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Program 9944
November 2, 1999

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

JOSEFINA VIDAL: I think it is absurd to have the US with this kind of policies still against Cuba, towards Cuba. Because Cuba is not anymore a so-called “threat” to the US security.

KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, changes in the relationship between the United States and Cuba.

SANTIAGO PEREZ BENETIZ: There are so many issues where Cuba and the US could cooperate on a normal basis and they cannot because of this blockade.

KRISTIN MC HUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.

PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. The United States and Cuba have not had formal diplomatic relations since January 3, 1961. The current US embargo of Cuba began in 1962. After decades of little change in US-Cuban relations, 1999 has brought small but significant changes in the diplomatic atmosphere between the two nations. In January, President Clinton announced small improvements in the way people-to-people contacts between Americans and Cubans are carried out. In March and May, the Cuban national baseball team played exhibitions against the Baltimore Orioles. And in October the Republican governor of Illinois, George Ryan, became the highest-ranking American official to tour Cuba since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Governor Ryan called for an end to the US sanctions. To get the Cuban perspective on these events, I spoke with two Cuban expert. Josefina Vidal is a government official with the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, DC.

JOSEFINA VIDAL: Actually, US policy has not changed. So the policy is the same. The embargo still is in place. But what we are seeing in the last few months is a much more strong movement and interest for some sectors, different sectors of the American society—business, religious groups, academic groups and universities—more interest about Cuba. And maybe more interested in order to change policy towards Cuba. So Cuba is working to normalize relations and to improve relations with the United States. We think that we have many, many issues in common. That we have some interests, some mutual interests that can be solved between the two countries. And the only thing that Cuba demands is to be treated with respect and in an equal basis with the US in order to discuss and to improve relations between the two countries.

SANTIAGO PEREZ BENETIZ: I agree with that. So I think that it, has been created kind of a new atmosphere. Or at least an atmosphere which has changed.

PORTER: Santiago Perez Benitez is a professor at the Institute of International Relations. The Institute is closely tied to Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

PEREZ: If you look at the real things, nothing has changed. But at the same time the atmosphere has changed. So the conditions or the framework for an eventual change, an eventual warming of relations between Cuba and the US has been created. So I would guess that we are in a situation which we haven’t seen for a lot of years. When there was an impression in Washington and in general in the US that the government of Cuba is going to collapse, after the collapsed Soviet Union. But nowadays nobody would think in those terms. So now from inside the US, and the civil society, people are expressing humanitarian concerns about Cuba, some business and economic interests, and also the simple sense that the policy has failed. And that it’s abnormal not to have normal relations with a 90 miles away neighbor.

PORTER: In your own thinking about US-Cuban relations do you make a connection or a comparison between US relations with Cuba and US relations with say, Vietnam, or US relations with China, or US relations with other countries whom we fell apart from during the Cold War?

PEREZ: Put in that perspective, it’s even worse. The conception that the US has not relations with Cuba. I mean, you fought a war with Vietnam; you didn’t fight a war with Cuba. And so there, I remember that for the Chinese the US was a paper tiger and for the US China was the yellow danger, or yellow kind of menace, right? And the Soviets were the red menace. But with Cuba, we are Westerners. There is, there have been a lot of exchange between Cuba and the US traditionally. So it sounds more absurd, that kind of policy. But at the same time, trying to—and we were talking on those issues—trying to go to the roots of why is that hostility. You would explain that by different factors. One of them will be, maybe, the Cuban Mafia politics inside the US. Cuban American lobby. But also, the sense that the US political elite cannot cope with an independent country as a neighbor, as a Latin American country which is independent and which has to be treated on a normal basis just as you treat other actors in the international arena, even though you have difficulties, even though have problems with it. Its, we don’t have—I mean, Cuba doesn’t necessarily have very warm relations with different countries around the world, but we do have relations, and the vast majority of the governments in the world recognize Cuba and do have normal diplomatic relations with Cuba. So why not the US?

PORTER: Josefina, anything you want to add to that?

VIDAL: Yes, I think it is absurd to have the US with this kind of policies still against Cuba, towards Cuba. Because Cuba is not anymore a so-called “threat” to the US security. So the Pentagon has made a report about this and telling that Cuba was not a threat. It’s not a threat to the US security, so there is no valid reason right now to continue to put Cuba, to have Cuba subject to this hard and very severe regime of sanctions, which is the most severe. Compare it with any other countries with which the US has had relations or sanctions. They are lifting sanctions against almost every country but not with Cuba. So I agree there the reasons are, that’s what, that were mentioned by my colleague Santiago Perez.

