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Miguel Alfonso Martínez: Don’t believe everything you read or you hear about Cuba, even from sources like me. Go there. It’s your right, it’s a constitutional right, to go and see for yourselves.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, Cuba reacts to the embargo and Elian.
Isabel Jaramillo Edwards: Nobody really noticed or realized that Cuba is a country where families, children, people in general, have the same problems as anywhere else in the world, including the United States.
KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. Elian Gonzalez and the potential easing of the decades-old embargo are refocusing attention on the current status of US-Cuban relations. The American perspective on Elian and the embargo is well documented. But the Cuban perspective is sometimes lost in the shuffle. David Gonzalez Lopez is Vice Director of the Center for Studies on Africa and the Middle East in Havana; Isabel Jaramillo Edwards is a Research Associate for the Center of Studies on Central America, in Havana; and Miguel ALFONSO MARTÍNEZ and Santiago Pérez Benítez are professors at the Institute of International Relations. The Institute is closely tied to Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I recently asked all four their opinions on the embargo, the Elian Gonzalez case, and the future of US-Cuban relations during a visit to St. Paul, Minnesota. Isabel begins today’s discussion with her perspective on how Cuba is portrayed in the American media.
Isabel Jaramillo Edwards: I think that at this point I would say in 85-95 percent accurate, in terms of American public has been able to see the real Cuba through all this problem of Elian. In television especially, and it’s very interesting because I would say that the Cold War vision that was present before was very biased. And nobody really noticed or realized that Cuba is a country where families, children, people in general, have the same problems as anywhere else in the world, including the United States.
MCHUGH: David, would you agree?
DAVID GONZÁLEZ LÓPEZ: Oh yes. I would agree. I think that as the activity goes, yes, I perceive a change and there’s still a long way to go but I it’s a good start. I mean, we’ve been misrepresented I feel for so long that it’s not a question of days. But it’s a good start and I think we’re on the right track of knowing each other better.
Santiago Pérez Benítez: Yeah, I agree with that. I mean, I don’t think it began all with Elian’s case. It has a certain time before. Remember from the Pope’s visit to Havana, all of the information about Cuba. Also in the cultural stuff, there’s been a lot of Cuban music; Buena Vista Social Club. Even though I don’t agree quite well with the way the Buena Vista Social Club film presents Cuba as not anything has changed since 40 years ago, but it still, the question of Cuban music, Cuban culture, has been going on into the American public. Also the Orioles games, the games with Orioles. And finally, Elian’s case, where, I mean, what is known of Cuba in the US? It is because of what do the American media present? What does CNN present? What does ABC or CBS? You know, the control of the American media on the images. And think that in the Elian case they have been presented in a more or less objective way.
Miguel ALFONSO MARTÍNEZ: Unfortunately that is not the case. Cuba has been portrayed in a very, very bad image kind of thing.
MCHUGH: This is Miguel ALFONSO MARTÍNEZ, a Senior Professor with Cuba’s Institute of International Relations.
Miguel ALFONSO MARTÍNEZ: I remember being with Che in New York in 1964. He was interviewed, I think by Face The Nation coast to coast, on a Monday morning, the day he was leaving. And he was asked as a last question, “What would be, if any, what would be your message to the American people and the American government?” And he, he was very much aware of that kind of image that was projected by the US media on Cuba, and he says, “Why don’t you forget that we exist?” It would be a better deal, he thought. So I think that there are a lot of half-truths, there are a lot of total blackout out news that are important to understand Cuba. And this has been nourished by 40 years of, I would say, biased coverage of Cuba.
MCHUGH: Would you say that it was slightly better during the Elian case?
ALFONSO MARTÍNEZ: Well, the case of Elian is a very peculiar case, and I think that for the first time Middle America got a clear glimpse of who are this—I wouldn’t say the Miami people—what was considered to be the representation of the Cuban exile community. It so happened that they were not the representatives and they are not the representatives of the exile community. But they were perhaps the most vocal, most influential, most resourceful. So, in the case of Elian the coverage was very emotional also, because the American people know the value of father-son relationship. And I think that contributed when the relatives in Miami decided to, to carry on the policies of, as the INS say, their handlers, in Florida, who decided to make Elian a political anti-revolution icon, the common American had a chance to see who these guys were: refusing to comply with orders from the executive in your country, even refusing to accept the decisions of the judiciary, and try to politicize this case.
