Larry Wilkerson: US Cuba policy caters to Miami exiles, not in US interest


Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. About a year ago, President Obama went to the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, and he heard very forcefully from almost all Latin American leaders that the continued US isolation of Cuba was come out of step with what most people in Latin America want. And they said, if you want to renew your relationship with Latin America, one of the things you’re going to have to do is change your policy on Cuba. So the question is: is US policy changing towards Cuba? And now joining us to help us understand that better is Larry Wilkerson. He’s, amongst other things, chair of the US-Cuba Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation. And, of course, you probably know he was former chief of staff for Colin Powell. Thanks for joining us.

LAWRENCE WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Thanks for having me.

JAY: So tell us: is US policy really changing towards Cuba?

WILKERSON: It’s changing very slowly. We’ve had some preliminary things, like restoring frequent travel for Cuban Americans, that small majority [sic] that could travel to Cuba; remittances; telecommunications policy; and things like that. And we’ve had some fairly robust and I think successful talks on immigration, counternarcotics, and so forth. And we already have very good cooperation with the Cubans—mainly because of the Cubans—on these issues of illicit activities in the Caribbean. And there are more talks planned. Powell’s old executive assistant Craig Kelly, his deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, is in charge of these talks. So, yeah, there’s movement, but it’s not the kind of movement, I think, that people anticipated who voted for President Obama with regard to things like talking to Iran, talking to Cuba, talking to enemies in general, and trying to improve relations through that talking.

JAY: So why did you get involved in this issue? You were in State Department. You’ve come out of, at least, the traditional of American policy in various areas. You’ve become very critical since you left the State Department. But the issue of Cuba is particular. Why Cuba, and why do you think the policy has to change?

WILKERSON: Well, I’m very realistic when I approach offshore operations, when I approach foreign policy. The Cold War ended long ago, 20 years ago. We have been muddling around ever since. One of the places where we were muddling around the worst is Latin America. And Cuba is an opening for Latin America. Cuba does not export revolution anymore; it exports doctors. It has probably the most effective public diplomacy campaign in the world today, certainly in the Western Hemisphere: it sends doctors to help poor people in Venezuela, in Brazil, in sub-Saharan Africa, in Haiti. The doctors were in Haiti before the earthquake; they were there during the earthquake. So Cuba’s not a threat to the United States anymore. That’s—security is a big issue here. They are also very cooperative in counterterrorist activities, illicit drug activities, and so forth, very helpful. They’re the best partner we have in the Caribbean, according to a lieutenant commander in the US Coast Guard who acts as the [inaudible] in our intersection down there, the defense attache—he’s not called that, but that’s what he really is. So there’s that component to it. There’s also the component of human rights groups. Human rights groups—Amnesty International, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch—they all agree that engagement with Cuba would help the Cuban people more than this isolation. And, oh, by the way, we are not isolating them; we’re isolating ourselves through the embargo. We also have groups in Cuba of dissidents—the head of the Varela Project, for example, the most known dissident group, has said, open up, let Americans come to my island, let Americans travel here, engagement being seen as a more effective way to deal with the draconian regime in Havana than this isolationism that we’ve practiced for the past 50 years, which is an abject failure now. We’re doing nothing but giving Fidel and Raul Castro the tool with which to beat their people over the heads with. They don’t have to blame themselves, their bad leadership for the economic situation in Cuba; they blame the US embargo. And so it works to their good, to the Castros’ good. We need to change this policy.

JAY: Now, if you go to Cuba—and as a Canadian, I’ve been able to go to Cuba.

WILKERSON: Absolutely. Canada’s not screwed up.

JAY: And most countries send people there. Certainly there’s a level of political repression, but it seems extremely exaggerated when you hear the kind of stories. Even to call the regime draconian, if you put it into context of other regimes in Latin America—.

WILKERSON: Or Pyongyang, North Korea.

JAY: But listen, even if you just stay in Latin America, in terms of human rights violations and what’s happening to journalists and people in Mexico and El Salvador and other places, you can talk draconian in a lot of places. But—.

WILKERSON: A literacy rate of 99 percent. Health care that’s better in a number of very important categories, like prenatal care and infant mortality, than the United States. They know how to deliver the front end of health care, prevention. They don’t concentrate on the back end like we do, which is extremely expensive and very lucrative for doctors and pharmaceutical companies and so forth. They concentrate on the first end of it, the front-end—let’s prevent it. Very, very sophisticated health program, health care. Very good education system. So Cuba’s not been a complete failure, as we like to pitch it in this country.

JAY: Now, it’s mostly American politics or Florida politics that’s [inaudible] here, because I think the American business community on the whole wants this solved. Most American people, if you look at polling, wants it solved.

