JOEL ROSENTHAL: Welcome to our conversation program this evening with Daniel Erikson. Thank you for coming, and happy new year.
Daniel will be discussing with us the findings from his new book, The Cuba Wars: Fidel Castro, the United States, and the Next Revolution.
As most of you know, January 2, 2009, marked the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. It seems to us that now is an especially good time to reflect on the history of America's troubled relationship with Cuba since 1959, as well as to consider the prospects for creating a better future.
At the Carnegie Council, we think of ethics as the discipline of envisioning positive alternatives for the future. Change is coming to Cuba, inevitably, even if it is in the form of the often-mentioned biological solution, meaning the end of Fidel Castro's natural lifespan. What will the end of Fidel's leadership mean for Cuba? What will it mean for the United States? Can this change be steered toward constructive ends, or are the barriers too high for such a positive expectation?
Now, Daniel suggests in tantalizing fashion a next revolution. This idea, a next revolution, is intriguing, and I think it's a highly suggestive way to think about America's evolving relationship with its last Cold War enemy. So I will not give it away in the introduction and I'll let Daniel handle it as he wishes.
In this time of transition and great expectation for American foreign policy, we are fortunate to have with us today Daniel Erikson. Daniel has devoted his professional career to the issues we will be discussing this evening. He is currently the senior associate for U.S. policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, a think-tank located in Washington, D.C. He has published numerous essays and scholarly articles in publications, including The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Miami Herald, and others, and he is also the co-editor of Transforming Socialist Economies: Lessons for Cuba and Beyond.
Please join me in welcoming Daniel Erikson.
DANIEL ERIKSON: Thank you. It's a pleasure for me to be here today. I want to thank Joel Rosenthal and the Carnegie Council for helping to organize this event.
I spend a lot of time in Washington, D.C., and so it's always a pleasure to come to New York, where sometimes the attitudes and the questions are a little different than what we hear in our neck of the woods.
I want to really just talk for maybe 20 or 25 minutes about this book, some of the work I've done on Cuba, and why I wrote it.
I was intrigued by Joel's suggestion of the biological solution in Cuba. A long time ago, Fidel Castro actually met with a very senior government official of the United States and he said, "You know, I know exactly what U.S. policy toward Cuba is—it's to wait for me to die—and I do not intend to comply." And so far he hasn't. So while that is certainly one benchmark we can look for in the future, I think, clearly, there is a much broader array of issues the United States could be pursuing with Cuba, rather than just waiting for Fidel's final act.
To begin, why did I write this book, The Cuba Wars: Fidel Castro, the United States, and the Next Revolution? I simply find Cuba to be one of the most intriguing and complex issues facing U.S. foreign policy today, and it is clearly one of the most contentious issues in U.S.–Latin American relations as well.
Cuba, of course, is that island located just 90 miles south of the state of Florida. It's the largest island in the Caribbean. It's home to over 11 million people. It's governed by a communist regime that was created and founded by Fidel Castro, a revolutionary leader who took power in January 1959 at the tender age of 32 years old. The communist government in Cuba later drove more than 1 million Cubans into exile, principally in South Florida, but there are also large communities in New Jersey, in Spain, and in other countries in Latin America.
In the early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, the United States implemented a comprehensive economic embargo on Cuba that, despite some loopholes, really remains in effect to this day. So Cuba is that country that's right next door that we don't trade with, that by and large we can't travel to, and it's a country that has irritated, vexed, and fascinated American foreign policymakers ever since.
I've always been extremely interested in other countries. I've spent a fair amount of time in Latin America, having lived in Mexico and Chile, and traveled to most of the countries of the region. I personally went to Cuba the first time in the spring of 2000, at the height of the Elian Gonzalez crisis. Many of you may remember Elian Gonzalez. He was the six-year-old boy who was picked up off the shores of Florida, handed over to some distant relatives in Miami, who then refused to give him back to his father, who still remained in Cuba.
After going to Cuba in 2000, I joined the Inter-American Dialogue in 2001. It's a think tank located in Washington, D.C., which basically focuses on a range of U.S. foreign policy issues in Latin America. I was one of the lucky people who had a U.S. Treasury license that actually allowed me to go to Cuba, and I managed to travel to Cuba about 15 times over the last several years. That really allowed me to closely follow some political and economic developments in that country.
Now, Cuba evokes extreme passions on both the left and the right in the United States. There are those who believe that Cuba offers some sort of alternative model for socialist development, and there are those who feel that Fidel Castro is one of the most brutal dictators who has ever walked the face of the earth.
Then there's the question of the U.S. embargo, a policy of isolation and sanctions that remains beloved by many powerful Cuban-Americans, tolerated by most U.S. policymakers in Washington, D.C., and ridiculed and disliked in the rest of the world, especially in Latin America.
In my travels I've met many people who know Cuba very well, some who have spent the formative years of their lives on that island, others who have traveled back many times. But I think for the average American, Cuba is a black hole or a question mark, or just simply something they don't think about at all.
Now, during the time I've spent on Cuba, I have been reminded again and again that Cuba is a small issue, it's a small foreign-policy issue for the United States. This may be true, but in my view the questions that are raised by Cuba are not small questions. They include questions of democracy and human rights, the competition between communism and capitalism, and the issues of domestic politics and foreign policy.
Cuba to me raises questions like: To what degree does the United States have the right, the responsibility, or the capability to try to break down authoritarian governments and replace them with democratic regimes? Should American citizens be compelled to give up our rights to travel to certain countries in the service of our government's foreign policy? Should broader world opinion matter at all in terms of how the United States conducts itself in foreign affairs? Is engaging with a government we don't like a concession? How do our own domestic politics shape the ways in which the United States acts in the world? And then, when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, is inertia actually the most powerful force of all?
