

Back to the anti-Semitism question. Today in his "Reflection" column, Castro wrote a long piece denouncing France for its treatment of the Roma, or the Gypsies. And how do you interpret that?

And could it be that actually some of his usual -- some of the usual suspects that are Castro's allies came to him and said, as somebody once told Mayor Dinkins, that he's wearing too many yamakas, as a result of that interview?

SWEIG: (Laughs.) Who told -- somebody told you that he was told that he's wearing too many yamakas?

QUESTIONER: No, no. I'm saying that that was something that somebody, in a different circumstance, once told Mayor Dinkins.

SWEIG: Oh, I see, once told Mayor Dinkins. Excuse me.

I have absolutely no idea. But you know, I mean, he showed us -- let me just say he showed me a spread sheet of the 333 -- I think that was the number -- "reflexiones," little sort of thought pieces that he's written since he recovered enough to write, but since he stepped down from office. He covers a very wide range of issues. And I expect he'll be taking on new ones as we speak.

I mean, I don't think -- I have no idea whether he got any blow- back for his public statements about anti-Semitism, but if he's going to, you know, write against discrimination against other ethnic or religious minorities, this may be one of a number to follow.


SWEIG: All right.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.) We have a question from Elise Labott with CNN.

QUESTIONER: HI, Julia. Thanks for doing this.

SWEIG: Hello.

QUESTIONER: I was just wondering. I mean, you talked a little bit about the political prisoners and, you know, and also about the fact that, you know, the Obama administration is just kind of taking it slow and, you know, not really going forward, in terms of trying to wait and see what happens and hoping it will present an opening.

But I'm just wondering if we're -- if the U.S. is kind of limiting its chances to have -- you know, to effect change in Cuba by not -- by not, you know, jumping at the opportunity; and whether at some point are we going to miss the bandwagon, in the sense that, you know, Cuba's going to change, it's going to open up and there's going to -- you know, the U.S. is going to be -- it's a little too little, a little too late, I guess is my question.

SWEIG: No, well, look, we're already missing the bandwagon. they announced last week or two weeks ago that foreign investors can now buy property in Cuba if it's related to tourism. And it's a pretty broadly framed regulation that they're putting into place. But that excludes the United States because U.S. law prevents Americans from investing in Cuba, unless you're Cuban-American and you can send remittances down and then support your family who's going to open a small business.

But for the big-ticket items, for a country that's about free trade, whether you're talking about energy, agriculture, tourism, you look at -- Cuba needs everything, and every sector of the country will over time in some way, I believe, begin to open, perhaps not fully, but under joint-venture arrangements of the sort it already has.

And the United States and Americans are not part of that commercial and investment relationship.

But we're also -- you know, President McKinley referred to the countries as having ties of singular intimacy. And that may have been true in the 19th century and surely in the first half of the 20th century here. I'm speaking with my historian hat on. And even during the Cold War and until, let's say, the last 10 years, you know, what the United States did or didn't do with respect to Cuba mattered a lot.

But we are increasingly marginal to Cuba's political future. And in terms of our two societies, you know, we are very distant from one another. This is highly unnatural given our proximity.

Now, does this mean that an enlightened Obama administration could come up with Julia Sweig's policy framework for U.S. policy toward Cuba and suddenly sort of insert the United States as a major actor in shaping Cuba's future? I don't think so. But I do think that the United States could begin to have a positive and not provocative, or at least neutral, role, get ourselves out of domestic politics there and become an actor, a participant, but not some -- an entity that can be blamed internally for Cuba's own problems.

I could go on with your question, but I do think that the -- to conclude, there's a window right now. Raul Castro has said on numerous occasions that his door is open to talks. I believe that with the economic measures now being announced, also Cuba is opening itself up to more than talks, to participation. But there is a -- there needs to actually be a direct bilat or a political dialogue in order to figure out what that actually means, and there's only two entities that can do that: the United States and Cuba directly, face to face.


OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Connie Sharpe (sp) with BBC.

QUESTIONER: I've just entered the discussion now. Just reaction to recent news, Julia, the Cuban Labor Federation saying more than a half million workers would lose their jobs in the next few months and eventually a million jobs would go; workers being encouraged to become self-employed. Just wondering: Is this -- will this -- will there be any political sympathy for Castro -- as I suppose left-wingers would see as David submitting to Goliath, I suppose.

SWEIG: (Laughs.) I mean, you know, this is -- this is a case of you -- you know, you're damned if you do, you're damned if you don't. They're in the process of massively reducing the size and participation of the state in Cuban economic life, in the life of Cuban citizens. Raul Castro has talked about the unfairness of a system in which everybody gets a salary but nobody appears to actually work. Now they are putting into place an opportunity for people to run their own business, in private enterprise, privatizing parts of the economy.

And you know, is it a submission to Goliath? I think that that was part of -- I'm guessing, I'm surmising that the statement last Friday by Fidel Castro was precisely about saying: Look, we have to change our own economic model, but that doesn't mean that we're importing, you know, Yankee-style capitalism, lock, stock and barrel.

I suppose the left will -- the left and maybe the right too will criticize the government for either going too far, leaving people off the dole and the payrolls, or not going too -- not going far enough.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Our next a question comes from Andrea Murta with Folha.

JEROME: I'm assuming that this will probably be the last question, and we'll wrap it up with this one.

Thank you.

QUESTIONER: Hi, it's Folha de Sao Paulo from Brazil.

SWEIG: Hi, Andrea.

QUESTIONER: Hi, how are you?

This question is also related to the one from the BBC. The encouragement that he -- they saw, that they will make for this 500,000 people who will be unemployed to join the private sector or be self-employed, seems a little vague to say the least. Do you think that this is, (you know ?), from the perspective of this half a million people that are going to lose their jobs, a move that is safe to make?

SWEIG: Safe politically?

QUESTIONER: No, safe for those people that will be out of a job. What are they going to do, really?

SWEIG: Well, look at -- when I was down there, in addition to the meetings that I -- that I attended with Goldberg, with Fidel Castro, I met with a number of individuals, economists, observers, people in and out of government, both Cubans and foreign diplomats and others. And I was actually -- what I took away from that was a pretty solid consensus that there's a belief that there's so much pent up demand on the one hand, skill on the other, that the people taken off the payroll will -- that the private sector is going to absorb them very, very rapidly; that there's plenty of opportunity and demand for services and for products.

And if you look at the list of goods that -- of sectors, excuse me, in which private economic activity is now going to be licensed, it's very, very broad. And anybody that's ever been in Cuba knows that in the black market, there has been -- you can get -- you can buy almost anything and get any -- almost any service, but it's in the black market.

And now the government, as in much of Latin America, is going to flip things around and license the businesses and charge a tax, a payroll tax and a 5 percent tax on profits. So I think there will be an adjustment period for sure, but they've said -- and, you know, the basics on the ration card and the basic peso salary that people already -- you know, before they're thrown off the payrolls, receive are pretty minimum. So what you're talking about is losing a little bit from the state in exchange for the opportunity to grow your own business. And I think that's pretty significant given where Cuba's been for the last half century.

QUESTIONER: Great, thank you.

JEROME: Julia, thank you so much. And thank you, everyone, for calling in. I think we're ready to wind up.

SWEIG: Thanks very much for doing this. I appreciate it. And thanks for your questions.







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