Netfa Freeman, analyst with the Institute for Policy Studies, demystifies much of what has been said about Obama’s visit to Cuba and from the perspective of one friendly to the Cuban Revolution. Topics covered included the blockade, political prisoners, elections and voting rights, human rights and more.
JARED BALL, TRNN: All right, welcome to another edition of iMixWhatILike here for the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball, and we’re in Washington D.C. today in the offices of the Institute for Policy Studies to speak to one of IPS’s policy analysts, Netfa Freeman. Netfa Freeman is also a member of the International Committee for Peace, Justice and Dignity. Welcome to iMixWhatILike and the Real News. NETFA FREEMAN: Thank you, Jared. BALL: So, we wanted to talk with you in particular in this interview, this segment, because a lot is being said about President Obama’s visit to Cuba, the increased engagement between the two countries, but I felt like there’s not enough of the conversation coming from those who are friendly to the Cuban revolution. So I first wanted to start with your assessment overall, broadly, of what you see happening, and particularly what you see given your long work with international political struggles, your work with the Cuban Five, your depth of knowledge with Cuban history and its relationship to the struggles in this country and around the world. What, from the perspective of the Cuban revolution as you see it, can be said to be said to be happening, good or bad, with this, the visit from Obama and then, again, this increased engagement between Cuba and the United States. FREEMAN: One, it’s a welcomed, the whole welcoming that it was announced between Raúl Castro and Barack Obama in December of 2014 is a welcome step. Of course, and it’s not even a secret, the United States makes no secret that it’s really just another way for them to increase and try to impose their hegemony over the country. So they realized that over 50-some years of this blockade has not worked, and so now they’re trying another way. Cuba has no illusions that this is not the same thing, but at the same time they have been under this blockade and they need it to be lifted in order to, you know, to live free and have free trade and all kinds–to not have illegal signals, TV signals and radio signals being bombarded from outside, not having their citizens coopted and trying to ferment dissent, which is all part of the blockade. BALL: And also having to pay enormous amounts more for goods and services that they should be able to get 90 miles away from here, but they have to pay all the extra costs to get them shipped from all around the world, including medicine, everything else. FREEMAN: And even when it comes to that, people don’t really realize the extraterritorial nature of the blockade. So it actually is not just a question of easily being able to get goods and services from other places. They even, the United States bills even make it hard for Cuba to trade with other countries– BALL: –Right.– FREEMAN: So it’s not just between, but you’re right, they do have to try to look for outside places and they also, because the United States dominates the international financial institutions and how global transactions work, they also have to find ways, a lot of times, to pay in cash, which no country really, you know, most countries operate on credit and institutions [inaud.] operate on credit, so that makes it–And not only that, added, you know, tariffs and different things, increasing shipping costs and things like that. One of the measures of the Torricelli bill or the Helms-Burton bill is to, is that a ship can’t land in a US port if it’s been to Cuba. They have to wait 180 days for them to do that. Now most [companies], they’re not going to try to, you know, send two ships out or anything. They’re just going to not go to Cuba. And so these are things that make it very difficult. [So] while the Obama administration has announced its willingness to normalize relations, so to speak, the teeth, and has done some things that have eased up, exchange programs and things like that, the teeth of the two bills, the Torricelli bill and the Helms-Burton Act, are still enforced, and people don’t really realize that. So there are a number of things, and these acts can only be overturned by acts of Congress, but there are a number of things the Obama administration has executive orders to do, which they can still do and they’re not doing that. And they’re very open in not only their propaganda about Cuba, why they’re doing this, they want to do it for freedom for the Cubans and all that, they’re also being very piecemeal about what they’ll apply the executive orders to. BALL: But I mean, you know, but for all that you and I have even just now said about what Cuba is looking for in this issue of the blockade, the blockade is not on the table in terms of this relationship between the United States and Cuba. Obama’s not talking about, I don’t even know to what extent he’s considering calling for lifting the blockade. FREEMAN: Well, he has talked– BALL: –Yeah– FREEMAN: –He has called for the lift of these two acts by congress because these are the only, he can’t do those things. So he’s called for that, and it does take