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Pope Benedict XVI is conducting mass today Havana. Yesterday he met with Cuba’s president, Raul Castro. Today he’s scheduled to meet with his brother, Fidel. The Pope’s three day visit comes at time when Cuban leaders seem to be signaling change: for the first time since the communist revolution private property can be bought and sold legally and 130 prisoners were recently released, but earlier this week, in response to the Pope’s call for a “better society”, Cuba’s economic minister said, “in Cuba, there will be no political reform”. Please join us for a discussion in Cuba today and prospects for change.
- Michael Reid Editor of the Americas section of "The Economist"
- Mauricio Claver-Carone Executive director, Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy
- Wayne Smith Senior fellow, Center for International Policy and former chief of the US Interests Section in Havana (1979-82)
- Nik Steinberg Researcher, Human Rights watch
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Cuba is putting an international spotlight on life in that country. There are signs Cuba is slowly making changes to its Soviet style economy. But debate continues over the question of a possible U.S.-Cuba reconciliation. Here in the studio to talk about the future of Cuba and relations with the U.S., Mauricio Claver-Carone. He's executive director of Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy.
MS. DIANE REHMWayne Smith of the Center for International Policy, Nik Steinberg of Human Rights Watch, and, joining us from a studio in London, Michael Reid, editor of the Americas section of The Economist. Do join us. I know many of you will have your own opinions, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to all of you.
MR. WAYNE SMITHGood morning, Diane.
MR. NIK STEINBERGGood morning.
MR. MAURICIO CLAVER-CARONEGood morning.
REHMWayne Smith, let me begin with you. What prompted the Pope's visit now?
SMITHWell, I think Cuba is going through a process of change, moving away from the old system -- at least the old economics system and people hope political system as well. And I think the Pope felt it was time to come and perhaps have some impact on that change. And, of course, then there was Mexico, the most Catholic country in the hemisphere, he wanted to visit that as well. It's a very opportune moment for him to be in Cuba.
REHMHow much impact do you believe the Pope can have on Cuba?
SMITHI think the Pope can have impact -- the Catholic Church has -- moving in a very careful way. They're not seeking confrontation. They're seeking dialogue. But they have had some success in moving the situation in a more favorable direction, a more open direction. There's virtually no conflict now between church and state, I will say. Well, that's because the Church isn't pushing conflict. It isn't, but it is pushing for change and having some success in bringing that about.
REHMNik Steinberg, I know that many journalists were excluded from covering the Pope's visit. Tell us about the coverage as you understand it.
STEINBERGLast week, in the run up to the Pope's visit, we were in constant contact with human rights defenders, journalists and other dissidents on the island. And what they told us, even in advance of the Pope's visit, was that the Cuban government was already doing what we see it doing on major occasions where human rights issues could be raised to the forefront, which is preemptively placing people under house arrest, warning them not to try to attend any of the ceremonies that the Pope was holding and, in some cases, actually, detaining people for the duration of the visit.
STEINBERGNow, over the weekend, our contact with these dissidents was completely cut off. All of their phones are now jammed. We can't reach any of them. And this isn't an aberration. This is a pattern that we've seen in the past in major occasions when there is some commemoration of any human rights related event.
REHMAt the same time, do I understand correctly that at least 100 prisoners were freed?
STEINBERGYes. Last year and over the course of several years, due to the involvement, in part, of the Catholic Church in the Spanish government, a group of political prisoners, many of whom were arrested in 2003, were released. The catch is, is that for most of them, they were offered a deal, which was, either you stay in prison or you accept forced exile to Spain. Now, as far as we're concerned, these are journalists, human rights defenders, people who never should have been in prison in the first place. And they should've been allowed to stay on the island. They weren't given that choice.
REHMMauricio, Hugo Chavez is there as well for treatment. Is that correct?
CLAVER-CARONEYes. He's getting radiation.
REHMIs he also meeting with the Pope to your knowledge?
CLAVER-CARONEWell, there was some speculation about it. And it appears yesterday, even he himself said that he didn't want to get involved in affairs of other heads of state, but there was speculation over the weekend when he did arrive in Cuba. Most importantly, though, who the Pope is not meeting with are with the Ladies in White, with the mothers, daughters and the relatives of Cuban political prisoners who asked just for a minute of his time. The Pope is only meeting with the Castro brothers. He has -- they have not even given an answer to the Ladies in White and other pro-democracy advocates.
