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THE SITUATION ROOM
Sweeping Changes in Cuba Policy; Dramatic High Seas Rescue; Interview with Mayor Michael Bloomberg
Aired April 13, 2009 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, President Obama undoes some of the work of his predecessors -- policies that have been in effect for 40 years. Major changes underway right now involving U.S. policy toward Cuba. They've just been announced.
Also, a drastic action by the U.S. Navy -- rescuing an American captain from Somalia pirates. We're getting additional new details, including a collision at sea and incredible work by Navy snipers.
And the horror at the zoo -- a woman jumps into the polar bear enclosure and is attacked -- all of it caught on tape.
I'm Wolf Blitzer.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
President Obama ordering sweeping changes to some of the country's most stalwart policies toward Cuba -- rules that have stood virtually unchanged for almost half a century, isolating and punishing the communist island nation. Mr. Obama is now easing some of those rules -- some of which were actually implemented way back when, when President Kennedy was in office.
Our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is joining us now live -- Ed, all right, walk us through these dramatic and historic changes announced by the White House today.
ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the key is these changes are coming now because later this week, the president is heading to Trinidad for the Summit of the Americas. And he's trying to show the world it's a new day in terms of U.S. policy toward Cuba.
HENRY (voice-over): The president is keeping a campaign promise made last May in Miami -- the most sweeping U.S. opening to communist Cuba in decades.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's time to let Cuban-Americans see their mothers and their fathers, their sisters and their brothers. It's time to let Cuban-American money make their families less dependent on the Castro regime. HENRY: Mr. Obama is lifting Bush administration restrictions that limited Cuban travel by Americans to just two weeks every three years. The 1.5 million Americans with relatives in Cuba can now enjoy unlimited travel and money transfers. The president is also expanding the list of objects that can be included in gift parcels to Cuba -- clothes, personal hygiene items, seeds and fishing gear -- all aimed at weakening the Castro brothers' grip on the Cuban people.
OBAMA: There are no better ambassadors for the freedom of the Cuban-American -- of the Cuban people than Cuban-Americans.
HENRY: But Republican lawmakers Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart, Cuban-American brothers from Florida, issued a joint statement calling the move a serious mistake that will give the dictatorship financial support: "Unilateral concessions to the dictatorship embolden it to further isolate, imprison and brutalize pro-democracy activists," they charge.
The president did stop short of overturning the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba.
OBAMA: It provides us with the leverage to present the regime with a clear choice -- if you take significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations.
HENRY: Now, another key is the president's move today will also help U.S. telecom companies operate cell phones and satellite television and other devices like that inside Cuba so that Cubans can talk to other Cubans, but also so they can interact more with the outside world.
But as you can see, there are still many on Capitol Hill that are very skeptical this will make a major difference -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Well, we'll see if it results in any changes on the part of the Cuban government right now, as well.
BLITZER: That's what we're going to be watching closely.
Ed, thanks very much.
New details emerging right now of the American captain's rescue from the Somali pirates.
Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.
She's joining us now from Bahrain. That's home of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, which was in charge of this rescue operation.
And I know you had an exclusive opportunity to sit down and meet with the overall U.S. military commander -- Barbara. BARBARA STARR, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: We did, indeed, Wolf. Shocking new details about the danger that Captain Phillips was in.
STARR (voice-over): The top U.S. commander in the region tells CNN in an exclusive interview that during the crisis, the USS Bainbridge rammed the lifeboat carrying the pirates and Captain Phillips.
VICE ADM. WILLIAM GORTNEY, COMMANDER, U.S. NAVY FIFTH FLEET: And at one point, actually, the two vessels collided as he was holding this -- holding the lifeboat off. It was pretty high tense.
STARR: It was a drastic measure to stop the pirates from taking their hostage to Somalia. At the time, the coastline was about 20 miles away.
GORTNEY: The captain put the vessel and held the lifeboat away from Somalia.
STARR: Had Phillips will be taken to Somalia, rescue would have been extraordinarily difficult. U.S. military commanders quickly joined warships in the region.
GORTNEY: A group -- a small group of SEALS and Air Force special tactics parachuted into the Halliburton.
STARR: When the snipers saw Captain Phillips being held with an AK-47 to his back...
GORTNEY: The on scene commander was concerned for hostile intent, saw a clear shot, ordered the clear shot and all three were fatal.
STARR (on camera): Now, how can...
GORTNEY: And incredible feat of marksmanship -- two foot, at night, a bobbing target -- a very, very critical, critical effort.
STARR: It sounds like -- people think this sounds like a movie.
GORTNEY: You could -- you could probably craft one up.