them, and they don’t refer to it as the blockade, so that’s our terminology because we recognize that it really is an act of war and all of its pervasive means of manifesting itself. But for the Cubans it is a condition for normalizing relations. That, including the returning of Guantánamo Bay, illegally occupied territory of Guantánamo. But yeah, he has made some statements, even just said something about it when he was there, about the congress needing to overturn these acts, encouraging them to do so. BALL: So do you think that that has been a sincere push from the president? Do you think he’s done enough? FREEMAN: [inaud.] BALL: Well, I mean, you know, because a lot of people may, I think some would look critically at Obama calling for this now, on his way out, this lame duck issue and all of that, trying to make himself look better on the way out at his weakest moment of his presidency. Were he more serious about this, including, you know, even shutting down Guantánamo the prison, we would have heard about this a long time ago, right? So that’s why I’m wondering, do you [crosstalk] you know? FREEMAN: [interposing] Well, I exactly believe that’s all it is. It’s just the fact that he’s trying to go out looking good, and that again it’s not just that, but it’s also–Yes, that part is just him trying to go out looking good. There’s not a whole lot of sincerity to it, and just as you said he could have been moving, because these were some of the things he talked about when he was running, you know, when he first ran for president, and then they became not even an issue. You didn’t even hear about things like that, but now he’s talking about it because it helps him look good, you know, keep the shining things on. But then also, what’s more telling is not what people say but it’s what they do. So you have all of these executive, almost 11 things that you can do that are really the teeth of the blockade that you actually the power to do and you’re not doing them, then how sincere can people? But– BALL: –You’re talking about this, this is in this pamphlet here, right, that we can let people see, and folks can get this through IPS? FREEMAN: It’s on the, yet– BALL: –Or– FREEMAN: –Anyway, but it’s on the website of the International Committee for Peace, Justice and Dignity, and it’s a downloadable file and it lists here, and I’m glad you allowed me to kind of [crosstalk] read something, it’s hard to remember all these things. BALL: [interposing] No, absolutely, absolutely. FREEMAN: But this first, it breaks it down to what Obama has the power to do, and then it breaks down what the Congress only has the power to do, and so a couple of these things, authorize the use of the dollar in international transactions with Cuba through US banks. Enable Cuban citizens and Cuban entities to open corresponding accounts in US banks. Authorize Cuban vessels and aircrafts. BALL: Just, real quick, why is that important, though, this issue of transactions and, you know, corresponding US banks and, you know, what exactly is happening to Cuba and the Cuban population as a result of these things not being allowed? FREEMAN: Because most countries have to operate on credit, and if you can’t have a relationship with a bank then you don’t have any credit. BALL: Okay. FREEMAN: And so US banks are international entities, so they are US banks but they have multinational influence and bases, and so it’s not just a–And it also is about them being able to do business with US companies and whatnot, so if you can’t do anything, if you can’t have the dollar and a bank, and international transactions it’s talking about , so it’s not just talking about, you know, just transactions between the US and Cuba but international transactions, and so it’s impossible for a country really to have normal, you know, its own normal, unfettered economic relations if, in fact, they can’t use the US dollar. BALL: Right, right. So these are the, these, and when people get this and look through it, this comprises pretty much the teeth of what we’re calling the blockade that, again, is not being fully addressed or addressed at all in this visit and all this media attention and discussion happening right now around Cuba. Some have paid attention to Obama’s comments during his trip about the election process in Cuba, saying that he would like to see Cuba enact or adopt election policies similar to those in the United States. Why would that be a controversial statement? What’s wrong with him saying that? FREEMAN: What’s wrong with him saying that? [laughs] So, a number of things. We have to look at, one we have to compare the two countries and their electoral process. Now let’s just look at the United States really quickly. And everybody, it’s not secret that to really run you have to either be rich or you have to be backed by rich interests. I mean if you don’t, if you’re not, then people won’t even know who you are. It’s just impossible to run. BALL: In Cuba? FREEMAN: No, in the United States. BALL: Oh, yes. FREEMAN: All right? I mean the United States. You can’t, I mean people don’t stop to think about that because people participate in the process and they just give them these candidates, you know, and both the primaries of the Republican and Democratic party primaries. Other parties