Authors often have a quote at the beginning of their books. I didn't have a quote at the beginning of this book, but if I had, I would have selected a line from a poem by William Blake, where he says, "To see the world in a grain of sand," because when I look at the U.S.-Cuba relationship, I see a potent concoction of high ideals and crass politics, moral absolutes and moral compromises, comedy, tragedy, the sublime, the profane—all playing out between the cities of Washington, Miami, and Havana, with a cast of characters that sometimes feels like a mix between the magical realism of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel and the cloak-and-dagger action of a John le Carré spy thriller, with some Karl Rove politics tossed in for good measure.
Moreover, I think now there are several reasons that it is an especially auspicious time to start a conversation on Cuba. January 1, 2009, marked the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, when Fidel Castro first came into power in 1959. In fact, January 8 was actually the day that he entered Havana, which is 50 years ago today.
There is a moment of leadership transition in Cuba. In February 2008, after 49 long years in power, Fidel Castro retired. He is now the ex-president of Cuba, elevating his younger brother, Raoul Castro, to the presidency, and elevating a collective leadership as well who is working with Raoul Castro. And of course, there is the leadership transition occurring here in the United States, with the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president. He is someone who has made engaging America's adversaries a central plank of his foreign policy platform.
So clearly, we are entering a new stage in the U.S.-Cuba relationship. The question is: Does this new stage look any different than the present?
My book really focuses very hard on the contemporary U.S.-Cuba relationship. I tell people I go from the Cuban revolution in 1959 through Elian Gonzalez in about 10 pages, then there are 300 other pages that deal with the last five or six years of U.S.-Cuban relations.
I interviewed more than 50 people involved in U.S.-Cuban issues, including U.S. government officials, Cuban dissidents, Cuban-American activists, and others. I also examine the changing political dynamics in the Cuban-American community in Miami, as well as developments in the U.S. Congress.
I also take a look at the U.S.-Cuba relationship in the post-9/11 context, when the United States vowed to confront its enemies and free the world from tyranny. Cuba was, if not in the crosshairs, at least in the rip tide of that U.S. foreign policy thrust.
I also spoke with a range of people engaged in cultural affairs between the United States and Cuba in the areas of music, film, baseball. I take a look at some contentious issues, like the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base or the rise of Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela.
The book is called The Cuba Wars: Fidel Castro, the United States, and the Next Revolution for a reason. The "Cuba wars" are the intersecting conflicts between the United States and Cuba, which drive the two countries apart even as they remain very much intertwined in areas of politics, economics, and culture. Fidel Castro and the United States are, of course, the two great adversaries who have been eyeing each other suspiciously across the Florida Straits for the past 50 years. And the "next revolution," which is actually the title of the final chapter of the book, is the revolution of expectations that is unfolding in Cuba with the leadership transition that took place there, as well as heightened expectations for a change in U.S. policy with the Obama administration coming into office.
Now, I just want to take a little bit of time to talk about what is happening in Cuba now.
To begin with, Fidel Castro is someone who is retired from the presidency, but still he is somehow a force within Cuba. He is someone who is very ill at this point, but nevertheless has been writing weekly or monthly op-eds in the Cuban newspaper, Granma, sharing his vision of foreign-policy issues. He still meets with foreign leaders that come to Cuba, and every three or four months over the past several years there have been "proof of life" videos or photographs of him meeting with the president of Brazil or the president of China or other international figures.
Raoul Castro, who is no spring chicken himself at 77 years old, is now the president of Cuba. Prior to becoming president, he actually had the peculiar record of being the longest-serving minister of defense in the world, a position that he held for 49 years before his recent promotion. Moreover, when Raoul Castro was elevated to the number-one position, he picked 78-year-old Jose Ramon Machado Ventura as Cuba's new number two. So I wouldn't say that there's a youth revolution taking place in the Cuban government at this point.
What we've seen in Cuba over the last year is limited economic opening, particularly around areas of allowing people more access to property, having some changes in the wage scale, allowing cell phones and DVD players and certain consumer goods, but very little in the way of political opening.
It's clear at this point that democracy is not on the domestic agenda of the Cuban government. Instead, Raoul Castro has said that he is interested in resolving the issues that face Cuba under the rubric of the Communist Party.
The hope of the Cuban people for some economic relief has actually been dashed recently by three very powerful hurricanes which struck Cuba last fall, Hurricanes Gustav, Ike, and Paloma. This has slowed down the reform process in Cuba. It has also really heightened certain issues of scarcity, such as access to food, and I think it was a severe economic setback for the island.
Nevertheless, Cuba has been conducting foreign policy outreach which has been truly impressive, particularly seeking out new allies and partners. Today, for example, Venezuela is far and away the number-one trading partner of Cuba, followed by the People's Republic of China, which is the number-two trading partner. This is a dramatic change from the 1990s, when Cuba relied heavily on the European Union and Canada and other basically Western liberal democracies as its economic allies.
For the communist government in Cuba, this has been a welcome relief, because while Canada and the European Union have always basically pestered Cuba on issues of democracy and human rights, China and Venezuela say to Cuba, "We love you just as you are. You don't need to change a thing for us." So I think these changes are something that the Cuban government has welcomed.
Now, if we turn our attention to the United States, clearly the U.S. embargo remains very much in force and the ability of average Americans to travel to Cuba is extremely limited, although there are several thousand embargo-busters who go down via third countries in the Caribbean, or perhaps Mexico or Canada, and the trade between the United States and Cuba is extremely limited.
