TOPICS > Politics

Carter and Castro

May 15, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: For more on President Carter’s trip to Cuba, we talk to four Cuba-watchers. Jorge Mas Santos, chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation. Alfredo Duran, former President of the Cuban Committee for Democracy; Congressman Jerry Moran, a Republican from Kansas, and Congressman Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey.

Mr. Duran, what do you think was accomplished by President Carter’s trip to Cuba?

ALFREDO DURAN: I think that mere fact that President Carter was able to talk directly to the Cuban people in Spanish, to talk about freedom of expression, to talk about democracy, to talk about human rights, that in itself is one of the great accomplishments of this trip by President Carter. He spoke about normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, but he also spoke about normalization between the Cuban government and its people. That is the importance of this trip, and that speech at the university.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Mas Santos, speaking for Cuban Americans who may have a different point of view about what the United States engagement should be with Cuba, what did you think of the trip?

JORGE MAS SANTOS: I think the trip in the context speaking about human rights of supporting the project where 11,000 brave Cuban men and women put their signatures calling for referendum, calling for change, of President Carter talking about the values and basic values of freedom and democracy are something the Cuban people have never heard. And the Castro regime will not be able to erase those conversations with Cubans on the aisle they’re going to have today, tomorrow and the weeks to come about the need for change. He also referenced the relationship with the United States, and I want to point out that there is really no problem between the people of the United States and the people of Cuba.

What keeps the United States from having normal relations with Cuba is Castro, who is the worst violator of human rights this hemisphere has ever seen … and I believe that when President Bush announces a U.S. policy towards Cuba this Monday, we’re going to see a very harsh rebuke of the regime and potentially at the same time a bridge is extended to try to benefit the opposition and to give voice to those who cannot speak for themselves, the Cuban people directly.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Mas Santos, were you surprised when Fidel Castro allowed Mr. Carter, President Carter to not only meet with dissidents while he was in Cuba but to tour a biotechnology center and also to give the speech unedited and speak of the Varella project, which you just referred to, which is the referendum?

JORGE MAS SANTOS: Yes, I was surprised. But I think Castro miscalculated what was going to occur during the trip. And I think that he wanted to somehow try to manipulate ex President Carter to bring up only about the subject of the lifting of the embargo. And I think it’s had the opposite effect. It’s had the framework of talking about the need for free elections that the Cuban people decide their own destinies, through the power of vote. And I think that’s extremely important. In terms of the statements from the State Department and the head of the National Assembly, recently said he would allow a UN weapons inspectors in those labs, and I think that is something that the Castro regime should allow — allow weapons inspectors to see if Cuba is a threat to the national security of the United States of America.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Duran, Mr. Mas Santos just said that he believes the United States government is going to stick with its basically pro embargo hard line view of what relationship should be between the U.S. and Cuba on Monday when the President speaks to this. Do you think if that happens that President Carter’s visit had any, being other than symbolic, effect?

ALFREDO DURAN: I don’t think so, because I think that even the people who are pro embargo realize that that policy has not worked in the past 42 years, is not working now and is not working in the future. Something needs to change. The problem with Cuba policy in the United States is that Cuba policy has nothing to do with foreign policy. It has to do more with local elections in the state of Florida, and with fund raising that is in the best interest of the United States. If anybody would run a corporation as U.S. policy towards Cuba is run, they would have been fired a long time ago. It’s a policy that has not worked, it’s a failed policy, and it needs to be changed.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman Menendez, let’s talk about that policy, which Mr. Duran just see was a failed policy. Do you believe as a result of this trip that President Carter took that there’s any greater chance now that the embargo will be lived as you would like to see happened than before, I’m sorry, you believe opposite of that, than it was before?

REP. ROBERT MENENDEZ: No, I don’t think the president’s trip will create the groundswell support for change in the embargo. There are efforts in the Congress as it relates to trade issues. But to unilaterally get rid of the embargo without any commensurate response by the Castro regime on the human rights that President Carter spoke about, on the questions of free press, on the questions of releasing political prisoners, on the fundamental question of having free elections, would be a unilateral action that would not elicit the response that we wanted. The embargo is in fact an opportunity at the right time for a calibration of responses to ensure that the Cuban people get what the United States freely enjoys and what most of the western world freely enjoys.

