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On Cuba policy change, Bolton says, ‘I can’t wait for the lawsuits’

The White House says Americans will now be able to sue businesses operating on land confiscated by the Castro regime. Previous administrations declined to enforce the related Helms-Burton Law. Canada and the EU, which have private-sector interests on Cuban land, decried the move. Nick Schifrin talks to National Security Advisor John Bolton about that, plus U.S. policy on Venezuela and North Korea.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, the Trump administration announced a major shift in U.S. policy towards Cuba, part of increased pressure on U.S. adversaries across Latin America.

    American citizens will now be able to sue businesses in Cuba operating on land confiscated by the Castro regime, which seized power in 1959. A 23-year-old law known as Helms-Burton permitted such lawsuits, but three previous U.S. presidents refused to allow the law to take effect.

    President Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, was in Miami today to make the official announcement.

    And our Nick Schifrin spoke with him earlier about Latin America and North Korea, before the news of a new North Korean test.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ambassador John Bolton, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Today, you announced lifting on Americans' ability to sue over property confiscated by the Cuban government during Fidel Castro's revolution.

    For the last 23 years, Presidents Bush, Obama and Clinton maintained those limits. Why are you lifting them?

  • John Bolton:

    Well, President Trump looked very carefully at this, Secretary Pompeo, Secretary of the Treasury Mnuchin, and others.

    We concluded, fundamentally, that the intent of the framers of Helms-Burton to give justice to Americans whose property had been confiscated was a good purpose and that this was the time to do it.

    So, recognizing other presidents didn't want to do it, we proceeded, as President Trump has. Other presidents didn't want to move the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. But we did that. I could go on with the list.

    I think this is clearly the right thing to do. Justice for Americans whose property was stolen by the Castro regime is long overdue.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    European allies who I have talked to in the last day and have said this publicly are concerned that these are effectively secondary sanctions on European companies to do business in Cuba.

    And Latin America staffers from George W. Bush's National Security Council staff, as well as actually H.R. McMaster's staff, your predecessor, both told me this opens a kind of Pandora's box of lawsuits. It could gum up the courts. It might even drag in companies that you're not intending to target.

    So, how do you respond to those criticisms of Republican former staffers and U.S. allies?

  • John Bolton:

    Well, I think they're badly mistaken.

    With respect to our allies, we have been engaged in diplomatic conversations for a substantial period of time here. I think we have made it clear by the way Secretary Pompeo brought down the waiver period from six months to 45 days to 15 days. Everybody was on notice that this was coming. Nobody should be surprised about it.

    It's not a question of secondary sanctions. It's a question of who gets to take advantage of stolen American property. I can't wait for the lawsuits when these companies get up and say, but we should continue to benefit from the stolen property, without having to pay compensation for the losses that Americans have undertaken.

    And as for gumming up the courts, listen, my guess is that, for major American companies, major European companies, there may well be lawsuits filed and settled out of courts. That's often the nature of complex corporate litigation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You said today that the — quote — "Monroe Doctrine is alive and well."

    As you know, even U.S. allies who you're working closely with, especially in regards to Venezuela, consider that language a kind of cloak for U.S. intervention and, as one put it, imperial arrogance in the Western Hemisphere.

    Do you understand why even U.S. allies might bristle at some of that language?

  • John Bolton:

    Well, I think many U.S. allies in this region, in this hemisphere, those closest to us, welcome the U.S. leadership here under President Trump to keep foreign powers from extending their influence, particularly in Venezuela, which is what I was referring to when I said the Monroe Doctrine is alive and well.

    It's intended to throw a shield around the hemisphere. It's worked for a long time. And I think it's an important doctrine to keep in mind as we work for the objective that President Trump seeks here, which is the first completely free hemisphere in human history.

    We're not embarrassed by that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, what do you say to those people who call it imperialist?

  • John Bolton:

    You know, the United States has never been an imperialist power. We're not starting now.

    What we want is to prevent others with imperialist aims from taking advantage of weakness, of the corruption and authoritarian nature of the Maduro-Chavez regime in Venezuela. That's what we had in mind.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    As you mentioned, Russia has intervened in Venezuela in a big way in the last couple weeks. We have seen a ship full of security services sent to Venezuela clearly to prop up Nicolas Maduro and to send the message, of course, to the U.S. that it can intervene in the Western Hemisphere.

    What message are you trying to send by considering U.S. military options, for example, conducting freedom-of-navigation operations and visiting ports near Venezuela?

  • John Bolton:

    Well, I'm not going to get into any specifics.

    President Trump has been clear right from the outset in Venezuela that all options are on the table. And we're not going to talk about what we might do. We're not going to talk about what we might not do. It's for Maduro to worry about what the United States is capable of.

    And it's also to make it clear we value the protection of the 40,000 to 45,000 American citizens in Venezuela. We don't want to see any harm come to them. The fact is, I think, with respect to Russia, China and others, they're already hedging their bets in Venezuela.

    They have done certain things that we object to, but I think they understand, if they're not careful, and there is a peaceful transition of power to Juan Guaido and the opposition, that they need to watch how they behave in their actions with respect to Maduro, or their very substantial debts that they have forced on the Maduro government could be in jeopardy.

    That's something they need to think about, I believe.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Sir, I want to switch a little bit to North Korea.

    The president the other day used the phrase a step-by-step approach when it comes to North Korea.

    Just help me understand this. What steps does North Korea have to take in order for the U.S. to take reciprocal steps? And what would those U.S. reciprocal steps be?

  • John Bolton:

    Well, I think this is a very familiar part of American foreign policy. We need to see the strategic decision and the conduct necessary to eliminate North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

    This was a subject that President Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in discussed extensively when President Moon was at the White House last week. It's something that we're committed to. We have seen North Korea not come forward and accept what the president has called the big deal. But that possibility remains out there.

    And it's why the president is still willing to have a third summit with Kim Jong-un.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You used the phrase strategic decision. Then you used the phrase the big deal.

    So, obviously, you are expecting North Korea to give major concessions up front before the U.S. makes concessions, relieves some sanctions. Some of your allies in South Korea say that's not going to work, that there needs to be, as the president himself said, a step-by-step approach.

    So what's wrong with making a small step and asking North Korea to take a small step?

  • John Bolton:

    The president's also made it very clear he's not going to follow negotiation strategies that have failed in the past.

    And so he has shown to the North Koreans, first in Singapore and more recently in Hanoi, the kind of economic future that could be in store for North Korea if they take the decision to give up their nuclear weapons. That door remains open. The president, as I say, is perfectly prepared to have a third summit.

    And so now I think we're waiting on North Korea to see if they're willing to take advantage of the president's offer.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    To extend the metaphor, why should North Korea trust the United States? Why should they, so to speak, walk through the door and know that you won't slam it behind them?

  • John Bolton:

    Well, I think President Trump showed how determined he is to try and get to the big deal by his decision to walk away from a bad deal in Hanoi.

    So, really, the potential is there. I don't know how President Trump can be more forthcoming in his efforts to have a good relationship with Kim Jong-un. He sends him pictures. He sends him letters. Happy birthday to Kim Jong-un's grandfather on his birthday on April the 15th.

    Really, this has been a full-court press by the president. And we will wait to see what Kim Jong-un does.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ambassador John Bolton, national security adviser, thank you very much for your time.

  • John Bolton:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And a news update on that North Korean test claim we reported earlier.

    U.S. officials are telling the "NewsHour" that they do not believe anything was launched in the air. Instead, they believe that North Korea conducted a test on the ground. North Korea maintains a robust missile and nuclear program.

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