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President Obama Discusses Health Care Initiatives for Veterans; Job Training for Ex-Cons; Thawing Relations with Cuba; Affordable Electric Car

Aired April 9, 2009 - 12:00   ET



BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And that's why I'm asking both departments to work together to define and build a seamless system of integration with a simple goal: When a member of the Armed Forces separates from the military, he or she will no longer have to walk paperwork from a DOD duty station to a local VA health center; their electronic records will transition along with them and remain with them forever.


Now, this would represent a huge step towards modernizing the way health care is delivered and benefits are administered for our nation's veterans. It would cut through red tape and reduce the number of administrative mistakes. It would allow all VA sites access to a veteran's complete military medical record, giving them the information they need to deliver high-quality care. And it would do all this with the strictest and most rigorous standards of privacy and security, so that our veterans can have confidence that their medical records can only be shared at their direction.

Now, the care that our veterans receive should never be hindered by budget delays. I've shared this concern with Secretary Shinseki, and we have worked together to support advanced funding for veterans' medical care. What that means is a timely and predictable flow of funding from year to year, but more importantly, that means better care for our veterans. And I was pleased to see that the budget resolution passed by the Senate supports this concept in a bipartisan manner.

I'm also pleased that the budget resolutions adopted by both houses of Congress preserve priorities that I outlined in my budget -- priorities that will go a long way towards building that 21st-century VA that we're looking for. The 2010 budget includes the largest single-year increase in VA funding in three decades. And all told, we will increase funding by $25 billion over the next five years.

This budget doesn't just signify increased funding for the VA health care program; it significantly expands coverage so that 500,000 more veterans who have previously been denied it will receive it, and it strengthens care and services across a broad range of areas.

Because the nightmares of war don't always end when our loved ones return home, this budget also meets the mental health needs of our wounded warriors. Untold thousands of servicemen and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or other serious psychological injury. The growing incidence of suicide among active military returning veterans is disturbing. Sometimes the deadliest wounds are the ones you cannot see, and we cannot afford to let the unseen wounds go untreated. And that's why this budget dramatically increases funding for mental health screening and treatment at all levels. It increases the number of vet centers and mobile health clinics, expanding access to this needed care in rural areas. And it helps reduce the stigma of seeking care by adding mental health professionals to educate veterans and their families about their injuries and their options.

And because thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have suffered from Traumatic Brain Injury, one of the signature injuries of these wars, this budget improves services for cognitive injuries. And many with TBI have never been evaluated by a physician. And because such injuries can often have long-term impacts that only show up down the road, this funding will help ensure they receive the ongoing care they need.

Because we all share the shame of 154,000 veterans going homeless on any given night, this budget also funds a pilot program with not- for-profit organizations to make sure that veterans at risk of losing their homes have a roof over their heads. And we will not rest until we reach a day when not one single veteran falls into homelessness.


Finally, this budget recognizes that our veterans deserve something more -- an equal chance to reach for the very dream they defend. It's the chance America gave to my grandfather, who enlisted after Pearl Harbor and went on to march in Patton's Army. When he came home, he went to college on the GI Bill, which made it possible for him and so many veterans like him to live out their own version of the American Dream. And now it's our turn to help guarantee this generation the same opportunity that the greatest generation enjoyed by providing every returning service member with a real chance to afford a college education. And by providing the resources to effectively implement the Post-9/11 GI Bill, that is what this budget does.

And even as we care for veterans who've served this country, Bob Gates has helped us design a budget that does more for our soldiers, more for their families, and more for our military. It fully protects and properly funds the increase to our Army and Marine force strength and halts reductions in the Air Force and Navy, allowing fewer deployments and more time between each. It builds on care for our wounded warriors and on our investments in medical research and development. It deepens our commitment to improve the quality of life for military families -- military child care, spousal support, and education -- because they're deployed when their loved one gets deployed.

On my visit to Baghdad this week, I was inspired all over again by the men and women in our armed services. They're proud of the work they're doing. And we are all deeply proud of them. And through their service, they are living out the ideals that stir something deep within the American character -- honor, sacrifice, and commitment to a higher purpose and to one another.

That, after all, is what led them to wear the uniform in the first place -- their unwavering belief in America . And now we must serve them as well as they've served us. And as long as we are fortunate to have leaders like Secretary Gates and Secretary Shinseki, and as long as I am Commander-in-Chief, I promise that we will work tirelessly to meet that mission and make sure that all those who wear this nation's uniform know this: When you come home to America , America will be there for you.

Thank you very much, everybody.


TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: So the president wrapping up remarks on improving veterans' health care. The president pointing to increases in his proposed budget for veterans' care, and moving to electronic record keeping to improve the process of transferring those records from the Defense Department to the Veterans Administration. One unified lifetime electronic health record for every member of the military from the moment of enlistment, until the day that soldier is laid to rest.

Now, we know millions of people rely on veterans health care, and the problems plaguing our nation's veterans are very troubling.

Josh Levs joins me now with some important information about our men and women in uniform -- Josh.

JOSH LEVS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Tony. I'll tell you, you know, often, when we talk about veterans and health challenges, we tend to immediately think of the most recent veterans, which makes sense. That's why I want to start off showing you this information. We have a graphic here from the Veterans Administration that's going to show you how many veterans there are in America and what we're talking about.

First of all, you've got more than 23 million veterans in America. And look at that chunk there -- 39 percent, Tony, are age 65 or older. So you have a lot of older people who are facing all sorts of health challenges. And of those 23 million, you've got 7.8 million who are enrolled in the Veterans health care program as their system of health care that they get.

Let's go to the next graphic, because I want to show you two more things that I think are really interesting that the VA points to. They're saying three million get disability compensation.

And they also pull out this statistic -- it's one of the main ones they point to. We talk a lot about the mental health challenges many face. PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, 343,000, about, Tony, are getting compensation for that.

And as we know, the last thing I'm going to show you here, a graphic, a lot of people struggling with homelessness right now as well. Many of these veterans -- unfortunately, many homeless people in America are veterans. He mentioned it there, the president did.

And look at that, Tony. Any given night, 154,000 veterans out on the street, 300,000 at some point during the year.

HARRIS: That's amazing.

LEVS: And you can see the percentages there. I mean, mental illness and substance abuse sweeping through that population. A very difficult time.

HARRIS: All right, Josh. Appreciate it.

LEVS: You got it. Thanks.

HARRIS: Boy, look at those numbers.

The U.S. military turning now to the FBI for help in ending a hostage crisis on the high seas. We want to get the very latest on this.

Let's get to our Pentagon Correspondent Chris Lawrence right now.

And Chris, I know that we are -- boy, we're about 35, 36 hours into this situation right now. And I'm wondering how rare it is for the U.S. to be negotiating with people like this. We're talking about pirates here.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And if you're talking about, Tony, ,this particular situation, we've never seen this before.

You know, this is the first time in all of these pirate attacks that there's actually been an American crew involved. The U.S. Navy has conducted extensive search and seizure operations, so they have a lot of experience.

The ships that are in this region have a lot of experience interacting with pirates, coming on board vessels that have been taken over by pirates, taking pirates into custody. But again, never a situation in which an American crew was involved.

HARRIS: Well, Chris, what are some of the demands, if any, the pirates in this situation might make?

LAWRENCE: It's hard to say. You know, in one sense, they are very isolated, Tony.

You know, we're now hearing from the chief of the Navy's central command that the Alabama has moved away from the area. So now we've got a situation where you've got this lifeboat, it's isolated. You've got the Navy destroyer right there. You've got a P-3 surveillance plane and unmanned drones keeping an eye on that lifeboat.

It's in an isolated position. But again, they do have the captain, still. And that is the key to all of this.

We know that when the pirates -- the boat that they used, the little skiff they used to actually board the Alabama, that sunk. That sank. So that may be a demand, to somehow replace that.

They might try to exact in a ransom for the captain. This is just speculation, but again, we know that they're in this for the money.

HARRIS: That's right.

LAWRENCE: So it's logical that perhaps some of those might be demands they might make.

HARRIS: OK. Chris Lawrence following all of these developments from the Pentagon.

Chris, appreciate it. Thank you.

A little more now about Captain Richard Phillips.

He is in his 50s and father to two college-aged children. He and his wife Andrea (ph) live in Vermont. Phillips flew to the United Arab Emirates two weeks ago to take command of the Maersk Alabama.

Friends describe him as cool under pressure. His sister-in-law talked with NBC's "The Today Show."


MATT LAUER, "THE TODAY SHOW": Your brother-in-law is extremely experienced in this business. Did he ever discuss a fear about this type of situation, about a hijacking at sea?

LEA COGGIO, CAPTAIN'S SISTER-IN-LAW: No, he never discussed any fear. But I know he was very well aware and trained.

I mean, they do drills. They're required to do drills once a week aboard ship. So, you know -- and probably with this heightened alert, they, you know, were ready to do something.


HARRIS: So with the captain in the lifeboat, the Maersk Alabama is under the command of the ship's number two, Chief Officer Shane Murphy. The 33-year-old is the father of a 3-year-old and a 3-month- old.

