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CNN'S AMANPOUR

Cuba's Relationship with the U.S. and the World

Aired November 23, 2009 - 15:00:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[15:00:00]

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, the cold war between the United States and Cuba once again in the spotlight. Is it finally time to lift the embargo?

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the program.

Fifty years after Fidel Castro declared Cuba a communist state, the U.S. embargo remains in place. But has it been effective? The Castro brothers retain their iron grip, and it's been a messy history between the two nations, from the Bay of Pigs invasion, when U.S.-backed Cuban exiles tried and failed to overthrow Castro's regime, to the Cuban missile crisis, the U.S.-Soviet confrontation that took the world to the brink of nuclear war.

But for the first time now, a U.S. president has been elected without making concessions to the powerful Cuban-American lobby. And just this week, a U.S. congressional hearing chipped away at the U.S. commitment to the embargo. We'll talk to the man who sponsored those hearings on Capitol Hill, Congressman Howard Berman.

First, CNN's Morgan Neill reports on how this diplomatic tension is playing out on the ground in Cuba.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MORGAN NEILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): En Cuba, no cambio nada. In Cuba, nothing changes. It's a refrain you hear often if you ask Cubans what the future holds for their country. And the United States and the West respond with radically different, even conflicting policies on how to open up Cuba's closed, authoritarian government and stop systematic abuses documented by human rights groups.

When Yoani Sanchez, a blogger and outspoken government critic, said security agents detained and beat her two weeks ago, she was thrust into the debate. The Cuban government has not formally commented on the attack, nor on the beating of her husband just days later. Dissidents have complained for years about this kind of harassment.

Now, U.S. President Barack Obama has offered Sanchez support, answering questions she'd e-mailed him. "The government and people of the United States join all of you in looking forward to the day all Cubans can freely express themselves in public without fear and without reprisals."

This Cuban-American lawmaker said Sanchez's beating showed the folly of lifting a ban on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN (R), FLORIDA: The majority of Europeans and tourists from around the world have been going to Cuba for rum, for music, for sex, for cigars, for sun for years. Have they brought about democratic reform and change?

NEILL: But Sanchez herself wants the ban lifted. She says, "Having U.S. visitors in Cuba would speed democratization." Isolate and punish or engage and reward? They've been the two fundamental strategies for those seeking change in Cuba.

The U.S. has tried to isolate and punish Cuba for its authoritarian government since the early 1960s. President Barack Obama has vowed he'll maintain the U.S. embargo, but also says he seeks a fresh start with Cuba. He's removed restrictions on Cuban-Americans traveling and sending remittances to the island and recently sent an envoy for talks with Cuban officials.

But as long as the U.S. embargo remains in place, Washington stands nearly alone. The U.S. policy is condemned annually by nearly all the members of the United Nations, with only Israel and Palau backing the U.S. in this year's anti-embargo vote.

In Cuba, meantime, laws like the one against what it calls "dangerousness" mean dissidents can be arrested without having committed any crime. And three years after President Raul Castro took over, when it comes to human rights, in Cuba, no cambia nada.

Morgan Neill, CNN, London.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

AMANPOUR: We asked the Cuban government representatives to join us, but they all told us they were not available at this time. We hope that they will in the future.

But right now, we're joined here in our studio by Jose Miguel Vivanco, the director of Human Rights Watch, America's division, which just published a highly critical report on Cuba, and from Washington, U.S. Congressman Howard Berman, who joined us from Capitol Hill and who's been holding those hearings.

Welcome back, gentlemen, to our program.

Congressman Berman, if I could ask you, what precisely is the point of your hearings? What can you achieve?

REP. HOWARD BERMAN (D), CALIFORNIA: I'd like the Congress to re- examine the ban on travel.

[15:05:00]

Americans can go to a country, Iran, that is developing a nuclear weapon, that is the leading state sponsor of terrorism. During the Cold War, we never restricted the ability of Americans to go to the Soviet Union or other Soviet bloc countries. I think our current policy interferes with what I consider a fundamental American right, the right of American citizens to travel. And...

AMANPOUR: And just to be clear, Congressman, if you lift the ban on Americans traveling, in a sense, de facto, the embargo collapses, correct?

BERMAN: No. I think the embargo and the travel ban are two very separate issues. There are all kinds of items -- we have an embargo on Iran right now. We don't have a travel ban on Americans going to Iran.

AMANPOUR: OK.

BERMAN: They're two severable issues.

AMANPOUR: All right. Let me turn to Jose Miguel Vivanco, who has just come back from Cuba. You've written a highly critical report for Human Rights Watch called "New Castro, Same Cuba." What did you find there?

JOSE MIGUEL VIVANCO, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: Well, first of all, I didn't went to Cuba for this research. One of our researchers...

(CROSSTALK)

AMANPOUR: So it was done without the permission of the Cuban government?

