TOPICS > Politics

Possible Cuba Policy Changes Spark Debate

April 8, 2009 at 6:25 PM EDT
Loading the player...
The Obama administration is expected to ease travel and financial embargoes with Cuba in broad policy changes that have sparked debate between those in favor of starting a dialogue with Cuban leaders and those who advocate continuing the restrictions. Analysts probe the policy issues.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: For more on that trip and where U.S.-Cuban relations might be headed, we get two views. Alfredo Duran is vice president of the Cuban Committee for Democracy, a nonprofit organization advocating dialogue with Cuba. And Mauricio Claver-Carone is director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, which advocates keeping the embargo and other sanctions in place.

Mauricio Claver-Carone, you just heard Congresswoman Lee. It’s been a while since American elected officials have had high-level contacts with Cuba’s rulers. Was there anything useful about the trip, in your view?

MAURICIO CLAVER-CARONE, U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee: Actually, you know, I think it’s a lost opportunity. You know, currently in Cuba, you have individuals, like Dr. Oscar Biscet, spending 25 years in prison, Afro-Cuban. This is a modern-day Nelson Mandela in Cuban prisons.

You have Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, also Afro-Cuban, 40-year-old, who’s spent 20 years in prison already and has been on a hunger strike since February 17th, practicing civil disobedience, a modern-day Dr. Martin Luther King.

And yet these members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which are supposed to promote racial diversity, have gone into this country which 60 percent, 70 percent of which is Afro-Cuban or of mixed race, and have decided to ignore these Afro-Cuban leaders, have decided to simply meet with this minority ruled of individuals, Fidel and Raul Castro and the five or six individuals that control this country with an iron fist, of which are in the racial minority in this country there, and ignore the plight of everyday Cubans.

What could have been a great progress is — you know, at the end of the day, regardless of what these individuals do, in Cuba, there will be a bottom-to-the-top approach, similar to Poland with Walesa, Havel in the former Czechoslovakia, Mandela in South Africa.

They missed that opportunity. And, instead, they chose to go for a top-down approach with a handful of power-hungry individuals.

Question of dissent

Mauricio Claver-Carone
U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC
I do not know of any occasion in which Congresswoman Lee has met with Cuban dissidents. Actually, quite the opposite. Every time she's gone to Cuba, she has met with regime officials and then lavished praise upon those regime officials.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you heard Congresswoman Lee say that just wasn't on the agenda this time, that she's met with dissidents in past trips to Cuba. That's not sufficient for you?

MAURICIO CLAVER-CARONE: Actually, I would challenge that. I do not know of any occasion in which Congresswoman Lee has met with Cuban dissidents. Actually, quite the opposite. Every time she's gone to Cuba, she has met with regime officials and then lavished praise upon those regime officials and even questioned the dictatorship, as if there wasn't one.

RAY SUAREZ: Alfredo Duran, is there any usefulness that you can see to the Congressional Black Caucus delegation heading to Havana?

ALFREDO DURAN, Cuban Committee for Democracy: Oh, I believe so. I believe that it's about time that the United States and Cuba starts in the process of dialogue on this tension.

We have been maintaining this policy of embargo for the past 50 years, and it has not worked. It's not working now, and it won't work for the next 50 years. It's about time that we bring about a change. The status quo is what we need to change in Cuba.

We have a whole dynamic of generational changes in Cuba. We have the historicals who are all above 80 years of age. And the only way that we're going to bring about a future of prosperity, of liberty, of democracy in Cuba is if we can send a strong message that the United States is not the enemy of the Cuban people, that the United States is prepared to sit down and try to resolve the differences and hopefully, in that same table, we can have the Cuban opposition sit down and discuss the future of Cuba.

We need to have national reconciliation. We need to have the people starting to talk to each other in order to bring about a transition, a peaceful transition, towards democracy in Cuba. I think it was helpful...

American influence strong in Cuba

Alfredo Duran
Cuban Committee for Democracy
I think that's going to have a tremendous impact, because the travel of Americans is not like the travel of Europeans or Canadians. Cubans play baseball; they don't play hockey. And our cultural nearness is very similar.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Duran...

ALFREDO DURAN: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: .. just in the past few weeks, the Obama administration relaxed the Bush-era travel ban and went back roughly to the Clinton standards with remittances and once-a-year trips. Do you want to go further than that?

ALFREDO DURAN: Well, I think President Obama is about ready to announce the lifting of all the restrictions of travel for Cuban-Americans and of sending of remittances.

I think that it's very important the moment that the Cubans' family, the Cubans in Cuba start receiving substantial aid from their families, it makes the government irrelevant. They don't need the government to be able to subsist and to resolve their problems.

That is one of the most important things that can happen out of the Cuban-Americans traveling. And I think that we must go further than that.

