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For the first time in 50 years, the Cuban government has eased travel restrictions for its citizens. Please join us to discuss who may leave, for how long and what the new rules could signal about Cuba’s future.
- Tomas Bilbao Executive director, Cuban Study Group.
- Tom Gjelten NPR national security correspondent and author of "Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause."
- Peter Brookes Senior fellow for national security affairs at the Heritage Foundation; former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs in the second Bush administration; author, "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. In the first reform of strict immigration rules since 1961, the Cuban government announced plans earlier this week to allow some Cubans to more easily leave the country for up to two years. Joining me to talk about the new rules, what they mean for Cubans and for the U.S.: Tomas Bilbao of the Cuban Study Group, Tom Gjelten, NPR national security correspondent, and Peter Brookes of the Heritage Foundation.
MS. DIANE REHMI invite you to be part of the program. Call us on 800-433-8850. Weigh in with your own thoughts. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, everybody. Thanks for being here.
MR. TOMAS BILBAOGood morning.
MR. TOM GJELTENGood morning, Diane.
MR. PETER BROOKESGood morning.
REHMGood to see you all. Tom Gjelten, what do we know about this new rule and how these new rules are going to be implemented?
GJELTENWell, Diane, for a long time, one of the biggest complaints of ordinary Cubans has been the difficulty that they encounter trying to leave the island or to come back to the island if they have gone. It's been -- they've had to get an exit visa, which is something that doesn't exist in many countries. It certainly doesn't exist in the United States. You don't have to get a visa from the U.S. government to leave the country. You've had to do that as a Cuban. You have to get that.
GJELTENAnd these new rules eliminate that need for an exit visa and also make it much easier to get a re-entry permit. Now, the issue is -- and so on the face of it, that's a huge and very important development. The rub is, as in many things Cuban, the government gets to set the rules, and this is a government that sets the rules according to what it deems necessary from a political point of view at any point. And there are some conditions that could really take away the impact of this change.
GJELTENBasically, they can say they are not going to allow you to leave the island or if leaving the island would present some kind of national security risk to the country or if they think that you're a contribution to the Cuban status, so important, they can't run the risk of you leaving. So there are various loopholes that could take it away. In theory, it's a big development.
REHMAnd, Tomas, there are certain people who can leave and others who cannot leave. Who are they?
BILBAOWell, according to the new regulations, there are exceptions that are created for those who can be denied the passport or the ability to leave the country. And although we have to wait for the implementation to see how that's put in practice, there are, you know, eight or so categories, including, for example, people who have civil proceedings against them. So this could, for example, affect someone like a dissident, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who's been released from prison but is still under a civil processing procedure.
BILBAOAnd then he would -- does not qualify to leave the country under these new laws, also, anyone who's deemed to be -- their travel being a threat to national security or against the public interest. So there's plenty of flexibility here for the Cuban government to determine who fits within those categories.
REHMSo -- but that includes doctors. It includes scientists, includes pilots, military officers. So you've got a whole segment of the society that the government has said cannot leave.
BILBAOWell, what it doesn't -- what it in fact says is that for those who are in those special categories that they say vital to the Cuban government or the Cuban government -- or Cuba's economy, those people, including doctors and folks in certain strategic areas, will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. So it's not that they are -- have a blanket denial. It's that the government will make a determination on -- based on each individual case.
REHMAnd, also, what about cost?
BILBAOWell, the cost now -- so you no longer have to pay for the exit permit, you no longer have to pay to get the -- process the letter of invitation, but the cost of the passport itself is now up to, I believe, 200 CUCs, which is, you know, equivalent to, you know, you think that the average Cuban monthly salary is around $20 or $30. It's a, you know, prohibitively expensive cost, but it is also in line with the charges, the fees that the U.S. government charges for immigrant visas, which are around $200, $230.
REHMAnd, Peter Brookes, Tom Gjelten called this a major development. How do you see it?