However, a few years ago, U.S. agribusiness got into the game and lobbied for a little amendment in Congress that allows all-cash, one-way food sales from American food companies to Cuba. Over the last five years, more than $2.5 billion of trade has taken place between the United States and Cuba, and in 2007 the United States was Cuba's fifth-largest trading partner. Now, this comes as a surprise to many people who think we don't trade with Cuba at all. This has actually suited the food companies quite nicely, as they don't have to face any competition with Cuban products, as the Cubans aren't allowed to sell to us, and they receive all cash for their goods.
U.S. policy toward Cuba more broadly has basically been predicated on this notion of a "poof moment": that at one date in the future the Castro government will go poof, vanish in a cloud of smoke, and at that time a pro-market democracy that wants friendly relations with the United States will take its place. Well, that is Plan A, basically, for the United States, waiting for the poof.
At this point, it seems like we may want to start planning for Plan B, which is relating to some sort of gradual communist succession process in Cuba, as that is in fact what appears to be taking place on the island.
Now, the Bush administration's one great innovation on Cuba policy was the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. This was basically a major effort released in 2004 and updated in 2006. The initial draft was chaired by former Secretary of State Colin Powell. This laid out a blueprint for hastening the demise of the Castro government and then coming in afterwards to basically recreate Cuban society from tabula rasa, a blank slate, where the United States would help teach English in the schools, would rebuild roads, would create the instruments of a free-market economy.
It's a 423-page report that evokes former Secretary of State Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn rule" for Iraq. Some of you may remember that at one point he said, "You know, the thing about Iraq, Mr. President, is if you break it you own it." The Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba is predicated on the notion that somehow the United States will break the Cuban government and then subsequently take over leadership in recreating a new Cuba.
My own personal favorite line from the report was the recommendation that after the demise of the Castro government the United States should rush in and vaccinate all children under the age of five in Cuba. Well, as anyone who has had glancing interaction with Cuba knows, Cuba actually has one of the best vaccination rates of any country in the developing world. In fact, on one recent visit to Havana I was walking by the United States Interests Section, our diplomatic mission there, and saw a sign out front that showed a group of schoolchildren playing together. Above the schoolchildren there is a sign that said, "Gracias, Senor Bush, pero ya estamos vacunados" ["Thank you, Mr. Bush, but we're already vaccinated"].
Nevertheless, there is still this vision that the United States is going to play a major role in Cuba's future, even though there are changing opinions which are becoming increasingly apparent among the Cuban-American community in Miami.
Now, Karl Rove, who was once President Bush's top political advisor, has been known to say, "When people mention Cuba to me, it makes me think of three things: Florida, Florida, and Florida." So it's impossible to talk about Cuba without talking a little bit about the domestic politics of Florida.
What you see is a diversification of opinion, where increasingly members of the Cuban-American community have become less and less convinced that, in fact, the U.S. embargo will get the desired results. They tend to favor more dialogue with the Cuban government, more humanitarian and medical trade, greater rights to travel, and you see a significant moderation of the views of the Cuban-American community.
Nevertheless, this still hasn't quite manifested itself at the political level. And indeed, in Miami today it is extremely difficult to find any member of the Cuban-American community in elected office at any level, from U.S. congressman to dog catcher, that has anything but full-throated support for the current U.S. embargo of Cuba. And so, while the nature of conversation in Miami has changed, and changed quite substantially, it still hasn't had a political impact.
This was seen most recently in the 2008 election. While Barack Obama did modestly better among Cuban-Americans, and indeed received a majority vote of Cuban-Americans under the age of 30, he still only received 35 percent of the Cuban-American vote compared to 65 percent of the vote for John McCain, which was really a whopping 30-point gap in an election where Obama won most other demographics quite handily.
In addition, three very anti-Castro members of the U.S. Congress—Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen—all handily won re-election, despite the fact that two of them were actually facing competition from Democrats who were Cuban-American moderates. This had the interesting effect of sending to Congress two of Fidel Castro's nephews—as Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart's father's sister was actually Fidel Castro's first wife and Fidel Castro's oldest son is Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart, who is the first cousin of the U.S. congressmen—nevertheless, these gentlemen have gone back to the U.S. Congress and they have vowed to continue fighting this family feud until the bitter end.
One Cuban-American leader commented to me: "You know, moderate Cuban-Americans are the unicorn that has never appeared." And while increasingly you can see glimpses of them in Miami's political landscape, nevertheless there is not that sea change that many people had hoped for.
Also, today we have a world in disagreement with the embargo. Last October, the United Nations voted for the seventeenth time to condemn the U.S. embargo of Cuba in a lopsided vote of 185-to-3. That is, 185 countries condemned the U.S. embargo and three voted to support the embargo, which were the United States, Israel, and Palau. Mysteriously, the United States actually lost the support of the Marshall Islands, which had voted with us in 2007 but this year abstained. So we'll see if Israel and Palau stick with the United States until the end, although Israel, in fact, has substantial investments in Cuba, and so clearly their support for the embargo is in fact rhetorical only.
Then, if we turn to the U.S. Congress, I have a chapter in the book that focuses on the U.S. Congress, which is called "Capitol Punishment," in which I interrogate several members of Congress on different sides of this debate. What I see is a U.S. Congress which is basically paralyzed on Cuba policy. That is because there is bipartisan support and bipartisan opposition to the embargo, plus the fact that the Cuban-American pro-embargo lobby has revamped its effort to keep the heat on Congress.