PORTER: Let’s talk about what the economic cooperation could be between the United States and Cuba. What are the markets that the United States is either being shut out of or not being able to take advantage of because of the lack of formal relations between the US and Cuba.

VIDAL: For many, many years before 1959 the US was a natural market for Cuba and Cuba bought, used to buy almost all the goods it needed in the US. So I think both countries would benefit from a lifting of the embargo and the reestablishment of relations, political and economic trade relations. Because right now, for example, Cuba buys every year $1 billion in food for the Cuban population. And we have to buy this food in very, very far-away markets. So we think that we can buy these same items here in the US and even they double, because the US is near Cuba, so we can buy much more food and to pay less for transportation and for all other services that you have to pay for when you have trade relations. So you think Cuba can benefit from this and American farmers can benefit from this. Mostly in this moment they are crossing very high, very hard times, with the depressed prices for agricultural products in the world.

PORTER: Santiago, anything you want to add on US-Cuban trade relations?

PEREZ: First of all we have to think on the moral aspect. I mean, you know, politicians in general they talk about national security, geopolitical threat, communism, etc. But I think that just being in the position of unethical, on a moral question, it’s very immoral just to say the least, to have a country blockaded for so many years. Eleven million people being blockaded. So that has caused a loss for Cuba, being counted in around $60 billion for all these years. So it has had an impact. It doesn’t mean that the Cubans are starving to death, nothing like that. But for sure the situation, the economic situation in Cuba could have been much better and the people could have had less suffering if there were normal economic relations between Cuba and the US. We don’t also have to expect that everything is going to be okay if the US blockade is lifted. So it’s, there will be problems, there always are problems between governments, between states. But it, the sense that if the blockade is lifted and it’s going to help people suffering from medical necessities which are not covered, which are very expensive. The fact that, Vidal was mentioning the fact that Cuba has to incur very many expenses buying things; the fact that American investors cannot go to Cuba as the Spaniards do, as Canadians do. All that has had an, it’s having an impact on the situation of the Cuban people.

PORTER: Santiago, you mentioned those other countries. Cuba does have normal trade relations with these other counties, correct? How can you use the word “blockade” if your country has normal trade relations with other countries?

PEREZ: Because the blockade is referred euphemistically as “embargo,” saying that it’s the US, which bilateral don’t want, doesn’t want to negotiate with Cuba. But it has an extraterritorial aspect. Which for example the Torricelli Agreement, was referring to US subsidiaries in third countries. So they can’t….

PORTER: Torricelli, the US Senator from New Jersey.

PEREZ: Yes, Torricelli. Yeah, it was ’92, I think, the Torricelli law. Also, Helms-Burton Law has its extraterritorial aspect, that forbids foreign investors to go to Cuba in seized properties from US nationals, or even from Cuban who were not at those times US nationals. And so it has that, this extraterritorial side of the aspect. But, you know, the question being put in those terms that I remember a lot of American diplomats make that argument, that “We are not blockading you. We are having an embargo. We don’t let our firms to commerce with you because we don’t agree with your government.” I think that put in that context that will take away the responsibility of the US and of having been sustained this kind of not trading, not having even not a medicine, not an aspirin Cuba cannot buy in the US. It’s criminal.

PORTER: Josefina, anything you want to add on that?

VIDAL: Yes. I would like to add, yes, we use mostly the term “blockade” because, for example, it’s very, it’s impossible for a Cuban right now to have access to international credits from international financial institutions. So this is a kind of blockade because it is the US with its power inside these organizations, international—the organizations that prevents Cuba to have access to these financial sources. Which are very important for the development of the country. So, the co-called embargo in the US is not only between Cuba and the US. It has its impacts in other countries having normal relation with Cuba and in preventing many of the foreign investors interested to have to trade with Cuba or to make investments in Cuba, to go there freely, normally. If they’re not going to be subject to US sanctions sometimes. So that’s why we consider it’s to be a blockade because of its extraterritorial aspects. It has it forever.

MC HUGH: Coming up, more on the evolution of US-Cuban relations.

PEREZ: It’s a pretty stable country. So if Fidel dies, tomorrow, let’s say that—there is a system. That’s my point. There is a system.

MC HUGH: Printed transcripts and audiocassettes 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 a range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

PORTER: Cuba is still reeling from two hurricanes this year. Hurricane Floyd hit in September, and Hurricane Irene in October. Josefina Vidal and Santiago Perez-Benitez, both closely tied to the Cuban government, described how these natural disasters affected the island.

