FEBRUARY 26, 1996
President Clinton announced unilateral actions against Cuba following the downing of two civilian aircraft by the Cuban military. Reaction to Clinton's decision followed quickly. Margaret Warner talks to two members of Congress concerning the situation and the President's response.
MARGARET WARNER: We are joined by two members of Congress. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican from Florida, is a member of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee, and Rep. Jose Serrano is a Democrat from New York. Welcome, both of you. Congresswoman, let me start with you. You just heard Amb. Albright call these steps very tough actions. How does it look to you?
REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN, (R) Florida: (Miami) Well, it's certainly a good first step, but I hope that it does not end there, because to convene a meeting, an emergency meeting of the Security Council and merely ask for a condemnation does not really go far enough. When we had the case of a corrupt military regime in Haiti, what we did against Gen. Raoul Cedras there was to condemn him and take a step further. We actually asked our allies to join with us in an international embargo. We have asked for international embargoes in other cases and other countries, whether it's South Africa, whether it's against the aggressors, against Kuwait. We have been successful in an international embargo if the U.S. takes the leadership role. And that's the key phrase there. Unless the President goes out there, unless Madeleine Albright really makes a full court press, we will not be able to get it. So in the past, when we've asked for an international embargo, what we hear from the Clinton administration is, gee, we just don't have the votes. Well, we can get the votes if we really back this measure. So I hope that this is just the first step of many others because this is not far enough. We want a naval blockade so that Castro doesn't get the supplies he needs to stay afloat. That's what we had in Haiti. So I think it's a good first step, but it really does not go far enough.
MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Serrano, not far enough, too far, what do you think?
REP. JOSE SERRANO, (D) New York: Well, I think that the President reacted the way the world and this country expected him to react on this issue because this is a long history we have of a confrontation we had with Cuba and the Cuban government with us, but I think there's another step that no one wants to take right now, and that's to call the Cuban government to the table and to discuss the issue of whether, in fact, or not there have been violations of their air space. I certainly would want to hear from my State Department why the Cuban government has been complaining for the last two years about these violations and who decided not to move on them, how much advice that we give these groups. The tragedy of this is a human life has been lost. And so it makes this argument very difficult, because there are people in mourning, and we're all in mourning over this tragedy. But we have to be able to stop it in the future. The President spoke about flights to Cuba. He didn't speak about illegal flights to Cuba. That still remains a problem.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me make sure I understand here. What are you suggesting exactly?
REP. JOSE SERRANO: I'm suggesting that in the same way we discussed the immigration issue with the Cuban government and reached a decision some months back that we can call the Cuban government to the table and discuss the issue of these flights. They can put on the table whether they feel they're being violated. We can put our position under international law and reach an agreement that may stop this particular problem from coming back.
MARGARET WARNER: Congresswoman, what do you think of that idea?
REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, I think that's patently absurd. In fact, the Cuban regime, which has been on a propaganda of lies for over 35 years will have that opportunity. Madeleine Albright clearly explained that tomorrow the Cuban regime will present its case. We know that it's going to be a package of lies, and let me say something about this defense about whether they had been warned or not. With the Berlin problem in World War II when people wanted to escape from that Communist regime, the guards shot them down when people wanted to scale the walls, and the defense of those guards when we brought them to trial for that atrocity, their defense was, gee, we warned the people not to climb the fence, but the did it anyway. And the trials concluded by saying that the defense is no good, that just to say tot he people, you have been warned, you can't scale the wall to freedom, is no defense against a criminal act of shooting down innocent people. They have shot down in a very cold-blooded, calculated way, and it seems the more we know about it, that it was actually a planned act to shoot these planes down. These are U.S. citizens in a U.S. civilian plane, bearing no arms, and obviously without any intent whatsoever to do any harm to anyone.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me--
REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: And Castro shot them down. And now we're going to sit down and negotiate with Castro? That's like negotiating with, with the Japanese government after Pearl Harbor! Come on, Jose, you still want to wine and dine and listen to these people with their lies.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me let the Congressman--let me let the Congressman back in here. Let's go back to what the U.S. government has done and the steps that the U.S. government has taken. Do you consider them tough steps?