WILKERSON: Well, we are trading with Cuba. It’s a very onerous process for them, but we are trading with them.

JAY: So what is the politics now? You’re involved in lobbying on this issue now, so what’s the politics?

WILKERSON: We have a bill in the House of Representatives. We’ve got somewhere over 200 cosponsors or votes signed up so far. We’d like to have about 230, 240 before we go into a vote. And it’s a combination of full travel for Americans, restoring their constitutional right to travel where they want to, and agricultural easement, if you will. In other words, these procedures right now for trade are very onerous. They require, for example, Cuba to pay up front. And once they’ve paid up front and the ship’s still in a US port, it’s Cuban property—we can confiscate it, then, under the embargo. So it’s a very torturous relationship. We want to change that to being a more normal trade relationship. It means jobs in America, it means jobs in Louisiana and Florida and Alabama and Texas, and it means money pouring into Cuba through tourism and that money being used to buy food from us. So the money will come back to us, and it will not benefit the leadership so much as it will benefit the standard of living of the Cuban people.

JAY: So does the Obama administration seem to be onside with what you’re lobbying for?

WILKERSON: I think the Obama administration is looking for congressional cover. They don’t want to be the lead on this. They can be the lead rhetorically, but in terms of substance they want the Congress to give them some cover.

JAY: And where do you think you’re at with Congress? You think—can you get—?

WILKERSON: I hope this HR 4645 will be the cover they need to [inaudible]

JAY: And are there Republicans on board with this?

WILKERSON: There are some Republicans on board. In fact, one of our staunchest advocates is Jeff Flake from Arizona, a Republican, young Republican.

JAY: Well, the BP oil spill is just off the coast of Cuba, really. How much cooperation is there between the US and the Cuba on this?

WILKERSON: There was almost none in the beginning. I think cooler heads have prevailed now, and I think we are talking to them, especially since it’s quite obvious that it’s going to get into the Florida Strait and the Florida currents. Great biodiversity on the Florida coast, probably some of the greatest biodiversity left in the United States, and great biodiversity, probably some of the greatest in the Western Hemisphere, on the northern shore of mangrove swamps and so forth in Cuba. And the Cubans are very interested in their environment and protecting our environment. In fact, one of the things we’ve done is to help the Environmental Defense Fund go to Cuba and Cubans to come here and visit the Environmental Defense Fund. This is a real issue, and it’s an issue that could be even more catastrophic for Cuba than perhaps it’s going to be for Louisiana, Alabama, and other points of the Gulf for us. The other issue is that Cuba is getting ready—and they briefed me on this in their heavy industries ministry when I was down there last—is getting ready to drill in the ocean off its continental shelf, and they’ve got sections delineated, and they’ve got perhaps the Brazilians, the Chinese, the Venezuelans, perhaps the Canadians, and others, the Spanish, coming in to drill, and they’re very concerned about deep water drilling and whether or not this is going to be sustainable environmentally. And this is going to be a real issue for them in their own discussions, probably, as to what they do in going forward, ’cause they know they don’t have Western technology, and Western technology, the best technology, just did the BP spill. So that’s got to concern them greatly. It’s going to be an issue that we’re going to have to deal with on a cooperative basis [inaudible]

JAY: Part of the contradiction in US policy has always been how about China vis-à-vis Cuba. Now, it seems to be that if you allow a kind of free, flourishing capitalism, it doesn’t really matter how much political repression you have, ’cause, I mean, in terms of what I know, my own experience, the political repression side of China is far worse than Cuba. On the other hand, you don’t have the free-flowing capitalism in Cuba. So how do people that want to isolate Cuba get their heads around all that? Or is it really just politics?

WILKERSON: You know, it’s all special interests. And I’ll give you the anecdote that a congressman gave me two weeks ago that sums it up. He’s in his office, and he’s confronted by—I won’t name anyone—Ooh, Debbie Wasserman Schultz? Oh, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen? And they come in and they say, what’s your number one issue, Congressman? What’s your number two issue? Okay. Alright. How about if I’m with you on both of those issues on every vote if you’re with me on this issue, which is totally insignificant to you? You’re from Kansas. What do you care about Cuba? Will you vote? And, oh, by the way, I’ve got this special PAC [political action committee] out here where I can transfer money. How would you like a little $5,000 donation? And the congressman looked at me and said, how do I stand up to that? And I said, I understand your problem, Congressman. It is special-interest groups in this country—in this case, what, less than 2 percent of the population?—that are managing, orchestrating, and demanding US-Cuba policy.

JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about the Cuban Five and just how serious is the US change of policy towards Cuba. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Larry Wilkerson on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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


Lawrence Wilkerson

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.