STARR (voice-over): Gortney also confirmed that the U.S. was keeping a close ear to pirate radio traffic. The U.S. military now dealing with groups of pirates who are clearly cooperating amongst themselves.
GORTNEY: And we saw some of these mother ships, the day after the Maersk Alabama was pirated, actually communicating with the intent to come help the pirates in the lifeboat.
STARR: For those who are talking about now launching military attacks against pirate camps inside Somalia, Admiral Gortney has two pieces of advice -- get a lot of intelligence about where those camps are. And the big problem, he says, collateral damage. These are in rural area where there are women, children, farms and villages -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Barbara, thanks.
Thanks for your excellent work, as well.
Barbara Starr reporting from Bahrain tonight.
The U.S. military presence in the region is the Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa, which includes Somalia. It's based in Djibouti and consists of some 2,000 military, civilian and coalition personnel.
Although there are no American forces on the ground in Somalia, the U.S. has launched at least four air strikes since 2006 at suspected terror targets in Somalia.
In response to the growing piracy threat, the U.S. had to redirect resources from Afghanistan to create the combined task force -- 151, as it's called -- consisting of three American ships, along with ships from as many as 20 other countries, all patrolling the region's waters.
Let's go back to Jack Cafferty right now for "The Cafferty File."
All of us were happy when that American captain was freed, Jack.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, we were. It was about time, too. The Navy SEALS ended the hostage crisis off the coast of Somalia -- three fatal shots fired in the dark, killing all three pirates aboard the lifeboat.
But the military action came only after this band of ragtag troublemakers held Captain Richard Phillips hostage for five days and nights, as U.S. Navy warships floated and watched in the surrounding waters.
It got to the point where a handful of these punks in a lifeboat were making the mightiest navy on Earth look like little more than a collection of plastic bathtub toys. It was embarrassing.
But President Obama authorized the use of lethal force if there was imminent danger to the captain's life and the mission, in the end, was a successful.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military acknowledges that its actions to rescue Phillips could increase violence. And already the Somali pirates are vowing revenge, saying they will kill U.S. and French sailors: "if they happen to be among our future hostages."
A French, parenthetically, on Friday, killed two additional pirates. The piracy in that part of the world is getting worse because so far, there hasn't been a high enough price for the pirates to pay to stop it. The first officer of that ship that came under attack is now calling on the world to wake up to the dangers of piracy. He says it's a crisis and the U.S. ought to be at the forefront of the fight.
But how to fight these guys?
Here's the question: What can be done about the increasing piracy on the high seas?
Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile and you can post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.
BLITZER: It's going to be a question, Jack, I'm going to be asking Susan Rice, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. She's standing by to join us, as well.
Jack Cafferty, thank you.
Murder on the rise -- some say it's a sign of the tough economic times, but not the New York City mayor.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (I), NEW YORK CITY: I don't know how to break this to you, but people that go out and murder people don't read "The Wall Street Journal."
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: My interview with Michael Bloomberg -- that's coming up.
Does he think the worst of the financial crisis, by the way, is over?
I'll ask him.
And political chaos reaches deadly new levels in Thailand. And our iReporters are there and they're sharing amazing video that you're not going to be seeing anywhere else.
And a day at the zoo turns into a nightmare -- the attack and the rescue effort all caught on tape.
BLITZER: Thursday, we'll mark the anniversary of one man's infamous Virginia Tech shooting spree that left 33 people dead two years ago. As the milestone approaches, a new push is on to tighten gun laws in Virginia. At least one prominent non-Virginian is now getting into the fight.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And joining us now from New York, the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg.
Mr. Mayor, thanks very much for coming in.
BLOOMBERG: Thank you for having me.
BLITZER: All right.
What were doing in Virginia today?
Because the gun issue, it's an important issue for you, but you decided you wanted to get directly involved.
BLOOMBERG: Well, the gun issue is important because we have people on the streets of New York City who get killed with guns in the hands of people that federal law says they shouldn't have. And I want to make sure that we get -- around the country -- states to get rid of this gun show exemption, as it's called. And there happens to be an election this coming year for governor in Virginia.
It's one of the issues where the candidates disagree. And I wanted to try to influence the issue. And with me was the mother of a police officer who was killed on the streets of New York a year-and-a- half ago with a gun that was sold illegally in Virginia and wound up in the hands of somebody who killed two of our police officers.
And so it's -- Virginia is where the guns came from. They were used in New York. We've brought crime down in New York. Our level of violence and of murder is at record lows. We're probably going to set another record this year in spite of the economy.
But, nevertheless, we can't control where guns come from. And it's coming up on the two year anniversary of Virginia Tech, the tenth anniversary of Columbine. There were about 10 people killed in Binghamton, New York a few weeks ago.
