| Carter's Visit to Cuba|
With William M. LeoGrande Ph.D.
Professor, School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, May 15, 2002; 12:30 p.m. EDT
This week, Jimmy Carter became the first former U.S. president to visit Cuba and meet with Cuban President Fidel Castro in 74 years. During the unofficial visit, Carter was reassured by both Bush administration officials and the director of Cuba's Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology that has been no transfer of technology capable of developing weapons of mass destruction from Cuba to other countries. Carter gave a live, nationally televised speech to the Cuban people Tuesday evening. Carter Urges Democracy (Post, May 15).
Dr. William M. LeoGrande, professor of government in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C., discussed the impact of former President Carter's visit to Cuba.
LeoGrande served as acting dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University from 1997 to 1999. Previously, from 1982-1983, he was an international affairs fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and worked with the Democratic Policy Committee of the United States Senate. In 1985 and 1986, he served on the staff of the Democratic Caucus Task Force on Central America of the United States House of Representatives. In 1994-1995, he was a Pew faculty fellow in International Affairs.
Professor LeoGrande specializes in Comparative Politics and U.S. Foreign Policy. He has written widely in the field of Latin American politics and U.S. policy toward Latin America, with a particular emphasis on Central America and Cuba. He is the author of "Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992" (University of North Carolina Press, 1998), and "Cuba's Policy in Africa" (University of California, 1980); co-author of "Confronting Revolution: Security Through Diplomacy in Central America "(Pantheon, 1986), and co-editor of "The Cuba Reader: The Making of a Revolutionary Society" (Grove, 1988) and "Political Parties and Democracy in Central America" (Westview, 1992). His articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, LeMonde Diplomatique and other journals.
A transcript follows.
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Dr. William M. LeoGrande: Welcome, everyone. What with President Carter’s trip, President Bush’s impending speech on Cuba policy next Monday, and the State Department’s recent charges of Cuban biological warfare research, we’ll have plenty to talk about over the next hour. Thanks for joining us.
Annandale, Va.: Personally, I think that Castro is a tyrant and a bully, albeit a charismatic one. Even so, I also think that President Carter is right that we should open up more to Cuba, especially with tourism. Do you foresee any significant policy changes in that regard with the Bush administration as a result of President Carter's trip?
Dr. William M. LeoGrande: Not immediately. President Bush has made it pretty clear that he intends to tighten the economic embargo against Cuba rather than relax it, as President Carter urged. The only way policy is likely to change while George W. is in the White House is if Congress forces it. That could happen, though. Congress has already repealed the embargo on selling food and medicine to Cuba, and the House of Representatives has voted twice to repeal the travel ban. Legislation to further relax both the embargo and the travel ban are working their way through Congress.
Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Why all the Bush administration sandbagging and spit wadding of Mr. Carter's visit to Cuba? Carter doesn't speak for the American government nor the American people. He's just a private citizen though a highly visible one. If G.W. Bush and company are opposed to Mr. Carter's philosophy on Cuba why don't they just ignore the whole tour? It seems to me they only focus more attention on the visit by their almost childish antics -- e.g., Castro bashing during Carter's visit? Thanks much.
Dr. William M. LeoGrande: The problem for Bush isn’t just Jimmy Carter. There’s a growing, bipartisan chorus in Congress and in the U.S. business community in favor of a more open policy toward Cuba. Carter’s visit gives media attention to the issue and strengthens the hand of those who want to see a change. It makes it more costly politically for Bush to hold on to his hardline position, which he has to do if he wants to win Florida in the next presidential election. Taking political pot shots at Carter is therefore a kind of damage control to minimize Carter’s impact on the ongoing debate about Cuba policy.
London, UK: What chance of success have the initiatives in US Congress to allow US citizens travel to Cuba?
Dr. William M. LeoGrande: There’s a clear majority in the House in favor of lifting lift the travel ban, and I think there’s a majority in favor of lifting it in the Senate, too. But President Bush is adamantly opposed to any relaxation of economic sanctions. He’ll be in Miami on Monday speaking to a Cuban-American audience, and reports are that he’ll announce tougher enforcement of the travel ban. What we’ll probably see later this year is a Congressional vote in favor of lifting the travel ban, and a presidential veto to prevent it from becoming law.
Madrid, España: Do you think that President Bush is reinforcing the bans against Cuba because:
a. He really believes that Cuban Government is the actual demonstration of evil.
b. He has to give a retribution to the Cuban-American Foundation that supported his election in Florida and is also the main political force for guarantee his brother's election as a Governor in such state.
Which of these two possibilities do you think is the actual reason of the Bush's position, especially now that the majorities of both chambers of the Congress are willing to lift such bans?
