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U.S. diplomat: No illusions about Cuba’s willingness to allow freedoms

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    One of the great surprises of 2014 was President Obama's stunning announcement, after a more than 50-year standoff, that the U.S. would reopen diplomatic relations with Cuba.

    Tonight, chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner takes a closer look at the challenges ahead and talks with an American diplomat leading the charge.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    We will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests. Neither the American nor Cuban people are well-served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Among the changes, the president said, he would reopen the U.S. Embassy in Havana and further ease U.S. travel, credit and export limits to direct U.S. investment to Cuba's new small entrepreneurial class.

    He also urged Congress to lift the 54-year-old U.S. economic embargo on the island. Cuban President Raul Castro issued a similar announcement simultaneously.

    But what this opening will mean in reality depends on hard-headed negotiations between the two governments, due to start in Havana in mid-January. Leading the U.S. negotiating team will be Roberta Jacobson, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

    We spoke in her office yesterday.

    Assistant Secretary Jacobson, thank you for having us.

    ROBERTA JACOBSON, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs: Thank you, Margaret.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    When you head to Havana in a couple weeks' time to really launch these talks, what evidence are you looking for that the Cuban government, the bureaucracy is actually interested the kind of opening up that President Castro said they were ready to do?

  • ROBERTA JACOBSON:

    Well, I think we have seen some signs of that already.

    So, we're hopeful that when we sit down in Havana, we will have a broad range of conversations, but starting with the normalization.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    But, in terms of the opening up of the economy, a lot of things the president said he wants to do, those are things that would chip away at the sort of economic monopoly that this Cuban government has.

  • ROBERTA JACOBSON:

    Right, exactly.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Are you — are they ready for that?

  • ROBERTA JACOBSON:

    I think that's a very good question, Margaret.

    And I think that's exactly what we will find out. We certainly hope that the Cuban government will allow us to engage with those who are self-employed, those who are entrepreneurs. We certainly hope that the telecommunications sector, which is one where the Cuban government has said they're interested in modernizing, in giving more access to Cubans, to information, that they will be willing to go as far as we can get our business sector to go.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    When President Castro spoke to, I think, his parliament, he said his goal is a prosperous and sustainable communism.

    Now, that does — that sounds like someone who wants to essentially retain central authority, party control, but at the same time somehow liberalize the economy and revitalize it. Is that even doable?

  • ROBERTA JACOBSON:

    It does sound like something that may be impossible.

    I think that if you look at what is going on in Cuba, you see an economy that really is in a tailspin. You see a model that's not really working. And the liberalization that you have seen take place, although many people have commented on it, is really very, very minor. It's very small. It's very slow and it is still based on one patron whose own economic model is failing.

    I think one of the things we want to do is see how far we can really encourage Cubans to take control of their own destiny. Whether that is going to exist within the confines that President Castro has outlined, I really don't know. But that's why the new policy was designed.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Many Cuban dissidents who fought a long fight down there are very upset by the president's announcement. When the Cuban government continues to spy on them, to restrict their freedom of speech, their freedom of assembly, can the Cuban people expect any greater freedoms in the short-term as a result of this deal?

  • ROBERTA JACOBSON:

    I don't know, but I would say that we're skeptical and we don't have any illusions about this government or their willingness to allow those freedoms.

    I think they're still fighting that fight. What you see is people beginning to lose their fear. You see performance artists. You see independent librarians and journalists and people speaking out. That's what we want to encourage. But there is no doubt that the government continues to want to maintain a level of control and a level of repression, even if that repression may be short-termed detention or other forms of repression that differ from the way it has in the past. And that really does have to end.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    In the negotiations, did the U.S. try to get any greater assurances on this front?

  • ROBERTA JACOBSON:

    I think one of the things you have to remember is that what was negotiated was the intelligence asset for the three intelligence agents of Cuba in the United States.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    The exchange.

  • ROBERTA JACOBSON:

    The other things that were discussed were things we discussed with the Cubans or they discussed with us, but they weren't necessarily negotiated.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    The U.S. said, well, the Cuban government has said it will release 53 political prisoners. Have they released any or all of them?

  • ROBERTA JACOBSON:

    The Cuban government has said that those people will be released as their own decision. Some of those people have been released, among them, for example, Sonia Garro, one of the Ladies in White.

    There have been others who have been released. We expect all of them will be released.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Is the Cuban government obliged to, for example, notify you? Will the United States ever really know if those 53 are released?

  • ROBERTA JACOBSON:

    Well, there is a good deal of communications among activists on the islands and among those activists with our interests section in Havana, so we do expect to know when people are released.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Now, as you said, your talks initially will focus on the normalization of relations government to government. Part of that, President Obama said, was to open an embassy in Havana.

    Members of the new Congress, but many Democrats as well, say they are going to do everything they can in their power to frustrate that, including using the power of the purse. Can the Congress stand in the way of opening an embassy?

  • ROBERTA JACOBSON:

    Well, there are certain things that we will do to transition the interests section to the embassy.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Which the U.S. already has in Havana.

  • ROBERTA JACOBSON:

    Correct, a very large interests section, one of the largest missions in Havana.

    There are certain things that we will do to transition that really won't cost any money. And so we believe that we will be able to do that. Obviously, the conduct of diplomatic relations is within the president's purview.

    When there may come time for things that will cost money, obviously, we will have to discuss those with Congress. But the transition to an embassy is something that is within the president's power to do.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And so a fundamental critique of the president's decision to open up relations is that Cuba is gasping for air here and that just on the verge of losing this subsidized oil from Venezuela, that essentially the United States is now throwing it a lifeline that will enable the Castro communist regime to sustain itself.

  • ROBERTA JACOBSON:

    Well, I don't think that's true.

    For one thing, the embargo is still in place. For another thing, if you look at what the president has authorized, we're talking about supporting self-employed, supporting entrepreneurs, supporting the telecommunications sector, which is information, and providing Cubans with accurate information about the world, providing the ability for Cubans to meet real Americans in humanitarian missions, church group, athletics.

    These are not things that are necessarily going to allow the Cuban government to survive or not survive or the Cuban model to survive or not survive. These are the kinds of things that greatly empower Cuban civil society and Cuban individuals to help give them a sense of their own future and enable them to get the resources they need to get greater control over their lives.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Assistant Secretary Jacobson, thank you.

  • ROBERTA JACOBSON:

    Thank you, Margaret.

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