This is not a new problem. It's still with us. And it's a very big public health issue in this country.
BLITZER: You know, a lot of gun owners out there, Second Amendments activists, they say they're afraid that this new president, President Obama and his administration, they're going to find a way to take away their guns.
BLOOMBERG: Wolf, that's just not true. There may be a handful of people.
There was a person who obviously needed psychiatric help the other day who killed some cops. And he was -- said that he was afraid of that.
But 83 percent of all gun owners in the United States believe that we should close the gun show loophole. Most people that own guns -- and 99 percent of the dealers are responsible human beings who understand guns are for sports or protection, they're not to be put in the hands criminals or children or people who have mental problems. That's all this is about. It's not about the right to bear arms. It's not about hunting. It's not about defending yourself or your family. It is plain and simple. We have a law that makes a lot of sense -- certain people shouldn't be allowed to own guns. It's a federal law. It's been on the books a long time. And this is just another way to be able to enforce the law.
BLITZER: Given the deteriorating economy out there, do you see a trend developing -- increased violence with guns as a result of the poor economy?
BLOOMBERG: All I can tell you, Wolf, is about New York City. We are going to set another record for low murders. Two years ago it was the record. Last year was the second best year we ever had. This year we're on track to have a year better than that of two years ago. We will have the lowest murder rate since the records were starting to be kept in 1963.
And that's true of virtually all crime in New York City.
This "park bench wisdom," as I call it, that there is a correlation between the economy and the amount of violence in our society just isn't true.
I don't know how to break this to you, but people that go out and murder people don't read "The Wall Street Journal."
BLITZER: What about the glimmers of hope, as the president described it the other day, that we're beginning to see some positive developments in the economy?
Are you seeing that in New York City?
BLOOMBERG: Yes. When I talk to small store owners and restaurant owners, they will tell you that a few more people are coming in. It's true we've been running down inventories throughout the country and every industry.
People's cars are wearing out. And the economy is growing. We're using up the extra supply of housing.
I don't think that the end is here. But I do think that there are some glimmers of hope. They don't ring a bell at the bottom to tell you it's the bottom. All industries don't turn around and every industry doesn't turn around across the country in the same place at the same time -- and different places at the same.
This is the beginning of the end. And I have no idea how quickly the economy will recover, but I think you have probably seen the worst for most industries in most places.
It doesn't mean there still isn't a great deal of pain that we're going to have to go through. Other people will lose their jobs. Other people will lose their houses.
And we have to, as a society, pull together and make sure we help those people.
But if you want cause for optimism, I think there is cause that, down the road, the public is starting to save, the way they should have been all along. And companies are trying to make sure that they're efficient in the ways that they haven't had to because of the boom times.
And so down the road, you and your family have an opportunity to share in the great American dream.
Do I think that we're out of the woods yet?
No. But I think the president is right, at least from what I can see in New York City.
BLITZER: Well, we're out of time. But a quick political question. You're running for a third term as mayor of New York.
You're going to be running as a Republican, I hear?
BLITZER: What is the latest on that?
BLOOMBERG: There are two parties that have seen fit to put me on their ballot -- the Independence Party and the Republican Party. And I'm -- I was on both of those lines four years ago and eight years ago.
But basically, New York City is a non-partisan town. And I'm going to run and either win or not win based on whether people think that I've done a good job, I've honored my promises and whether or not I can do a good job and carry this city to greater heights in the next four years.
We've come a long ways -- crime down; life expectancy up; schools much better; cleaner streets; more parks; diversification of our economy, so we are less susceptible, believe it or not, to the fortunes of Wall Street, than many other cities in the United States.
But that's what the public is going to judge me on, not the party line that you appear on.
BLITZER: And you'll stay registered as an Independent or will you once again become a Republican?
BLOOMBERG: No. I will stay as an Independent. I think there's -- LaGuardia famously said there's no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage. I'd like to get the votes of everybody. And that's what I'll try to do.
I don't agree with people -- everything that people in either party believe in. I believe in some from both. I think what we have to do is understand that we're all Americans and we're all citizens of the world. And we have to work together to combat problems that transpond parties, that go across state lines and international lines. And those are the things that are near and dear to my heart. It's the kind of world I'd like to leave my children.
BLITZER: Thanks very much for coming in, Mayor.
BLOOMBERG: Thank you for having me.
BLITZER: Members of a family find themselves swept up in an international drama.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I said this must be a joke. You know, someone must be playing a game because pirates don't exist anymore.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Now their or deal is over. They're overwhelmed with emotion and they're sharing their stories with us.
Plus, troubling new developments in Pakistan. The president cuts a deal with the Taliban and an extremely harsh form of Islamic law is now in effect.