Ironically, Murphy's father teaches a course in maritime security at Massachusetts Maritime Academy. He called his son's encounter with the pirates "Murphy's Law," and the captain's predicament uncomfortable.


KIRAN CHETRY, CNN ANCHOR: What is the situation in that lifeboat? How long can they stay and what condition is the captain likely in?

CAPT. JOSEPH MURPHY, SHANE MURPHY'S FATHER: I would suspect that the captain is in very good condition. The lifeboat is only a 28-foot boat. It's got emergency rations for about 10 days for its capacity.

It's a very uncomfortable place. It's very small. There's no toilet facilities or anything like that.

The captain has a VHF radio, and I'm sure that he's in voice communication with the ship itself. The problem is, of course, that the radio is going to -- the battery is going to die, and I'm not really sure how they'll continue communication after that.


HARRIS: And a little later in the NEWSROOM, I will talk with former FBI terrorism task force member Mike Brooks about the agency's negotiations with the pirates.

And this news just in. Man, heartbreaking. Los Angeles Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart was killed in a car accident early this morning. The team confirming that this morning on its Web site. Adenhart pitched last night's game against the Oakland A's.

A van reportedly ran a red light, forcing the car Adenhart was in, as you can see here, into a light pole. The driver fled but was caught.

Two other people in the car with Adenhart were also killed. One is said to be affiliated with the Angels. Adenhart was transported to UC Irvine Medical Center. He underwent surgery and passed away. Nick Adenhart was just 22 years old.

And still to come in the NEWSROOM, fewer of us reaching for the credit cards these days, and the companies that issue them are taking action. We're going to have some tips for you on how to protect yourself, straight ahead.


HARRIS: New jobless figures from the Labor Department today, and they offer us a bit of a mixed bag. First time claims fell to 654,000 last week. Most economists thought more jobs would be lost.

One was hopeful the drop was a sign jobless claims have peaked. Continuing claims climbed again, though, closing in on the six million mark. That number set a record for the 11th week in a row. It's also the highest since government record keeping began in 1967.

President Obama wants you to save money on your mortgage. The president says interest rates are at record lows and now is a good time to refinance. At a White House roundtable this morning, he urged homeowners to take advantage of the low rates and the information available online.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) OBAMA: If you are having problems with your mortgage, and even if you're not, you just want to save some money, you can go to And the way the Web site is designed, you can plug in your information and immediately find out whether or not you're potentially eligible for one of these mortgage refinancings.


HARRIS: The president says the increase in refinancing is a sign (ph) federal programs to help homeowners who are actually working.

But recession is leading to a plastic revolution. Credit card use is down. Credit card costs are up.

Personal Finance Editor Gerri Willis is here.

And Gerri, what's going on with our credit cards...


HARRIS: ... that we may have missed while we've been paying attention -- you said "crazy" twice.

WILLIS: I did say "crazy" twice because it's that crazy.

OK. So you may have noticed your credit limit slash, your interest rate shoots up, even if you have a decent credit score. That's what's so maddening. It's happening more frequently, according to a company called Synergistics Research Corp. Take a look at their findings.

They did a survey. They found that 21 percent of consumers had an interest rate hike, 17 percent reported an increase in minimum payment due. Ouch. Nine percent had a decrease in credit limit.

What's happening here is that issuers are reducing the risk in their credit card portfolio. Safer for them, not necessarily for us, though. Just like any other business squeezed in the economy, they are seeing reduced profits, rising unemployment, plus this specter of change, because new credit card regulations are coming in July of 2010 -- Tony.

HARRIS: So, Gerri, you know what the follow-up here is. What can we do to guard against these practices by these card companies?

WILLIS: All right. Well, you've got to look at your mail very carefully. You may get updated terms and conditions.

And the deal is that this may look like junk mail. You know how much stuff you get in the mail. You've really got to pay attention.

Here are the words or phrases to look out for: as of x date, a certain date. "X" is changing, whatever is changing.

"Modifying" is another word to watch out for. "Dates going forward, altering," anything like that.

Now, don't close out old accounts. It might seem counterintuitive, but closing old accounts can hurt your score.

Look into hardship programs. To qualify, you generally have be delinquent and you usually have to have a sizeable debt, like a minimum of 2,500 bucks or more.

Call your issuer, ask about those hardship programs. They're not always advertised, but more and more, these companies are doing them.

You may get your rate lowered. You can get a payment plan. And hey, change your mindset.

So many folks use credit cards, Tony, as a way of augmenting the family budget. No. This is not the time to do this.

It's not free cash. If you carrying a balance and you keep adding every month, you're digging yourself deeper into debt.

Think about this, Tony. On $10,000 and an interest rate of 15 percent, if you make just payments of 250 bucks a month it will take you five years to pay it off.

