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Fidel Castro Resigns; Presidential Candidates Continue Campaigning for Delegates

Aired February 19, 2008 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, a down to the wire delegate hunt in three states. With little daylight between them, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton battling right now for every vote they can get, while John McCain tries for a knock-out blow over Mike Huckabee. The first exit poll results only minutes away, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're going to tell you what's on the minds of the voters as they cast their ballots today. That will give us some sort of clue as to what to look for when the results start rolling in.

And a stunner out of Cuba -- after half a century, Fidel Castro quits. We're on the scene in Havana. We'll tell you what it means for Americans, as well.

I'm Wolf Blitzer at the CNN Election Center. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Voters from both parties today are braving the single digit deep freeze of a Wisconsin winter. In Hawaii, Democrats are bathed by Hawaii's tropical breezes. In Washington State, Republicans have mostly mailed in their choices -- letting the post office and the poll workers do the rest.

For Democrats today, every vote is crucial. After eight straight victories, Senator Barack Obama has a slim lead, with a total of 1,263 delegates. Hillary Clinton trying for a comeback tonight. She has 1,212.

The best political team on television will be covering today's contests from every angle. We're going to bring you the very first exit poll results coming up shortly.

But let's begin with the truly stunning and historic news coming out of Cuba today. For almost half a century, he's been a thorn in Washington's side -- frustrating, even confounding, 10 different presidents. Now the stunning news from Cuba sending shockwaves around the world -- Fidel Castro has resigned. We're covering all the angles of this major story.

Morgan Neill is in Havana. But let's begin with CNN's Zain Verjee.

She's joining us now from the State Department with the ramifications of what this means -- Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the message from the State Department today is very clear -- no change in Cuba policy.


VERJEE (voice-over): Fidel Castro is still calling the shots -- bowing out on his own terms and throwing the spotlight on his brother Raul -- a smooth transition of power. Over the last 18 months, illness forced him to put Raul in charge. Temporarily, they said back then. We asked the State Department point man for Cuba, Tom Shannon, whether the U.S. policy of isolating Cuba failed.

TOM SHANNON, ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE: This is a long process. Totalitarian regimes are hard to break down and they can only be broken down inside by their own people.

VERJEE: Ten U.S. presidents have tried topple Castro, including President Bush.

PETER KORNBLUH, NATIONAL SECURITY ARCHIVE: The Bush administration had an explicit plan to prevent Fidel Castro from passing power to Raul Castro. And that plan has failed, as has every single effort of the United States -- paramilitary intervention, CIA assassination plots, economic embargoes, you name it.

VERJEE: Sitting on the shelf, a U.S. transition plan to boost democracy once Castro is out. U.S. advisers on the ground would help plan elections. They would train election monitors and judges. The price tag -- about $18 million. The State Department insists this plan is still workable down the road. But it seems the Castro brothers have thwarted it for now.

(on camera): Do you think that Raul Castro could be a man you could do business with? He's said to be a pragmatic man and has, in the past, given indications that he may want to deal.

SHANNON: Again, our focus is on change inside of Cuba. It's about change toward democracy. It's about releasing political prisoners. It's about supporting human rights. It's about creating a clear pathway to elections.

VERJEE (voice-over): The State Department has made it clear the trade and travel bans will not be lifted any time soon.


VERJEE: It's not just the administration, Wolf, that decides policy on Cuba. Any major change requires Congress to rewrite existing laws. But still, there are many in Congress -- both Republicans and Democrats -- that say that the travel embargo, that the economic embargo should be eased.

We just actually received a letter from 104 members to secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, including nine Republicans. They sent this letter to Secretary Rice, basically saying that the existing policy is just not working and it's time for it to be reviewed -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain, thanks very much. A good summary of what's going on, as far as the U.S. government is concerned.

Morgan Neill is the only correspondent for a United States television network based in Cuba. He's standing by now, live in Havana with reaction.

What is the reaction on the streets of Havana and elsewhere, Morgan, to this historic development?

MORGAN NEILL, CNN HAVANA BUREAU CHIEF: Well, Wolf, reaction has been varied. There have been some people who said after a year-and-a- half under Raul Castro, they had come to expect something like is that. They knew that Fidel Castro wasn't in condition to carry on. Nevertheless, it's truly a historic day. Forty-nine years after Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries tumbled the government of Fulgencio Batista, Fidel Castro has now resigned.


