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Lawrence Wilkerson, retired army colonel and former chief of staff for Colin Powell, discusses what he sees as positives and potential negatives in the new Cuban/North American relations

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JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: What’s up world, and welcome back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore. Today the very Cuban flag, which had been removed January 23, 1961 from their U.S. embassy now flies there again as both Cuba and the United States have reopened embassies in each others’ country. The agreement assists in normalizing relations between the two countries but does not, as Cuban president Raul Castro reminded, end the embargo that continues to hurt the people of Cuba. Our next guest has previously argued that the embargo against Cuba needs to end, and has cautioned that these new relations with the United States may not be all that some suggest they are cracked up to be. Larry Wilkerson is back with us, a retired U.S. Army colonel, and former chief of staff to the then-Secretary of State Colin Powell. Welcome back to the Real News, Colonel Wilkerson. COL. LARRY WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Thanks for having me back. BALL: So as I said, you previously said on these very airwaves here at the Real News that Cuba should be careful what it wishes for. Could we start there and have you explain what you meant then and how it relates, of course, to what’s happening today? WILKERSON: Well, let me say first that I’m ecstatic, as ecstatic probably as anyone else over this improvement in relations. I went to the embassy this morning, oddly enough, as it were, and the heat was oppressive. The DC police were keeping people on the street and not allowing them into the embassy. So I wound up declaring the crowds that were there as sufficient, got in a taxi and left. But that does not dissuade me from my happy feeling over the closer relations. I do think, to answer your question, that the Cubans–and I think the Cubans are pretty smart, especially the 40-somethings, as I call the new technocrats. They need to be very circumspect, very careful about how rapidly they open up, or we’ll be right back where we were in the 50s when the United States owned anywhere from 50 percent to 60-70 percent of the main enterprises in Cuba. Whether it was telephone communications, sugar, oil, cattle, or whatever. The United States tends to be overbearing. Tends to be domineering, tends to be even predatory in its capitalist practices. And so Cuba’s 11.5 million people, a small island, it needs to be very careful about how fast it allows the great giant the United States back into that island. BALL: What have you heard, or what from your research you understand to be their plan to deal with this change in relations? And is there anything that you’ve heard that concerns you from their end? As you said, we agree that they’re very intelligent. But is there anything in their expressed plan that you’ve heard that suggests Cuba might be messing up here at alleviate WILKERSON: No, I don’t think so. I just think the weight of the United States, with its $16-17 trillion dollar GDP and almost if not exactly the same amount of debt, the weight of that financial magnitude and that economic magnitude on the [inaud.] of Cuba could be poisonous. But as I said, I’ve been in most of the ministries, from the Ministry of Culture to the Ministry of Oil and Mines, and so forth, and Agriculture. I think the 40-somethings are pretty smart. They’re going to manage this opening as carefully as possible. I think you were right in your opening that the embargo keeps a lot of this management, this good management from happening. So we need to move rapidly to eliminate this embargo which in my view is not only unfair to the Cubans but it’s against international law. The Congress of the United States has this habit of sanctioning other countries in the world. And it’s a habit that makes congressmen and congresswomen feel good, but it doesn’t do very much except punish, and sometimes very dramatically punish the poor people and the less well-off people in a particular community that happens to be sanctioned. Whether it’s Iran, or whether it’s Russia, or whether it’s Cuba. Now, we’ve had sanctions on Cuba some half-century. This is disastrous, and it need to stop. Of course it probably won’t stop until the United States loses its economic dominance, its financial dominance in the world, which is something that is coming about even as I speak. And the United States gets on the receiving end of some of this economic and financial predatory action, and discovers what it’s like itself, as incidentally we did for the first 150 years of our existence, not to mention the colonial existence. So it all has to do with the power of the dollar and the ability to do things to other countries because of that power. And that power has slowly and surely been ebbing away as China, Russia, India, Brazil, and others grow frustrated with it and even angry at it, and start to do something about it. BALL: Is there a–could you quickly summarize, from your perspective, what the arguments against ending the embargo are? Or what–beyond just the arguments, what is the actual political impediment to an actual end to the embargo, and what would you like to see happen to develop the political strength to overcome that impediment? WILKERSON: Well, there are no legitimate arguments for keeping the embargo in place. When you listen to people like Marco Rubio and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Robert Menendez and others who I call the hard-nosed Cuban-Americans who wish to continue to punish 11.5 million Cubans, there’s no real rational argument that they can advance. They go back to the Cold War, they go back to Cuban efforts to spread their view of governance across the globe, and so forth. What Cuba is doing today is spreading doctors across the globe. Spreading healthcare across the globe. Spreading disaster relief as in Pakistan in 2006 and ’07 with the earthquake there. That’s what Cuba is doing today, so their arguments don’t make any sense. The one aspect of this that would be positive for Cuba would be if the embargo were lifted in the sense that banking could take place, financial transactions could take place, tourists, for example, visiting Cuba could use credit cards there. They could do the kinds of things that they could do in Europe, that they can do in Mexico, that they can do almost anywhere else in the world. Even North Korea, as a matter of fact. This is very unconstitutional, very much violative of Americans’ constitutional rights, that they can’t do the things in Cuba that for example they could do in North Korea, and so forth. So there are no legitimate arguments for keeping the embargo in place, and there are plenty of positive arguments for taking the sanctions off of Cuba and allowing the 11.5 million Cuban people who are very entrepreneurial, very smart, probably the most entrepreneurial country in Latin America, and who with the cooperation with the economic might of the United States would be a fairly productive people, a fairly productive country, and a positive economy, in my view. So there’s win-win here for both of us in this if the hardcore people like Ileana and others who are stuck in the past can’t seem to get out of it. I might add, too, that they’re opposed to the negotiations with Iran, which is another reflection of their being stuck in the past. They don’t seem to know how to get out of that past. That Cold War past. And we need to. We need to move beyond the Cold War. We should have done so 20 years ago. BALL: Well all right, Larry Wilkerson, thanks again for joining us here at the Real News Network. WILKERSON: Thanks for having me. BALL: And thank you all for joining us here at the Real News. And for all involved, again, I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore. And as always, like Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace, everybody. Catch you in the whirlwind.


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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.