For example, in the 2008 election cycle alone, a prominent Cuban-American political action committee spent more than $700,000 on hundreds of congressional races. Sixty percent of their money went to Democrats. So for any of you who have wondered why in the two years since the Democrats' taking over Congress has there not been more effort to somehow change U.S. policy, there's your answer. The fact is that it remains very difficult to get policy through Congress because there is substantial influence there still of the Cuban-American community, which is anti-Castro, or, better said, pro-embargo.
Nevertheless, I see—and there are signs emerging in Washington—that there is going to be some sort of battle royal rolling out in 2009 as the new Congress comes in. Those advocates for lifting the travel ban, in particular, are trying to mobilize, and those who want to keep the sanctions in place are trying to stop them. It's too early to say in what direction precisely this will head.
And of course, we can discuss a little bit Barack Obama himself. During the presidential campaign, Obama said that he would loosen family travel or the rights of Cuban-Americans to travel more freely to visit relatives in Cuba, that he would lift the cap on remittances, which is the amount of money that Cuban-Americans can send to their families in Cuba, and he also said that he would engage in some type of dialogue with the Cuban government, although what that dialogue is evolved over the course of the campaign.
Initially, in response to a question posed at a YouTube debate in 2007, when he was asked would he meet with a range of leaders, including Cuban leaders, in the first year of his presidency without conditions, he said, "Yes, I would." Later, the formulation became that he would meet with the Cuban leadership "at a time and place of my choosing to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people."
Now, this reminds me a little bit of that New Yorker cartoon where you have two executives who are trying to plan a date to meet for lunch. One of them says, "You know, for me Thursday's out. How's never? Is never good for you?" I think never may be an increasingly convenient date for this alleged meeting between Barack Obama and Raoul Castro.
Now, there is really no issue that sums up the craziness of the U.S.-Cuban relationship better than the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, which is perched on the eastern end of Cuba. That's actually the United States' oldest overseas base. It has been under U.S. control since 1903, shortly after the end of the Spanish-American War. The U.S. government pays Cuba $4,085 a year to rent the territory of Guantanamo Bay. The lease is written where it can only be dissolved under two conditions: if the United States abandons the base or if both the United States and Cuba agree to dissolve the lease.
Well, since Fidel Castro came into power in 1959, his message has been very clear: "Get out of Guantanamo Bay." The United States has replied: "Well, we don't agree."
So every year our U.S. Treasury Department cuts this check for $4,085 and delivers it to the Cuban government. But the Cubans don't cash the checks. In fact, Fidel Castro has been known, in front of certain foreign visitors, to open the desk drawer where he keeps all these checks and rifle through them, fuming with indignation.
Now, this, of course, has given the notoriously profligate U.S. military one of our great bargains. This is a free base. So while there are discussions about closing Guantanamo Bay, that refers to closing detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay. There is very little serious discussion in the U.S. government about ending the U.S. occupation or U.S. territory in Guantanamo.
I went to Guantanamo in October 2007 as part of the research I was doing for this book. A visit to Guantanamo is slightly surreal. It's the only place in Cuba, for example, where you can actually find a drive-through McDonald's. It's rife with Americana. There are about 7,500 personnel at the base, about a third of which are U.S. military, another third, or perhaps even more, being military contractors, principally from the Philippines and Jamaica. The only Spanish that I heard while I was on the base was from the Puerto Rican National Guard.
As you walk through the detention facilities, which visiting journalists or analysts can have some access to, although you're not allowed to actually interview anyone who's inside, you have the "Honor Bound to Defend Freedom" sign on the chain-link fence.
The other interesting thing about Guantanamo, which will become relevant in a moment, is there is a local obsession with two forms of wildlife: rock iguanas and banana rats. So while I was there I managed to pick up a lot of rock iguana and banana rat paraphernalia, various mugs and T-shirts that feature this local wildlife.
Now, before I went to Guantanamo, my most, I guess, dramatic impression of the base actually came from the 1992 movie "A Few Good Men." Some of you may have seen it. This stars Tom Cruise as the young Navy lawyer, and then you have Jack Nicholson, who plays Colonel Nathan Jessep, who's accused of committing a crime at the base. At the end, there is this dramatic courtroom climax where Tom Cruise demands, "I want the truth." Jack Nicholson replies: "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth. You want me on that wall. You need me on that wall."
So when I went to Guantanamo, one of the first things I looked for was the wall between the United States and Cuba. When I got there, I found that there actually is no wall, there's a fence. So I just wanted to share with you a brief segment from the book about my visit to the fence line:
"The fence line is the catch-all term for the perimeter of the U.S. naval base, which is surrounded by a no-man's land that is technically under Cuban control. My visit to the northeast gate to Cuba revealed a sleepy, bucolic vista of green fields and sloping mountains marked by a simple metal fence.
"According to my serious young Marine chaperone, Staff Sergeant Caba Wooley, the scene was not always so calm. In the 1950s, during the Cuban Revolution, Raoul Castro's forces captured a couple dozen U.S. soldiers and held them hostage for several weeks before returning them unharmed. Since then, Americans have been banned from leaving the base and entering Cuba.
"But the two sides continued sparring in the ensuing decades. About 50 marines used to bunk in a small guard shack, but Cuban soldiers would sneak close to the fence and toss rocks onto its tin roof to keep the soldiers up all night. The Marines responded by elevating a portion of the fence line to a height of more than 40 feet. But the Cubans scaled the fence to hang wind chimes that were even more annoying.
