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In a historic move bypassing congress, President Obama restores diplomatic relations with Cuba, and in a simultaneous telecast President Raul Castro hails the decision but reminds us that the blockade is still in place, says Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Michael, thank you so much for joining us on such short notice.

MICHAEL RATNER, PRESIDENT EMERITUS, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: I’m glad to be with you, Sharmini, and of course The Real News as well.

PERIES: And let me get your take on President Obama’s announcement about Cuba and President Raúl’s response.

RATNER: You know, I was thrilled with parts of what’s going on right now. The first thing I got was a Twitter feed saying the Cuban Three are going to be freed. And of course that was very exciting to me. They were part of a group called the Cuban Five. They were Cubans who had been sent into the United States, really, to be able to try and stop activities that were being done by the right-wing Cuban community against Cuba, from bombings to everything else. They were trying to give intelligence to the Cubans about that. They got caught, and rather than what would happen normally, being sent back to Cuba, etc., exchange, they got convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage, although they didn’t do anything like that, conspiracy to commit murder as well, because they were trying to stop flights from a group called Brothers to the Rescue, a right-wing Cuban group from Miami invading Cuban airspace, etc. They were serving a very long time. Three remained in jail, and one of them for life.

And good friends of mine, as well as my office, had been working on that case for years–Lenny Weinglass, who died recently, but while working on that case; Martin Garbus; and others.

And when I saw that news, that they had been freed, I thought, oh my gosh, what a great and important victory for those three people and for the Cuban people.

You saw at the same time a man named Alan Gross was let out of Cuban prison after serving five years. He’d been an American convicted for 15 years for basically working for AID, the Agency for International Development, and trying to subvert, really, the Cuban government by handing out, giving out communications systems so that people could communicate, really, in terms of fomenting, really, dissent–not dissent, but overthrow, perhaps, eventually of the Cuban government, or certainly giving them lots of trouble. There was no doubt he was a spy. At first they claimed he wasn’t. The Cuban and the American governments claimed it wasn’t an exchange. In fact, of course, it obviously was. But that just set up or was part of what a broader picture of really the beginning of the breaking down of the blockade, the embargo, and the isolation of Cuba. And that’s very important.

Since I’ve been a kid, there’s been a blockade, an embargo, and no diplomatic relations with Cuba, from 1960 on, the severe blockade of no financial transactions, etc. From 1962, my office and others have spent years to bring the Venceremos Brigade, to go into Cuba, to representing travelers to try and break that blockade.

And it looks like we’re seeing at the beginning of that the first thing that’s going to happen is there are going to be diplomatic relationships established. Right now they’ve been going through the Swiss Embassy. That means there’ll be an ambassador to Cuba, an ambassador to the United States–a very, very big step.

Obama, in his talks, said he was going to lift some of the more severe financial controls, which have to do with remittances to the Cubans, broader categories for travel, things like that. Part of them, of course, from the U.S. point of view, are ways of undermining the Cuban progressive socialist communist system, trying to give independent money to be able to do that. Part of them, of course, are needed money because the blockade has really without question really damaged the economy of Cuba. So Obama did say this is a failed policy, it hasn’t worked. And for us, the United States, us being him referring to the United States and for us to be–the U.S. be able to work with the rest of Latin America, we can’t keep isolating Cuba. So after 64 years, the United States finally, finally begins to bend a bit.

Raúl Castro’s speech was quite interesting itself. It talk about the diplomatic relations being eased and happening. It went after Obama again in the United States for continuing the blockade.

Now, the blockade has some issues, because the most severe part of the blockade was passed by our Congress, and the president doesn’t have the authority alone to overrule that. It’s called the Helms-Burton law. Lots of other laws involved.

But as Raúl Castro said, president of Cuba, there is a lot more Obama could do, even within that framework. And so he’s pushing Obama really to modify and end that blockade in a more full way, which Obama does have the ability to do. I think that’s a strong point and it should not be lost on people. This is only a very small step toward ending the economic isolation of Cuba, which has really hurt the people and citizens of Cuba.

The third thing Raúl said which is very important is our revolution continues. It’s continued for this period of time. And this change in U.S. policy will not make us step back from the revolution. So you can’t read Obama’s speech without also having to read or listen to what Raúl said.

But look it, for all of us, the freeing of the Cuban Five, which a lot of us have worked on for years, and not just the humane situation [incompr.] but what it represents and the Cuban efforts to stop the terrorism that has been going on against that island for years, the thousands killed from the Bay of Pigs on, that we hope is now coming to an end, and the people who were trying to stop that are being released. That’s important. Diplomatic relations are important.

And the fact that I think part of this–and I’m sure, Sharmini, that the people at The Real News, etc., are very aware of this, because of–I know you, your work in Latin America, and others’. Latin America is no longer the place it was at the time of the Cuban revolution or after. It doesn’t have the military governments it had, the repressive states. In fact, it has a number of progressive governments in Bolivia, in Venezuela, in Brazil, arguably in Argentina, in Uruguay. And so Latin America is no longer really just a play toy or the back yard of the United States, and perhaps looking at not just the Cuban resistance to what the U.S. did and its survival, but looking at the changes of Latin America. And the U.S. can’t any longer really function in this part of the hemisphere, in this hemisphere, as if it simply owns the whole sea, because we’ve had significant changes. And the changes in Cuba and the U.S. changes have to be seen in that light, that they’ve been forced on the United States.

PERIES: Right. Thank you so much for joining us, Michael.

RATNER: And thank you for having me, Sharmini, and my best of my friends on this historic day at The Real News.

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.

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Michael Ratner is President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York and Chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He is currently a legal adviser to Wikileaks and Julian Assange. He and CCR brought the first case challenging the Guantanamo detentions and continue in their efforts to close Guantanamo. He taught at Yale Law School, and Columbia Law School, and was President of the National Lawyers Guild. His current books include Hell No: Your Right to Dissent in the Twenty-First Century America, and Who Killed Che? How the CIA Got Away With Murder.

NOTE: Mr. Ratner speaks on his own behalf and not for any organization with which he is affiliated.