CLAVER-CARONEThey have just asked just for a minute of his time, and, frankly, we believe it's the least he can do. Just yesterday, over 200 pro-democracy advocates were arrested. All their names, if you go to my website at capitalhillcubans.com, you can see all of their names put on there. The repression in Cuba has increased dramatically, something which I commend Nik and Human Rights Watch -- they've actually put a report that under Raul Castro, repression has increased on the island, albeit now short-term arrests as opposed to martyring people for 30 years like Fidel Castro used to do.
CLAVER-CARONEBut there is the highest level of political arrests in 30 years today in Cuba. So if anything's changed, it's the dramatic political repression under this regime.
REHMAnd yet at the same time, Michael Reid, one of your recent pieces on Cuba is titled the "Revolution in Retreat." How does that jive with what you've just heard from Nik Steinberg and Mauricio Claver-Carone?
MR. MICHAEL REIDWell, I think what needs to be clear here to distinguish between what's happening in the economy and what's not happening in the political system -- I mean, what is changing Cuba is the economy. Raul Castro is -- has pushed through changes which involve not only allowing people to set up small private businesses but also, for the first time, being able to employ other Cubans who are not family members. He is de facto privatizing quite a lot of agriculture. And Cubans are allowed to buy and sell cars and homes for the first time.
MR. MICHAEL REIDAnd now, the aim of the government is that, within the next three or four years, around a third of the workforce will no longer work for the state. Now, I think that has very far-reaching implications. It's doing this not because it wants to dismantle communism but because it has no choice because the system simply doesn't work. Now, it's true that political reform is not on the agenda, but I think it's somewhat misleading to say that repression is getting worse. I think it's changing in nature. In some ways, there is more debate in Cuba than there used to be.
REHMSo you say repression is changing in nature. What do you mean?
REIDWell, in the past, people were locked up for long periods, often in appalling conditions in prison. Now, the government does these sort of lightning arrests and operations aimed at stopping any disruption to the papal visit. But, I mean, Amnesty International, for example, says that there are no longer any prisoners of conscience in Cuba, which is a big change. I mean, other groups say that there are still 40 or 50. Of course, you know, any political prisoner is one too many.
REIDBut, while one can deplore that Cuba is not a free society, I think it's important to recognize that there are economic changes in the island, and I think those will have, inevitably, social and political implications eventually.
REHMBut these political leaders are expressly not referring to this as reform. Is that correct?
REIDThat is correct. That's absolutely correct. I mean, the word reform is not used in Cuba, nor is transition or anything like that. But, look, you have to look at what the realities of the island are. The economy is hopelessly unproductive. It can no longer finance the paternalist welfare state that provided good education and health services. There is a demographic problem. The population in Cuba is actually shrinking slightly because many of the best and the brightest choose to leave because there are no opportunities.
REIDAnd at the same time, the number of Cubans over 60 is now as great as the number under 15. That is a demographic time bomb. And then the third factor is the leadership is now gerontocratic. Fidel is 85. Raul, who's really in charge now, is 80. A lot of the other senior leaders are over 70. And once they are no longer around, the next generation of leaders of the Communist Party will be judged strictly on their performance, and Raul knows that.
CLAVER-CARONEDiane, let me correct a couple of factual errors that Michael made there. In regards to Amnesty International, Amnesty International has consistently put out warnings in regards to increased repression, and, actually, just this week, it named...
REIDAmnesty International say...
CLAVER-CARONEPardon me. Pardon me, sir.
REHMHold on. Hold on.
CLAVER-CARONEPardon me. Michael, pardon me, sir. Just this week, Amnesty International named four new prisoners of conscience in Cuba -- two young brothers who were arrested for listening to hip-hop that criticized the regime and a young couple that were falsely arrested under the pretense of a discussion with a Communist Party officials -- so just this week even, they've named four new prisoners of conscience in Cuba. In regards to -- something in regards to the economy, I think, is important to clarify.