BLITZER: There's been a verdict in a high profile case.
Let's check with T.J. Holmes.
He's monitoring this story for us.
What do we know -- T.J.?
T.J. HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, this case has been going on for quite some time, Wolf.
A verdict just now in the murder trial of music producer Phil Spector. After more than 27 hours of deliberation, jurors found the 69-year-old music producer guilty of second degree murder. This was, in fact, Spector's second trial in this same case. The first ended in a mistrial because of a hung jury. Spector was convicted of shooting actress Lana Clarkson to death six years ago in Alhambra, California home. He could now face up to life in prison after this conviction.
Also, it could be another sign that banks may be on the mend -- Goldman Sachs reports first quarter profits of $1.66 billion. That's more than double Wall Street's expectations. Goldman is considered one of the stronger banks caught up in the recent credit crisis. It also says it plans to raise $5 billion in a public offering to reimburse the government for its bailout funds.
Also, Sharia now law of the land in Pakistan's Swat Valley. Now a spokesman today says Pakistani President Zardari signed a peace deal today implementing Islamic law in the Taliban-controlled region that has been long plagued by violence.
Under strict Taliban interpretation of Islamic law, women would be prevented from ever been seen in public without husbands or fathers.
Just a few of the headlines for you there -- Wolf.
BLITZER: The stories keep on coming.
HOLMES: Yes, we'll keep them coming to you.
BLITZER: Thanks very much.
HOLMES: All right.
BLITZER: Family of the crew members are talking about their private ordeal now involving that piracy off the coast of Somalia.
Let's go to Mary Snow.
She's had a chance to speak with some of those family members.
What are you hearing -- Mary.
MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we talked to the wife of crew member William Rios. He lives here in Harlem. And the family has gone from shock to elation in the last five days. They are also very thankful for Captain Phillips and the U.S. Navy.
SHERRY RIOS: When I saw him, I wanted to kiss the TV.
SNOW (voice-over): Sherry Rios has been glued to her TV -- catching glimpses of her husband, William, with fellow crew members aboard the Maersk Alabama in Kenya, where he was quoted as describing the ordeal as a nightmare.
WILLIAM RIOS, CREW MEMBER: No sleep for four days.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have you been able to call your family?
W. RIOS: Yes, last night. It felt good.
SNOW: William Rios was able to borrow a cell phone to call home Saturday night for about 90 seconds, to let his wife and two children know he was OK.
Sherry said there was a lot of yelling and some details.
S. RIOS: He said they had AK-47s, big ammunition weapons. And I said honey, I know. And I said, honey, what do -- what did you all have to protect yourselves?
He said, honey, you know what we had?
I said, well, honey, at least you guys all made it out safe.
SNOW: The smile follows days of crying since Sherry got a call Wednesday from Maersk telling her the ship was seized by pirates -- something she never heard in the 20 years her husband had been at sea.
S. RIOS: I said this must be a joke. You know, someone must be playing a game, because pirates don't exist anymore.
SNOW: Sherry says she quickly learned about Somali pirates and about Captain Richard Phillips -- a captain her husband had never worked for, but had talked about before the trip.
S. RIOS: He was a captain that really went down, as the quote says, with the ship. And I thank God for him. And he is a hero.
SNOW (on camera): How did you feel yesterday watching what happened?
S. RIOS: You'd have thought he was my husband. You know, I shouted, thank you Jesus, thank you, Jesus. Because to me, if he didn't do what he did, then my husband might not have been here.
SNOW: And Sherry Rios is still sitting anxiously by phone now awaiting word from the Maersk company on when crew members will be able to leave Kenya. She says she already has her bags packed and is ready to go and get her husband -- Wolf.
BLITZER: We're getting more stories coming in, as well.
Mary, thank you very much.
He kept his head down until the operation was complete -- now President Obama is praising the U.S. Navy for rescuing a kidnapped captain and getting some kudos of his own for his handling of this story.
And a woman is rescued from a zoo's polar beat habitat -- some amazing pictures coming in.
But how did she get there in the first place?
And no bones about it -- he's as cute as a dog could be.
But is he a shelter dog?
The first puppy arriving at the White House.
BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM. Happening now, people are dead and armed soldiers storming the streets -- political protests heating up in Bangkok right now.
Is Thailand a country on the brink of chaos?
We're going there. Stand by.
A daring rescue from pirates on the high seas off Africa brings a commercial captain to safety.
Can the piracy be stopped?
I'll speak about this and a lot more with the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice.
And a hum of cautious optimism on Wall Street today, as hopeful investors await first quarter earnings reports. Stocks were mostly higher, but it wasn't quite enough. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 25 points, to end the day at 8057.