We must absolutely lift all restrictions for Americans to travel to Cuba. It's a constitutional right of all Americans to be -- it must be protected under the laws of this country. And I think that if Cuban-Americans are allowed to go, Americans should be allowed to go.

And I think that's going to have a tremendous impact, because the travel of Americans is not like the travel of Europeans or Canadians. Cubans play baseball; they don't play hockey. And our cultural nearness is very similar.

You go to Cuba right now, and it's like the Russians had never gone by there. You go to Cuba right now, and you still can feel the influence of our American tradition in the past and our cultural nearness.

So I think it's important that travel be permitted. I think I would wish that Obama would go further than that; I don't think it will. I think that the United States, Cuba is not a top priority right now, and I think first he's going to deal with the economy and with the Middle East and Iraq, Iran, and all of that, unfortunately.

Ramifications of lifting embargo

Mauricio Claver-Carone
U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC
If we turn a blind eye with Cuba, that sole dictatorship, we open up a Pandora's box that we might regret. And before you know it, we might be back to the '60, '70s, and '80s with dictatorships of the left and of the right throughout Latin America.

RAY SUAREZ: Let me turn to Mauricio Claver-Carone with that same question regarding the travel Obama relaxation and now looking ahead to possible even further loosening of the travel.

MAURICIO CLAVER-CARONE: Sure. I think the bottom line -- we have to understand that what U.S. law, which is basically -- U.S. policy towards Cuba was codified into law in 1996. What it basically does is it sets conditions for the political and commercial engagement with the Castro regime.

We engage with the Cuban people on a daily basis. We're the number-one providers of humanitarian aid to Cuba. We have 15 categories of purposeful travel, from academic to religious to humanitarian, family travel.

But to do business with the Cuban regime, the three conditions are you have to release -- they have to release all the Cuban political prisoners, they have to recognize fundamental human, civil and political rights, and legalize the opposition.

For us to unilaterally change U.S. law and change policy in order to allow that, we would have to be sending a message to this Western hemisphere, in which 34 out of 35 countries are democratic, that we do not care about one, two, or all three of those conditions.

That's a very dangerous message to send, particularly to a hemisphere that has historic authoritarian tendencies, and there's more than a few currently democratically elected presidents in Latin America that would love to take it the next step to authoritarianism.

What keeps them from doing that is the fact that the United States, under the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter, has a responsibility and a commitment to representative democracy.

If we turn a blind eye with Cuba, that sole dictatorship, we open up a Pandora's box that we might regret. And before you know it, we might be back to the '60, '70s, and '80s with dictatorships of the left and of the right throughout Latin America.

Current policy decades old

Alfredo Duran
Cuban Committee for Democracy
It's a position that hasn't worked in 50 years. It is not working now, and it won't work in the future. It's about time that we take other steps that will change the status quo in Cuba.

RAY SUAREZ: Quick response, Mr. Duran?

ALFREDO DURAN: Well, what Mauricio is advocating is what we've been doing for the past 50 years, and we haven't seen any changes. Quite on the contrary, we have seen a more rigid position on part of the Cuban government. It's about time that we change a policy that doesn't work.

If this policy was made by the president of General Motors, he would have been fired a long time ago. It's a position that hasn't worked in 50 years. It is not working now, and it won't work in the future. It's about time that we take other steps that will change the status quo in Cuba.

RAY SUAREZ: There are bipartisan bills, Mauricio, in both houses now from Republicans, who are not historic friends of Cuba, to reverse the policies of the recent past. Barbara Lee talked about political will. Do you feel the political winds changing regarding Cuba and the United States?

MAURICIO CLAVER-CARONE: The bills that we see in Congress currently have the same co-sponsors, the same names, the same individuals that have presented and co-sponsored these bills the last Congress and the Congress before that. It's the same players and the same individuals.

We have yet to see a tide of individuals that have supported current U.S. policy change their position. When we see that happen will be in Cuba democratic reforms will begin.

The people that currently support U.S. policy have a commitment to the Cuban pro-democracy movement that I mentioned at the beginning, to the Cuban civil society, and to see democratic reforms in Cuba. You know, basically, the moral litmus is on them.

You know, we talk a lot about 50 years and a failed policy. I'm 33 years old. And I see all the time -- and a group of us, when they were sitting together, and sometimes it feels very frustrating, because every time you see in the media it's all about 50 years of policy, et cetera.

And we said, you know, we must know what the Jewish people have felt like, you know, for 2,000, 3,000 years before the state of Israel was created, because they were very much alone. But you know what? They were on the right side of history.

RAY SUAREZ: Mauricio Claver-Carone, Alfredo Duran, gentlemen, thank you both.

ALFREDO DURAN: Thank you.