CLAVER-CARONEThe Castro regime has not allowed private businesses. It's allowed self-employment licenses, which is almost like a limited partnership. The Cuban government continues to control all means of production and owns the businesses. This is the same thing it did back in the 1990s. In the 1990s, at the peak of self-employment licenses, which is essentially leasing a trade, it basically says, I'm a carpenter.
CLAVER-CARONELet me lease for a certain, you know -- regards from the regime, let me lease the ability to do so and so. And after a certain amount, I can keep some of the means. They don't own the means of production. This happened during the 1990s. At the peak of these self-employment licenses in the 1990s, there was over 200,000. Today, there's over 300,000, so, in 16 years, the net change has been 100,000 self-employment licenses. That is not just small. To say it's small change is to overstate how small it is.
REHMMauricio Claver-Carone. He's executive director of Cuban Democracy Public Advocates. As you can hear, there are many different opinions. We'll move forward when we come back.
REHMAnd, as I'm sure many of you know, the Pope is in Cuba today, there for a three-day visit, which brings up many questions about the economy in Cuba, the politics in Cuba, whether anything is changing regarding human rights. And here with us: Nik Steinberg with Human Rights Watch, Wayne Smith of the Center for International Policy, Mauricio Claver-Carone of Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy. And joining us on the line from London is Michael Reid, editor of the Americas section of The Economist. Just before the break, we were talking about human rights.
REHMAnd, Nik Steinberg, you wanted to add your own thoughts.
STEINBERGWell, I would say that Michael's point that there had been political prisoners that have been released and that the long-term prison sentences are not the modus operandi anymore in Cuba, we have to concede that that's true. You know, many -- we don't see 30 -- 20 or 30-year sentences for prisoners. At the same time, I think it's important to say that the tactics have shifted, and the bottom line is that there is still no space for dissent to be expressed publicly in Cuba. In other words, if you express criticism of the Castro government, if you go out, for example...
REHMWell, give me an example. I mean, are you saying, if one says something to one's friend, one might report that, or are you saying if one takes a podium and expresses dissent that then comes the blowback?
STEINBERGI'll give you two examples. One is a couple weeks before the Pope's visit, a young dissident in Eastern Cuba went out into the streets and was handing out copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Now, for that, he was detained and still hasn't been charged and is in detention as we speak, actually, in the preemptive arrests in the lead up to the Pope's visit.
REHMHas anyone been able to speak with him?
STEINBERGSince the weekend, no, since the Pope arrived.
REHMI see. All right.
STEINBERGSo that's one example. Another would be, there were 13 people in the week prior to the Pope's visit that occupied a church in Havana, Cuba. Now, they said, we're occupying this church because if we express our demands for more political freedoms on the island publicly, we'll be arrested. What did the church do in this case, church authorities of the archdiocese in Havana? They called authorities and asked authorities to remove people from this church. Now, what happened to these people afterwards was they were -- according -- we interviewed many of the people that were in the church.
STEINBERGThey were beaten in the church. They said they were removed from the church, taken to a police station and warned that after the Pope's visit was finished, that they would be prosecuted under Law 88, which is a law that punishes any act that advances the aims of the U.S. embargo in Cuba. So they were expelled from a church. They were threatened with long-term detention and prison sentences all because they presented a platform of demands that called for greater openness, access to information. So that is real. That's happening right now.
STEINBERGIn that space, there have been some movements. We have new bloggers, for example, in Cuba that express dissent. But, still, there's a clear line in the sand.
REHMSo, Wayne Smith, this goes right back to your point that, while we may be seeing some economic advances, politically, there's still a long way to go.
SMITHOh, absolutely. But on the other hand, to say that repression has increased in Cuba, it is true. But we would expect that before the Pope's visit or before any kind of visit like this. They're very concerned of expressions of disagreement with the government. They want everything to appear peachy keen. And so they do begin to arrest people, dissidents and so forth, on a short-term basis.
SMITHHowever, having been in Cuba for so many years, to say that repression is increasing is a little misleading. Compared with the repression that I knew years ago, Cuba is a much more open society now. People can express themselves. They are careful in doing so, but it's not as it used to be where you made some statement on a bus, your fellow passengers would squeal on you, and you'd be arrested as you stepped out of the bus.
REHMAnd, Mauricio, you would agree with that?