VIVANCO: Without permission, but a couple of our experts managed to enter into the island and conduct investigations there by meeting with political prisoners, former political prisoners, relatives of victims, and so forth.

AMANPOUR: And what did you find principally?

VIVANCO: But the conclusion is that, under Raul Castro, essentially he's -- the same type of repression that has been ongoing in Cuba for 50 years under Fidel Castro is -- is very much in place.

AMANPOUR: What specifically?

VIVANCO: Specifically, going after anybody who disagrees with the system. You know, in other words, you have a system, a totalitarian system that negates the exercise of fundamental freedoms and rights, no -- no free speech, no right to association, no right to -- you know, to create a union, labor rights, no political rights to elect, you know, anybody who is not endorsed or official candidate of a...

(CROSSTALK)

AMANPOUR: So you -- do you -- do you believe that the travel ban should be lifted, for instance, as Congressman Berman says?

VIVANCO: Absolutely. And we submitted, actually, a letter to the committee of Chairman Berman requesting and supporting to -- to release the travel ban. Essentially, our -- our position is: Human rights are still extremely poor. You know, Raul Castro's record is characterized by massive and gross violations of human rights.

The best way to address this problem is by not only lifting the travel ban, but also replacing the embargo with effective pressure that could be exercised essentially multilaterally...

(CROSSTALK)

AMANPOUR: Let me play this sound bite from Yoani Sanchez, the notorious now blogger there.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

YOANI SANCHEZ, CUBAN BLOGGER (through translator): They threw me in the back seat of the car upside down. Then, a very strong man placed his knee on my chest and I couldn't breathe. The men in the front seat was hitting me in my back and pulling my hair. He said, "Yoani, this is it." And at that moment, I thought I was going to die.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: Congressman Berman, does that kind of -- of testimony from inside Cuba, what you've just heard about the Human Rights Watch rather scathing report, does that make it more difficult for you, as you're holding these hearings?

BERMAN: I think it makes our case more compelling.

AMANPOUR: How's that?

BERMAN: Because the Cuban dissidents, the people, the brave people in Cuba who are standing up to this despotic regime, they want more contact with Americans. They want Americans coming to Cuba. They believe this will help bring down the -- the wall that separates the government from its own people.

Our whole history with Eastern Europe and Russia, Americans traveling there meant American contact with dissidents, promoting American values, bringing to the people of these countries, as they would to the Cuban people, the story of what -- of what freedom and liberty are really like.

So my argument isn't just based on the right of Americans to travel; it's because I am thoroughly opposed to the policies of -- of the Castro brothers. And I think a more effective strategy than the one we've tried for -- for, really, 40 years, 40 or 50 years, without any positive effect, we could do more by -- by letting Americans go to Cuba.

AMANPOUR: Congressman Berman, as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, what do you see happening in your committee in Congress regarding the Cuban issue? Is sentiment shifting away from this -- this embargo?

[15:10:00]

Certainly, Cuban-Americans by a vast majority want the embargo lifted and certainly the travel ban lifted.

BERMAN: Well, you make a very good point. The -- the -- there is a change of position going on within the Cuban-American community. More and more of them realize the futility of the travel ban in terms of achieving our shared goals. And in addition, we now have something like 175, getting close to -- getting close to half of the members of Congress co-sponsoring the legislation to repeal the travel ban.

There is no doubt that we are in a much better situation now than we were even a few years ago, not because of anyone being enamored with Castro. We -- we stand, I think, united in a bipartisan way against his repressive policies...

AMANPOUR: Well, let me just...

BERMAN: ... but because we believe that the Cuban people and the American people will be better off.

AMANPOUR: So let -- let me ask you. When you -- when you see this and -- and the report that you just had, let me just first ask you, the Cubans always say that, because you go in secret, you don't get their permission, you don't work with them, that you don't fact-check, how can you be absolutely sure of what you've been able to bring out?

VIVANCO: Well, first of all, we don't ask for the permission of any government on our research all over the world. We conduct investigations over 80 governments, 80 countries in the world, and -- and we try to be as accurate as we can.

We interviewed more than 60 people. We have 40 cases, very strong cases that I've detailed in our report, reflecting the very, very poor record of the government.

AMANPOUR: The Cuban government often says that these repressive measures are in place to defend against a hostile United States. Do they have a point?

VIVANCO: Well, they have used that, manipulating the U.S. foreign policy of isolation. That's why -- that is one of the reasons why we believe it's necessary to change the policy. A policy of isolation that is essentially a policy of regime change, because that is what Washington has been trying for almost 50 years -- regime change is rejected by the rest of the world. Nobody in Europe agrees with the U.S.; nobody in Latin America. There's not a single, you know, solid democracy in the world that is supporting regime change (inaudible) against the -- the Cuban government.