And the last point I would make is that the one positive thing about President Carter’s visit is again the statement of the Varella Project, which is playing by the regime’s own rules and using their constitution in a way in which the people and they’re brave to sign onto a petition, 11,000 Cubans risking their liberty to sign a petition saying we want peaceful change in our country to multiple political parties, to a free press, to the release of prisoners and ultimately to free elections, and it’s a shame, however, that took a former American President to go to Cuba to tell people inside of Cuba what is happening in their own country in terms of this grassroots efforts, because otherwise Cubans would not have known about the Varella project.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman Moran, let’s stick with the embargo question. You are from a state that would benefit in hopefully in sales of wheat, for instance to Cuba. Do you think this trip brought you any closer to the goal of lifting that embargo?

REP. JERRY MORAN: Not particularly. I agree with the comments made earlier. I think the benefit that the president, the former president benefit to Cubans is historic, a story of the petition speaking about human rights and freedom. I think that if we had a program discussing Fidel Castro, it would be a very short program. We’d all be in agreement. I think the question here is how can we change the government of Cuba and some of us, many of us in Congress believe that we do have a failed policy that has not changed the Castro government. I actually started out with an interest in this issue because of where I come from, agricultural interest, one more market for Kansas farmers. But boy, I have come to the conclusion that it’s a lot more than that. And our ability to change the relationship that our country has with Cuba has the ability to change the nature of Cubans and their relationship with their own government.

That we can bring personal freedom, that with additional economic and interactions between our two countries with trade and travel between the United States and Cuba, we have a much greater chance of improving the chances the Cuban people get freedom. So what started out for me as a very provincial Kansas issue has become one that has great moral overtones, human rights aspects, and it is important for us to pursue this. I’m not sure that the president’s visit makes a significant difference in that regard. Already more than 300 members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, have supported sanctions reform, greater opportunities to trade, to export, and a large majority of members of Congress, again Republicans and Democrats, support the idea that American citizens ought to be able to travel to Cuba.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Mas Santos, I wonder if you think there was any risk that President Carter ran in deciding to meet with Castro in giving him any legitimacy that he may not otherwise have had?

JORGE MAS SANTOS: There was a risk of that. But I think America’s greatest export is not grain, it’s freedom. And I think President Carter took a message of freedom of democracy, no one can lend legitimacy to Castro and his regime. And I think what President Carter has done is lend legitimacy to the opposition movement in Cuba, it’s given them a voice, it’s given them attention. And I think the greatest good that can be derived from this trip and the follow-up after ex President Carter leaves Cuba is for us to give the opposition movement in Cuba the tools that they need to continue to grow that movement nationally in Cuba. I think that the televised address that President Carter gave yesterday was the first step in that process.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Duran, the same version of that question to you, which is who gained more legitimacy from this, was it the dissidents who met with Mr. Carter or was it perhaps Fidel Castro himself?

ALFREDO DURAN: No, I think President Carter is a man of conviction and principle, and in Cuba there are two things that are missing more than anything else and one is civil rights and the other one is hope. Carter talked about civil rights, and I think this trip is going to give the people of Cuba hope.

GWEN IFILL: Otto Wright, the Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America was quoted as saying, Mr. Duran, that, particularly about the embargo that we won’t throw a life preserver to a regime sinking under the weight of its own historical failures. Do you have any optimism at all that there will be any change in U.S. policy as far as U.S. ranking officials believe this?

ALFREDO DURAN: People such as Otto Wright have been saying that for the past 42 years and we still have Fidel Castro there. I think that we need to take a different view as to what is going to move Cuba towards a process of transition towards democracy. I think that what we have been doing up until now obviously has not worked. I think we have to be creative and formulate a new policy towards Cuba.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Mas Santos, what would constitute creativity in your opinion?

JORGE MAS SANTOS: I think, one, a program helping the opposition in Cuba; two, I think it’s important to put the Castro regime and expose them for what they are, and on matters of trade, for example, Cuba does not have the resources to pay for trade and what they want in the regime wants is for the U.S. taxpayer to subsidize U.S. corporations in order then for him to utilize those resources to increase his repressive apparatus and that would make a mistake. Any step the United States could take to benefit directly the Cuban people would you benefiting the regime, I think is a step towards changing and make a more creative and a more pro-active policy. I don’t think the status quo is acceptable.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Menendez, what is the prospect in your opinion of congressional action on any of this?