CLAVER-CARONEWell, and I think that the reason that the -- I think repression has increased. But the tactics have changed, and there are short-term partly because also technology has changed. So, today, unlike 20, 30 years ago when a dissident is being beaten up in a corner street, someone -- a blogger in Havana can either text or tweet out, such and such dissident is getting beat up and arrested in this corner. And in real time info, International Human Rights Observers have the time, the place and the information of that dissident being.
CLAVER-CARONESo it -- that provides them more of a protection, unlike the impunity that existed 20 years ago without technology in which people can be put away. You know, there was just a video that was released from Combinado del Este prison, which is one of the most notorious prisons in Cuba, and people were fascinated that there were -- all these Americans in there, and the guy -- and the person who was narrating it was Indian. And they're like, how did we not know about this? Because we don't know what's in Cuban prisons.
CLAVER-CARONEThe International Committee of the Red Cross and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture are not allowed to inspect these prisons. There has been a huge level of impunity, and technology is changing that a little bit. But the repression is increasing, changing the tactics.
REHMAll right. Wayne.
SMITHNow, I wouldn't agree that the repression is increasing. There are far fewer political prisoners today than there used be.
REHMHow do we know that? How do we know that?
SMITHWell because people do go in and talk to them, and there...
REHMWho goes in?
SMITHSome of the journalists are able to get in.
REHMMichael Reid, have you ever been inside any of these prisons?
REIDNo. I have to say I haven't. But it's -- we know this because of the groups within Cuba themselves, the human rights groups, who do get information out.
REIDAnd, you know, I mean, of course, it's true that no organized expressions of dissent with communism are permitted. And we can all agree on that. I think the point that I was trying to make is that -- and it's rather what Wayne Smith said -- is that, compared with a few years ago, those of us who visit Cuba have noticed that Cubans are much freer in their criticisms of their individual criticisms of the government and the system.
REIDNow, that may not amount to much in political terms, but it is a change. I just want to pick up Mauricio on this point about the economic changes. It's true that in the 1990s, Fidel Castro temporarily took some steps to liberalize the economy and then went back on some of them.
REIDWhy? Because Hugo Chavez came along and offered him lots of oil money and aid. Now, the difference -- and it's a crucial difference with what is happening now compared with the 1990s -- is both at the level of detail. I mean, Mauricio is wrong that the only things that are allowed are family businesses. Cubans are now legally allowed...
REID...to employ non-family members in small businesses. Now, it's a problem that those small businesses are not allowed to grow to become big businesses. But, I think, over time, that is bound to happen, and the other difference with the process in the 1990s is that, in the 1990s, it was all just Fidel's whims. The difference now is that there is an organized process approved by the Congress of the Communist Party, and the regime knows there is no alternative. There is no other benefactor out there to keep them going. Hugo Chavez may well be dying.
REIDWe don't know. So that's why this process of economic change is so important. Of course, it's very slow. Of course, it's halting. Of course, it's contested. But it's very important.
REHMAll right. I want to get to the effects of our now five-decade-old embargo on Cuba. Wayne Smith, talk about the effects.
SMITHNow, the embargo now is an absurdity. Years ago, Elizardo Sanchez, a leading human rights advocate, and Oswaldo Paya used to say the best way to bring about change is more American citizens in the streets of Cuban cities. Look, we used to say that if Cuba would diminish, hopefully, even abolish, its ties with the Soviet Union, stop trying to overthrow other governments and begin to move in a better direction, then we could lift the embargo.
SMITHWe could have full relations with Cuba. Well, that's all been done. And yet, rather than moving to engage, we've done exactly the opposite. The United States now is the only country in the Western Hemisphere not to have full diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba. We are the ones who are isolated, and it's a policy that's absolutely outmoded and absurd and counterproductive.
REHMAnd what -- and counterproductive, from your perspective, how does it affect ordinary Cubans?
SMITHWell, it affects ordinary Cubans because it does affect the economy. When we don't sell foodstuff freely -- some goes, but don't sell foodstuffs freely to Cuba -- that hurts the Cuban people. Look, the United States used to be one of the major producers, suppliers of foodstuffs to Cuba. They could buy things from us more cheaply than they can going to countries way off in the distance to buy.