"When the Cubans shone a spotlight on the Marine barracks to make it even harder to sleep, the soldiers painted a massive Marine seal for the Cubans to light up each night. The Cubans stopped shining the spotlight. But the Marines decided to illuminate the seal themselves. 'Every night we show the Cuban Army that the Marines will always be here to protect the base,' Wooley boasted.
"Fierce competition then erupted over which side could fly its flag the highest. The United States won the battle by constructing the tallest flagpole. But the Cubans won the war. They erected their flagpole on a distant hillcrest, where it fluttered triumphantly, barely distinguishable amid the trees.
"The Cuban Frontier Brigade has 1,500 troops guarding their side of the line, matched by 150 Marines who guard the base in shifts.
"Wooley pointed to a hill in the distance with a small wooden structure on top. 'That used to be a Cuban observation post. The military could see 85 percent of the base from up there. It is even said that the first pictures of Camp X-Ray were taken from that position.' He noted that the new detention facility, Camp America, was positioned to be mainly out of sight from the Cuban side.
"During the Cold War, both sides of the fence line were heavily land-mined. But President Bill Clinton ordered the removal of 60,000 land mines from the U.S. perimeter.
"Wooley warned that, 'The Cubans still have land mines on their side, so every once in a while a landmine will explode. It's usually just a rock iguana or a banana rat having a really bad day.'
"The Cuban mines detonate at least once a month, sometimes starting fires that sweep across the fence line. He described a fire that started the previous summer and turned into a giant cook-off, with about 30 mines exploding: 'We were in constant contact with the Cubans to see if they needed any assistance to control the fire. I mean it was really bad out there, with the smoke coming over all the way back. It was horrible. But there was a bright side. The guys love it when a mine goes off because it gives them something to do.'
"Still, despite the deep political tensions between their governments, the American and Cuban soldiers on either side of the fence line have apparently concluded that today good fences make good neighbors.
"Once a month there is a meeting between the U.S. and Cuban militaries to discuss local issues related to the base, and once a year U.S. and Cuban forces even put together an exercise drill where 150 soldiers from each side practice responding to a major accident along the fence line.
"At the conclusion of his tour of the fence line, Staff Sergeant Wooley pointed to an open area near the gate. 'In between these two fences right here we act as if a bus has crashed and there are a whole bunch of casualties. Our corpsmen meet up with their corpsmen and prepare for it. It's all scripted and everyone knows what's going on. The Marines that participate in it told me they just laid there. I mean they do fake wounds and stuff like that. Then the Cuban corpsmen act together and they pretty much fix whatever is going on.' Even the U.S. Marines, it seems, get a taste of Cuban health care."
Now, I mention this because Guantanamo is actually one of the few areas where dialogue exists today between the United States and Cuba. There are two others actually. One is there is some communication between the U.S. and Cuban Coast Guard to manage migration issues in the fight against drug trafficking. And the National Hurricane Center, based in Miami, Florida, actually in Mario Diaz-Balart's district, is on the phone on almost a daily basis with Cuban meteorologists during hurricane season to track storms that are going through there. So even under the current circumstances there is some opportunity for positive collaboration between the United States and Cuba.
In the book, I do suggest that there may be a next revolution. But it has to be said that the forces for continuity in the United States' relationship with Cuba are tremendously powerful. And indeed, when it comes to Cuba, if you predict that nothing is going to change, 99 percent of the time you're right. But you miss everything important that's in that 1 percent. So I just want to point out a few things that may be a prelude to future change.
The first is Barack Obama is clearly a unique figure in American political life, but he also brings certain attributes to the issue of Cuba which no other president has, and they're mainly generational in nature. Barack Obama is going to be our first U.S. president who doesn't remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. He is actually the first U.S. president who was born after Fidel Castro came to power, and he was only a twinkle in his mother's eye when President Eisenhower put the first economic sanctions on Cuba in the year 1960.
Today in Cuba you have a transition as well, as Fidel Castro steps down from power and Raoul Castro takes over. Whatever the future of Raoul Castro's government may be, my guess is he's not going to be there for 49 years. So I think you could see an accelerated pace of change taking place within Cuba.
You have a generation of young people in Cuba who are becoming increasingly interconnected with the world on their own terms through email, through text messaging, through blogging.
There was a very interesting confrontation which took place last year, in February 2008, between a young student in Cuba who challenged one of the top Cuban officials. He said, "Why do we need to work two or three days just to earn enough money to buy a toothbrush? Why do we need to get the permission of the government in order to leave Cuba?" I think these questions are going to become increasingly pressing. And indeed, 70 percent of the Cuban population was born after Fidel Castro came to power.
So I think that all of this does perhaps portend that there will be more change taking place in the future. I think that certainly the fates of 11 million people, a diverse and divided people, hang in the balance. It is certainly my hope that the Cuba wars are not going to be the inheritance of future generations.
I'll end it there. Thank you.
Questions and Answers
QUESTION: Aside from thinking they might destroy Castro, what does the hard-core pro-embargo group have to gain from their stand in the last 40–50 years?
DANIEL ERIKSON: Well, it's interesting. It's an interesting question. I think that I got part of the answer to it actually shortly after this book came out. I went down to the Miami Book Fair and was perhaps a little too unvarnished in my criticism of current U.S. policy.
Afterwards, a number of Cuban-Americans came up to me and started arguing with me about the embargo. They said, "Do you think if we lifted the embargo that will bring change to Cuba?"
I said, "It may or it may not. I think personally it will. It's hard to prove that. That's a hypothesis it's not a fact." But I turned the question around to them and said, "But do you think keeping the embargo has any chance whatsoever of creating democracy in Cuba?"
The response I got was, "No, but that's not the point."