I'm Wolf Blitzer.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
The pirate hostage crisis an early test for President Obama.
Let's bring in our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley.
A lot of people were watching the president of the United States to see how he would operate under this test.
CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. And we certainly got a good look at how he would operate when surprises come along. Because if all of this had gone wrong, the president would have taken a hit, but it went right and it gave Americans some insight into how he deals with the unexpected.
CROWLEY (voice-over): The president didn't talk about it publicly until it was over.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to take a moment to say how pleased I am about the rescue of Captain Phillips and his safe return to the U.S. after being taken hostage. His safety has been our principle concern.
CROWLEY: For four days he said nothing in front of the cameras, tossing off questions with customary cool.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... pirates?
OBAMA: Guys, we're talking about housing right now. CROWLEY: But in the aftermath of the successful operations, the White House spelled out the nature of the president's involvement: 17 briefings and two presidential directives. Friday night, he gave the military authority to use appropriate force to save the captain.
And Saturday morning an additional set of U.S. forces got authority to engage in potential emergency actions.
Sunday Navy SEALs shot approximate pirates, and Captain Phillips was rescued.
It's not Iran or Afghanistan or 9/11, but it was an early test of an untested commander in chief, sometimes questioned about his willingness to use the might of the U.S. military. This time he was willing.
OBAMA: We're going to have to continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks. We have to continue to be prepared to confront them when they arise. And we have to ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes.
CROWLEY: Prevention won't be easy: 2,000 ships a month go through the Gulf of Aden and Somalia, base of operations for the pirates has been in a state of collapse for two decades. Experts in the region say Somalia has to change and be changed. Even a PR effort would help.
KARIN VON HIPPEL, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC & INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: The Somalis listen to the radio, for example. BBC Somali service and really have a good public relations campaign. These guys aren't heroes. They're not protecting your coastline from illegal fishing. They're actually hurting you. This ship had food aid on it.
CROWLEY: Somalia is a long run project. In the short run, Captain Phillips is safe, and the man his aides call "no drama Obama" has an early political victory as commander in chief.
CROWLEY: It may only be a temporary victory, but in the end, that's a lot better than failure, which tends to last a lot longer than success.
BLITZER: OK, don't go away. I want to bring in our Democratic strategist and CNN contributor Paul Begala. And Nicolle Wallace is here, as well, Republican strategist.
So what do you think, Nicolle, how did the president handle this crisis?
NICOLLE WALLACE, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I think you have to hand it to him. I think if this had been unsuccessful, there would have been plenty of people, plenty of Republicans rushing out and laying the blame at his feet.
I think the fact that it was so successful, I think the fact that he kept himself out of the headlines and out of view, was certainly understandable. And I think it's a clear and decisive victory and success. And I think everyone can be happy that the captain and the crew are safe.
BLITZER: And it showed something about his operating style in a crisis like this, because we weren't getting tick-tock little briefings every 10 minutes: he's doing this, he's doing that.
Later, after the captain has been freed, we learned he had 17 meetings on it. He gave personal authorization to shoot to kill after the captain was in danger, and those kind of details only came out after.
PAUL BEGALA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Right. And I think that's smart. I think they did not want to over hype this in the press.
I think a lot of people look back 30 years ago now, when Jimmy Carter was president and the Iran hostage crisis occurred, and he sort of seemed to be almost a hostage himself. He grandiosely said, "I won't leave the White House as long as they're in captivity."
This president kept it very cool, acted decisively. And God bless the Navy SEALs. Those guys are heroes.
BLITZER: You've got to admit, it was -- it came out pretty well. These three pirates, they were killed, supposedly, with three shots.
CROWLEY: I know, it's pretty amazing. Look, it's not just a victory for him. It really is a victory for the U.S. Navy and for those SEALs, because, you know, just trying to understand how they made those, three of them, three shots, and it was done.
BLITZER: And he -- and he did emerge today, Nicolle, with a very strong statement -- you just heard it -- warning these pirates out there, don't mess with the United States.
WALLACE: And let's see if they listen. They're pirates. They're not a nation of states.
BLITZER: And a lot of them aren't just pirates. They're teenagers: 16, 17 years old.
WALLACE: Right, right, right. So let's see.
But I think anyone that tries to -- you know, I got on the phone with my dad, and he was watching the Masters. And I said, "The captain's free."
And he said, "Oh, those Navy SEALs are awesome."
And I said, you know, who is the commander in chief. So it just -- I don't think we can carve him out from some credit here.
BEGALA: I do think, actually, if there's some sort of political bureaucratic winner here, it's actually Robert Gates, the defense secretary, who is now trying to change our military posture away from what he views Cold War weapons systems and toward more special forces, exactly the kind of actions that we saw the SEALs take yesterday.