SMITHSo it -- and it doesn't -- it -- the embargo -- I remember Jesse Helms saying, when he -- we passed the Helms-Burton bill, now we can say, adios, Fidel. Well, no. The embargo has not brought down the Cuban government. It will not bring it down.
CLAVER-CARONEI think Michael led perfectly into this question because he asked, you know, well, are there any benefactors left out there? Yes, there is a major benefactor. It's called the United States if it lifted sanctions. Remember, the Cuban economy -- international commerce in Cuba is controlled by a monopoly. And that monopoly is controlled by the Cuban military. No Cuban person, no regular people are allowed to engage in international commerce. Only the Cuban military is allowed to do so.
CLAVER-CARONESo, essentially, if you open up sanctions and the billions and billions of dollars that foreign direct investment, that trade, et cetera mean, that would be a bonanza for the monopoly of Cuba's military. Every other country in the world that has -- does business with Cuba does so with Cuba's military. That has not benefited the Cuban people. If here in the United States we can have, in our open capitalist system, an argument of whether trickle-down economics works, I can guarantee to you that, in a closed communist society, trickle-down economics does not work.
CLAVER-CARONEAnd the proof is in the pudding because countries have been doing it now for decades with the Cuban military.
REHMNik Steinberg, how do you believe the embargo is affecting Cuban people?
STEINBERGI agree with the ambassador that -- in fact, it's hard to think of a policy that has a longer record of failure that's been left in place than the U.S. embargo. Now, why? Because, from a human rights standpoint, which is the way we look at it, it has not only caused increased suffering in general for the Cuban people, but, also, it's given the Castro brothers, first, their best argument for repression on the island. Whenever they repress people, it's under the pretense of saying that they are mercenaries of the U.S. government.
STEINBERGAnd it's also given them a huge excuse for the problems on the island of things that they haven't fixed. So the embargo is a gift to them. It gives them their best argument for keeping power. Now, we don't believe that removing the embargo would immediately fix all of Cuba's problems. I think that would be naive. But we do think that taking it out of the way would give Cuba -- generate a certain kind of pressure on Cuba for real change.
REHMNik Steinberg of Human Rights Watch. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Michael Reid, what's your view on the U.S. embargo?
REIDWell, I very much agree with what Nik just said. I mean, I think the embargo is a policy based on a desire for revenge, which may be understandable, but that's not a rational principle of international relations. I think it is counterproductive for the reasons that have been said. I think it's -- the problem with it -- I mean, the problem with Helms-Burton is that it's a policy for once you have reached the destination of democracy and capitalism in Cuba. It offers no means of speeding -- getting there at all.
REIDIn fact, it's an obstacle to getting there. I mean, the rest of Latin America has concluded that the way to speed change in Cuba is to engage, and that the dissident groups, for the reasons that we have been discussing, pose no serious political threat to the regime -- they're small, isolated, penetrated by state security -- and that, like it or not, change will come from within the Communist Party. And the embargo simply does not provide any tools for speeding change within Cuba.
CLAVER-CARONEIf the Cuban government were not afraid of Cuba's pro-democracy movement, they would not unleash such brutal repression upon them. And we're seeing all throughout the island, in every corner of the island, that people are mobilizing, that these different groups are taking more and more activity and that the repression gets worse. That is for a reason. That's not doing -- if they weren't afraid of them, they would let them act on their own and be on their own and do what -- do as they please.
CLAVER-CARONEOne more point, with regards to sanctions. You know, the sanctions are codified into law and are based on, essentially, three conditions that need to be met by the Cuban government to lift them: the unconditional release of all political prisoners, the recognition of fundamental, universal human rights and, three, the legalization of opposition parties. That's not revenge. That's called principle.
CLAVER-CARONEAnd I think that we need to follow that matter of principle because, also, that is a consequence of what is at issue here, what's at stake, which is the regime. When we always talk about the sanctions and whether they work or not, we're looking at the key when what's broken is the padlock. And what we know is that that regime, the Castro regime, has been -- has -- is an economic, political and social failure. And at the end of the day, the people should be free to choose what they want their future to be.
REHMAnd my question to you, Nik Steinberg, do we have any indication, clear indication, of how many people are being held now in Cuba's jails?
STEINBERGWell, you know, as Mauricio stated, we at Human Rights Watch and many other human rights organizations are not allowed onto the island.