HARRIS: Right. Oh, that's insane.

WILLIS: Four thousand dollars in interest alone. Crazy.

HARRIS: You know, can I ask a question here? Is the construction crew aware that we're doing live television here? Can they hold off on...

WILLIS: Could you make a phone call?

HARRIS: Can they hold off on the addition to Kiran's office until we are off the air?


WILLIS: Whoops. See, you had an impact. They stopped.

HARRIS: My goodness.

Gerri, good to see you. Thank you.

WILLIS: Well, good to see you, Tony.

HARRIS: Let's get that information on the Web site so that people can read it.

WILLIS: Absolutely.

HARRIS: All right. Thanks, Gerri.

WILLIS: My pleasure. HARRIS: And once again, check out our special report, "AMERICA'S MONEY CRISIS." That is at We update this page all the time for you.

Tough economic news out of Detroit today, but it's not about the auto industry. Detroit's public school system is facing a projected deficit of more than $300 million. That means 23 schools may be shut down and 600 teachers laid off.


ROBERT BOBB, EMERGENCY FINANCIAL MANAGER, DETROIT SCHOOLS: The bottom line is that we have too many buildings for too few students. And so the reality is that schoolhouse buildings will have to be closed and consolidated. Following a series of input from the community, I will make my final decision on these round of closings by May 8th.


HARRIS: So another round of potential school closings will be announced this summer. Detroit is Michigan's largest public school district.

How do you negotiate with a pirate? We're going to take you inside the FBI strategy for solving a standoff like the one off the Somali coast.


HARRIS: The U.S. military turning to the FBI for help in ending a hostage crisis on the high seas. Here's what we know.

The U.S. government is negotiating with pirates holding the captain of a U.S.-flagged ship. Captain Richard Phillips is being held on a lifeboat near the Horn of Africa. The lifeboat is out of gas.

The pirates holding him had hijacked his vessel. That ship, the Maersk Alabama, is now moving Mombasa, Kenya. Its crew managed to retake their vessel after the hijacking. The 19 American crew members will be sent home. Maersk shipping line says the concern is for the captain's safe return.


KEVIN SPEERS, MAERSK LINE SPOKESMAN: Our most recent contact with Alabama indicated that the captain remains hostage but is unharmed at this time. The safe return of the captain is our foremost priority. Everything we've done over the past day has strived to increase the chance of a peaceful outcome.

We are encouraged that most of the crew is safe. They have been resilient and courageous throughout this crisis. But we will remain on watch, staffing our situation room and our family hotline until the situation resolves and the captain is safely returned. (END VIDEO CLIP)

HARRIS: OK. Joining me, CNN security analyst Mike Brooks. He is a former member of the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Mike, good to talk to you.

MIKE BROOKS, CNN SECURITY ANALYST: As well as a crisis negotiator also with the FBI.

HARRIS: Well, if we started listing all of your credentials, we wouldn't have time for the segment.


HARRIS: You've done a little bit of everything in your law enforcement career.

BROOKS: A little bit of everything, Tony.

HARRIS: So here is the question. The FBI, we understand now, is a part of the negotiating team, and probably taking the lead on this negotiation. Is that correct to assume?

BROOKS: Yes. The FBI crisis negotiation unit out of Quantico, Virginia, they are basically the negotiating arm of the U.S. government when it comes to trying to resolve incidents like this and get the release of U.S. hostages that are held overseas back.

HARRIS: How expert is this team at doing this? Because it just seems to me that this is not a group to be negotiated with. But you were telling me earlier in our conversation that this is a team that has a wide breadth of experience in international negotiations.

BROOKS: Absolutely. People think that they operate just here in the United States, but they're responsible by law on trying to gain the release of U.S. hostages held overseas.

For instance, the Colombian hostage rescue that we just saw, where three Northrop Grumman workers were released, along with some other folks, the FBI was over five years -- was right on top of things dealing with that for almost five years, along with a group called Control Risk (ph), who was kind of the risk management folks and the go-between the FARC and the hostage-takers.

HARRIS: That's right.

So we need the captain back, obviously.

BROOKS: Yes, sure.

HARRIS: With -- and my guess is 36 hours, if my math is correct, into this situation right now, we often talk about the first 48 hours. How important is that window of time in this current negotiation? And what do you expect? Put us in the room, on the line, if you will, with what's going on right now. BROOKS: Well, right now, we know that the captain is still alive.

HARRIS: Yes. Proof of life.

BROOKS: And that's one of the things -- proof of life, as you and I talked about. And we heard from the Maersk spokesperson that he is still alive.

Now, is this little boat, this little life raft running out of gas?

HARRIS: It is out of gas.