MCHUGH: Well, the Elian case sharply divided the United States as you may well know. Most Americans, according to polls, felt that Elian should go home to Cuba with his father despite what the Cuban-American community felt in Miami. And so in the end, the United States government and Cuba’s government were playing on the same team, so to speak. And I find that quite unusual. David, is that unusual to you as well?
GONZÁLEZ LÓPEZ: Well, it’s, I would say it’s fairly unprecedented. It’s not the only case. I think there has been cooperation in certain specific areas where the US, both the US and Cuba have realized that there was something that can be done together, like—I don’t know, there’s so many examples. But in this particular issue the, what brought together, I feel, the Cuban and the American government was that we both managed to politize this issue, which was actually a humanitarian issue. And we could coincide on that. And that was what opposed to, say the Cuban community in Miami, to both of us. They continued to see it as a purely political issue.
Pérez Benítez: Oh yeah, I agree that there was common ground. Not to say that there was not criticism from both sides. But in general I agree that there was a common ground. And I think that the fact that the US, the Cuban-American National Foundation and the radicals of the Cuban community have been isolated. Not only from the media, not only from the American public opinion, but also from the US government. It’s a good signal for the future.
ALFONSO MARTÍNEZ: It’s unprecedented, I would say. And you are correct in assuming that—I have no recollection of any single situation in this 41 years that the Cuban government and the US government and the majority of American people, and of course the majority of the Cuban people, would be in agreement on something—that the child should go back and live in Cuba with his father. I think that is a unique situation.
MCHUGH: Well, the Cuban-American community certainly has a great deal of political power in the Miami area. But I’m curious as to how the Cuban-American community is viewed in Cuba? Santiago?
Pérez Benítez: No, they do have power. I mean, they do have money. And when they are powerful people in terms of money they are viewed that way, in different parts. But they are viewed in Cuba as the American Tories during the American revolution. Remember when they emigrated to Canada? One-third of the American population of the 13 colonies emigrated to Canada? So they were seen by US revolutionaries, US patriots, as the guys were maybe coming back in terms of retaking all they had before. So they are saying that way in Cuba, that they are the exiles who are, who have the support—till this moment—from the most powerful power in the world, and that they would represent a man as to Cuban stability and Cuban integrity. At the same time they are also saying the way the American public has seen them on TV, they are racists, they are very intolerant.
GONZÁLEZ LÓPEZ: Yeah, well one thing—and I think this is not new—I mean with respect to the Cuban population, everyone, most everybody in Cuba has a relative, someone who lives in the US, and who either talks to them on the phone, writes to them, or sees them when they visit Cuba or vice-versa. And we do know that Cuban community in Miami is not—let’s say the political group of the Cuban-American Foundation. I mean, they have a certain degree of control over things. And it’s, that’s why I think it’s correct to call it, it has been called in Cuba a Mafia, real Mafia, taking control of let’s say even political representation, which is not exact. Because I know a lot of people in the Cuban, Cuban Americans in the Miami area, who do not have the same viewpoint. But they are terribly afraid even to express it. Because they know there could be consequences with these people who control the politics there. And even a lot of jobs, etc. So, I think in this sense we do. And the Cuban population at large is aware of the fact that there are in this sense two, we could say two Cuban-American communities in Miami.
JARAMILLO Edwards: I would say that the Cuban population has a very—at-large—has a very negative perception of what the Cuban National Foundation means, of course. Because of the reasons that David and Santiago were mentioning, especially this instance of retaking a position which they assumed they could do. Which is not at all real. And the second point I would make is that I would add also, to the Cuban-Americans that Davis was mentioning, the fact that Latin Americans, that lots of them live in Miami also, are not supportive of this position. Not at all. And in this case, in the case of this child, they have been most, they have had a most negative reaction towards the position of the foundation, mainly because many of them had come from the same kind of situations, or might have the same kind of a situation with their own families at some point.
PORTER: Coming up, the implications of easing the Cuban embargo.
GONZÁLEZ LÓPEZ: Our economy will continue to change in the future, and to adapt to world circumstances. Perhaps not exactly as some expert somewhere might think it should. But we are changing. I mean, our economy has been changing and it will continue to change. And of course, if the embargo is lifted, then there will be, certainly, a lot of more changes.
PORTER: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
MCHUGH: Congress has recently indicated a willingness to ease the embargo, to allow the sale of food and medicine. I’m curious as to how Cuba views that potential breakthrough with the embargo. Is it viewed as a positive step? Or is it viewed as just another political stunt in Washington? David?
