YouTube video

Lawrence Wilkerson, Former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State , says that it is hypocritical for the United States to judge the Cuban government by standards that it does not hold to itself.

Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. President Barack Obama is currently in Cuba. He’s accompanied by 40 members of Congress and various business leaders. President Raul Castro and President Obama had a joint press conference this afternoon, and this is what they had to say. RAUL CASTRO: There are profound differences between our countries that will not go away. Since we hold different [concepts] on many subjects, such as political systems, democracy, the exercise of human rights, social justice, international relations, and world peace and stability. We defend human rights. In our view, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights are indivisible, interdependent, and universal. Actually, we find it inconceivable that a government does not defend and ensure the right to healthcare, education, social security, food provision, and development, equal pay, and the rights of children. We oppose political manipulation and double standards in the approach to human rights. BARACK OBAMA: But as you heard, President Castro has also addressed what he views as shortcomings in the United States, around basic needs for people and poverty and inequality, and race relations. And we welcome that constructive dialog as well, because we believe that when we share our deepest beliefs and ideas with an attitude of mutual respect, that we can both learn, and make the lives of our people better. PERIES: On to talk about the president’s trip to Havana, as well as the larger issue of U.S.-Cuba relations, is Lawrence Wilkerson. Lawrence is the former chief of staff for the U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and he’s currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William and Mary. And of course, he’s a regular at the Real News Network. Larry, thank you so much for joining us today. LARRY WILKERSON: Thank you, Sharmini. PERIES: So, Larry, beyond all of these niceties and baseball games, and various discussions that are going on, President Castro, in his press conference statement, critiqued the United States for the double standards it’s applying when it comes to human rights in Cuba. He particularly named the U.S. treatment of African-Americans, and the standards of poverty in this country, and said that, you know, everything is on the table when you’re talking about human rights. What do you make of that? WILKERSON: Well, I think at the end of the day, we as Americans have to admit that there’s some truth in what he’s saying. That in no way, fashion, or form justifies the oppression of the Cuban people that has been quite apparent under the Castros. But it would be hypocritical to the maximum for me to sit here and to claim that there’s no truth whatsoever to what Raul Castro said, or for that matter what any critic of the United States, be they European, Japanese, or whatever would say if he or she were speaking the truth. We do have problems in this country. I would hasten to add that I don’t think the problems approach the depth and profundity of the problems that occurred in places like the Soviet Union, that occurred in Russia even today, or that occur in places like Cuba, when it comes to the broad scope of human rights that we haul out from time to time to show the world is the right scope. That said, I have to admit there is some hypocrisy in what we say, and frankly I wish, as an American citizen, that we would quit doing things like rendering human rights reports, and so forth, and judging others by standards that we ourselves oftentimes don’t live up to. I think it’s rather nonsense. I think the world should deal with the world as the world is. We should report on the world as the world is. We should all strive to make it a better world. But calling our neighbors and friends officially in reports, which I think we’re probably the only country in the world, perhaps the European Union does, too, that deliver these reports on a consistent basis that damn other people for their government’s processes and for what they do inside their own borders. I think that’s counterproductive, in the long [line], and I think it makes the Congress and others feel good, but it really doesn’t add to the benefits that we’d hope would accrue from having good relations with the rest of the world. PERIES: Now, Larry, Americans have been particularly isolating Cuba in terms of its human rights violations, and President Obama is also meeting with a group of dissidents during his visit. What are the specific pet peeves that the U.S. have in terms of Cuba? Now, you’ve been involved in these kinds of talks for a while now, through the State Department. Give us a sense of what they are. WILKERSON: I think the things that we discuss in the more or less Track 2 type discussions we had with the Cubans for the last nine years in Brazil and Mexico, in Canada, in Washington, and in Havana, I think the things that came up there that disturbed me the most were the lack of potential for the Cuban people because they had been restricted from participating in what I would call the almost-free market of the world’s economy. They lack a lot of balance in their economy because of that, and they lack a lot of opportunity. And what I mean by that, for example, this is anecdotal but nonetheless indicative, when you have a doctor of enormous skills, or a surgeon, even, or other people of functional expertise and so forth who are earning the same or less, less in many cases, now, than taxi drivers, or others who might be more entrepreneurial because the system allows them to be, you’ve got a problem. You ought to reward the talent, the study, the discipline, the skills within your society at least somewhat commensurate with the dedication and the professionalism and the benefit that that skill gives to society. So I would like to see–and I think many of the Cubans I encountered in these discussions would like to see a more open economy, a more market-oriented