NEILL (voice-over): The news that after nearly half a century at the helm, Fidel Castro is finally resigning, broke in the middle of the night. A government-run Web site had it about 2:30 in the morning. The government-run newspaper had it on the front page and it led the morning broadcasts on government-run radio and television.


NEILL: But in a sign of how little the public relies on government-run media these days, the first three people we spoke with on the streets of Havana hadn't even heard the news.


NEILL: In what was titled "A Message from the Commander-In- Chief," a Cuban TV presenter read Castro's resignation letter, "I am saying that I will neither aspire to nor accept -- I repeat, I will neither aspire to nor accept," he read, "the positions of president of the council of state and commander-in-chief."

"I haven't read it," said this retiree, "but if Fidel spoke, surely it's correct because he never says anything that's not correct."

Fidel Castro's bad health led him to hand the presidency to his brother in late July 2006. Provisionally, he wrote at the time. But he hasn't made a public appearance since. Reaction to the announcement was subdued.

"He's leaving the position because his age and illness don't let him work," said this man, "let's see what comes next."

"He's aware of his place in history," said this retiree, "and he's going to keep on occupying that place in one way or another." The most likely successor would appear to be Raul Castro. He's been the country's acting president for the country for more than a year-and-a-half. Compared to his brother, he's been more apt to acknowledge the country's problems, saying, for example, that salaries aren't enough to get by on.

But acknowledging problems and doing something about them are two different things. Raul has not addressed the most common complaints, which, in addition to low salaries, include restrictions on travel and the Internet and a two-tiered economy in which many goods are out of reach.

NEILL: As Fidel Castro steps aside, those are the obstacles he leaves to his successor. After 50 years of a charismatic but all controlling leader, many Cubans say they're ready for changes.

Morgan Neill, CNN, Havana.


BLITZER: Let's go to Jack Cafferty.

He's here with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Back to politics. 1992 -- Bill Clinton road into the White House on the phrase "It's the economy, stupid." Sixteen years later and it looks like the economy will be the issue uppermost in voters' minds this time around, as well.

Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have both been responding to economic anxiety in the country, fear of recession -- especially in states like Ohio and Wisconsin -- by campaigning with populist messages. Clinton stressing economic policies that focus on progress to help families burdened by high oil prices, health care costs, home foreclosures and student loans. She's also going after some of the big institutions -- hedge funds, oil and drug companies and trade agreements that she says mean more exported jobs -- you know, like NAFTA, which her husband supported.

Obama is striking a similar tone, describing how the wealthy made out like bandits during the Bush administration. He's calling for an end of tax breaks for companies who move jobs overseas and instead giving tax relief to the middle class here.

And when it comes to the Republicans, John McCain made headlines earlier this week when he uttered that famous phrase, "no new taxes" if he becomes president. McCain says if the economy continues in its current slump, he could see an argument for actually lowering interest rates some more and cutting taxes, as well as decreasing corporate tax rates.

McCain says he's open to the idea of helping homeowners who face foreclosure, as long as they're what he calls "legitimate borrowers. The Arizona senator believes the first thing we need to do is stop the out of control spending -- yes, that will work -- and primaries to eliminate the 10,000 earmarks that Congress adds to spending bills. That won't happen, either.

Here's the question: Which party do you think is better able to address America's economic problems?

Go to, where you can write on my blog, if you'd like to.

BLITZER: Thank you very much.

CAFFERTY: You're most welcome.

BLITZER: You've got a good blog there.

CAFFERTY: Thank you.

BLITZER: Key clues to tonight's results are coming in. We're going to have the first exit poll numbers showing what's driving voters in Wisconsin, as they cast their ballots today.

Also, from the girl he flirted with in high school to friends, family members and his basketball coach -- we're taking a closer look at Barack Obama's roots in Hawaii.

And they met in the Clinton White House, then they got married. Now, one advises Hillary Clinton, the other advises Barack Obama. I'll ask this political power couple about their candidates.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Twenty delegates are up for grabs in Hawaii's Democratic caucuses tonight. Both candidates have sent family members to try to get out the vote. Once again, let's go back to CNN's Suzanne Malveaux. She's in Honolulu watching this for us.

He grew up there, so I assume Barack Obama, Suzanne, has a pretty dramatic home court advantage right now.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, he does have an advantage here. There's a lot of excitement, a lot of enthusiasm. Party officials say they believe that the numbers are going to be broken here this evening for the caucus. They say part of it is that three day blitz from Chelsea Clinton, so there's a little bit of a bump, they believe, momentum for Hillary Clinton.

But, also, Barack Obama a native son here. We talked to a lot of folks in the last couple of days to get a sense of what he was like when he was growing up.