BROOKS: So you've got this huge warship right there. OK? So that is...

HARRIS: Talk about psychological warfare.

BROOKS: It's going to put a lot of pressure on -- plus, the media coverage of this also puts a little bit of pressure on the hostage-taker. Now, of course, you always have to be careful what you say, because you -- command and control of these folks back in Somalia could be listening to CNN. But without giving away too much, Tony, they are going to talk to these people, be the intermediary, and try to find out, OK, what do you want?

Most likely, we know what these people already want.

HARRIS: We know what they want.

BROOKS: They want a ransom. And you know, if you look at the shipping lines, Tony, they have worked with U.S. government's multinational forces to try to provide protection of these tankers in this area. And there have been a number of times where you've had security on board and they've shot at the pirates. They go, whoa, we don't want to kill anybody. You know, we just want to make sure everybody is safe.

HARRIS: In saying that, are you suggesting to me that a ransom is still on the table? Look, the hijackers, the pirates, are off the Maersk. The Maersk is leaving. It's going to Mombasa. So...

BROOKS: But you still have an American life there. And there's still a possibility. And again, it's not the United States government that is going pay a ransom, if a ransom is paid.

HARRIS: It would be the Maersk.

BROOKS: It's the Maersk. And what's the Maersk? They are covered by insurance companies.

HARRIS: So you think that that is still on the table in this? You wouldn't suggest that it's off the table?

BROOKS: When it comes to these things, never say never. HARRIS: Mike, good to talk to you.

BROOKS: All right, Tony.

HARRIS: We'll do the rest of the resume a little later on. Thank you, sir.

BROOKS: That's all right, buddy.

HARRIS: Cutting through the red tape to care for wounded warriors. Just moments ago, President Obama outlined plans for improving veterans' health care using lifetime electronic medical records.

We want to get reaction from a veteran who was at the president's news conference. Paul Rieckhoff is founder -- and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. And he joins us now from outside the White House.

And, Paul, if you would, give us your general reaction to the president's comments?

PAUL RIECKHOFF, FOUNDER & EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, IAVA: Well, we welcome this news, Tony. This is a huge day for veterans and troops. The president outlined two major initiatives that veteran groups and military groups have been calling for, for years.

First off, he's going to provide one seamless, electronic medical record keeping system that takes the troop or veteran for the Department of Defense over to the VA for their entire life. And he's going to support advance funding for the VA, which will providing timely, predictable funding at the VA. He'll set up the new secretary, Eric Shinseki, for success. And it's really going to help us deal with a multitude of issues ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to traumatic brain injury.

It's a good day. All the veterans groups were there to support the president. And this is a good way for him to come back from Iraq and make a powerful statement.

HARRIS: I've got to ask you something. There is still an open question, isn't there, on trying to get more money into the VA system, aside from the budget lines appropriated for this. But there is still, isn't there, an open question of getting more money from other sources into the system to care for veterans?

RIECKHOFF: Well, it's a question of money and it's also a question of oversight and accountability. The budget the president's proposed is one that's exceeded the independent budget. A budget that all the leading veterans groups asked for. It's a record increase. The highest number in about three decades. So that's a good start.

But General Shinseki, Secretary Shinseki now, is going to have to provide the oversight in making sure that the money gets down to every local VA hospital. VA has got over 170 hospitals around the country. It's the second largest bureaucracy in the U.S. government. But a lot of vets are still falling through the cracks. So he's going to have to ensure that that money is getting down to the lowest level to communities around the country.

HARRIS: Boy, and you I guess would have to be applauded for your efforts here. There was a proposal not that long ago where private insurers were going to be asked to buy into that system. Your organization, and others like yours, fought back on that. I'm wondering if you are privy to any of the ongoing discussions on how to get more money into the system.

RIECKHOFF: Yes, we've been involved in discussions within the House and the Senate and with the White House to help them get this budget right. We did push back strongly against this proposed plan to outsource disability compensation to private insurers. All the veterans groups pushed back. The president listened. They dropped it. And now we're moving on to what I think are much bigger issues. And this budget's a good start. We're going to keep them honest. We're going to stay on them. But for most of the veterans around the country, of all generation, not just Iraq and Afghanistan, this is welcome news.

HARRIS: Paul, good to talk to you. Thanks for your time. Thanks for coming out of the room so quickly for us.

RIECKHOFF: You too, Tony. Thank you.

HARRIS: Paul Rieckhoff is the executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Thanks, Paul. Thanks for your time.

RIECKHOFF: Thank you, Tony.

HARRIS: And finding a job. We're talking to some people who have been forced to take a bit of a creative approach.


HARRIS: Rick is up here with here. We've got a segment coming up.