For many Cuban-Americans, the point of the policy is not its effectiveness in achieving its stated foreign policy goal. They see the embargo as a symbolic repudiation of the Castro government. For people in that community, that still has value. So while many people still fiercely fight to keep the embargo, they aren't arguing per se that "If we do this, it's going to lead to change in Cuba." But what they're saying is that if we don't do it, then that's going to somehow legitimize the Castro government in a way that they find unacceptable.
QUESTION: Can you comment on generational change in the Cuban-American community? Some articles have suggested that the younger generation of Cuban-Americans are not so keen on maintaining the embargo as their parents have been. So do you see a change in the political dynamics in the Cuban-American community that might further affect congressional or administration policy on Cuba?
DANIEL ERIKSON: Undoubtedly, there is a generational shift that is taking place in Miami. It's unfolding relatively slowly. What you have is the founding generation of Cuban exiles, who really came over in the 1960s, who are now much older, or some that are passing on. I've met any number of Cubans in their forties and fifties who visited the island in the last few years. They told me, "I had to wait until my parents were gone." They simply couldn't make that trip while they were still alive for personal family reasons.
To put it very precisely, if you look at the exit polls of the Cuban-Americans from the most recent U.S. election, as I say, 65 percent voted for John McCain overall and 35 percent for Barack Obama. But there's a clear split on generational lines. If you look at Cuban-Americans under the age of 30, 55 percent voted for Obama and 45 percent for McCain. McCain, I should say in case it wasn't clear, was campaigning on a policy of absolutely no change when it comes to the embargo, a very tough policy on that—despite the fact, I might add, that not so long ago he said that with Cuba we should follow a roadmap like we did with Vietnam. But something about running for president tends to change one's views on certain issues, and Cuba is one of them.
Now going back to the poll, if you look at Cuban-Americans over the age of 65, they voted only 16 percent for Obama, 84 percent for John McCain. There was a shift between those two candidates on Cuba policy. So I think that is beginning to play out.
Another factor is new arrivals—in 1980, for example, you had the Mariel Boat Lift, which was a major refugee crisis, 125,000 Cubans came to the United States at that time. Since the mid-1990s, there have been immigration accords between the United States and Cuba, and about another 300,000 Cubans have left Cuba and come to the United States since 1995. These are people who have grown up under Cuban communism in many cases, have families still on the island, are becoming gradually, over time, U.S. citizens, and are pushing for greater change in policy. So I think this is going to play out.
QUESTION: If I am correct, under the Boland Amendment, actually removing the sanctions would require congressional action. So in terms of changing relations with Cuba, Mr. Obama's policies may be a bit circumscribed. He can increase the opportunity to travel, he can increase financial transactions. Again, correct me if I'm wrong on that.
With that in mind, I'd like to press you a little bit on what is your prescription. Clearly, your prescription is to remove the sanctions. Clearly, your prescription is in favor of what Obama has talked about in terms of allowing more travel, allowing more money to flow back and forth. Are there other steps that you would recommend if you lay out a broad U.S. strategy to engage people? What other components might there be?
DANIEL ERIKSON: One of the interesting dynamics of U.S.-Cuba policy is, in the 1990s, Congress got really involved and they passed two acts, the Cuba Democracy Act in 1992 and Helms-Burton in 1996, which basically means for certain things the U.S. president needs to go back to Congress and ask for permission. You can't do it unilaterally.
Now, what Obama can do is he has broad powers to reshape the travel regulations. That's something Clinton actually did in the 1990s, allowing more family visits, humanitarian visits. There used to be a whole category of travel, known as "people to people," which existed under the Clinton administration, which was eliminated under Bush, which could be reopened.
And then, I think that there is a series of things that the United States could do to help include Cuba more in multilateral institutions: lift the ban on Cuba's possible discussions with the IMF and World Bank; or even the OAS, although Cuba couldn't become a full member of the Organization of American States, which is a political body for democracies, without being a democracy itself.
And then, clearly, at the cultural level. One thing that's crazy about the U.S.-Cuban relationship is—with China we had ping-pong diplomacy; it was only in February of last year that we had the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in Pyongyang, North Korea—and yet, under the current rules, it's almost inconceivable to envision an alternative type of cultural outreach to Cuba. So clearly, a lot more could be done on the cultural level as well.
My organization has a policy prescription for Cuba, which basically says remove all the barriers to communication, travel, and exchange between the United States and Cuba and have the trade-and-investment embargo be a subject of discussion between the two governments. I think that's a pretty good starting point.
QUESTION: In about 1960, a well-known Russian film director made a documentary/docudrama called "I am Cuba." I'm sure you must be familiar with it.
DANIEL ERIKSON: Yes.
QUESTIONER: It portrayed the reason for the ideals of the revolution—the need for land reform, people thrown off the land, hard-working young women thrown into prostitution, et cetera. To what extent would you say that Castro subverted the ideals of the revolution over time or upheld them to some extent?
DANIEL ERIKSON: That's a good question. It's a complicated one to answer. There are, obviously, a lot of books written on either side arguing their points of view.
I think that one thing that has to be understood about the Cuban revolution is this was a domestic revolution in Cuba. So you don't have a situation, such as in Eastern Europe, for example, where communism was imposed by an external actor. That's one reason for its staying power.
And clearly, on some levels—if you look at education, health care, establishment of basic social safety nets—Cuba did quite well and compares favorably to most countries in the developing world along those lines.