MALVEAUX (voice-over): Barry Obama -- the John Travolta of Punahou High -- the easygoing guy with the big smile that calls his homeroom teacher...

ERIC KUSUNOKI, HOMEROOM TEACHER: Smile, a big smile, you know?

MALVEAUX: His boyhood passion -- basketball.

CHRIS MCLAUCHLIN, BASKETBALL COACH: A lefty. A nice little left- hand jump shot in the corner. And he not -- and nothing by net very often. He was the only one that would dribble his ball everywhere.

MALVEAUX: Friends say lanky teenager also held court in the classroom -- writing poetry and leading discussions. And occasionally, he caught someone's eye. Before there was "Obama Girl," there was Kelli Furushima, who, at 16, had the crush on Obama.

KELLI FURUSHIMA, OBAMA CLASSMATE: He was very funny. He was really warm, friendly, kind of a prankster. Walking by him in the hall, he'd be like, "Hey, short stuff," and pull my pencil out of my ear and stick it in his ear and keep going.

MALVEAUX: He signed her yearbook.

FURUSHIMA: He signed his name and he put a little afro on the B and the O.


MALVEAUX: Barack Obama was born in Honolulu in 1961. The son of a black Kenyan father and white Kansan mother, Obama was like many in Hawaii -- of mixed cultures. But Barack's father abandoned him when he was only two.

Barack, known as Barry, was raised by a single mother and his maternal grandparents in a white household. He attended the prestigious Punahou School on scholarship, where he was the only black boy in his class. Barack's younger half-sister, Maya, recalls how Barry's relationship with his grandparents helped guide him through difficult times.

MAYA SOETERO-NG, OBAMA'S HALF-SISTER: They really offered him a lot of stability. And I think that our grandmother certainly gave him his pragmatism. She is a rather no-nonsense woman. Our grandfather was restless.

MALVEAUX: Obama struggled with his identity and in his 1995 memoir, writes about how he briefly used marijuana to mask his feelings -- something his classmates and teachers say they were unaware of.

KUSUNOKI: But when I read about it in his book, I was -- I was surprised.

FURUSHIMA: It meant nothing to anyone that he was even black. I mean, you know, he was just Barry. I mean we defined each other more by personality.

MALVEAUX: Maya says two events helped shaped Barack's coming to terms with himself. One was accepting the father who left him.

SOETERO-NG: I think it was important for him to dare to love his father in spite of his shortcomings.

MALVEAUX: The other was losing his mother.

SOETERO-NG: The death of our mother really unseated us in many ways, made us feel untethered. And so we reached out for one another.

MALVEAUX: The boy with the big smile -- now a man seeking the White House.


MALVEAUX: And, Wolf, just getting to know Maya. They really are very close. She's very close with her brother. And she says that Barack Obama comes out here with his wife and two kids often for the holidays. This is really a chance -- a place where he can be himself, a sanctuary, she said. A place where nothing has changed. But, clearly after tonight, the caucus, you can still feel that there is a sense of energy and excitement and that there is change in the air -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Suzanne, terrific piece. Glad we sent you to Honolulu to do that. That piece alone was worth the cost, whatever it was.


BLITZER: Appreciate it very much. Suzanne Malveaux watching the story in Hawaii for us. She's going to be covering the caucuses for us throughout the night.

Let's move over to the Republican contest right now. John McCain has a commanding lead in delegates, but can't seem to shake Mike Huckabee -- at least not yet. Let's go to Mary Snow. She's watching this party of the story from Little Rock, Arkansas.

All right, what's the latest? What's going on in terms of Mike Huckabee's so-called spoiler role -- Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, he will be the first one to say that he's not a spoiler. His message has been that he wants to give Republicans a choice. He's painting himself as the real conservative.

But, you know, in terms of how he'll do in Wisconsin, he campaigned hard there. He spent about five days in the state campaigning. But he's not predicting outright victory. Even his campaign manager said that they hope to do well. And that would be about 40 percent of the vote.

That would send a message, he believes, to conservatives. It would also be an embarrassment for Senator John McCain, the likely nominee at this point. Having said that, though, Mike Huckabee is close to 700 delegates behind Senator John McCain. And you get the sense he is in this race to send a message -- he keeps saying that -- to conservatives.

And he -- on the campaign trail, he's continually bringing up social issues, such as his opposition to abortion. He wants to take that message to Texas. He feels he can do well there because it's a neighboring state. And he is expecting to campaign there and say he's not going to raise the white flag -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much. Mary Snow in Little Rock watching this part of the story.