So I think, actually, this does justify a lot of what Secretary Gates is saying, that we are in a new kind of threat now. We have to deal with it differently.
BLITZER: Let's move on to a new chapter, potentially, in U.S. Cuban relations right now. Nicolle, the president of the United States, announcing an easing of long-standing restrictions, some of them going back 30, 40 years, allowing Cuban Americans to visit Cuba as often as they'd want to send as much money back to relatives as they want.
It's clearly a signal to the government of Raul Castro.
WALLACE: And Fidel, as feeble as he is. He's still loitering around there. In the last hour, you know, I got on the phone with the folks who handled and made and crafted Cuba policies in the Bush years.
And they said to me on my way over here, you know, it used to be a divide between the hardliners and the more moderate in the Cuban exile community. Now, what you have in South Florida, which is where most of the Cuban exiles and former dissidents live, is an aging population of hardliners.
And so, you know, I think this is really going to fall to all of us to answer the difficult questions of that, you know, Cuba is not a country where a single dime is going to end up there, because of Obama's change in policies, going to end up in the hands of every day Cubans. And I think we have to see again, as was going to Europe and apologizing, what does America get? What does Obama get?
BLITZER: Now, we have to see what the reaction is in -- from the Castro regime.
In our most recent polls on this, we took a look. We asked, should the United States lift the ban on Cuba. Sixty-four percent of the American public said yes. Thirty-four percent said no. Should the U.S. re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba? There's an interest section right now, sort of low level diplomatic presentation, but full diplomatic relations. Seventy-one percent say yes; 27 percent say no.
BEGALA: And now of course in Florida, the politics are a little more complicated. I think Nicolle is right, the very hardline Cuban emigres...
BLITZER: Democrat and Republicans.
BEGALA: Right. Cuban Americans still are overwhelmingly Republican. They're concentrated in South Florida. Barack Obama got 58 percent, though, in Miami-Dade, right in that hot bed of those voters.
This is not a full lifting of the whole travel ban. And I do think that this is more of a humanitarian gesture and a gesture alone.
I do hope that the president and particularly Democrats will speak out about the human rights violations in Cuba and now call for the Castros to give us a quid pro quo: release some dissidents. My goodness, it's been -- this is the 11th president who's had to deal with the Castros, the 11th. And they haven't moved that far on human rights.
BLITZER: And the argument, Candy, for many years has been the United States has had full diplomatic and commercial relations with the communist government in China or the communist government in Vietnam. Why not establish those kind of relationships with the communist governments in Cuba?
CROWLEY: Well, because of the long history, basically, with Fidel Castro, so there's not been a change in leadership there. So it's been the same thing. It's been tough to back off.
This is pretty calibrated by President Obama. This is not a huge, huge -- it is a huge thing because, you know, nothing like this has happened in about 30 years. But it is just those who have relatives in Cuba, Cuban Americans. He's waiting for something else. He's waiting for something...
BLITZER: It's interesting. Nicolle would be interested in this. He didn't come out and make the announcement, the president of the United States. Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, made the announcement on behalf of the administration.
What, if anything, does that say to you?
WALLACE: Well, I mean, it may be an acknowledgement that hearts are breaking among that hardline Cuban dissident community who maybe lived under the Castro regime.
You know, this is a closed, undemocratic regime. And I think it is really, as Paul said, incumbent on them to now open up their government, put in place some Democratic reforms or they could make fools out of us.
BLITZER: Thanks very much.
The president promised a new dialogue with Cuba during the campaign. Maybe it will start. We'll see what happens.
Tomorrow by the way, President Obama's expected to give what the White House calls a major speech on the economy. What do you want to hear from the president of the United States? Do you think that things are improving when it comes to the economy? You can submit your video questions to IReport.com/SituationRoom. We'll get some of them on the air tomorrow.
Deadly street battles rocking Bangkok right now. Thousands of troops are deployed to the Thai capital. Our IReporters are sending us some rather dramatic images that you won't see any place else. And this is the image that's stuck in the minds of dozens of people who witnessed a horrifying polar bear attack at the zoo. We'll have details.
BLITZER: At least two people are dead in Bangkok, Thailand, as political chaos there escalates to a fever pitch. Protesters demanding the return of the country's deposed prime minister. They clashed today with heavily-armed soldiers.
CNN's Dan Rivers is on the ground in Bangkok. He's right in the thick of it.
DAN RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): After hours of taunting, finally the patience of the Thai military was exhausted. Volleys of gunfire over the heads of demonstrators, entire magazines emptied into the sky. And these were live rounds.
It sent the anti-government Red Shirts running for cover but not for long. They responded by sending busses careening down the road, driverless and out of control.