Part of the problem with the formula is that Fidel Castro first, because he was fighting against the dictator Batista, vowed to bring democracy to Cuba, and soon veered away from that proposal and really began to implement a very tough, one-party state strongly allied with the Soviet Union. The Soviet alliance also undercut Cuba's destiny as well, because it created this concept in Cuba—in Cuba people say, "No debe poner todo sus huevos en una sola canasta" ["You shouldn't put all your eggs in one basket"]. And yet, it's a temptation that the island goes back to again and again. It was with the Americans before 1959, with the Soviets soon thereafter. When the Soviet Union collapsed, it totally upended the Cuban economy and they grasped around for a while. But now it's really Venezuela which is far and away carrying the Cuban economy. So they haven't been able to achieve the level of independence or sovereignty that they have said is their due.
And certainly, Fidel Castro has clearly subverted the goal of democracy in the Cuban revolution. Some people in Cuba who support the revolution would say, "You know, it was a good revolution, but it stayed one generation too long." To some degree, a lot of the early gains, I think, have subsequently been eroded by the fact that the government is still there.
QUESTION: What is our technical diplomatic relationship? You made reference to "diplomatic mission" at one point in your talk. Do we recognize Cuba on a de facto basis, or de jure, or is it a possibility that we could elevate if we are not recognizing Cuba on a de facto basis? Would that be a step that could be taken?
DANIEL ERIKSON: It's a great question.
The reality is that we do on a de facto basis recognize Cuba, and from time to time the United States negotiates with the Cuban government as the governing entity in Cuba. We have negotiated migration treaties with them in the past, and others.
What happened initially is after the revolution in 1959, and then when the Cubans made their alliance with the Soviets in the early 1960s, the United States had an embassy in Cuba at that time. It pulled it up and basically left and there was no diplomatic mission there.
One was reestablished in the 1970s through an initiative by the Carter administration. It was the opening of mutual interest sections in Cuba and in the United States. So Cuba has a diplomatic mission in Washington and the United States has one in Havana.
It's actually the largest diplomatic mission of any country in Cuba, with about 50 American staffers there. But the person who heads this is not an ambassador. They're called the chief of the interest section. It's the same title in both places.
But we don't have full, normalized diplomatic relations with Cuba. Now, that's something that could be done in the future. It's a little unclear whether congressional authority subscribes that and Obama would have to ask permission to do that or if that's something he could do on his own.
But that's the status of the relationship. At the formal level, there is very little contact.
One thing the U.S. mission has done more recently is really made its main focus trying to build up dissident and opposition groups within Cuba. This is something that has very much irritated the Cuban government. Anyone who has been to Cuba in the last few years knows that you can gauge the state of the U.S.-Cuba relationship by the type of propaganda that's around the U.S. Interests Section.
During Elian Gonzalez, the Cubans built an anti-imperialist tribunal where Fidel Castro would make grand speeches in front of the U.S. Mission. More recently, the United States put up a blinking billboard to show some messages of democracy to the Cuban people. The Cubans responded by erecting 138 black flags that blocked the billboard, and each flag is supposed to represent a victim of American terrorism in Cuba. So the beat goes on. It's kind of like the Guantanamo flagpole exchange that I described earlier.
But there are missions. We have missions in our respective countries that perform diplomatic duties.
QUESTION: I want to ask—in your talk, you mentioned something about America introducing democracy and a free-market economy into Cuba. Is it going to be possible to do that without American occupation of Cuba?
DANIEL ERIKSON: I would say, first of all—and this won't surprise you at all—there is very little enthusiasm in the American military these days for occupying other countries to bring democracy to them. That's kind of a wave that has crested and since subsided. So I don't really see that on the agenda.
I think that the United States needs to approach Cuba—and, for that matter, most foreign countries—with a certain sense of humility, that there's really only so much the United States can do to affect domestic processes of political change in any country. I think that's true with Cuba.
I think that probably the way the United States could best do it is to allow a range of actors in American society to engage with a range of actors in Cuban society, not for the purpose of democratizing Cuba, but for the purpose of trying to create a more open environment between the two countries that will lead to more openness in Cuba.
History has shown that—certainly, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was the communist countries that had the most economic and cultural linkages with the West and the most opportunities to build up a middle class that fared best in democratic transitions. That's a very clear lesson from history and you could apply it to Cuba.
QUESTION: Following up on the question that this gentleman asked about compromises that Fidel has had to make under duress of one form or another, the use of the dollar, which is a very complex issue, the two currencies, that for all practical reasons exists in the island, could you speak to that and the sort of quasi-capitalism, that some people can use the dollars in ways that we would think of as free enterprise?
DANIEL ERIKSON: After the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, Cuba went through a profound economic crisis. They undertook a number of emergency measures, which included allowing some entrepreneurship, allowing some foreign direct investment, and allowing the U.S. dollar to circulate in Cuba alongside Cuban currency. It now is a way to bring tourism revenues in, remittances as well.
This created basically a bifurcated economy in Cuba, where you had a U.S. dollar economy, which was very expensive by Cuban standards but would have goods of relatively high quality, and a Cuban peso economy, which there was very little of quality but most people were expected to live on it.
So the average wage in Cuba today, for example, if we fast-forward a little bit, is around $17 a month. And yet, you have goods that are sold in dollar stores, although the dollar was actually eliminated a couple of years ago, but there is now a third currency, a convertible peso, which trades at the same basis with the dollar. So if you want to buy a pair of jeans, they still cost $35, even though you're only making $17 a month. So that's why people need to rely on tourism revenues, remittances, and there's a need to inventar [to invent] to survive in Cuba.