Dr. William M. LeoGrande: I think it’s probably a little of each. Conservative Republicans have always had a pretty hardline policy toward Cuba, even in the days before Cuban-Americans were an important voting bloc in Florida and New Jersey. But now that they are important, their political muscle reinforces the president’s conservative instincts. However, the Republican Party faces division in its ranks between the ideological conservatives and the business community, which would like to get back into Cuba before their European competitors get the upperhand. Farm state Republicans want to sell food to Cuba, and have been voting against the White in droves on this issue.
Miami, Fla.: Do you think the Miami Cubans really want Castro gone? The government aid and entitlements they receive over and above what other groups get would stop and their power base would diminish greatly. The protest groups in Miami would be out of work with no government money.
Dr. William M. LeoGrande: No question about it, they want Fidel out. Florida International University conducts opinion polls of Cuban-Americans every couple of years, and the vast majority are very hostile to Fidel Castro. But what’s interesting is how their views have changed over time. Today, younger Cuban-Americans don’t have the same intense commitment to a hostile U.S. policy as their parents and grandparents. And a majority of all Cuban-Americans favor unrestricted travel, the right to send cash assistance (remittances) to family on the island, open telecommunications links, etc. The Cuban-American community is not the political monolith it used to be.
Coral Springs, Fla.: Do you think the US should be the one taking the first step, by removing the embargo, rather than Cuba having free elections first? Don't you believe that once the embargo was removed it can never be reinstated and that there would not be any incentive then for the Cuban government to have reforms?
Dr. William M. LeoGrande: I think the United States should take the first step. The embargo isn’t going to overthrow Fidel Castro. It’s been in place for 40 years and Castro is still in power. Economic embargoes never work when they are unilateral, and no one else in the world supports our embargo on Cuba. A couple of months ago, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly against it. Only Israel and the Marshall Islands voted with the U.S. But even though the embargo won’t oust Castro, it does hurt the Cuban economy in a lot of ways, and that translates into a lower standard of living for ordinary Cubans. That was the reason that Pope John Paul II spoke out against the embargo when he visited Cuba in 1998. Finally, I think opening Cuba to U.S. tourists and commerce will hasten the process of change in Cuba rather than slow it down.
Washington, D.C.: Pardon my naivete, but I don't get it and I never see any background: we embargoed Cuba but somehow people can still go there (not referring to carter)? And, we maintain a naval base there? Why does Cuba let us do that? Also, I gather there are plenty of people (not part of Castro's administration)who do not agree with the American/Miami anti-Castro position, true? Thanks. Pres. Carter is right, it's time to try something new.
Dr. William M. LeoGrande: Certain categories of people can get permission to travel to Cuba from the Treasury Department-- Cuban-Americans, journalists, people delivering humanitarian assistance, people engaged in educational endeavors, etc. For a detailed description of the limitations, check with the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the Treasury Department.
We hold Guantanamo Naval Base as the result of treaties signed with Cuba before Castro came to power in 1959. Castro doesn’t recognize our right to be there and wants the territory back, but he isn’t going to provoke a confrontation over it. He has been very cooperative regarding our detention of Al Queada prisoners at the base.
Harrisburg, Pa.: While Mr. Carter's trip is giving Mr. Bush problems, isn't it also creating problems for Mr. Castro? Jimmy Carter has called for greater human rights in Cuba. While Castro may not act, doesn't this help put pressure on the next Cuban government to adopt more progressive values regarding human rights and other, perhaps even economic, freedoms?
Dr. William M. LeoGrande: President Carter’s explicit endorsement of the Varela project on live, nationwide television in Cuba is a big boost for Cuban dissidents. Most Cubans didn’t know about the project because the state media hasn’t reported on it. Carter’s speech is analogous to the Pope’s homilies when he was in Cuba-- it conveys to the Cuban people a message of democracy and human rights. And it reinforces the idea that democracy and human rights are not just code words for the reimposition of U.S. imperialism on Cuba, which is the Cuban government’s constant refrain. So, yes, I do think Carter’s trip causes some headaches for Fidel. I think he’s betting that it will cause bigger headaches for George Bush.
Arlington, Va.: The Bush Administration appears not to be very happy with former President Carter and his visit to Cuba. Is there a legal way it could have prevented President Carter from going to Cuba? I understand that the PR fallout would have been huge, but I was just curious.
Dr. William M. LeoGrande: The administration could have denied President Carter a license to travel to Cuba. But the bad publicity would have been much worse than letting him go-- especially since many members of Congress and a couple of Republican governors have gone recently.
Lexington, Va.: Mr Carter seems to have a penchant for interposing himself into countries with dictators at times that are embarrassing to the current occupant of the White House, and in many ways undermining the foreign policy of the US (North Korea in 1993, submitting letters to the UN attempting to thwart Desert Storm in 1990 to name just two). Now he goes to Havana, proclaims - after receiving assurances from Castro himself - that dual use technology is not being exported to Iran and elsewhere, thus effectively calling official statements by the US govt lies, and then accusing the administration of trying to "subvert" his "mission" to Cuba.