BROOKESWe're going to have to see what happens in January and how the program is implemented. I mean, you know, there is a lot of flexibility, as Tomas and Tom have said already, for their Cuban government to decide who can and cannot leave. This is not a -- it's a step in the right direction, but it's not necessarily a major -- a full change. We still have huge issues, political, social freedom issues. And we're going to have to see what happens in January when this program is implemented. So the proof is going to be in the pudding.
REHMSo you would not, on its face, call it a major development. You would say we just have to see what happens.
BROOKESI think that's where I am at right now. I mean, you know, quite frankly, I don't disagree with Tom. He was put on the spot to have to characterize it, and I think that's a fair characterization. It's possibly a major development, and we're going to have to see what happens at January.
GJELTENI said it was a major development in theory.
BROOKESOh, OK. Right. All right. There you go.
REHMIn theory. Forgive me. How do you see it?
BILBAOWell, I think it's a positive development. It's a positive step that the Cuban government has taken. And we realize that as Cuba embarks in the process of reforms, there will be people within the government who resist those reforms, and then there will be reformers who are trying to push the envelope. And so we realize that any time these reforms take place -- and we've seen that with the economic they're never perfect. They're -- many times, they take too long, and they're, many times, even contradictory.
BILBAOBut I think that, you know, our job from this side of the Florida Straits is to encourage those reforms, and I think that characterizing these reforms as a farce, as some have done, is counterproductive.
REHMRaul Castro said he want to institute this reform when he took over from his brother Fidel four years ago. So four years in the making?
BILBAOIn fact, it's probably more than four years because the second important part of these reforms are the migratory reforms that affect Cubans who are living abroad. So those of us who live in the United States or any other country who want to return to Cuba, either to visit or to live or to stay for long periods of time, those regulations have not been published. So the Cuban government has purposely delayed those.
BILBAOAnd, again, that probably highlights the fact that there are people on the Cuban government who push back on these reforms so that negotiations take place within the Cuban government. But, again, I think that the job of the United States and for those of us outside is to actually encourage those reforms any way we can.
GJELTENWell, this actually goes back all the way to 2006 when Fidel got sick and turned over power, at first temporarily and then two years later, permanently, to Raul. Ever since Raul sort of ascended to this position of leadership, he has been projecting this image of being interested in reforms. However, there have been -- as I think we all agree, there have been a number of sort of countervailing developments. He has purged a lot of the leadership in Cuba, the younger people.
GJELTENHe has surrounded himself largely with old comrades from the revolution. You know, most of the people in positions of leadership are 75 years or older. And a lot of the reforms that he has proposed, ranging from allowing Cubans to have cellphones, buy computers, et cetera, are really -- have really been undercut by the way that they have been implemented so that really the conditions of life for ordinary Cubans have not changed nearly as much as you would think, given all the attention that have been given to Raul's supposed reforms.
REHMYou're looking very skeptically, Tomas.
BILBAOWell, I think that we, you know, we need to be fair in the sense that some of the reforms, especially on the economic front, have had an impact. You now have close to 400,000 entrepreneurs that are independent from the state in Cuba. That number will probably reach half a million by the end of the year. And so these are people who now have better chance of actually taking control of their lives at least in an economic sense.
REHMWhat about computer ownership? What about cellphone use? What about hotel stays, that sort of thing?
BILBAOSo on the electronics, specifically the explosion in the number of cellphones in Cuba has been quite impressive. What becomes the main impediment, of course, is the very expensive fees that are charged. And so many people in Cuba actually use more of it as a pager or for text messages than they do for talking.
BILBAOBut, you know, that, together with the ability to purchase laptop or, more importantly, for family members to bring them in and donate them, has really helped support the dissident blogger movement inside Cuba and ordinary Cubans who want to perhaps maintain accounting records for their independent businesses.
BROOKESWell, the one thing that hasn't come up yet is where's Fidel? I mean, there's been lots of rumors for the last couple of weeks about whether he's with us or moved on to another parallel state.
REHMWe had the first communiqué from Fidel which was released yesterday, congratulating doctors just graduating from a Cuban medical institute. But that is the first since all this talk about is Fidel dead. How did that come up, Tom?