GONZÁLEZ LÓPEZ: I would say that any discussion on the possibility of lifting the embargo is viewed in a positive light in Cuba, in general. But of course we are all aware that it’s a very complex situation because of all the laws that have been passed in the preceding years. And the fact is, it’s not that we—or I personally, speaking for myself—it’s not that I would, let’s say, diminish the effort that can be done in that sense, but I am —well, so many years have passed that I am still a bit—I mean I’m not optimistic. You see, that this will be lifted so quickly. I think there are still some opposition. There is still a great, a great deal of laws that are difficult to break. And in this sense it will require enormous effort here in the US to put things right again and have normal relations with Cuba. So, and on the other hand, yes, it would be very good for Cuba, I think, but after all, I mean, Cuba has lived, has survived, for many years with the embargo that I think we can still manage. I mean it would be excellent because we want to have normal relations with the US as with any other country in the world. But it’s not something, let’s say, that we’re, that we’re really dying to have.
JARAMILLO Edwards: I agree with David. I would add that we have to consider also that we are in an electoral year in the United States, so that makes it all the more difficult for new initiatives in this direction. And I suppose that what will continue to happen in a very careful and slow way because of the entanglement of all these laws that are very complicated, will be some steps forward in this step, but I’m not very optimistic either. Anyway, it’s a step forward.
Pérez Benítez: Well, I don’t know the last-minute changes in this legislation that was discussed in the Senate and the House, but I think that as the political system in the US and Congress acts so, so complicated, I’ve heard some analysis that said that this law, this bill, which is debated, that is going to grant the possibility of Cuba to buy medicine and food in the US, is accompanied, is in a package where there is going to be into law, regulations that normalize or at least regulate the trips of US citizens to Cuba. And if those are federal regulation, executive regulations, if they come into law then that would be much more difficult to go from the US, on the part of US citizens, to Cuba. And that would mean a strengthening of the embargo. So even though I agree with you on all being said here, that it’s part of the whole pushing for changes in the embargo, mainly from the US farm lobby, maybe from people who are against the embargo. So, it’s so complex. We have to wait until the end of the discussion of this bill, but that could be even worse.
ALFONSO MARTÍNEZ: I think this is a grass-roots growing awareness of first the futility of this policy; secondly the ethical and human rights implications of maintaining such a war of attrition against the entire people of Cuba.
MCHUGH: This again is Miguel ALFONSO MARTÍNEZ.
ALFONSO MARTÍNEZ: But I think it does not come from upstairs. It comes from downstairs as a reflection of what legislators in both sides of the political spectrum in your country perceive as something that the voters in the United States have been gaining in understanding, that this is something that produces nothing and contributes to poison the relations between the two countries. But let me clarify something. I don’t think that what was passed recently by the Congress—I haven’t read the text myself, I’m just reacting to what I know about the text—first of all, it creates a number of conditions for this sales of food and medicine to Cuba can take place. Secondly, it continues to maintain the impossibility for Cuban-produced goods and services to be sold or rendered to the US. You know the economic situation in my country. We are, we have been in very difficult situation since 1991. So it is very difficult. You maintain such a strict system—which impedes any kind of Cuba-US trade—I mean, meaning exportation of Cuban goods and services to the US—how can we afford to pay for the importations that we need. But it is a clear reflection of the growing uneasiness and resentment of many sectors in the US—economic sectors—in the US, about this policy, that first of all is a failure from the point of view of bringing down the Revolution, which is a very important objective of this policy. And secondly that they know are hurting the Cubans in general.
MCHUGH: If the embargo goes away—let’s just assume for a second that the embargo goes away—will that solve all of Cuba’s economic problems? Or are additional reforms needed in order to make Cuba a very prosperous country? David?
GONZÁLEZ LÓPEZ: Well, I mean, I’ve seen so many changes in Cuba in my time, that I can only imagine that yes, I mean, our economy will continue to change in the future, and to adapt to world circumstances. Perhaps not exactly as some expert somewhere might think it should. But we are changing. I mean, our economy has been changing and it will continue to change. And of course, if the embargo is lifted, then there will be, certainly, a lot of more changes.