are really isolated out of the process. Even though they say that it’s a multi-party thing it’s really a duopoly between the Republican and the Democratic parties which are both beholden to corporate interests, completely. I mean, if we think about it, when the corporations, you know, we can see it in the health care field when it comes to the Affordable Care Act and all these things, they wrote the legislation for it, and they often have, this is the kind of incestuous relationship that US policymakers have with corporations. The will of the people is really often not held in any kind of regard. You also have, the people have to register to vote. Most of the people in the United States are not registered to vote. People don’t really know that, but most of the people, overwhelming, and of those who register very few, not even, I guess a little bit more than half of them participate in the electoral process anyway. And so this– BALL: –But isn’t this an advance from Cuban dictatorial processes or policies? Isn’t this an advance, democratically, for humanity? As bad as it is here, would be the argument, isn’t that better than what exists in Cuba? FREEMAN: I would say no. I would say that, my personal opinion, and from what I know of the Cuban system, that Cuba is much more democratic than the United States in a number of ways. We can just say, first, over 90-some percent of their citizens participate in the electoral process. Over 90-some percent. When you are 16, not 18 but 16, you are automatically eligible to vote. You don’t have to register, right? And also then, we have to also factor in– BALL: –But you’ve had Fidel Castro, and now his brother Raúl running the thing there. FREEMAN: That’s because, people don’t realize, these are elected, these are also elected positions. BALL: Oh. FREEMAN: There’s differences in them, and they have regular elections. They also have not only regular [elections], they’re elected by the national, by members of the National Assembly and so that’s different, which is equivalent to the congress but those people are also elected by the masses of the people, so [if] they really didn’t want Castro or any of these people, certain people, in, there would be ways, I mean if they were overwhelmingly not popular then the people in the National Assembly could not hold certain seats. BALL: So then maybe Obama meant term limits like the United States, is what [crosstalk, inaud.]– FREEMAN: –Maybe term limits, but then again, how–People have to be more analytical in our thinking. Are term limits an indication of more democracy if, in fact, people want the same official elected and a term limit prevents it, is that more democratic? [inaud.] be real. So we have to analyze things. Even when it comes to the one-party state, people don’t even know the role of the Communist Party in Cuba. People don’t run as a party member. They run as individuals. The party doesn’t even have the legislative or, you know, policy making stamp. It’s more of an ideological advice body. And so people don’t have to be a part of the Communist Party to vote in elections or anything like that. Also, the president of Cuba has less power than the president of the United States. They do not get to pick their own cabinet ministers or anything. Those are also elected by the National Assembly. They can’t veto a decision by the National Assembly once it’s made. They don’t have the power to do any of those kind of things. And also, unlike the United States, Cuba has the right of national referendum, so the mass of the people can vote on policies that affect the whole country. In the United States there’s no such thing as a national referendum and only some states have state referendums. And so there’s a whole lot of things, and we haven’t even gotten to the question of how, what role does education play, in our understanding of politics, play in democracy? If you’re not educated then how can you make advised, informed decisions about the things that govern your life? In Cuba the literacy rate is over 90-some percent. Everyone has access to free education, and when you talk about the level of political understanding there, [inaud.] I mean, just knowing it firsthand, you have little kids who are not even teenagers that can explain to you the nature of the United States blockade against Cuba. In the United States take the same, the youth, the same counterpart, they can’t even tell you the three branches of government in the United States. BALL: Well, in part it’s hard to find adults in the United [crosstalk] States– FREEMAN: [interposing]–and adults, exactly– BALL: –that can speak intelligently about a lot of these issues, not always through their own fault, but the structures in this country are extremely powerful and prevent, I think, an adequate understanding of a lot of these things. FREEMAN: There’s [crosstalk] one more thing about– BALL: [interposing]–Yeah. Sure, sure, sure.– FREEMAN: –the Cuban electoral process. The ballots are guarded by the youth. They are. They handle the ballots and they count them, and they’re [inaud.] public thing, and it’s, you know, one person, one vote. BALL: So it’s not electronic voting with no verification and no open– FREEMAN: –Nope.