STEINBERGThe only time that we were there, we had to go in without the permission of the government. So it's very difficult to say. But also, as Michael and the ambassador pointed out, Cuban groups on the island are able to speak with the families of people who are political prisoners. And their research indicates that there has been a decrease. We know that certain people have been released.
STEINBERGNow, that's been offset by short-term arbitrary detentions, but that's very different. Frankly, though, until the Cuban government opens up to international visits, which, until now -- this week is an aberration. This week we have many international journalists on the island, and it's a gift. It may be the best outcome of the Pope's visit that we have all these eyes on the island, seeing what's really happening. But until outside observers are invited in openly without minders, we really don't know who's in the prison.
REHMSo, as you talk with the families of those being held, is there no estimate of how many are being kept in prison?
STEINBERGWe can calculate the short-term arbitrary arrests. We can talk to families 'cause we know when people are released.
STEINBERGFor long-term prisoners, the best estimate comes from Elizardo Sanchez's group, which several others have referred to. And they estimate that there are less than 100 political prisoners left in Cuba.
REHMNik Steinberg with Human Rights Watch. When we come back, it's time to open the phones. I look forward to hearing your questions and comments.
REHMWelcome back. We are talking about the Pope's visit to Cuba, whether that will, in any way, change the political atmosphere in that country. We talked about the number of political prisoners who continue to be held in Cuba's prisons, as well as those arrested perhaps just before the Pope arrived. A number of our listeners have called to ask about the imprisonment of Alan Gross, an American. He is sick, says Deborah in Dallas. His family members have endured his absence during times of illness and stress. What is the latest we have on him, Nik Steinberg?
STEINBERGWell, Alan Gross' family has been asking most recently that he be given permission to return to the U.S. to visit his mother who's very sick. Until now, he hasn't been granted leave. He is serving a very long sentence.
REHMHow long has he been held and on what charges?
STEINBERGHe just completed two years in prison. The charges against him -- he was detained and eventually sentenced because he was on the island installing Internet service for small Cuban-Jewish groups.
SMITHOh, go ahead. Sorry.
STEINBERGHe was a contractor -- a subcontractor for USAID, at least that is the claim of the U.S. government. They have conceded that. And he was detained while doing that work. He was not there on -- he did not have permission to be there.
REHMAll right. Wayne.
SMITHWell, he wasn't distributing these things to Jewish groups. The leaders of the Jewish community have said they had nothing to do with him. They were very angry that the U.S. government sent him down to do this, sort of pretending that he was doing it for Jewish groups. He was distributing these things with the idea of changing or moving in the direction of changing the Cuban government.
REHMBut if he was there without permission, Michael Reid, what do you know about it?
REIDWell, no more than what's been said. I mean, it's clear that the Cuban government does worry about the spread of communications and connectivity in the island. That's why they control access to the Internet. It's also clear that Mr. Gross has tragically become a kind of political pawn because the Cuban government says, in answer to demands to release him, well, the United States has in prison, for long periods, six or five Cuban security agents who were arrested in Miami, who, had they been working for another country, would probably have simply been deported rather than imprisoned.
REIDSo, I mean, one really must hope that at some point, perhaps after the presidential election in the United States, there will be another attempt to negotiate between the two governments that might see Mr. Gross being released.
CLAVER-CARONEI think Gross is spending a 15-year sentence because he was, in fact, helping the Jewish community on the island have Internet connectivity, alternative Internet connectivity not controlled by the Castro regime. That is protected under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which allows for the free spread of information across frontiers. That is a fundamental human right of all human beings.
CLAVER-CARONENow, the Castro regime wants to deny that and is afraid of people having alternative means of communication and are willing to use this poor man as an example so that others won't help the Cuban people attain free Internet connectivity is one thing. In regards to the Jewish community, the Jewish community was saying a whole different story a couple of years ago. But, as we know in these regimes, when the Stalinist-type trials begin, they start bringing up all kinds of testimonies and forced testimonies and all kinds of things, which is not exactly a transparent rule of law.
STEINBERGLook, I mean, I think, to second Michael's point, the regime has been very good, in spite of growing telecommunications capacities everywhere else in the world, at keeping control over the information that's distributed in Cuba. For example, we have the appearance of new bloggers in Cuba, some of whom are not traditional dissidents in the sense, but they write about life in Cuba. The reality is that most people in Cuba have no access to these blogs because they have no access to the Internet.