Rick, help me with this.

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR: It's called trouble.

HARRIS: Take a look at the markets now. There we go. There we go. The markets -- been a good day so far.


HARRIS: Just past three hours into the trading day, Rick, and look at this, the Dow up 180 points. I'm trying to remember what the news -- oh, financials. Financials. Wells Fargo reporting big first quarter profits. Bigger than expected to be sure. And all the news principally coming out of financials has been . . .

SANCHEZ: Still some great deals there, though.

HARRIS: How about that?

SANCHEZ: I mean when a stock is at $1.15 and it's up from what it was last week at $0.78.

HARRIS: And we keep hearing there's money on the sidelines and investors are waiting for the moment.

OK. We're going to talk to Rick.

SANCHEZ: Something else entirely.

HARRIS: In just a moment.

So if you're looking for a job right now, sometimes a little retraining can go a long way. We found a unique group of job seekers in Florida receiving that training through a community program called Opportunities Industrialization Center or OIC. CNN caught up with Henry Lewis. He not only has a new job through OIC, he is giving jobs to others who need a second chance.


HENRY LEWIS: Washing cars (INAUDIBLE), shampoo, wash and wax and buffing.

You got the key.

And I do a job. I can actually -- oh, look at that difference -- I can hear my cousin say, wow, great job. I'm pretty proud just being out here working. Honestly, living honestly for a change.

NEWTON B. SANON, EXEC. DIR., OIC OF BROWARD COUNTY: Henry Lewis came to us probably about -- I'd say about eight months ago now.

LEWIS: One day I heard a girl telling another guy about it. Let's go look at the wash. He just (INAUDIBLE).

SANON: You saw it in his eye but he was like, OK, so who are these people? What do they really want?

LEWIS: You know, I just done like 12 years and enjoy it (ph). (INAUDIBLE) prison, you know. I made a few mistakes.

SANON: OIC stands for Opportunities, Industrialization Centers. Our core focus is to provide training, job opportunities and a sense of hope for individuals to be productive members of society.

LEWIS: Because it's hard to get a job.

SANON: Many of adult men in my office are in tears because they've tried and they've tried consistently to get a job and society is not as welcoming.

LEWIS: They helped me my set the (ph) basic instructions up. They helped me with my short-term goals. Helped me with the (ph) computer skills. They just helped me in every way it is. This is my second home.

SANON: When I see Henry, I understand truly what hope is about.

LEWIS: And it's a mixture. Doing what got to be done. Doing your time for your crime and coming out never doing it again and doing what's right. That's why I launched this business just to be a productive member of society.

SANON: I think I'm impressed not only because he willing to start his own business, but he then turned around and hired some of his colleagues that were in the program as well.

LEWIS: Every Saturday (ph) I got a guy from OIC. I just take -- let them take turns so it can earn them some money or something because it's hard out here and I know what it's like getting out of prison with nothing.

SANON: The benefit trickles down, not just for that individual, but the community and they often have children and families that can benefit from our program and efforts as well. So I'd say that's a pretty strong return on an investment where investments have not done so well in the last few years in this country.

LEWIS: They support me. You know, and everything I do, they support me. So I give back by doing it right. That's what Angel Shine do right here. We shine.


HARRIS: Shine. OIC's executive director tells CNN that graduates of the program, like Henry, have a 92 percent success rate staying employed and out of trouble. That compares with 50 percent of those released from prison who get no help re-entering the workforce.

We're going to talk about Cuba. Travel paradise for some but still off limits to U.S. tourists. Are things about to change, Rick, under the Obama administration? We're back in a moment.


HARRIS: The Castro brothers are ready to talk. That word from members of the Congressional Black Caucus just back from Havana. The lawmakers sounding encouraged after meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro and former President Fidel Castro.

More now from CNN's Jim Acosta.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Members of the Congressional Black Caucus went to Cuba in search of the Spanish word for datont (ph).

REP. BARBARA LEE (D), CALIFORNIA : Given the new direction in our foreign policy, it's time to look at a new direction in our policy toward Cuba. The Cubans do want dialogue. They do want talks. And they do want normal relations with the United States of America.

ACOSTA: They also got behind closed doors with Cuba's ailing ex- leader, Fidel Castro, who has not been seen in public since 2006.

LEE: Former President Fidel Castro was very engaging. Very energetic.

REP. LAURA RICHARDSON (D), CALIFORNIA: And he also asked a very important thing. He said, how can we, how can we as Cuba help President Obama?