I know a colleague in Cuba who is the bureau chief of the Associated Press in Havana, who had lived in Cuba for several years. She always said, "How do people survive on this ration system, with these very low currencies?" So she decided she'd try it for a month. She lived on $17 and Cuban rations. She reported that she found herself obsessing about food and she lost nine pounds, and this was not a large woman to begin with. I think it gives you some idea of the type of scarcity that faces the average person in Cuba.
QUESTION: A while ago I had the opportunity to go to Cuba. It was funny how it happened. Actually, I was on the board of Save the Children. The president of Save the Children had a brother-in-law who was in the Senate, and he was organizing a business group to go over, who had been "invited" by Fidel to explore the possibilities, or whatever possibilities existed, of business or manufacturing and so forth.
So the president, the fellow who had the connection with the senator, got himself on the list and asked me if I wanted to go, and I jumped at it. So the two of us from Save the Children went, and the rest were all businesspeople.
It was an extraordinary experience. First of all, I loved it. I have always loved the Cuban people and I love them still. I had the advantage of being able to speak Spanish, so I tried whenever possible to get out there and speak to people in restaurants, the drivers, people in hotels, people who weren't part of the government hosts. They seemed genuinely excited and happy to have us there.
My question—and then I have a very quick other question—is: Was that an accurate perception on my part? They seemed to like Americans. They seemed happy that we were there. I'm just interested in what your feeling is about the general attitude of Cubans towards Americans—I don't mean government people, obviously, but the average citizen, how they feel about us—or have they been so conditioned to have negative feelings about us? That was not my impression.
Then, very quickly, I'm very involved in the world of jazz and I love Cuban music. I have been aware recently that groups like Los Van Van and other groups from Havana have been able to come over here and have been performing. What does this mean? Does this mean that there is some sort of cultural exchange that is opening up surreptitiously or sub rosa? Anyhow, it has been exciting to see, and I don't know if this is significant or not. Perhaps you know about that.
DANIEL ERIKSON: Just on the first question, I would say that in my experience, yes, Cuban people like American people. There is generally a positive view of the United States in Cuba. And even the government, which demonizes the United States, in many of its formal pronouncements they say, "You know, this is the one country in Latin America where no one will ever burn an American flag." I think that to some degree they are showing their level of control. But on the other side I think there is a positive view of Americans, very much so.
But, I have to say, the fact that very few Americans travel there, and the ones that do are ones like yourself—Save the Children helps. If the U.S. Congress ever does implement the "spring break solution" and lifts the travel ban and Havana becomes a mini-Cancun, we'll see how good the impression of the American public actually is. But I do think there is a positive view.
On the cultural side, I think that there has been a slight loosening in recent years. I actually have a section in the book where I explore the case of the Latin Grammys, which is a Grammy Award show that was based in Miami, and every year they try to have it in Miami. They invite Cuban musicians, because Cubans obviously make very good Latin music; they get nominated for various awards. Every year there is a big brouhaha and they need to cancel the concert at the last minute and move it somewhere else because they fear Cuban-American protests against the musicians.
I talked to a guy who was the vice president of the Latin Grammys in 2001. At the end, they had Cuban musicians coming, and they had some threats of violence, and they had to move the show from Miami to Los Angeles. He said, "You know, in Miami we couldn't have Chucho Valdes. In L.A. we could have had Fidel and Raoul." He said, "They could have sung a duet." Now, maybe that shows as much about L.A. as Miami, but I think there is some cultural opening that is occurring.
QUESTION: In your book, you have a chapter on Cuban intelligence and you quote Brian Latell as saying that it's among the four or five best anywhere in the world. I'd like you to explain a little bit what makes it so effective in the United States, from what you've got in the book here, and also the relationship right now with Chavez's government. Chavez is bankrolling Cuba, but also the Cuban intelligence is set up and controls Venezuela for Chavez.
DANIEL ERIKSON: Yes. I actually have a chapter in the book that's called "Spy vs. Spy." It was probably the biggest surprise to me in writing the book, because I had a chapter that looked at security issues, and then there were a few specific cases—one Pentagon spy, one involving spies sent from Cuba—that seemed to create a certain narrative that didn't fit anywhere else. It's a chapter out of it.
What makes the Cubans so good? Well, (a) obviously, they focus entirely on the United States. This is something that they take very seriously. They see the United States as a possible threat to the survival of the Cuban government. And, by the way, the United States has, over time in several episodes tried to assassinate Fidel Castro. It hasn't happened recently, but it has happened in the past. So I think that's it.
And then, the second thing is really the main interest of Cuba tends to be to be keeping tabs on Cuban-Americans. So, while they do pay attention to the U.S. government and what the United States is doing, a lot of what they watch closely tend to be exiled groups in the United States. That, I presume, would be easier to do than some other things.
With Venezuela and Cuba, there is a lot of interest about what the role is. Venezuela, clearly, is helping Cuba by giving 100,000 barrels of oil a day to Cuba. But what is Cuba doing in Venezuela and what type of collaboration takes place with Venezuela in intelligence services?
The reality is there is not a lot known. I think that there are presumptions that Cuba is helping Chavez to keep tabs on certain domestic activities. Clearly, I think, Fidel Castro himself has had an enormous impact on Chavez's overall philosophy, and I get into that in the book.
It's hard, certainly from the perspective of an analyst, to say, "Well, is this something that really somehow poses a threat to the United States, or is this something that is presumed because Cuba has been very involved in other Latin governments in the past, specifically Nicaragua and the Sandinistas in the 1970s?" So it remains to be seen.
Brian Latell, you know, wrote a good book on this.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Sadly, we have reached the end of a wonderful hour. It has been terrific. Thank you so much for sharing all this information.
DANIEL ERIKSON: My pleasure.