STEINBERGNow, it's not because Cuba doesn't have the capacity to provide Internet, but it's because the government controls who can see information that's not produced by the government. And to some extent, the Gross story fits into this because any effort to expand access to that -- now, the U.S. government, it becomes immediately more complicated because of the context of the embargo. Any effort to expand access to information on the island, non-official sources, is seen as a threat.
REHMAll right. To Akron, Ohio. Good morning, Sei. (sp?) You're on the air.
SEIHi. It's Sei.
SEIGood morning. Cuba has had free health care for five decades. Castro, a vegetarian, according to the Guardian, which mentioned you, Wayne, said that he had survived 638 attempts of assassination by the CIA. Perhaps he has been protected by angels. Cuba achieved a higher literacy rate than the United States through a totally free method of asking each Cuban to teach two others to read. And, finally, the Guantanamo Bastille exists on the island only because of the violence of the U.S. government. Could you comment on that?
SMITHWell, I don't know whether it was 600 attempts, but there were quite a few without any question. The amazing thing is that the CIA even brought in the Mafia. They contracted with the Mafia to assassinate Fidel, and the Mafia failed. Good Lord, what kind of advertising is that for the Mafia?
REHMI want to go to Michael Reid for a moment. Did you report that health care in Cuba is on the decline?
REIDYes, I did. It is deteriorating partly because the government has sent tens of thousands of doctors abroad, partly as a swap for Venezuelan subsidies and partly for international prestige. But it's also declining because wages, salaries on the island are derisory. And the cost of living is -- has increased a lot. So a lot of doctors have left to do other jobs in small business or in tourism.
REIDAnd one hears reports of doctors either being absent or starting to charge. And there is a shortage of everything except basic medicines. And that's part of this overall picture in which the island's economy is in serious decline.
REHMAll right. Here's an email from Nelson, who was born in Cuba, came here as a 13-year-old boy. He says, "I've come to the conclusion the only way to get true reform in Cuba is for the U.S. to completely remove the embargo and then not interfere in what happens after. Doing so would eliminate the only excuse that the Castros have ever had for the way things are there: 'It's because of the imperialist U.S. keeping us down.' And then the Cuban people will take care of the rest." Nik Steinberg, what's your reaction?
STEINBERGI agree that the embargo is the best argument the Cuban government, and especially the Castros, have for staying in power. I think the question is, when there is a coming economic opening, as Michael and the ambassador have spoken about, to what extent will those opportunities be open to everyone? And what we've seen so far, as The Economist reported even in their piece, that the government still controls who's hired by private firms. They control access to these new privileges economically that are emerging.
STEINBERGAnd so we have to make sure that there's not a two-tiered society that emerges where the people that align with the regime and stay in step are the only ones that get access to the greater economic privileges.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Danny, who's here in Washington, D.C. You're on the air.
DANNYHi. Yes, thanks for having me.
DANNYMy question is for Mauricio. If -- do you have, by any chance, an estimate of the total amount of development aid and, you know, outright gifts and assistance that the Cuban government has received from other government -- so, for example, Soviet Union, Spain, France and others -- if you could speak a little bit to that.
CLAVER-CARONEI mean, the Cuban government does receive a lot of aid from a lot of these other governments. But, most importantly, it receives 100,000 barrels of essentially free oil a day from Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and yet there are still massive energy shortages throughout Cuba. So what does the Castro regime do with this? Well, they probably put down the spot market and, you know, put -- take the profits abroad. I want to make a point about this whole -- whether the embargo is the best excuse for the regime. What it implies -- and I'm the only Cuban on this panel.
CLAVER-CARONEWhat it implies is that Cubans are somehow stupid, and, therefore, they believe what the regime tells them and that the embargo is the evil of all. All polling that has been done confidentially by NGOs that have been very good -- and during the Cold War, used to do a lot of these polling in different manners on the island -- show that only 10 to 15 percent of the Cuban people believe the embargo is the fault of their ills.
CLAVER-CARONEThe Cuban people know that the fault of their ills is a totalitarian regime that rules over them. And, at the end of the day, you know, Cuba is ruled by a couple of 80-year-olds. You know, there is no new generation that is shown to come to power.