economy, and therefore much more opportunity for some really talented people. One thing I found out is just how talented the Cuban people are, in everything from Shakespeare to business. And so they would have a better opportunity to succeed in a more open economy. That’s the first thing I saw. PERIES: Now, of course, President Raul Castro pointed out the double standards, as I mentioned earlier. But this double standard also applies to other countries in the region. I mean, President Obama isn’t going to Mexico and talking about their human rights violations, or to Columbia and talking about their human rights abuses, and the number of journalists that are being killed, which is–Columbia has one of the worst records when it comes to freedom of the press. And what is that double standard all about, and is it fair to Cuba to do what they’re doing? WILKERSON: I think we have to understand that President Obama has to sort of guard his flanks and his rear as he more or less executes the first visit to Cuba in probably more than a century, or certainly close to a century. And as he attempts, even more importantly, to effect the rapprochement, at least closer relations, with Cuba that have happened in the last half century-plus, he’s got to guard his flanks and his rear. And what I mean by that, he’s got to protect against those people politically, but particularly in my Republican party, who are going to attack him at every opportunity for being lax on everything from residual communism to human rights abuses, and so forth. So he’s got to single these things out, he’s got to talk about them. Not that he’s not sincere, not that we’re not sincere about them. But he’s got to do that. [This is] he has to do that in Beijing. I remember remarking one time, and it was the case that any time we started conversations with the Chinese in the summer of 2001, when I was really heavily involved in it, we had to give our talking points on human rights abuses, failure to have freedom of religion, and so forth and so on. And then, in turn the Chinese had to give their talking points on Taiwan, and so forth. So this is something that’s pro forma, in many respects, but it is certainly political in that President Obama has to protect himself with regard to those who are going to scream and holler, and weep, and gnash and pull their hair out because of this new policy he’s effected with respect to Cuba. PERIES: Now, I think all in all the trip is going well so far. The president is also expected to attend a baseball match, and I know you want to talk about that, Larry. But he’s also accompanied by 40-some U.S. Congresspeople on both sides of the House, the Republicans and the Democrats. He said in his press conference statement that this has reflected eagerness on the part of the American government to reestablish relations and commercial interests with Cuba. Give us a sense of what those commercial interests are to begin with, and then you can comment on your baseball game. WILKERSON: We found a number of commercial interests as we were doing this Track 2 dialogue with the Cubans. And as we talked with people from Texas and Louisiana and Georgia and others who might be interested, it’s everything from chickens to oil. It’s everything from sugar to rice to wheat, you name it. Whatever we produce that Cubans need, and whatever Cubans may produce that we need. It’s, as you might expect, it’s trade interest and it’s environmental interest, protecting the pristine mangrove swamps, for example, in Cuba and so forth. There are enormous interests that go beyond commercial interests. And let me say that one of the things that we used to talk about all the time, Colin Powell and I used to talk about all the time, with regard to places like North Korea and Cuba, for that matter, the old Soviet Union, China, when you open up and you interface with these communities, you bring the weight and the influence of the American people, both commercial interest and other interest, religious and so forth, onto that society. And there’s no more effective way of changing that society for the better than contact with Americans like that. I think that’s fairly true. There are some negative sides to it, too, of course. But I think basically opening up and dealing with other countries, especially countries whose systems are more regressive or oppressive, is far better than closing them off, building a wall around them, and saying, as Dick Cheney used to say, I never speak to evil, and having no dealings with them whatsoever. Whether those dealings are commercial or trade-oriented, which they will be, or whether they’re, as I’ve said, religious or environmental or whatever, I think those relations are very important to bringing some kind of balance to relations in general, and some kind of change to the society with which we’re interfacing. PERIES: And Larry, your last comment on the baseball game at hand. WILKERSON: Well, the baseball. The Cubans are–all the Latins are good at baseball, I think, but the Cubans are particularly good at baseball. And I’d love to see some kind of competition–frankly, Sharmini, I would love to see the World Series become the World Series. It never has been. It’s just baseball inside the United States. Now, that’s partly because we’re one big country that plays baseball a lot. But as we see now, the Japanese have played it long enough to where they actually have members coming into our major leagues, and we have people playing with them. The Cubans should be the same way. I’d love to see a World Series that at least was regional, or maybe even global, and have teams from Japan, teams from Cuba, and teams from the Dominican Republic and elsewhere that would actually participate in such a series. So I think this is another example of how sports and other cultural activities can bring societies closer together, and even ultimately help change societies that I said are more repressive, or less respectful of human rights. PERIES: Important point, Larry. Thank you so much for joining us today. WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Sharmini. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.