REP. ROBERT MENENDEZ: Well, there has been some action on trade issues. The House did pass a version of financing on this trade. I don’t support that simply because I don’t want to see us ultimately as the United States Government and taxpayers have anything to do with the lack of payment by the Castro regime to our farmers and then having our farmers come to us, or big agro-businesses coming to us and say bail us out. I think it would be wrong to be helping a dictatorship in that regard. But I really think the question is, what happens now after Carter leaves, as when the Pope left. What do we do now? And we’re working with various organizations, nongovernmental organizations, to help create civil society in Cuba to prepare for a transition to democracy that we all supposedly want.

And, lastly, I hope that even those who are detractors of our policy would raise their voices on the questions of human rights and the political dissidents inside of Cuba who languish in anonymity. I wish our colleagues in the Congress, I wish those who disagree with us in our country, and those other countries in the world are silent on human rights inside of Cuba — and that silence is deafening. Maybe President Carter’s trip in that regard will begin to have the voices rise.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s ask Mr. Moran about that question. Do you think there is something that congress can do or this trip has done to open up a debate about human right in Cuba that can be separated in any way from the economic issues or should be?

REP. JERRY MORAN: Absolutely. And I have sincerely come to the conclusion that freedom, those issues of dissidents, human rights, expression of personal freedoms in Cuba are so important to this issue. It is not just about trade. Our ability to influence the policies within Cuba, I think are determined by our ability to have contact with Cuban people in particular, and we really ought to try to remove the face of Fidel Castro and look at the Cuban people. That’s what we ought to be looking for as to ways of who we care about, what our policies ought to be directed toward. And I think clearly President Carter’s visit to Cuba does highlight those things, it creates greater awareness in our country, awareness with members of Congress about the importance of caring about human rights within Cuba. So I join Mr. Menendez in this idea that we’re not here to any way endorse the government of Cuba. The question is how can we make changes that benefit the freedom of the people of Cuba? And that’s where the disagreement lies. We have the opportunity in Congress now to continue the efforts with trade and that kind of connection, and with the exchanges of our people of tourism, and allowing Americans to have contact with Cuban people. I sincerely believe that the opportunities for personal freedom in Cuba, they really can fall into some of the economic reforms that we’re looking at. So the goals are the same.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Duran, do you think that when Fidel Castro or anyone speaks to Jimmy Carter or any one from the U.S. about democracy that they’re talking about the same thing, that the definitions are even the same?

ALFREDO DURAN: No, I’m sure that they’re not. In Cuba they talk about the Cuban type of democracy and they talk about the new Cuban socialism. But the fact remains that the basic fact of, which is civil rights, the right of people to congregate, the right of people to elect a government, the right of people to have political parties, the right to free speech, that doesn’t exist in Cuba. And any type of democracy, no matter how you define it, those are basic requirements for a country to feel that they are indeed in a democratic process. And Cuba needs that. That transition needs to come and that transition needs to be helped along. My problem with present U.S. policy towards Cuba is that that is not helping that to happen. Quite the contrary, it’s isolating Cuba, it’s like a Berlin Wall around the island, keeping it from being contaminated by new political, social and economic ideas. And it’s about time that we change that.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Mas Santos, the question to you then, is isolating Cuba keeping it from becoming the country it could be, a democracy of any kind?

JORGE MAS SANTOS: I believe that unilaterally the United States will not change, but I want to make a point: Cuba is free to do business with every other country in the world, they’re free to commerce and the Cuban people don’t benefit. And I think President Carter yesterday in a speech told the Cuban people that their economic ills are not a cause – are not because of the embargo but rather because of the ill fated policies of the failed revolution of the Castro regime. So I do think that isolating the regime, but at the same time having a policy of trying to develop a civil society in Cuba, giving them the resources that they need to instigate change from within the island is the policy that the United States and the free world should follow.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Moran, as long as President Bush remains in office, still feel strongly about the embargo staying in place, do you believe that this trip will have been for naught, no matter how important and historic it was?

REP. JERRY MORAN: I wouldn’t say it’s for naught. But I don’t think we’ll see a dramatic change in U.S. policy toward Cuba. I think the Bush administration has made clear on a number of occasions, and apparently intends to do so again next week, that they don’t support liberalizing trade or travel to Cuba. And I think this change will occur incrementally over time. But I don’t think with the current Administration, but let me say also, it’s also true of past administrations. There was not support for this change under President Clinton. Republicans and Democrat leadership in Congress have — both Republicans and Democrats have been in opposition to liberalization of contact travel and trade with Cuba. So it’s not just the Bush Administration. There’s a clear majority here, but the Bush Administration I don’t think will allow this to happen in a dramatic way anytime soon.

GWEN IFILL: Okay, gentlemen, thank you all very much for joining us.