Doesn't this appear unseemly? Is this common behavior for former presidents?
Does it appear unseemly to you?
Dr. William M. LeoGrande:
I was surprised that President Carter was so vehement in dismissing the accusations of biological warfare research while he was in Cuba. But he wasn’t basing his response on Castro’s assurances. Carter was briefed by the intelligence community before he left, and says he asked explicitly whether Cuba was developing weapons of mass destruction or supplying support to international terrorism, and they told him no. Consequently, I think he felt that the statements last week were designed to make him look bad politically. Much of the recent controversy about whether Cuba is developing biological weapons is a matter of semantics. The Bush administration initially claimed last week, on the eve of Carter’s trip, that Cuba was developing “a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort.” After being questioned about the evidence behind the claim, Secretary of State Powell and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld backed off, using the term “research capability,” instead of “effort.” The fact is, any country with an advanced pharmaceuticals industry-- which Cuba does have-- also has the “capability” to do research on biological weapons. The critical questions is whether they ARE doing such research, not whether they could.
Washington, D.C.: I feel that Carter's trip is the most positive thing that has happened for US-Cuban relations in decades. I am concerned, however, about Bush hardening the US position toward Cuba, and his efforts to persuade other countries, especially Mexico, to join in these efforts. How much sway do you think the US has over Mexico, and other Latin American countries, in this effort?
Dr. William M. LeoGrande: I don’t think the Bush administration will have much success winning Latin American support for it’s hardline on Cuba. Most Latin American countries have had normal relations with Cuba since the 1970s, and they argue (along with Canada and the European Union) that a policy of engagement will be more fruitful than a policy of hostility. That’s not to say that some Latin American countries don’t still have conflicts with Cuba. The recent rhetorical battle between Castro and Mexican President Vicente Fox is a good example.
Boca Raton, Fla.: Dr. LeoGrande:
Do you think that there is any shred of truth to the accusation that the Cubans are working on technology capable of developing weapons of mass destruction? I recall reading that Cuba does have a growing bio-technology industry and that they were hoping to use it to boost their economy.
(from a former student who enjoyed your course on Cuba and went there on the AU summer program the year it began)
washingtonpost.com: Carter Says He Was Told U.S. Had No Proof Cuba Shared Bioweapons Data (Post, May 14)
Dr. William M. LeoGrande: Always nice to hear from a former student! The Cubans do have a well-developed biotechnology industry, producing and exporting various medicines, especially to other Third World countries. Having that advanced technology means they have a capability for producing biological weapons if they decided to do that. The key question is whether the U.S. has evidence that they are indeed using this “dual use” technology for weapons development, and so far, the Bush administration hasn’t provided any.
Fairfax, Va.: Kevin Sullivan's story in today's Washington Post states:
"Carter proposed creation of a binational commission to discuss property disputes. Many Cubans in the United States still claim ownership rights to property seized during and after Castro's 1959 revolution."
Dr. LeoGrande, what do know about any movement or organization in the U.S. that is spearheading discussion on seized property claims? Do you know where such property claims can be put on record by Cuban-Americans?
washingtonpost.com: Carter Urges Democracy for Cuba (Post, May 15)
Dr. William M. LeoGrande: The Foreign Claims Settlement Commission of the United States (FCSC)within the Department of Justice handles claims of U.S. citizens and corporations who lost property in Cuba during the early 1960s, but not-- so far anyway--the claims of people who were Cuban citizens at the time. Naturalized Cuban-Americans may eventually be able to register claims under the Helms-Burton Act passed in 1996, but so far, the provisions for filing claims have not been put into force by the president. I don't know if there is any informal registry of such claims.
Tulsa, Okla.: Does Congress have the votes to override a Bush veto on lifting travel restrictions?
Dr. William M. LeoGrande: I doubt it. The best bet for those who want to lift the travel ban would be to attach it to a bill that the president wants so badly he won't veto it. So far, though, the president has been willing to fight harder over Cuba than his Congressional opponents.
Washington, D.C.: Professor Leogrande,
Castro cites Cuba's high literacy rates, access to health care, and low rates of infant mortality as proof that his regime is superior in the world. But the fact of the matter is that the people in cuba live in deplorable, primitive conditions. Who cares that they are highly educated and healthy if they have to be rationed rice and are mostly under-employed? How does Fidel get away with leading his countrymen into squalor?