So that's why it's important to build up a multilateral coalition that has the political power and the moral authority to exercise effective pressure on the Cuban government.

AMANPOUR: Congressman Berman, again, to you, also, the Cubans often justify whatever policy they have as standing against hostility from the United States. Do they have a point? And how can you promote change? It's obviously not going to come from outside, like regime change. How can you promote change there, if that's what you're seeking?

BERMAN: Well, I'm not -- I'm not here to say that getting rid of the travel ban will meet the immediate change in -- in the regime. But my -- in my heart of hearts, I believe that Castro does not want the travel ban to be repealed. He loves using American policy as a scapegoat for his own repression and for the terrible economic conditions the Cubans now live under. We are serving his purposes by our current policies.

AMANPOUR: And do you believe that this will get through Congress and get through the Senate? What do you believe?

BERMAN: I think it has a better chance than it's had since the policy was formulated.

AMANPOUR: All right. Thank you very much, indeed. Congressman Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, thank you very much, indeed. And Jose Maria Vivanco, thank you very much, indeed, for joining us.

And when we come back, we will speak to two who've just been there, including a European commissioner who met with the country's leaders and also a former U.S. State Department official who's also just returned from Cuba. That's when we return.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:15:45]

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The worst impact of the embargo is on food and problems with medicine. There are things we simply can't get because of the embargo.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): I wish they would fix everything, because I have family in the United States, my brother, cousin. Speaking for myself, I personally have more hope in Obama than in any other American president that there has been.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Cuban people don't have anything against the American people, if you know what I mean. And we need to have relationships with them, just like with the rest of the world.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: That was the view from the streets of Havana just a few hours ago. And joining me now, two people who've just returned from Cuba, Karel De Gucht, European commissioner for development and humanitarian aid, and Lawrence Wilkerson, co-chairman of the U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative, now at the New America Foundation, and former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Both of you gentlemen, thank you so much for joining us.

Let me go to you, Mr. De Gucht. Can you just tell me, look, it's clear that the embargo has not worked, but also your policy of constructive engagement has not worked. What are you proposing now as a way to change what's happening in Cuba?

KAREL DE GUCHT, E.U. COMMISSIONER FOR DEVELOPMENT: First of all, European Union does not support an embargo on Cuba. But you're right, that also our policy of engagement up to now can show very little results.

We have come to the conclusion that most obviously pressure on this regime is not going to automatically change it. And that's why we have a policy to engage and also to engage in a way that we support directly the Cuban people, for example, the -- after the hurricanes, we -- we came in with -- with a lot of help. We are helping to restructure the -- the agricultural sector in -- in Cuba, which is at this time very poorly managed (inaudible) big state enterprises. We want to have subsistence agriculture.

So we try to engage with them and -- and hope that, over time, the regime will change. Now, the question is...

AMANPOUR: So you're hoping...

DE GUCHT: ... is there a way to make it change?

AMANPOUR: Basically, you're hoping that it's going to collapse from within?

DE GUCHT: No, I've -- I've never said that I -- I hope that it collapses from within. I'm not talking about regime change. I think that should not be the purpose of our political action.

I think what we should try to do is that this regime is moving in an opposite direction, that much more attention is paid to fundamental rights, for example, and then I think we can come to a political discussion, for example, on the political prisoners, and that a common action of the European Union and the United States, to my mind, would, in fact, have a result.

AMANPOUR: OK.

DE GUCHT: But then, of course, we -- we need the political courage to look at all the elements of the discussion. And one of the elements that has not yet been mentioned in -- in this program is the case of the Cuban Five. It's obvious that if you want to negotiate on the liberation of the -- of the -- all the political prisoners, then you have to talk also about all of the problems including, I think, the Cuban Five, including the embargo...

AMANPOUR: OK. Let me ask...

DE GUCHT: ... and then I think we could come to a political result.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask Lawrence Wilkerson, you've just come back from Cuba, as well. Did you meet with any of the leaders there? What is your proposal for promoting change there? You also are talking about engagement, right, Mr. Wilkerson?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON, U.S.-CUBA POLICY INITIATIVE: That's correct. And let me say, first, that I agree with Chairman Berman, that this issue before us right now is full travel. And that's not an issue about Cuba; that's an issue about the rights of American citizens. And it's unconstitutional that we restrict them from traveling to Cuba. Furthermore, we have a tyranny of the minority in this country right now. That is to say, Cuban-Americans can visit Cuba, a very small minority, why the majority of Americans can't. That's unconstitutional. We need to change that.

AMANPOUR: Right. But the point is not about America's constitutional rights. It's about -- it's about Cuba, right? I mean, it's about everybody except the United States thinking that the embargo has been ineffective. Do you believe the embargo should be lifted?

[15:20:00]

WILKERSON: The embargo has been -- the embargo has been a colossal failure. The embargo has done nothing but isolate the United States of America.