The first exit polls are coming in from Wisconsin right about now. We're going to show you what's on the minds of the voters in that critical state and how it may be influencing the ballot.

Also, the price of oil soaring to a new record high. You're going to find out what happened here in the United States that's actually playing a role in all of that.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Carol Costello is monitoring some other important stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Carol, what's going on?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, oil prices soared to a record highs today. Light sweet crude closed at a record $100.01 a barrel. That's an increase of more than $4 a barrel. You can blame the high partly on yesterday's spectacular explosion at a Texas refinery. Not only is the refinery out of service for at least two months, OPEC has announced cuts in oil production.

The U.S. government says it's almost ready to shoot down a crippled satellite. This animation shows the Pentagon's plan. The missile will break up the 5,000-pound U.S. satellite so the pieces can fall harmlessly into the ocean. Ships and planes are being warned, though, to stay out of a large area of the Pacific Ocean west of Hawaii starting tomorrow afternoon, just as precaution.

Something is cooking in Martha Stewart land. Her company is buying the rights to Emeril Lagasse's franchise of cookbooks, TV shows and kitchen products. Even though the $50 million to $70 million deal does not include Lagasse's 11 restaurants or corporate offices, Stewart's company is getting products that generated $14 million worth of revenue last year and that's a good thing -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Carol, thank you. It is a good thing. Appreciate it very much.

Two former Clinton administration officials united by marriage, divided by politics. He supports Obama. She supports Clinton and may have the final say as a super-delegate herself. They join us live on the race that's coming down to the wire.

Also, coming into CNN right now, the first exit poll results from Wisconsin. We're going to share those with you.

Plus, Fidel Castro off the world stage. Is it time for the United States to lift the embargo against Cuba?

Congressional -- Congressman, that is, Charlie Rangel and Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart with two very different points of view. They're standing by live, as well, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, President Bush in Rwanda paying a solemn visit to the memorial to the 800,000 victims of the 1994 genocide there. He says -- and I'm quoting now -- "There is evil in the world and evil must be confronted."

Also, the party of the Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, conceding in that country's preliminary elections. It won a scant 15 percent of the vote.

And two masterpieces stolen from a Swiss gallery have been found. A Monet and Van Gogh worth $64 million turned up in good condition in a car with stolen license plates in a hospital parking lot.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're just getting the first exit polls in from Wisconsin. They give us a good idea of what's on the minds of the voters as they actually went and cast their ballots today. Let's go to our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider. He's watching these numbers for us, going through all of them.

What are you learning, Bill?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, what we're learning is that trade is a big issue in Wisconsin, among Democrats in particular. Take a look. We asked Democrats voting today in Wisconsin, what do you think the effect of trade is -- does it mostly lose jobs, create jobs or have no effect?

Overwhelmingly, the view of Democrats in Wisconsin, 70 percent say trade loses jobs, it doesn't create jobs, which may be why Senator Clinton has been critical and said she wants to re-examine trade deals. And Senator Obama says he's been critical of trade and NAFTA longer than she has.

While the issue that's top on the minds of the Democrats in Wisconsin today and the Republicans is -- no guessing here -- the economy. But take a look. It's the number one issue to Barack Obama's voters. Forty-three percent named the economy. Clinton voters, 43 percent named the economy. Huckabee voters -- on the Republican side -- guess what? Forty-three percent say the top issue is the economy.

But one candidate gives priority to a slightly different issue. John McCain's voters today in Wisconsin said, by a very narrow edge, the top issue to them is Iraq, with the economy second. If John McCain does turn out to be the Republican nominee, the Iraq issue will, once again, be, where it hasn't been for the last few weeks -- front and center in the campaign -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Bill Schneider continuing to go through these numbers. We're going to come back to you shortly. We're getting more exit poll results. Thank you.

They met while working in the Clinton White House. They got married, but are now on opposite sides for the Democratic race for the White House. She's an advisor for Hillary Clinton. He's helping Barack Obama. Joining us now. Marie Echaveste and Chris Edley.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in. I hope that this political division is not hurting your marriage or anything like that. We have a history here at CNN between James Carville and Mary Madeline. They're on totally opposite sides. One's a Democrat. The other is a Republican. At least you're both Democrats.


CHRISTOPHER EDLEY, OBAMA SUPPORTER: We'll be together soon. In fact, today will be a good day for my wife, the superdelegate, to come out for Barack Obama.

BLITZER: Well, are you going to do that, Maria?