PEREZ: We as, the Miami people and the North Carolina/South Carolina, all the East Coast of the Atlantic, we are so used to hurricanes, that this Irene Hurricane was a kind of a mild storm.

PORTER: A mild storm?

PEREZ: Yeah.


PEREZ: So it was not such a big hurricane. But it caught the island, it came across the island in the western part. There were a lot of, of rain and there were winds that were very strong. And there were for sure five fatal victims. But what was important was that I saw, you know, when there is those catastrophes, you get the very instant mobilization of the population. And the sense of solidarity, the sense of help each other, was very vivid in Cuba. And the authorities mobilized very quickly and it was very funny because Castro was awaiting the Hurricane in Pinar del Rio province and the hurricane deceived him. Because it came out to another province. You know, those jokes. You have to…[laughing]

PORTER: The hurricane went the other way, basically, from where Castro was positioned. He was going to organize the relief efforts as soon as it was over and he was in the wrong spot. Yeah. [laughing] Sometimes natural disasters like that do have a positive impact. I know during the Taiwan earthquakes there was some mixed feelings there, but China did in fact give a lot of aid to Taiwan, momentarily putting aside their differences. But there wasn’t much of that between the US and Cuba following the hurricanes?

PEREZ: Well, as a matter of fact there has been cooperation, right? Josefina?

VIDAL: At this moment I don’t know, because I have no idea about the damages, specific damages this hurricane, which was not so strong. But in the past when we have suffered from any other very strong hurricanes we have received of course a lot of support and help, humanitarian help from Europe, but also from some nongovernmental organizations from the US, religious groups, that has helped Cuba to recover from these catastrophes with medicines and with some food. So we have been receiving this kind of support here in the US, by, from the part of nongovernmental organizations.


PEREZ: This is also a point. I mean you have a country, which is your southern neighbor. You have a lot of things, which are common. Hurricanes, interdiction of drugs, necessity to fight terrorism, etc. But at the same time you don’t have links with that country. I mean, so there could have been very normal established relations between hurricane centers in Havana, in Miami, in other parts of the US, as the same as efforts to interdict drugs in the Caribbean. So, also, migration. So there are so many issues where Cuba and the US could cooperate on a normal basis and they cannot because of this blockade.

PORTER: Somehow recognizing a country and having full diplomatic relations with that country is confused with an agreement with or approval of the government of that country. And it seems like we apply that in Cuba, at least. We say, “We’re not gonna have full diplomatic relations because we don’t approve of the government of Cuba.” Yet we don’t use that same logic elsewhere in the world.

VIDAL: Of course you do not use this same kind of logic with many other countries of the world. And the problem for Cuba is very important because Cuba has fought for its independence for almost a century. So principles like sovereignty, like independence, are very important principles in Cuba. And we have had the experience not to be treated as equals in the past, not only by the US but also by many other countries. But right now the main problem is with the US. So we think if we are considered an equal country with the same prides of other countries and we are treated with respect for our sovereignty and our independence, this is the only condition that Cuba puts in order to have normal relations with the US. And this is the only thing.

PEREZ: Your audience and we ourselves wouldn’t expect that all the problems between Cuba and the US will be solved after the blockade is lifted. Jesse Helms is going to be there. Or another Jesse Helms, or Torricelli, whatever. So, and you do have a lot of problems with Mexico, with China, with Saudi Arabia—I mean, with any country—Canada. It’s just normal in international relations to have conflict and cooperation with countries. But within certain civilized norms that humanity has told us that we have just to abide by. And this is not the case.

PORTER: Cuba still faces international criticism over violations of basic human rights. In April the United Nations Commission on Human Rights narrowly passed a resolution expressing concern about “steps taken by the government which were inconsistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” The Commission also reiterated its concern about continued repression of members of the political opposition in Cuba and about the detention of dissidents. Santiago Perez-Benitez responds.

PEREZ: The question of human rights, which it has to be with internal order in any country, could not be elevated to the point of hindering the relations between countries. And also, you know, the question of human rights and liberties, that derives to a very immense philosophical debate that we are not going to have here. You know, Cuba and Cuban experts, they do have a lot of concerns with human rights in the US: the minorities, and these, and the ethnic riots which have been occurred; the prisoners; etc., etc. So we do have with native Canadians in Canada, or we do have with other parts of the world. But, so it’s normal to have those concerns. But to put that as the cornerstone of your policy, one impartial observer could think that that’s just a pretext not to recognize a government, not to accept that there could be, as we’ve said before, independent countries. You could argue about having violations of human rights or not having violations. Or some people will say, “That’s a paradise of democratic participation,” which US is not because Liz Dole has to resign because she doesn’t have funds.