Incidentally, when I was in college at the University of South Carolina in the late '80s, we used your books as texts.
washingtonpost.com: In Central Havana, Life by the Ration Book (Post, May 14)
Dr. William M. LeoGrande:
The World Bank has lauded Cuba for its progress in heath care and education, and the data on life expectancy suggests that the progress is not an illusion. The problem for the last decade has been a deep recession in Cuba caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviets gave the Cubans about $3 billion a year in economic aid, all of which disappeared in 1991. The Cuban economy sank, lots of people lost their jobs, food became scarce-- a real mess. The kind of poverty described in the Post article link was not the norm in the 1980s. Even though the Cuban economy has been gradually recovering since 1994, it’s still 10% below where it was in 1989.
Washington, D.C.: What kind of government do you think will follow after Castro is gone? Are there clear indications of how the political situation will be, since Castro is such a strong and forceful figure? I imagine he feels vindicated on a daily basis that 10 US presidents over 40 years have been unable to destabilize his regime.
Dr. William M. LeoGrande:
Everyone, including most Cubans, wonder what will happen when Fidel finally dies. No one can fill his boots, that’s for sure. But his brother is well positioned to succeed him, and a stable transition in the short term is fairly likely. Longer term, however, I think that there will be a gradual expansion of the “political space” available for discussing political alternatives. Cuba has to live in the real world now, no longer insulated by Soviet aid, and the real world-- in the form of dollars, tourists, commerce, the internet, etc.-- will make it hard to prevent Cubans from starting to debate their future.
Washington, D.C.: What do you think of arguments that what happened in post-Soviet Russia could also occur in a post-Castro Cuba--that is, the return of some version of the Batista /American organized crime regime. That analogy has always struck me as not very useful, but it would be terrible to have a return to what preceded Castro.
Dr. William M. LeoGrande: If the Cuban government, for whatever reason, were to lose the ability to maintain public order in the national territory, the risk of organized criminal activity gaining a foothold is real. Already, a shortage of gasoline prevents the Cuban navy from chasing “fast boats”carrying cocaine en route to the United States from other Caribbean Islands.
Miami, Fla.: Since this morning the Cuban news media only stressed one part of Mr. Carter's speech (his support for an end to the embargo) will his visit lead to a discussion in Cuba about the other part of his talk (a transition to democracy)?
Also, why do you think President Castro invited Mr. Carter to Cuba?
Dr. William M. LeoGrande:
The Cuban state press won’t be talking about Carter’s themes of human rights and democracy, unless it’s an article refuting Carter’s conception of them. But the fact that Carter had those points on national television means that Cubans will be talking about those issues by word of mouth, among friends and neighbors.
I think Castro invited Carter for the same reason he invited the Pope-- to improve his (Castro’s) international image, and to feature a respected world leader speaking out against the U.S. embargo. To get those benefits, he has to accept the fact that both the Pope and Carter made public speeches criticizing Cuba’s authoritarian rule. Castro must have thought the trade-off worthwhile, or we wouldn’t have extended the invitation.
Washington, D.C.: Why do you think there is so much attention paid to Cuba in the USA? Seems to me that it is just a small, poor country with little to offer; and that its only "claim to fame" is the embargo and the fact that it still employs a supposedly Marxist form of government when virtually no other countries do any more. Once the embargo ends (if it ever does), I would predict that people here won't pay nearly as much attention to the place - why would they?
Dr. William M. LeoGrande: A couple of reasons. First, the Cuban-American community is vocal, passionate, politically sophisticated, and prosperous. They keep the issue of Cuba high the agenda. Second, the United States has had a close relationship with Cuba since Thomas Jefferson was president. We tried to buy it from Spain more than once. There are tremendous cultural affinities and a lot of cross-cultural influences over time. It’s true that Cuba isn’t very important to the United States strategically or economically, but politically and culturally, I think it ranks right up there.
Roma, Tex.: Do you feel that the Cuban-American community has so much power that they:
1. Decided the last election due to the Elian Gonzalez scandal.
2. Have inflicted an embargo on its former country because Florida has been so important in the Presidential Election, no President has dared to defy the exile community?
Do you think this has a negative impact on our democracy that one community has this much power to influence our government?
Dr. William M. LeoGrande: The way our political system works, well-organized committed minorities will almost always prevail over unorganized and complacent majorities. Cuban-Americans care about U.S. policy toward Cuba in a way that no one else does. This can be a problem when their preferences reflect the parochial interests of their community rather than the national interest. But ethnic lobbies have always been a big part of U.S. foreign policy debates-- Polish-Americans, Irish-Americans, Greek-Americans, Jewish-Americans have all been active advocates in the foreign policy realm. There’s nothing wrong with that in principle-- it reflects people’s right to petition our government for policies they believe in. But all the rest of us have to pay some attention to foreign policy, so that it reflects the wider interests of the American people.
Dr. William M. LeoGrande: Well, thanks to everyone for a great session. We’ve already run over time, so we have to sign off now. It was a great pleasure to have so many thoughtful questions. There were a lot more than I could answer, so I apologize to those whose questions I couldn’t get to. Perhaps another time.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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