GJELTENWell, the main reason that it came up, Diane, is that what we have heard from Fidel in the past have been these regular columns that he writes that appear in newspapers. None of those columns have appeared since June. So that's the first thing that raised some suspicion. Second and more important, when Hugo Chavez was reelected president of Venezuela -- and there's nobody probably on the planet today outside of Raul who's closer to Fidel than Hugo Chavez -- when Hugo Chavez was reelected, Fidel did not call him or comment on his reelection.
GJELTENAnd that set many people to speculating that something was wrong with Fidel because it was very uncharacteristic of him. And then -- since then, there have been a number of allegedly well-informed sources who have said things, like he is in a state of dementia or that he has had a -- there was a report in a Spanish newspaper just this morning saying that he'd had a cerebral embolism. So again, the rumors are swirling.
REHMTom Gjelten, NPR national security correspondent and, of course, the author of "Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause." Short break and we'll be right back.
REHMAnd as we talk about new developments in Cuba, its ongoing difficulties in relationship to the United States, here in the studio: Peter Brookes. He is at the Heritage Foundation, former deputy assistant secretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration and author of "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States," Tom Gjelten, NPR national security correspondent, and Tomas Bilbao, he's executive director of the Cuban Study Group.
REHMHere's an email that says -- it's from Sue. She says, "I hope you're planning on addressing the wet foot, dry foot immigration policy and how the lifting of these travel restrictions might change that. I live in the Florida Keys. If a boatful of Cuban refugees is caught offshore, they return to Cuba. If they make it to dry land, they're allowed to remain in the U.S. How will these changes affect that?" Tom Gjelten.
GJELTENWell, these -- that's U.S. policy, so these changes won't affect that at all. I mean, the obvious beneficiaries of this change would be those Cubans who have U.S. visas, who have family in the U.S., for example, and have been given permission to leave Cuba and visit those relatives in the United States.
REHMThey have to be invited, don't they?
GJELTENThat is one of the changes that the letter of -- there's been -- that's been relaxed. The requirement that they be invited has been relaxed. Now, the -- again, though, that's just the Cuban government's side. If the U.S. government has given these people visas and permission to visit their relatives, now, that's basically all -- theoretically, all they need. Now, they will be able to go. However, if you don't have a U.S. visa -- and it's a very long wait to get a U.S. visa for a Cuban or anyone else -- then these -- then this change is not going to make that much of a difference.
REHMHere is an email from Nilda, (sp?) who says, "What's going to happen now with those who will come to the U.S.A.? They have so many advantages over other immigrants. I was amazed to learn that if you, as an immigrant, marry a Cuban, you automatically get a green card and never have to visit the immigration office again. But if you marry an American, you're given a two-year green card and have to go back to renew it. They get so many other privileges." Peter.
BROOKESWell, I won't say I'm an immigration specialist, but my understanding is, once again as Tom mentioned, that they're going to need a visa to come to the United States. So not only getting a passport from the Cuban government and a permission to leave, they still got to get a visa. I think I saw a number that the U.S. issued about 14,000 visas last year, maybe more than that.
BROOKESBut I think this is something that Congress is going to have to look at because if somebody comes here -- and they're obviously dry foot if they land at the airport. There's no wet foot involved -- and they request political asylum, it seems to me, under current law -- I'm not a lawyer either -- that they might be able to stay. So you have an issue there. So this is something that Congress is going to have to look at, I think. I don't know if U.S. laws will need to be amended or, you know, the current policy, but this is obviously something that's going on in Cuba that's going to affect us here.
GJELTENDiane, this is a law that goes all the way back to early 1960s, at a time when Cuba was, you know, the problem of Cuba was paramount in U.S. foreign policy. And there was this decision, basically, to make it easier for Cubans to get status in the United States. And, you know, it's absolutely true. No other nationality has this kind of preferential treatment. And there's -- and that's real foreign in the side of U.S.-Cuban relations. The Cuban government really does not like this because it sees it as an effort by the United States to promote people leaving Cuba.
REHMEven entice them. Tomas.
