Lawrence Wilkerson is a retired United States Army soldier and former chief of staff to United States Secretary of State Colin Powell. Wilkerson is an adjunct professor at the College of William & Mary where he teaches courses on US national security. He also instructs a senior seminar in the Honors Department at the George Washington University entitled "National Security Decision Making."
TEXT ON SCREEN: This interview was recorded two hours before President Hugo ChÃ¡vez's death.PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Baltimore.In Venezuela, Hugo ChÃ¡vez's health situation seems to have taken a turn for the worse. That might be a cause for some celebration in some American foreign policy circles, as U.S. policy towards Venezuela and towards Cuba remains essentially rooted in the Cold War.Now joining us to talk about this is Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson. He's the former chief of staff for U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. He's currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William & Mary and a regular contributor for The Real News.So what do you make, first of all, of the sort of general outlook of the main U.S. foreign policy circles, State Department and such, and slash neocons adjunct to that foreign policy machine towards Venezuela and Cuba? 'Cause they seem to have a somewhat similar outlook, even though, frankly, if you're going to talk about democratic rights and such, at least at the political level, it's quite a different situation in Venezuela than in Cuba. But they talk about them the same way.LAWRENCE WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Quite a different situation, Paul. And I like to look at it in terms of U.S. policy vis-Ã¡-vis Latin America. And I think that policy is broken, dysfunctional, and even in some ways nonexistent, because it only has two poles. The one pole is Cuba and an embargo led essentially by a small minority in the United States that has influence way out of proportion to its real power and policy towards Venezuela. I in the past would have put Colombia in there because of drugs, but I think that has even receded, because we think that policy is somehow on an even keel. So our Latin American policy can be called Cuba and Venezuela.The countries in Latin America that really matter, significantly matter, like Brazil and Argentina, and CELAC, the new organization that is going to put the OAS out to pasture and recently elected RaÃºl Castro as its head for the yearâand only two countries are prohibited from membership in it, Canada and the United Statesâthis is the future of Latin America. We are isolated. We are isolated partly because they're sick and tired of our policies and our predatory capitalism, but mostly because of our own policies, which is some irony, Paul. Our policy of embargoing Cuba and our policy of treating Hugo ChÃ¡vez as if he's a cancer in the region have isolated us, not Hugo ChÃ¡vez and not the Castros.JAY: Yeah, we could see that from the last meeting of the OAS, where the United States blocked Cuba from attending. But I think all the OAS states, with the exception of U.S. and Canadaâand I include in that Colombia and Mexico, which are close allies of the United States in Latin Americaâbut they all said that this has to end. Cuba's going to come to the next meeting.WILKERSON: Exactly. I think at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, I think President Obama got that message delivered to him in spades. I think he was ill prepared for that summit. That said, I don't see a lot of action on the Latin American front. And, Paul, I think this is low-hanging fruit. I think that Obama's been elected withâtwice, twice without the hard-line Cuban-American vote in Florida. Obama's position vis-Ã¡-vis Cuba, tentative though it has been through his first term, with at least allowing freer travel and so forth, these have set the foundation for him to make an abrupt, if you will, change in policy with regard to Cuba and to begin a process of normalizing relations. He could start by releasing the Cuban Five and having the Cubans release Alan Gross. I made this proposal in Havana in December. I believe the Cubans would go along with it. We would get Alan Gross back to his family. He needs to be back. He's older and older and he's not in good condition. And we get these very, very injudiciously (without any justice whatsoever) convicted Cuban so-called intelligence agents out of our jails, where they've been for 15-plus years and back into Cuba and reunited with their families. This would be a humanitarian positive. It would bring Alan Gross back. He's a Jewish Americanâit would resonate with the American Jewish community. These are all positives for President Obama. All it requires is a little moral courage.JAY: And just very quickly, for people that haven't followed the story, who the Cuban Five are.WILKERSON: Well, the Cuban Five are those people who in the late '90s were involved in, essentially, spying in Southern Florida against the Cuban Americans who were carrying out terrorist attacks in Cuba. And they turned this information that they gathered on these terroristsâterrorists, Paul, on American soilâover to the FBI. And the FBI initially was going to move in favor of the findings. They got a new head, I think, backed principally by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in the House of Representatives and others like her. They got a new head in Miami, a new FBI station head, and he turned the whole thing around and caused the Cuban Five to be arrested, these agents, and caused them to go on trial. And at the same time, you had the shoot down of the Brothers to the Rescue ship by Cuban MiGs, and Clinton felt trapped by that situation, I think, and we wound up with the lead member, for example, Gerardo, of the Cuban Five got two life sentences plus 15 yearsâan incredible sentence. The least sentence, I think, was 15 years. And we have one out now who's on parole in Southern Florida and finally been reunited with his family. And these people have been kept in isolation and so forth and so on. It's just nonsense, Paul. They had a bad trial. Justice was not done. It was a caricature of justice. And they've served time. So let's get this over with. Let's get Alan Gross home, let's get the Cuban Five home, and let's use that as a vehicle to start a better stead of relations.JAY: But we don't see any sign of a shift in the Obama policy towards Cuba, and the same thing towards Venezuela. So, I mean, do you think this is all about the Florida vote? Or especially when it comes to Venezuela, is it about you can't raise royalties on oil companies, you can't have this kind of nationalist policy without us being antagonistic to you?WILKERSON: There's some of that, Paul. But you know what I really think it's about? And people think I'm crazy when I say this, but I have been there and they ain't. I think it's about energy in the Oval Office. I think Iran, I think Russia, I think China, I think Syria, I think the whole business of Western Asia, what we call the Middle East, in this so-called Arab Awakening and so forth, has so sucked the energy out of the Oval Office that there isn't any time for any other issues.I also think it has to do with a very, now, overblown idea that the Democrats can't show any angle on national security issues at all, because my party, the Lindsey Grahams, the John McCains, will eat their lunch. Well, I say let them eat your lunch. They're all so discredited with the American people right now, launch more attacks into their chest, hit them right in the place where they hurt, because these people are losing Americans, not gaining them. The last poll I saw, 25 percent of Americans polled identified with the Republican Party. Attack, attack, attack. Don't be afraid on national security issues to go after my party, Mr. President.JAY: And one way to do that would be a more rational approach to both Cuba and Venezuela.WILKERSON: And that would be in the national interests of this country, tooâeven more resounding.JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Larry.WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Paul.JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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