REP. JOSE SERRANO: Well, they're tough for people like myself who would want a negotiated way out of this situation, but it's nothing new. All he did was strengthen somewhat an embargo that has not worked for 37 years. And so the issue now remains what did we just do that's going to change or turn around the confrontation that is coming between Cuban-Americans and Cubans and maybe between the U.S. government and the Cuban government? Now, if we look at this issue very briefly as a single issue over this weekend, they will respond the way we do. If we look at it in a historical basis, of how we got here, what is this anger about on both sides, why are we allowing planes to fly over Cuba, drop leaflets, and then claim that if one of them gets shot down, that we're going to react in a different way. I wish it hadn't happened, but it did happen because we, this government, has not been strong enough to say to some American citizens, you can't take foreign policy in your own hands. That's why we have a government.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you both this, since you're both members of Congress. The President today did say that he was willing to work with Congress now on this Burton-Helms Bill. Briefly, Congresswoman, what do you make of that pledge, and do you think now that this measure which has not even been agreed to in the same version between House and Senate, where do you think that's going now on the Hill?
REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, I think this statement of the President, although we welcome it, I think it lends more credibility to those who accuse him of having a flip-flop strategy when it comes to foreign policy.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. But--
REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: One person who was against Helms-Burton from the very beginning is President Clinton, and because now Cuba shoots down the two planes, which is what he's been doing, committing crimes against humanity for over 35 years--
MARGARET WARNER: All right. But Congresswoman, are you saying that--
REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: --now--
MARGARET WARNER: --you do not welcome the President's offer--
REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Of course!
MARGARET WARNER: --to deal on this--which I should explain to our viewers would try to make it more difficult for foreign countries to invest in Cuba--do you think this means the measure will now move forward?
REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: The measure was going to move forward. We passed a very tough bill in the House. We passed a weaker version in the Senate because the Clinton administration opposed the bill. We could not get the 60 votes we needed to stop the filibuster which Chris Dodd did, administered by the White House. Just last week, we got the 60th vote. It was reported widely here in the press in Miami, that we got the vote number 60 to pass the bill--
MARGARET WARNER: All right, let me ask you--
REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: --and this coming month, we were going to pass it anyway, so we welcome the President helping us to pass it. We'd rather have him with us than against us, but frankly, it's a little too late. That train left the station a while back, but welcome aboard, Bill. We're welcome to have you on this--
MARGARET WARNER: What is your interpretation of the President's offer on this particular piece of legislation?
REP. JOSE SERRANO: Well, I think what he's going to do now is try to tell the Florida community that he's going to get tough against Castro by putting this legislation forth. This legislation does nothing. It's just more of the same confrontations for an embargo. The world community is going to laugh at us because I don't think that the Canadians and the British and the Japanese are going to go along with us and other powers. So I still think that the only way out of this to prevent future confrontations, sit down at the table. Negotiate this issue and then negotiate a new relationship. Otherwise, we're headed towards a serious confrontation with Cuba.
MARGARET WARNER: And briefly, Congresswoman, what is your interpretation of why--you heard Amb. Albright say that an action like this wouldn't happen unless it was directed from the top, or very high up, she said? Do you agree, and why do you think Fidel Castro would have authorized this to be done?
REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Oh, definitely, yeah. Castro has a very closed society. He is the government. He is the state. He runs everything. No one acts in Cuba without--especially in the military--without his direct authority, and this was a very calculated act. And I think it sends a very clear message to those people inside Cuba who wanted more of a reformed government, who wanted more of a discussion about these ideas. Congressman Serrano, my colleague, wants the U.S. to sit down and negotiate with Castro. Castro doesn't even want to negotiate with the Cuban people who are for open change. What has happened last week, we had a round-up of dissidents with trumped up charges now in jail, and what was their crime? They wanted an open discussion of freedom and democracy in Cuba. And that's a crime against the state.
MARGARET WARNER: Congressman, why do you think Castro ordered this shooting down, if he did?
REP. JOSE SERRANO: Well, I don't know that he ordered it. I don't know who ordered it. Whoever ordered it made a horrible mistake. They took human life. But see, I don't know what it is to live in Cuba, and have planes flying over my place, telling me to overthrow Bill Clinton. I don't know how I would react to that, so I think that before we speculate on who was wrong and who did something wrong, we already took the steps to condemn Castro. We took steps to punish him. The next step should be to talk. Otherwise, we're going to be doing this show again on the same subject with the same outcome months from now.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, thank you both very much. We'll have to leave it there. Thanks.