REHMAnd that takes me to the very next question because, Michael, as you write, communism is living on borrowed time. Who are the leaders who are waiting in the wings?
REIDWell, I think Raul Castro has begun to promote a generation of kind of 50-year-olds who most people have never heard of, who have been provincial party secretaries and so on. And he is trying to get them installed in positions at the top of the regime, and one imagines that, you know, one of them will eventually take over. Now, you know, it's a big question as to whether the regime will remain in control of the process of change or not.
REIDAnd while it's true that the economic opening, so far, is extremely limited, I think my argument is that events will acquire their own logic because the system has run out of options and because whoever does take over from the Castros, the Cuban people will not be in order of them in the same way, and they will be judged strictly on performance. And so they need to try to make sure that that performance is better than the government's current performance on satisfying Cubans' daily needs.
REHMWayne, you would agree with that?
SMITHAbsolutely. We'll have a new generation of leaders, and they can't say, well, you know, we fought the revolution. We -- they will be judged on the basis of what they produce. And the Cuban people are certainly not stupid. It's not, as Michael said and Mauricio said, that they -- well, it is, as he said, that they fully understand that the embargo doesn't work. The Cuban people are almost to a man on a post to the embargo. The present generation can get away by keeping it. The new generation coming in will not be able to.
REHMWayne Smith of the Center for International Policy, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Asheville, N.C. Good morning, Jason.
JASONGood morning. Thank you so much for taking my call.
JASONI wanted to go back to Hugo Chavez, Venezuelan president, for a minute. As you've mentioned several times, yesterday afternoon at about 2 p.m., for three hours, when the Pope was arriving in Cuba, Chavez held a nationwide broadcast of his own to the Venezuelan people abusing the public resources and public media. It's obligatory national broadcast on all Venezuelan radio and TV, essentially to promote his campaign, which is a violation of Venezuelan Constitution and other laws.
JASONAnd so my question to the panel is, why is it that the international community, as well as Venezuelans, don't protest this clear violation of the electoral regulations and an abuse of power in the ongoing presidential election?
CLAVER-CARONEAnd I think that they have in the opposition in Venezuela in the upcoming elections is making a point of it, as is their candidate Henrique Capriles, I think, has a very valid and important point. If I may say just one thing, Mr. Smith just made the whole point of why the embargo is important. And I never thought we would agree on this. It is for the next generation. And the whole point is when a new generation comes to power in Cuba, they're going to have the entire economic might of the United States to say, hey, do you want this? Do you want all this investment?
CLAVER-CARONEDo you want all of this economic wealth? Well, then you have to open up politically. And that new generation is likely to do so because they are not these -- the 80-year-olds that are stuck in this dictatorial mindset. And at that time, we'll figure out how it happens.
REHMAll right. And, finally, to you, Nick Steinberg, do you believe, or is there any indication, that the Pope himself might make an overture on behalf of Alan Gross?
STEINBERGI think that, until now, there are no signs that he will publicly. And, certainly, privately he met yesterday with Raul Castro. He'll meet with Fidel today. I think possibly the more interesting question is today will be his last Mass. Yesterday, he made some interesting comments where he spoke about his concern for people who have been deprived of freedom in Cuba, the suffering of those people. It's an amazing platform for which to speak about these issues.
STEINBERGHe's decided not to meet with dissidence, but, hopefully, before leaving, he'll speak about the political lack of freedom that we see more explicitly before he departs.
REHMDo you think he'll say anything explicitly about Alan Gross, Wayne?
SMITHNo, I don't think he will. And I don't think he will meet with the dissidents. And so -- although he will probably say something about their plight and express some sympathy, perhaps, but I don't think he will meet with them. And I certainly don't think he'll meet with Alan Gross.
REHMAnd will everything he says fall on deaf ears, Mauricio?
CLAVER-CARONEWell, it already has. Actually, one of these young 50-year-olds, Murillo, who's the economic czar, said that there would be no political reform in Cuba, so not much hope from those supposed youngsters of the regime.
REHMMauricio Claver-Carone, Wayne Smith, Nik Steinberg, Michael Reid, thank you all.
REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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