ACOSTA: In a statement on the visit announced on Cuba television, Fidel Castro left the door open a crack. "We do not fear dialogue with the United States, nor do we need confrontation to exist." The Cuban Kumbaya comes as support is building in Congress to end the U.S. ban on travel to the island and, the White House says, it may ease restriction on Cuban Americans visiting their homeland before the president attends a summit with Latin American nations this month.

JEFFREY DAVIDOW, INSTITUTE OF THE AMERICAS: The president has said he's going to do it. He'll make some changes. The vice president has repeated that. So they're going to happen.

SEN. MEL MARTINEZ (R), FLORIDA: We keep talking about change here in Washington. What about change in Havana?

ACOSTA: But Cuban Americans in Congress are outraged. They don't want to see any changes that could lead to an end of the 47-year embargo on Cuba.

MARTINEZ: Having tourists on Cuban beaches is not going to change the equation of how to create the opportunity for democratic transition in Cuba.

ACOSTA: Restaurant owner Jessica Rodriguez is part of a younger generation of Cuban Americans trying to overcome the reservations of older Cuban exiles.

JESSICA RODRIGUEZ, OWNER, CUBA DE AVER: I think it would be good to kind of open those doors because, you know, I have so many customers that say, oh I wish I could go to Cuba. And I say, I know. Me, too. It would be great if the world could see what Cuba is for Cuba itself.

ACOSTA: The Congressional Black Caucus plans to deliver its findings to the White House. And these members of Congress appear to have a message from the Castro brothers -- they're ready to talk. During the campaign, President Obama said he'd be willing to meet with Cuba's leader, Raul Castro. The way things are going, he may get that chance.

Jim Acosta, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE) HARRIS: And two Republican members of Congress say their colleagues who just visited Cuba overlooked the plight of political prisoners there. Here's what New Jersey Representative Christopher Smith had to say.


REP. CHRISTOPHER SMITH (R), NEW JERSEY: To the best of my knowledge, they did nothing to publicly show any concern for the myriad gross human rights abuses perpetrated by the Cuban government, or the tragic fate of hundreds of Cuban democracy and human rights activists. That nation's best, brightest and bravest men and women, yet they held press conferences at which they heaped and lavished praise and affection for a government the United States department of state only six weeks ago called totalitarian.


HARRIS: Give me the two shot. Rick Sanchez is here.

Rick . . .

SANCHEZ: You know, it was funny -- it's funny listening to that. This man came to my office yesterday.

HARRIS: Yesterday, right.

SANCHEZ: And he said, Rick, I want to have serious talk with you about Cuba.

HARRIS: And what was the first thing you said?

SANCHEZ: I said, you know, there's a problem with this group going to Cuba right now.

HARRIS: Yes. Yes.

SANCHEZ: Right message, wrong messengers. By having a group of very liberal lawmakers . . .

HARRIS: What does liberal have to do with it?

SANCHEZ: Very liberal.

HARRIS: It's 50 years we're talking about here.

SANCHEZ: It has everything to do with it.

HARRIS: Tell me why.

SANCHEZ: Let me tell you why.

The reason Richard Nixon's trip to China worked as far as advancing the U.S. policy toward China was, he's the last guy that you ever would have expected who would go to China, because he was a complete anti-communist guy. By having folks from the United States who are policy makers, who are viewed as liberals, even extremes in Bobby Rush's case, extreme liberals, meeting with a communist dictator, was bound to set off the type of cold war, antiquated argument that you just expressed to our viewers right now where . . .

HARRIS: Give me a two shot. Don't just keep talking (INAUDIBLE), Rick. Give us a two shot here.

SANCHEZ: Well, go ahead. But here's -- did I not tell you this was going to happen.

HARRIS: You did. You absolutely said it was going to happen.

SANCHEZ: Did I nail it or not?

HARRIS: Well, hang on a second. Isn't it clear, though, that the policy is going to change. The president has signaled that the policy is going to change. So why aren't Republicans -- I don't care.

SANCHEZ: They are.

HARRIS: Moderate Republicans.

SANCHEZ: They are.

HARRIS: Conservative Republicans.

SANCHEZ: They are.

HARRIS: So what is this but just nothing more than just a political shot? Taking the political shot in the face of the fact that policy is clearly unchanged.

SANCHEZ: There's some fairness to what you just expressed because this fella, Smith, and Frank -- well, Chris Smith, the honorable Chris Smith and Frank Wolf, they -- I've followed this discussion for years. They haven't been the general voices of this discussion.

But there are plenty of Republicans, plenty of Republicans, especially from the farm belt, who say it's about time that we actually start incorporating Cuba and actually using Cuba as a market before the Japanese and the Europeans and the Chinese do the same thing and take away a market that's only 90 miles away from our shores.

HARRIS: And why then, Rick, is that the growing consensus because Fidel essentially is out of the power chair.