– BALL: –like here in the United States? FREEMAN: Like here in the [crosstalk] United States, we don’t even know. BALL: [interposing] Oh, wow, okay. FREEMAN: And the significance of the youth doing it is because, one, youth are just more prone to be like, uh-uh, you can’t, that’s not right. And so it’s also teaching them about responsibility, about civic duty, civic responsibilities in voting and other things. BALL: Wow, okay. So, admittedly, the source of this bit of controversy I want to bring to you, is, it comes from the sports world. So, you know, again, admittedly, it’s not coming from an arena of what I might consider serious news or political analysis or thought, but I do think it taps into a sentiment that exists throughout this country and even throughout the world that is fermented by those opposed to the Cuban revolution which, and I’m talking about the sportscaster Dan Le Batard on ESPN recently and in an, I think, a written piece also, he being of Cuban descent, his father being apparently a part of the exiled community that is now in Florida, compared Fidel Castro, well, said Fidel Castro is Cuba’s Hitler. I almost don’t know where to go with that other than to have, to maybe ask you to maybe reset, and maybe by asking you a little bit differently, why do you support the Cuban revolution if someone like that would make such an extreme comparison? How could someone like you sit here and defend and support the Cuban people and the Cuban revolution itself? FREEMAN: Right. So one thing I think we have to, a lot of times we often give people credibility just because they [inaud.] Cuban, or whatever, they could be from some place and that automatically gives them credibility without any other critically understanding the context from which they come to the thing. And then sometimes if you have such a personal stake in things, which, depending on what that stake is, it might make you less objective about what you’re talking about. And in the Cuban revolution, a lot of the exiled community, not all of them but a lot of the exiled community were the ruling class before, under the dictatorship, which [was] really a brutal dictatorship, of Fulgencio Batista before the Cuban revolution, which is what the Cuban revolution came about to overthrow, to change that dynamic, and it was a dictatorship supported by the United States. And so there are people that make all kind of outlandish statements that have no basis in fact, no basis whatsoever. Cuba is not, you know, killing people every 20 hours like is happening in the United States by agents of the state, you know, police. Even the death penalty is something they hardly ever employ– BALL: –Well, we constantly hear about, there’s no free speech there. FREEMAN: Well, I mean, people speak very freely in Cuba. I mean, I don’t even, it doesn’t– BALL: –Repression of homosexuals, repression of African descendants, we hear about, you know. FREEMAN: I mean, there’s discrimination, there’s racism. But it’s not a state-facilitated, sanctioned thing, it just doesn’t happen. I mean, African people have benefited immensely from the Cuban revolution through the things like health care and medical care, medical treatment and things like that and even now a new awakening where they’re really, at some point the Cuban revolution did say, well, there’s no more racism. We abolished racism because we had a revolution, and now we’re socialism. Of course, that’s not true. You can’t get rid of racism like that. So now we’re seeing an [awakening], and also a kind of, what do you call it, discouraging of people embracing their African identity and this was kind of, it wasn’t a policy, it was just, you know, what people were doing, and people with concern with the revolution saying it was going to divide the revolution and things like that. It’s not something that should have been done, but right now you’re seeing national conversations about how that was a mistake. These kind of conversations don’t happen in the United States. They won’t even admit that the police are killing and it’s in epidemic proportions here, right? And so now you have an embrace of, and it’s always been there, an embrace of African culture in Cuba. The, you know, the Yoruba tradition and things like that have been embraced for a long time, and now, and Cuba has always recognized the intrinsic nature of African culture and African heritage in all Cubans. And so that’s just, you know, doesn’t really, it’s an overwhelmingly people of African descent country, and while there are issues there that have to do with, you know [inaud.], it’s just not true. And then when it comes to the Hitler thing, I mean, there are just not the type of human rights atrocities that are happening, that the United States turns a blind eye to and/or abets in other places and other counties. And then people like the exile community come and they make these outlandish statements. They don’t even have to say a fact. They can’t even point to, oh, some massacre that happened. They just make these statements and people accept it, and they don’t really do any kind of critical analysis, while Cuba has actually, not only has much more humanity in regards to its own citizens, it actually goes out in other places and spreads this humanity in the form of health care in other countries [crosstalk, inaud.]