ECHAVESTE: Absolutely not.

BLITZER: Tell us why you're committed to Hillary Clinton?

ECHAVESTE: Well, it's for the same reason three months ago. It's that I really believe that she has the experience and the skills and the ability to be president and this most challenging of times, and I also think she's the strongest candidate to beat what looks to be the Republican opposition, which will be Senator John McCain.

I think that she will be prepared for anything that the other side throws. I have a lot of respect for Senator Obama. I think that he would be an excellent president. But he needs to be tested.

BLITZER: All right. What about that, Chris? You worked for Bill Clinton when he was president of the United States. You know the Clintons. But you also have a history with Barack Obama.

EDLEY: That's right. He was a former student of mine when I was a professor at Harvard Law School. I also worked in the Carter White House so I also have a good sense of what it means both to campaign for a president and to serve as president.

And a lot of it has to do with an inner strength and a moral compass that's going to stand you in good stead against the political buffeting, the winds that are going to occur. It's not just about policy positions that you take today. It's also about what's inside you that's going to stand up to the tests that are two years ahead of us.

BLITZER: Does Hillary Clinton have that? EDLEY: Well, the concern, of course, would be whether or not she's so into the packaging and into the nuances of reading the polls and trying the to fight your out where the politics of the situation are that she isn't going to be centered enough to be willing to take the political risks and pay the political price in order to get difficult things done.

BLITZER: What about that, Maria?

ECHAVESTE: Well I think -- obviously I disagree. Hillary has been tested. She has made the tough political decisions, the tough policy decisions. She's shown what her values are. She has been fighting for the things that the voters are really speaking out about. They want someone on the economy; someone who is going to roll up their sleeves and start figuring out how to grow our economy again and create jobs.

She's been talking about it and doing more, longer than Senator Obama. I think the words -- one of the things that Senator Obama has which is really it is inspiring and it is lofty, but basically the they are words that lead you to solutions, and that's what Hillary Clinton is about. And they are words that are just promises, and I think that's what Senator Obama is about.

EDLEY: This is about more than the policy plumbing of governing. This is also a question of who has the ability to speak to the public in a way that through leadership makes different kinds of solutions possible, someone who cannot just act within the current political envelope, but who through leadership can actually change the political envelope. That's what's it's going to take to tackle some of these tough problems.

And the difficulty is that if you're always looking over your shoulder trying to figure out where this political block or that political block is, then you're simply going to be unable to make the difficult decisions that are going to be required in the years ahead.

BLITZER: It sounds, Maria, as if Chris believes Senator Clinton and her advisers are just reading the polls, doing focus groups, and then she makes up her mind based on the political fallout. That seems to be the suggestion, Chris, that you're making.

ECHAVESTE: That's certainly his suggestion. That's been his number one complaint. I think part of it is that he's a little biased. He basically doesn't trust certain Hillary Clinton's advisers. And, Wolf, be willing to acknowledge what I know, which is that Hillary Clinton is a person of very strong beliefs.

She's acted on them for 30 plus years, and that what she does as I was able to see when President Clinton was in office is that politicians can usefully use polls and focus groups to find the right messages to talk to people, and it doesn't mean that they're changing policy positions because of that.

What happens, and you should know in the media world as you've seen day in and day out, is that how you deliver the message and the words that you choose can very much make the difference between whether you're in favor of a death tax or repeal of the estate tax.

BLITZER: All right, Chris.

EDLEY: I don't understand how you could vote to authorize the war in Iraq without reading the National Intelligence Estimate, unless it's because you consulted polls and political advisers who said you have to be sure to be tough on defense; instead of trying to figure out the merits of what to do on that situation. Same with the driver's license for undocumented aliens.

Do you pay attention to what you think is right and listen to all the advice you can get about that? Or do you pay attention to, how do I avoid having to spend political capital? How do I avoid having to make a risky or politically difficult choice? I think for these problems we need somebody that is going to take it on -- take problems on frontally and out of principle, not out of political ...

BLITZER: I gave Maria the first word. I give Chris the last word. All right, guys. Thanks very much. Let's continue this discussion down the road, assuming this campaign continues and all indications are it will continue for at least some more weeks and maybe for some more months. Appreciate both of you coming on.

EDLEY: Take care, Wolf.

ECHAVESTE: Take care.

BLITZER: Thank you, Chris Edley, Maria Echaveste, thank you to both of you.

The end of the Fidel Castro era, or is it? We're going to show you why so many Cuban-Americans aren't exactly celebrating news of his resignation. We're going to go live to Miami's Little Havana.