Others were set ablaze. Part of Bangkok, the tourist gateway of Thailand, were a battlefield. And we were caught in the middle of it.
(on camera) The army now continuing to fire and move forward. Most of the shots are being directed in the air. But certainly very scary, Molotov cocktails and bricks are coming back the other way. And I don't think we're going to get much closer than this, because it's obviously very dangerous down there.
But you can -- you can hear it's a real pitched battle going on.
(voice-over) The Red Shirts are demanding the resignation of the prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva. He's already declared a state of emergency in the city as the government struggles to maintain order.
The Red Shirts want the ousted premier, Thaksin Shinawatra, to be allowed to come back. Thaksin was deposed in a coup in 2006 and has been living in exile since, having been found guilty of corruption.
All last year, Yellow Shirts of protesters took to the streets to try to dislodge Thaksin's allies who were in power. That government collapsed after a court ruled they rigged the election.
Now the Red Shirts are battling it out with the army, hoping to bring Thaksin back as the power struggle which has gripped Thailand for 2 1/2 years continues to worsen.
Dan Rivers, CNN, Bangkok.
BLITZER: Getting lots of iReports in from Thailand right now. Let's bring in our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton.
You've gone through them, and it's pretty scary stuff.
ABBI TATTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And people are saying how surreal it is today in Bangkok. On the one hand, it's a Thai holiday today. It's the new year, when people traditionally douse each other with water in the streets.
So in some places, you've got celebrations going on. Then you round a couple of corners, and you're seeing scenes like this one.
This from iReporter Farley Miller, who's visiting the Thai capital right now, who saw that the barricades of busses that had been used over the weekend now ablaze. Hundreds and hundreds of troops in the streets ready to fight back these protesters.
All weekend we were getting pictures on iReport.com of the demonstrations, mostly peaceful until now. Dan Ritchie is another iReporter who captured this scene here of one of the demonstrators. Now, obviously, a very different scene. Dan saying that today it was just a mob scene and parts of the city in chaos.
BLITZER: There are a lot of tourists, especially to Bangkok. They go there. I assume people are getting scared off right now.
TATTON: And a lot of people we spoke to today that sent us images are just visiting the capital. But what people said to us is that, really, it's very localized, where these protestors are. Certainly, this isn't the normal kind of vacation photo that you take.
But these areas have been easy to avoid so far. And people have been at pains to say, Wolf, that this is not what the rest of the country looks like or even the rest of the city.
BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much for that.
A dangerous scene over at the Berlin zoo. We have the pictures. Heart-stopping moments as a woman finds herself under attack in the polar bear pool. We're going to show you what happened next.
And a pup named Bo takes over the White House. At long last, the Obama daughters have their little puppy.
Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: It was a harrowing scene at the Berlin zoo, where a woman found herself under attack by polar bears. So how did it happen? Let's go to CNN's Atika Shubert.
She has the story and some remarkable pictures -- Atika.
ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there's a reason they tell you not to feed the animals at the zoo. We have some pretty incredible video from the Berlin zoo in Germany. A woman jumped into the polar bear enclosure just at feeding time. One of the bears attacked her, biting her repeatedly.
Zoo workers tried to help her out by throwing in flotation rings, hoping to distract the polar bears and try and pull her back up. It took some time, however, and the woman suffered very serious injuries and is now in a hospital.
Now, it's not clear why exactly this woman jumped in, but police have issued a citation for trespassing -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Atika. Thanks very much.
Let's go back to Jack Cafferty. That's -- the lesson learned, Jack: you don't jump into the water where there are polar bears.
JACK CAFFERTY, ANCHOR, CNN: Well, and you know, the way we -- the way we reported that, that the woman was attacked by the polar bears, the polar bears were attacked by this idiot woman.
That's their home. She trespassed. She entered their turf and their terrain. They were under attack. They were defending their home. So you know, the polar bears didn't attack anybody, and that woman is -- is beyond stupid.
BLITZER: Certainly agree. And that's why they're pressing charges against her now for trespassing.
CAFFERTY: They ought to throw her back in, and let the bears have at her.
The question: what can be done about the increasing piracy on the high seas?
Billy in Las Vegas writes, "Two things will solve the problem quickly. First, put armed guards with the firepower to blow the pirates out of the water on the merchant ships. Second, halt any suspected Somali 'mother ship' trawler for inspection. If they refuse to be inspected, sink them."
No mother ship, the pirates have no way to get out to the deep water Indian ocean shipping lanes. That leaves the Gulf of Aden in the north which is a lot less area to patrol.