PORTER: Elizabeth Dole.

PEREZ: Yeah, Elizabeth Dole. So you know, it’s, the sense that the US democracy and the US human rights are the best in the world, I think that could be discussed. And at least if the Cuban government would have considered that human rights be the cornerstone of its recognition of the US. So, I mean it, it could be a crazy world if that would be the basis of relations within governments and within countries in international relations.

PORTER: Right. Josefina, any comment on that.

VIDAL: I think there has been a tendency, a trend in the world, in the recent years, to politicize a lot of debate about human rights. So we have since attempts to condemn some countries and not to condemn other countries in which the situation or, of human rights is worse, or it’s, it has to be criticized. So we have seen that human rights has been put as a part, an important part, of the policy this government wants to develop or to preserve against one other country. So it’s not fair that this happens. So, and we have seen that unfortunately the United Nations Human Rights Commission has been forced some of the times to approve some decisions against some countries because of the pressure they have received from a very small group of countries that wants the UN Human Rights Commission to approve these decisions. So we have our own ideas about this, our own opinions, and we think we have to democratize the United Nations in order to give the same kind of representation and the same kind of votes and participation and the decision to the whole world, including the Third World, which is the vast majority of the United Nations right now.

PORTER: Is there an open debate within Cuba—you talked about political debate there—about what will happen in the post-Castro Cuba? What will be the successor state? What will it look like? Is there an open political debate about that?

PEREZ: The first point to make is that Fidel is going to die.

PORTER: Some day.

PEREZ: Yeah, yeah.

PORTER: He will.

PEREZ: He’s not immortal.

PORTER: We all know that. Exactly. So, but is there talk about what will happen afterwards?

PEREZ: Yeah, I mean, you have also, and that question derives from the presumption that Cuba is Fidel. And that Fidel is Cuba. And god’s sake, there are 11 million people there. There are institutions. There is a country working. For sure when, well Fidel is very charismatic; I mean he, he attracts a lot of public attention. You know how are the media and how is the information people receive. So, if that’s why there is that conception that the whole country is dancing around a personal—a person. And Fidel is very important. He has had a lot of impact on Cuban; the way of Cuba has functioned. And he has historical merits. But there are relations there. There are authorities. There are the low-level, at the provincial level, at the national level. And also there are people engaged in politics, engaged in trying to, well, in ruling the country. Fidel travels a lot. Hope maybe Clinton or Gore could invite him to the White House. They have invited Arafat and they have invited all the people, so why not maybe, in day, they could invite Fidel. So he travels a lot.

PORTER: Well, but I would just say though, that there are, history is full of revolutionary societies that did not survive the death of their main revolutionary leader. That sometimes revolutions are fought on the basis of one individual’s dream and the dream dies with that person. So I think it’s a legitimate question to say, whether or not the Cuban Revolution will survive the death of Fidel Castro.

PEREZ: Yeah, it is a legitimate question. I’m not questioning the legitimacy. What I’m saying is that, using your same example, there have been a lot of revolutions who have survived. For example when Lenin died there was a continuation in Soviet Union. In China that was also the case. Vietnam was also the case. So, Washington, when Washington died, the US Revolution continued and its continuing. I mean the US as a nation.

PORTER: Right.

PEREZ: So, it’s a pretty stable country. We had a loss of 37% of our national income in three years in the early ‘90s, and nothing happened. So if Fidel dies, tomorrow, let’s say that—there is an economy going on. It’s not in very good shape, everybody knows that. But there is a system. That’s my point. There is a system.

PORTER: All right. Josefina I’ll give you the last word.

VIDAL: We have a new generation of leaders in Cuba with very important responsibilities, in the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example; the National Assembly, which is our parliament; the person who is the ?? of the Prime Minister of Cuba, which is, who is very young, too. So we have a new generation of leaders in Cuba that are working at this moment in the society. We have been building for forty years. Of course you cannot reproduce the same kind of personality of Fidel Castro. But I am sure that the people that are going to take the responsibilities in the future in Cuba will try to preserve the same kind of society we have developed. It is not a perfect; it is not the best. But it responds to Cuban needs, to what the population of Cuba has demanded for 30, 40 years. So I am very confident about the future in Cuba.

PORTER: That Josefina Vidal, an official with the Cuban government’s office in Washington, DC. Our other guest was Professor Santiago Perez-Benitez, from Cuba’s Institute for International Relations. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

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