HARRIS: Raul is there. Is he viewed as someone who can be worked with?

SANCHEZ: Well, first of all, let's go back to our original enthomine (ph). And that is, is the right time to have a conversation about this, is there a spirit of openness in the air right now when it comes to Cuba? Yes. Do you send some of the most liberal members of the policy makers of the United States? No.

Can a Dick Lugar from Indiana or a strong Republican senator like these guys or maybe even a Christopher Dodd go down there and pull it off? If it's a bipartisan group, absolutely. In fact, to answer your question, the opening now is as big as it's ever been. The National American-Cuban Association in Miami, a story in "The New York Times" today and yesterday, is actually on record saying the time is now to negotiate with the Castro government. Ten years ago you never would have seen that.

HARRIS: OK. So here we go. Let's get to graphics here because I want Rick's thoughts on this. To normalize relations with Cuba, Cuba need to alter the human rights policy, release all political prisoners and the end of censorship and state control over the media and free flow of information, correct? Got to happen.

SANCHEZ: They're a communist country. Hell, yes, hello. Yes, they do all of those things. And they're bad. And they're wrong.

HARRIS: And in exchange, America would close the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay.

SANCHEZ: You can't go there. You can't, no, you can't -- you can't do those two things.

HARRIS: Whoa, really?

SANCHEZ: One has nothing to do with the other. One is a policy issue that involves the United States going back to Roosevelt, going back to the Spanish-American War. And the other one has to do with just human decency. That you don't treat people the way they're treated in dictatorial countries like Cuba.

So is there an openness there? Is there something that can be discussed? Yes. But -- by the way, that's the problem with where we are now with the Cuba argument. And that's the point I was making to you earlier. By having that Republicans screening at Democrats over who was nice to Fidel Castro, we're right back to where we were 50 years ago and that's no way to move a conversation forward.

HARRIS: The Congressional Black Caucus was not there to deal- make. The Congressional Black Caucus was there to pave the way.

SANCHEZ: Their intentions -- Tony, Tony, their intentions may have been perfectly noble. But, unfortunately, the result is this. Now you've got people screaming at each other (INAUDIBLE) moving forward.

HARRIS: Exactly.

That was good. That was fun.

SANCHEZ: There you go. HARRIS: Thanks.

SANCHEZ: Thanks for having me.

HARRIS: Yes, that was great.

SANCHEZ: Next time, don't talk to me about something I'm too passionate about.


And Still to come, how much would you pay for an electric car? GM hopes you'll spend about $40,000. We'll get an "Energy Fix" from Poppy Harlow. That's next.


HARRIS: Many automakers say electric cars are the wave of the future, but drivers may be turned off by their high price tag. Although that may be changing.'s Poppy Harlow has our "Energy Fix" from New York.

Poppy, good to see you.


And, you know, electric cars are great in theory. We saw them on the road as far back as the early 1900s. But big price tags for new ones. That could be a big sticking point when it comes to sales.

But there's a company called Detroit Electric. Take a look at this because this is one of their cars they're planning to put out here in the U.S. next year.

Want to go through two models. One is a four-door sedan. That's going to be roughly $25,000. The range is going to be pretty long. About 110 miles between charges. A purely electric vehicle. The second, a longer range model that will sell for about $30,000. That will go a little bit further.

They're going to directly compete, Tony, with the model we've heard so much about from GM, the Chevy Volt. That's an electric and a gas model. But that is rumored to cost about $40,000, Tony. You see it right there. It looks pretty cool. But with a $40,000 price tag, we don't have an exact number from GM yet, but that's what all the analysts are say, it would be a lot more expensive than the one coming from Detroit Electric.

HARRIS: So how can Detroit Electric make these cars cheaper than GM may be able to?

HARLOW: It's interesting. We talked to the CEO earlier this week. We sat down with him, asking the same thing. A number of reasons. These cars aren't made from scratch. The company simply fits its battery into cars that are made by a Malaysian automaker. And you should know that even though the company is called Detroit Electric, it has nothing to do with Detroit. It says although it hopes eventually to have some U.S. manufacturing operations, it's currently headquartered in the Netherlands and it's working with a Malaysian automaker and that helps keep the costs down, Tony. We'll see.

Well, now the competition makes sense.

Poppy, good to see you. Thank you.

HARLOW: Yes. Sure.

HARRIS: There could be severe weather in your area later today. We will check with our severe weather expert Chad Myers. That's next.


HARRIS: Get to Chad Myers in the Severe Weather Center and maybe that's the watch word here -- severe.


HARRIS: We are pushing forward now with Kyra Phillips in the next hour of CNN NEWSROOM.