Plus, he's more than just a candidate. You're going to find out how Barack Obama's name has now become a word in its own right.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Let's get some more now on the historic news that Fidel Castro has resigned as president of Cuba. You might think Cubans exiles are celebrating the news, but the reality seems to be somewhat different. Let's go to Miami's Little Havana right now. CNN's John Zarrella is standing by.

What's the reaction on the streets, John?

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know Cuban- Americans are encouraged that change may be coming, but quite frankly, they're not getting carried away because nothing has really changed, they say, until there are free elections and democracy in Cuba.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ZARRELLA: Rosa has for eight days been lying in a bed staging a hunger strike in support of her death-mute daughter, whom she hasn't seen in 30 years. The woman tried to escape Cuba only to be picked up with her husband and two children by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, where they sit now awaiting whether that will be sent back to Cuba. As long as these images still exist --

RAMON SAUL SANCHEZ, CUBAN-AMERICAN ACTIVIST: I receive 15-20 calls everyday.

ZARRELLA: Cuban-American activist Ramon Saul Sanchez says Miami's exile community is not ready to celebrate a new beginning.

SANCHEZ: As long as Fidel Castro is alive, even if he's not fully in power, he can still order executions. He can still order imprisonment or exile for those who are dissatisfied with his regime. So basically people are saying nothing up to this point has changed.

ZARRELLA: Word that Castro was relinquishing power certainly sparked some excitement on the streets of Miami. Some people did come out carrying signs, dancing, car horns blaring. A mounted police officer carried a Cuban flag, but most Cuban-Americans played it down. They had seen this movie before. They poured their hearts on the street more than once on rumors of Castro's demise.

The Abreus have lived here for 37 years. This is a good day, they say. But they know even if the elder Castro is stepping aside, his 76- year-old younger brother, Raul is next in line.

ARACELY ABREU, CUBAN EXILE: It's just the same. The brother is the same as his. So -- but we have a little hope that people will see a change there. Something will happen.

ZARRELLA: The Abreus and the other exiles here have waited nearly 50 years for change. They have waited out one Castro, and they say they can wait out the other.


ZARRELLA: Now, Raul has lived in his older brother's shadow for 50 years now. The question is, is he still going to be looking over his shoulder? Will he decide to bring the country in a different direction? Will it be more of the same? Can he govern it all? A lot of questions left still unanswered and that's why the Cuban-American community here has taken this whole thing with a very muted response -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. John, thank you.

So what should the U.S. government do now in the wake of Castro's resignation? Joining us to talk about that and more, Democratic Congressman Charlie Rangel of New York and Republican Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida.

Thanks to both of you for coming in.

Congressman Rangel, let me start with you. What do you think the U.S. should do at this potentially historic juncture with Fidel Castro formally stepping down?

REP. CHARLES RANGEL (D), NEW YORK: I think we ought to take advantage of this and try to move toward normalization. It is true we have no idea where Raul wants to take his government, if indeed he succeeds Castro, but the truth of the matter is that for four decades and more we've said that once Castro goes, we were going to be there in order to talk about peace and democracy. So Mr. Ford, President Ford, tear down the wall. Let's move forward and see if there can be a peaceful transition toward democracy.

BLITZER: What do you think, Congressman Diaz-Balart?

REP. MARIO DIAZ-BALART (R), FLORIDA: Well, I think the report we just saw is very accurate. The reality is that that's been the leadership there for 50 years. Both brothers have been part of the dictatorship. I think the law is very clear that when they allow the freedom of all the political prisoners, when they allow for freedom of press, labor unions, political parties and they call for supervised free elections, then the sanctions go away.

And the question is, which one of those three conditions is excessive? Which one of the three conditions do the people of Cuba not deserve? They deserve freedom and until that happens the sanctions will stay in place. Excuse me. Those are bi-partisan sanctions.

Congress has spoken very loudly, including defeating an amendment recently by Congressman Charlie Rangel of New York who wants to open up and have normalizations, when Castro was there, when he's not there. The reality is until there's freedom, there will be the sanctions. It's the leverage that we have so the Cuban people can be free.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Congressman Rangel.

RANGEL: Well, we don't have freedom with the communist Chinese. We don't have freedom with the North Vietnam. We don't have freedom with the North Koreans. These people are right in our background. And a lot of these Cubans won't tolerate what they did when Fidel took over some 50 years ago. So the only way we can have these things is to be able to talk with people and not to close communications.