Charles writes, "The threat of violence has always been what pirates have used to intimidate shipping management. It's interesting these criminals take umbrage at us when that same violence is visited upon them. Until shipping owners refuse to pay ransoms and demand actions from their governments, the piracy will continue."
Matt writes, "I believe the U.S. Navy should use what appear to be easy targets for pirates, but in reality would be decoys with armed soldiers instead of civilians. If the pirates know that such things exist, they'd be more reluctant to charge at unsuspected vessels."
Alberto says, "We have air marshals that go on planes. We should do the same with ships. A contingent of armed security personnel will become a deterrent. If it comes to a confrontation, our weapons and training are superior. For piracy to take place, you need a pirate and a vulnerable ship. All you need to do is take one element out of that equation."
And finally, Brian in New Creek, West Virginia: "When piracy was a problem centuries ago, the British would hold public executions of pirates. 'Hang 'em high!' as they used to say. We probably wouldn't hang them, but a more public show of force against pirates would make them realize the benefits do not outweigh the risks."
And if you don't seize your -- seize your e-mail? What is wrong with me? If you don't see your e-mail here, go to my blog at CNN.com/CaffertyFile and look for yours there among hundreds of others.
I think I need to lie down now. I'm tired.
BLITZER: Relax, enjoy. Thank you very much, Jack.
There's growing talk of what's being called a surgical bankruptcy for ailing General Motors. What exactly is that? What would it mean for the company and for those buying and selling GM cars? We're investigating.
Plus the newest White House resident is described, he's feisty and self-confident. We're about to meet Bo, the Obama family's new dog.
BLITZER: A long time White House tradition under a new administration. For the first time, President and Mrs. Obama presided over the annual Easter egg roll over at the White House.
There was a record number of children and their families, something on the order of 4,000 people in all, as the kids and the president spooned the eggs along the South Lawn.
Meanwhile, a new Obama is about to take up residence at the White House. Elaine Quijano is working that part of the story for us -- Elaine.
ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, in case anyone has been living under a rock the last couple days, the new puppy's name is Bo, and he'll officially make his debut tomorrow.
QUIJANO (voice-over): After a secret White House get acquainted visit, six-month-old Bo is almost ready to meet his public. The Portuguese Water Dog hails from a north Texas breeder.
BO STERN, BREEDER: This right here is Penny.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The mother. B. STERN: This is the mother.
QUIJANO: Martha and Bo Stern describe the presidential pup as having his own mind.
MARTHA STERN, BREEDER: He was a feisty little puppy. Very self- confident. Very -- he's going to make them a nice dog.
QUIJANO: The question of a first pup has dogged President Obama, even following him overseas earlier this month.
OBAMA: This is a very important question in the United States. What kind of dog we're getting.
QUIJANO: Experts say Portuguese Water Dogs are high-energy working dogs. Typical size, 60 pounds and two feet tall at the shoulder. Their fur also makes them excellent pets for allergy sufferers like first daughter, Malia.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So I think it will be a great fit as far as the energy level and also the intelligence of the dog. They'll be up to the challenge, anything that the girls want to do with him.
QUIJANO: The new first pet first belonged to another family who had a dog that didn't quite get along with Bo.
M. STERN: Vicky Kennedy entered into the picture, and she said, "Hey, I know the perfect home."
QUIJANO: That would be Victoria Kennedy, wife of dog lover Senator Ted Kennedy. The couple gave Bo to Obama daughters Sasha and Malia as a gift.
A White House aide described the first puppy as very well mannered, saying Bo hit it off beautifully with the Obama family. This picture, taken during last month's hush-hush visit, even shows Bo following President Obama, demonstrating he already understands who's top dog.
QUIJANO: Now, Sasha and Malia picked the name Bo because their cousins have a cat by the same name, and because Michelle Obama's father was nicknamed Diddley, as in legendary musician Bo Diddley.
BLITZER: We know that the Obamas considered had been thinking about getting what's called a shelter dog. So what's been the reaction to Bo?
QUIJANO: Well, officials at the local Humane Society, Wolf, say that they're glad the Obamas thought through their decision. And they point out that Bo is a second chance dog that didn't work out with his original family.
The White House is planning, Wolf, to make a donation to the D.C. Humane Society. BLITZER: And the White House, Elaine, says 30,000 people were at that Easter egg roll today, not 4,000 as we reported.
Elaine Quijano, thanks very much.
And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM. Happening now: a sea captain's dramatic rescue from pirates is celebrated by his family and by President Obama. The captain's wife speaks out about the sniper operation that saved her husband's life. Stand by.
A significant shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba. The president now making good on campaign promises to Cuban Americans. Is he going far enough?
And what General Motors might look like if it goes bankrupt. Which car models and which dealerships might not survive?
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.