– BALL: –Well, and defending the revolutions, historically, around the world. In fact, I always encourage people to remember that Nelson Mandela, like his first visit on release was to Castro, saying we would not have been freed without you. But there was this other point where I believe Raúl Castro was responding to Obama saying that Castro should, that they should free their political prisoners, right? [laughs] FREEMAN: Yeah, you know, we done our stint for political [prisoners], as if there’s no political prisoners in the United States. BALL: Well didn’t Raúl say, well, if, you know, something like, if you free yours we’ll look into ours, or if you acknowledge that you, or if you can show us where ours are we’ll free them– FREEMAN: –Yes, [inaud.]– BALL: –and then we would encourage [crosstalk] you to do the same. FREEMAN: [interposing] he said, name them. You know, give us names. And the reason why he did that is because people, one, you know, we have to look, what is a political prisoner? People break, broken the law, and then people don’t understand the nature of this blockade. Part of the blockade through the US Agency of International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy, the United States, and through all these covert programs have, not only they’ve, one, they’ve aided and abetted people to commit terrorism. Cuban citizens, you know, in exile, to go and commit terrorism in the country and they’ve been stricken with terrorism for so long, and also have co-opted Cuban citizens, taking money from the United States to be quote-unquote human rights activists and independent journalists, meaning they’re not doing, and these kind of things, and some of them without any kind of credentials of journalism or whatever, and so Cuba’s had to, to protect itself, create laws around people who are basically committing treason, those laws being specific because they are about Cuban citizens who specifically aid the Helms-Burton acts, and you know, so that’s what they make laws around this. And so these are who they’re talking about. You know, they’re agents who have been exposed in so many ways. Cuba also has one of the most interesting intelligence networks in the world and has been able, actually able to infiltrate the people that they send to infiltrate the Cuban revolution. So they’ll have people who are actually up in the networks that the United States creates of Cuban citizens posing as people to, you know, trying to overthrow the revolution when, in fact, they’re serving as double agents. And the United States knows this, so now they’re walking on eggshells, and so when they find these people, of course they arrest them. What a lot of people don’t know is several of them have been released. They rarely even serve out their prison sentences. They get released on conditions of medical, you know, health care things or something like that. But even if they’re not released, I mean, we have to think. If the comparable thing was happening in here, in the United States, that we were, you know, taking money at the behest of some other government for the purpose of trying to undermine the US government we would be thrown into jail. That’s basically treason. All countries have laws against treason. That’s basically what it is, and without people knowing this context they can easily be duped into thinking, well, they’re political prisoners. Some people have expressed concern, those who are more friendly with the Cuban revolution, about this new relationship between the US and Cuba, and concerned that the integrity of the revolution would not be, is in jeopardy. I think it’s a concern, I guess we can have the concern, but it’s, the Cubans have to have the blockade lifted so there’s really no other choice for that. And we should also have faith that the Cubans have been struggling, you know, against this for I don’t know how many decades now, so it’s not like something they don’t think about as well, and so they’re ready, and then also we’re talking about an educated people who have national assemblies, discussions about things all the time, and so you can’t reverse people’s, you know, people who’ve had free health care, free education and all those kind of things. That’s not going to be an easy thing to just go in there and privatize all of that kind of stuff, and then 90 miles away [inaud.] understand. So I think this is something we should be fighting for in April, from April 18th to the 22nd we’re going to be organizing five days against the blockade in Washington D.C., and we want to encourage people to come. we’re going to have some events that are going to be exposing some of this information, also bringing Cubans here that were not previously able to travel here, now able to come. And then also visiting Congress to encourage people to lift the blockade, or pressure them. So we’re going to be [organizing], we want to keep organizing for that and we want to encourage people to get involved in that and to respect the Cuban revolution. BALL: All right. Netfa Freeman, thank you for joining us– FREEMAN: –Thank you.– BALL: –iMixWhatILike and the Real News Network. FREEMAN: Thank you. BALL: Thank you for joining us wherever you are. For all involved I’m Jared Ball here in Washington D.C. today saying, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.