So I'm not arguing with anything that you're seeking, Mario. What I'm saying is let's take advantage of this. Let's send that fig leave -- an olive leaf over there, and let's try to see whether we can normalize the relationship between our great countries.

BLITZER: That's a point that Congressman Rangel and others make, Congressman Diaz-Balart. Why one standard for communist China, which doesn't have the kind of democracy we would like to see, one standard for Vietnam, one standard for Saudi Arabia, all of which have normalized relations with the United States and a different standard for Cuba? DIAZ-BALART: Wolf, I think we're going to live to regret the day that we normalize relations with China. That's for another day. But I will tell you the following, that despite the fact that I frankly resent the fact that we are dealing with China as if they are buddies and they're not. We have to remember that Cuba is still different. It is a state sponsor of terrorism. We do not do business with state sponsors of terrorism.

Here's a regime that harbors numerous terrorist organizations within Cuba. They have over 100 fugitives of American law including cop killers and hijackers and kidnappers. And they're a state sponsor of terrorism. Not even Saddam Hussein shot down two American airplanes in international air space like the Castro brothers did so we're dealing with a state sponsor of terrorism.

BLITZER: Well, Syria is also -- Congressman --

DIAZ-BALART: Excuse me, Charlie.

BLITZER: Congressman, Syria is also a State Department sponsor of international terrorism. The Bush administration has diplomatic relations with the Damascus regime, even though it's on that list, as is Cuba.

DIAZ-BALART: And by the way, I'm one of those that says that we shouldn't be doing that. We should continue pressure until there's freedom to the people of the country. We have to be consistent. I've been very consistent in demanding, what, demanding that the Cuban people deserve to be free, demanding that 90 miles away from the United States should not be a state sponsor of terrorism that kills Americans, kills American citizens, murders its own citizens. The way to do so is doing what Charlie Rangel supported in Haiti, for example. He supported not only obviously an embargo on Haiti, which he did. He actually asked for much tougher things against Haiti and for some reason, when we're talking about Cuba he doesn't believe we should take any steps to help the Cuban feel be free.

BLITZER: All right.

RANGEL: I really hope we relax the travel provisions, let Cuban Americans send a couple of dollars home if they can. Let medicine prevail. Let some of our farmers be able to sell. Let our young people go there and meet with young Cubans. I mean that's the best way to sell democracy, and not just by putting up a wall. I think this is a great opportunity to work together toward democracy, and we ought to take advantage of it.

BLITZER: Is there a division, Congressman Diaz-Balart, within the Cuban-American community where you are down in south Florida on what to do next? Because you get all these conflicting reports that some of the younger Cuban-Americans are saying reach out and try to change the system by engaging in a dialogue, the kind of dialogue that Congressman Rangel wants as opposed to the parents and grandparents who don't want anything of that nature.

DIAZ-BALART: It's interesting Wolf because I've been hearing that for about 20 years and reading about it for 20 years. We have elections every two years in this community. There are a number of Cuban-Americans that represent the community on the state, local and federal level. All of us are very united in this.

You're seeing it by the comments of all of the Cuban-Americans and others around this country in the belief that the Cuban people deserve to be free, that the United States should stand with the Cuban people, not with the oppressive regime that has been oppressing the Cuban people and sponsoring terrorism around the world. There is no division.

But Wolf, to answer your question specifically, I represent the youngest district in the entire state of Florida. It's those that supposedly have change and yet, two years ago, I got over 95 percent of the Cuban-American vote. The other two members of congress that represent this community get the same amount of votes.

And by the way, there's two Democrats that also represent Cuban- Americans. They feel exactly like I do, like this community does. They also get over 90 percent of the Cuban-American vote. So that's frankly something I keep hearing and reading about. But the elections don't bear that out.

BLITZER: Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, thanks for joining us. Congressman Rangel, thanks to you as well. We'll continue this discussion down the road.

The candidates and Castro, Cuba's long time leader stepping down but the next U.S. president may face challenges with the other Castro.

Jack Cafferty is coming up. He's asking this question. Which party is better able to address America's economic problems?

Your e-mail and the Cafferty file and a lot more coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Let's check in with Jack Cafferty. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is: Which party is better able to address America's economic problems? There is a lot of economic concern out there. Most of the polls indicate it's the number one issue going into this fall's election.

Susan writes from Virginia: "Democrats can handle the economy if they nominate Hillary. If we can get the economy to be as good as it was under Bill, we should all be delighted. Hillary is best positioned to know what to do 'on day one' to revive the economy."