Pérez Benítez: I agree with your implicit point that not all Cuban problems are from outside. Yeah, I mean if there is a lifting of the embargo that would help the Cuban economy because that would take away from Cuba all the international pressure not to lend any money to Cuba, or at least at a very high interest rates. Or blockading, in the case of the US, the US market to Cuban exports. Or in general. I mean, the question of Cuba’s been a very risky market for the investor. So that could take out of that maybe that pressure which comes out of the blockade. At the same time I wouldn’t be so optimistic that if the embargo is lifted everything is going to be solved and Cuba is going to be next year a prosperous society. First, because we do have our own internal problems linked with efficiency, etc.. Second, that there are a lot of very powerful US lobbies that would impede, for example, the Cuban sugar to enter the US as a quota, or Cuban rum entering the US, or even the question of Cuban tobacco industry and all that. And I think that Cuba shouldn’t follow the pattern it had before ’59, that everything acquired from the US. I think that Cuba should continue the way of diversifying dependency.
ALFONSO MARTÍNEZ: Don’t forget, before the Cuban Revolution, this was before 1959, all the economic system was based on the Cuba-USA relation. There were no stocks in Cuba. You’d just simply call Miami or New Orleans and you would have everything in a couple of days, maybe three days. Now, in 1960, when all the relations began to deteriorate and in ’62 ceased completely, we had to rearrange all our trade contacts. All the measurement, all the technology changed. Now, we will have to make another reconversion of our entire economy, buying in Europe. So it is very difficult for us. So, we will have to accommodate ourselves to the new situation when and if that day arrives. But it would be something that would be a most welcome development, I think.
MCHUGH: I’m curious as to whether or not you are really optimistic that things will change in the next five years or so, in terms of relations with the US and the embargo in general. David?
GONZÁLEZ LÓPEZ: Perhaps it’s my age. I’ve been politically aware of all this, the problems with the US since 1959, so, and I’ve seen so many moments where it seemed like, “Well maybe now” and then, “No.” In the end we know, I mean, let’s say I’m optimistic in the long run and it’s something that at some point it must be overcome and it must disappear. It has nothing to do with contemporary international relations. But like I said, I know it’s mixed with so many things of US politics and there are so many complexities that, well, maybe it will still stake some time. I would like to hope for the best, but I think like most Cubans we’re prepared to continue like we are now.
Pérez Benítez: Yeah, I think that there have been some slight changes in the years of the Clinton administration. Maybe in Gore’s administration or in Bush’s administration there will be more changes on this step-by-step process. Maybe it’s too cynical, but I’ll be a little bit pessimistic because I don’t know if there will be those people who are in favor of changing the US foreign policy towards Cuba strong enough to change the rules of the game in Washington.
MCHUGH: I have one final question. It’s pretty easy. If there was one thing that you wanted to tell our American audience about Cuba, what would that be? Santiago?
Pérez Benítez: That as you’ve seen in the Elian case, Cuba is a normal country. Where there are people who want to live there, there is a people who raise their kids. I mean it’s a country like any other. So take away the notion that we are from another planet.
GONZÁLEZ LÓPEZ: I would tell the US public that in the first place we have a long history with, say, bad experiences, good experiences, but we’re neighbors. We’re sort of, we have no other choice but to live together. And I think the best thing is to know each other better. And perhaps we’ve lost a lot of chances in these past 40 years. For instance, right now we’re visiting this city of St. Paul, and I was very glad to hear that Charles Schultz was born here, because Snoopy for my generation, well, we knew a lot of Snoopy. The younger generation in Cuba does not, by the way. But there is still a lot of people in Cuba who can relate to a lot of things in the US and we can still connect. And I think it’s something that can be built upon. And I hope that in the future it will be possible.
JARAMILLO EDWARDS: Cubans are a lovely people, as the American people also are, no? And there’s the Cubans have a great sense of solidarity, a great sense of humor, great culture. They love baseball; Americans also do. So I think there’s a lot of space for communications, exchange, and building a new relationship, really.
ALFONSO MARTÍNEZ: Don’t believe everything you read or you hear about Cuba, even from sources like me. Go there. It’s your right, it’s a constitutional right, to go and see for yourselves. I think that the day that the American people will have a direct, unhindered, totally free access to travel to Cuba, that will be the end of the blockade and the economic war, or the embargo, as you call it.
MCHUGH: Miguel ALFONSO MARTÍNEZ is a Senior Professor with Cuba’s Institute of International Relations. We also heard from DAVID GONZÁLEZ
LÓPEZ, the Vice Director of the Center for Studies on Africa and the Middle East in Havana; Isabel Jaramillo Edwards, a Research Associate for the Center of Studies on Central America, in Havana; and Santiago Pérez Benítez, an Associate Professor at the Institute of International Relations. For Common Ground, I’m Kristin McHugh.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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