AMANPOUR: Should it be lifted?

WILKERSON: There is not a Latin American leader -- it should be. There is not a Latin American from Luiz Inacio da Silva in Brazil to Stephen Harper in Canada who hasn't made it one of his talking points with the American president for some time now to lift this stupid, idiotic embargo. It makes no sense. We need to move towards normalized relations.

AMANPOUR: So how do you promote change? Or do you not promote change? Do you just have relations with this -- with this -- with this government and wait out the Castro brothers until the end of their natural lives?

WILKERSON: Well, it's quite clear that Raul and Fidel are not going to live that much longer. Isolated the way we are now on our side of the Florida Strait, we will have zero influence over what replaces the Castros. I do not think that 50 years of failure is testimony to the reason we should continue it.

AMANPOUR: OK.

WILKERSON: We need to adopt a new policy. That policy needs to be a policy of engagement so that we can have more impact on raising the standards of living of the average 11.5 million Cubans and so that we can be around when the change does inevitably occur.

AMANPOUR: OK, let me just put this sound bite up from Representative Connie Mack, who obviously opposes Chairman Berman's travel ban hearings here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. CONNIE MACK (R), FLORIDA: This is a Castro bailout, Mr. Chairman, a bailout for beating, a bailout for oppression, a bailout for rape, a bailout for torture, a bailout for corruption, a bailout for tyranny. Mr. Chairman, going sightseeing to view political prisoners will not bring democracy to Cuba.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: OK, I want to go to you, Mr. De Gucht, because it looks like Europe and certainly the Spanish E.U. presidency, when they take over the leadership, you want to remove human rights from the so-called common position. Why would you do that? What effect would that have?

DE GUCHT: Well, simply because we think that the Cubans have a point. We have relations with a lot of oppressive regimes, and -- and we have a special regime for Cuba. It makes no sense singularizing them. I think we should stop the singularizing, but also be much firmer on what we expect them to do in the future.

And, in fact, the current position doesn't help. It's -- it's about the same with this travel ban. It's about the same with the embargo. It's the same with the current position. It's giving alibis to the Cuban leadership.

AMANPOUR: OK.

DE GUCHT: Another remark I would like to make, if you permit me to do so, is -- is that -- the idea that if the Castros physically were to disappear, which is going to happen sooner or later with everybody (inaudible) by the way, that all of a sudden the regime will change. I don't think that's true.

I'm just coming back from Cuba. I have been there before. It is not true that the -- the change of the regime and -- and -- and of the policy of Cuba would be an automatic result of their disappearing. It's much more complicated than that, I think.

AMANPOUR: OK. Now, Mr. Wilkerson, last question to you. What do you think President Obama could do more than he's doing already? We've already established that he's not in hock, so to speak, to the Cuban-American lobby, and the majority of Cuban-Americans want the embargo lifted. What should the president of the United States be doing now?

WILKERSON: This may surprise you: I like what he's doing. He's moving very slowly, very incrementally. He's got a lot of other things that are far more important on his plate, from Afghanistan to health care. And I like what he's doing. At low levels right now, we're having talks on immigration, on postal service, and other matters like that, and I think he's moving as fast as he can, given the circumstances.

I also believe that what we're doing, groups like the one I'm chairman of, in order to give him some maneuver room, in order to give him some space, is helping. I think what Chairman Berman is doing is helping. We need to work on this together, unlike the administration I served. This needs to be congressional, and it needs to be executive, and it needs to be the American people.

AMANPOUR: Thank you very much, indeed. It looks like it is moving, certainly compared to what was going on over the last several years. Both of you, gentlemen, thank you very much for joining us, and we'll continue to look at this issue.

And we have something special for you from Cuba when we come back, a side of Havana and the rest of the island that you may not normally see.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:21:00]

AMANPOUR: Cubans are among the most musical people in the world. And perhaps this, the Buena Vista Social Club, is the kind of music that automatically comes to mind when you think of Cuba. But meet the new kid and the new sound that our Morgan Neill discovered in Havana.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NEILL (voice-over): Aldo Rodriguez of Los Aldeanos -- in English, the "Villagers" -- is part of Cuba's underground hip-hop movement. He lays down basic tracks in his bedroom on an old computer. He says distribution is hand to hand on homemade CDs copied over and over.

His lyrics are direct, and they don't pull punches. For example, in the song "Ya Nos Cansamos," (ph) which translates roughly as, "We're Fed Up," you'll find this verse.

ALDO RODRIGUEZ, HIP-HOP ARTIST: (RAPPING IN SPANISH)

NEILL: It's not anything bad, he says. It's just the truth, and the people aren't used to hearing it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

AMANPOUR: That's it for now. Thank you so much for joining us. And we'll be back again tomorrow. From all of us here in New York, good night.

END