Ed in California writes: "Jack, after watching these two parties for over 50 years, the only way I can tell them apart today is by which pocket they're taking the money out of. So to answer your question as to which party can bail out the economy, my response is none of the above. We really do need a third choice." Mark in Iowa writes: "The Democrats give the money to the poor and middle class which increases spending on consumer goods. Republicans steal from the poor and middle class to give to the rich. Over 60 percent of our economy is fueled by consumer spending. The Republicans don't understand this basic principle and their greed destroys our economy."

Jason in Iowa writes: "The Democrats' rhetoric is full of you know what. The Republicans have been on track for more than 25 years. Just look how good the 90s were just after Reagan and Bush. The media's chosen one, Senator Obama, wants to be loved by all for being the next Robin Hood, robbing from the rich, which are the upper middle class, and giving it to those who hardly pay anything in taxes, as the current system is set up."

And Gary writes from Spokane, Washington: "Neither of these two parties can do anything to fix our economy. Within a few years, entitlements will swallow up our entire budget while the candidates argue about plagiarized speeches and who's proud to be an American. Ron Paul talked about substantive issues with grown up solutions. You see how far he got. It's all style over substance but I guess I'll hang out until next hour to see how it all plays out" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you very much. See you in a few moments.

Lou Dobbs standing by. He's going to be joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We'll talk about what's happening today.

Also, we're also only a little bit more than three hours away from the first results in today's Wisconsin primary. We have some brand new exit poll numbers that Bill Schneider is going through.

Stick around. Lots more coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Let's get a little viewer's guide to what we should be looking for tonight. Who better than Lou Dobbs to give us a little bit of that?

What are you looking for in tonight's contest, specifically on the Democratic side in Wisconsin?

LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: Well, what I'm looking for is a surprise. I just want to see the race continue at the mad pace and rate that it has gone. I want to see this thing split. I want it to go into convention. I'm hoping that is what we'll see. I would like to see a split vote in Wisconsin. I would like to see a split vote right down the line.

BLITZER: You would like to see not only Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama continue their fight, you would like to see Mike Huckabee continue.

DOBBS: Absolutely. The idea that we're reaching national consensus through this presidential primary process, Wolf, is absurd. These candidates are working overtime to avoid taking public declared positions on the critical issues of our day. We are sitting here now going in approaching March, and the really big primaries of March and April, without knowing enough about these candidates and the way in which --

BLITZER: They won't kneel down if their president.

DOBBS: Of course not. And the national media, as you know, Wolf, we struggle. We work very hard. But the result is the candidates are winning and the voters are losing. They don't have a clear statement of where these people are headed on a host of critical issues.

BLITZER: If you look at their Web sites, as I do occasionally, they have position papers on all the out there carefully formulated if you go through them, as you have I'm sure.

DOBBS: Absolutely and when you go through them point by point, you find out you get a headache from the fine print and the posturing and the qualifications and the equivocation. It's an absurdity, with a couple of exceptions in terms of particularly in the cases of both Obama and Clinton on health care. But, for the rest, I mean, good lord. What a joke.

BLITZER: All right. So what else are you going to looking for tonight as we go forward? Because we're getting exit poll numbers in right now. The polls in Wisconsin don't close until 9:00 eastern, 8:00 p.m. local time.

DOBBS: I think it's going to be interesting to see whether the trends that have been established so far persist. That is namely that Hillary Clinton continues to bring along the working class. I hate to use the expression, but the working class vote, working men and women in this country, blue-collar workers.

Those are the people I consider to be the bedrock of the nation. And whether or not Senator Obama continues to bring along the more affluent and more educated, higher educated Democratic voter. I think it will also be interesting to see if John McCain gets what he wants here and that is the round house K.O. that he's been calling for.

BLITZER: The knock out punch.


BLITZER: Let me tell you what I'm going to be looking for.

DOBBS: Sure.

BLITZER: In addition to wins the popular vote, who gets the most delegates. Obviously everybody is looking at that but I'm always fascinated on these nights to hear what these candidates say in their big speeches to their supporters at their rallies because it gives us a sense, at least to a certain degree of where they are right now. These speeches are carefully crafted as you know. DOBBS: Absolutely. Very carefully crafted. We're going to see more of the contests over plagiarism and rhetoric and so forth. But you have a stronger stomach than I do. Some of these speeches really tire me out.

BLITZER: Lou Dobbs stand by. You've got a program coming up in an hour.

DOBBS: Yes. I remember.

BLITZER: All right. Lou Dobbs is here.