BILBAOWell, I guess, there's a couple of things here that make it confused. First of all, there is an agreement between the U.S. and Cuba and during the migratory law agreements of the 1990s that allows for the U.S. to issue up to 20,000 immigrant visas a year. And so those immigrant visas that are issued are issued for the purpose of immigration. So there's no issue as to -- I mean, there's nothing Congress needs to look at. It's the same thing we've been doing for decades that will continue to happen.
BILBAOThe difference being that if these Cubans, who in the past, have received a U.S. visa but had not received permission to leave, may now actually be able to use those visas. So nothing changes from this side. The reason that the policy is different, perhaps from other countries -- and in some cases, it's not so different -- is that when Cubans come to the United States and claim political asylum or -- actually, they don't even need to claim political asylum.
BILBAOBy virtue of being in the United States and being of Cuban descent, they can adjust their status without having to return to their home country. Other countries, you would have to go back to your home country in order to adjust your status. Now, if you claim for political asylum, then that doesn't apply. And the reason the U.S. law is like that is because we realized Cubans can't go back if they're truly, you know, if they came to the United States because of, you know, the fear of their life or conditions in Cuba...
REHMThey can't go back. Yeah.
BILBAO...they can't go back and wait till we issue the permit.
GJELTENYou know, just one point, though. I don't want this discussion to pass without mentioning the case of Yoani Sanchez. Yoani Sanchez is a Cuban blogger, who writes about what it's like to be -- to live sort of an ordinary life in Cuba. In recent years, her writings have become more political, but she's not really a dissident. She's, you know, much more of a blogger-journalist. She's won many awards internationally and has never -- and has had visas offered to her from many countries.
GJELTENThe Cuban government has never allowed her to leave the island. She has already said that when this law goes into effect, these new regulations go into effect in January, she's going to be right down there asking, once again, for permission to leave. I think whether the Cuban government allows Yoani Sanchez to leave is probably going to be the most important test of this new regulation.
BILBAOI would add to that, that not just allow her to leave, but allow her to come back because, you know, Yoani has left Cuba. She was -- she lived in Switzerland and studied in Switzerland and came back to Cuba...
BILBAO...years ago. She then became, you know, a renowned blogger and has received lots of awards, as you said. But her case and the case of other dissidents like Oscar Espinosa Chepe and others and the Damas de Blanco, who have received EU awards and have been denied the -- an exit permit to go receive the award from the EU, these people fear that if they are, in fact, allowed to leave, like many of the political prisoners who were released from jail and sent to Spain, that they won't be allowed back.
BROOKESThat's the exact -- Tomas is right about that. That's the exact problem is that this could release some social pressure, who the Cubans are allowed -- allowing to leave. If you're a dissident, I mean, the Soviet Union did this. They got rid of people, Sakharov and others. And they're less trouble outside the country. And even though there is access to the Internet, you know, I'm familiar with a lot of other countries, such as China that do a pretty good job of keeping information out and blocking access.
BROOKESSo if they go overseas and they can't back, they might be able to blog and still be an activist about it or a dissident, but they can't get back in the country. And then the government probably would appreciate that.
REHMHere's an email from Sean in Cincinnati, who says, "This policy change is very exciting as it seems to mirror the very policy changes in Hungary, and later East Germany, in the late 1980s that ultimately led to the collapse communist rule in East Europe. Can your panelists discuss similarities and differences with the changes in travel restrictions that happen then versus the changes in the Cuban policy now?" Tom, you covered it all.
GJELTENI was there. The really important change in Eastern Europe was the decision by the East German authorities to allow East Germans to leave East Germany and go to Hungary and other countries where it was much easier from those other countries to go into the West. You saw this massive outflow of East Germans, and that was the beginning of the end. It's an interesting observation. It's absolutely right.
BILBAOBut I think we also need to -- and one of the problems with U.S. policy towards Cuba is where experts ignoring the lessons from the rest of the world. And in this case, I think it's important also to look here domestically and say, we continue to have travel restrictions to Cuba. Now, Cuban-Americans can go visit family members under certain conditions, and there are certain licenses for journalists and others.
BILBAOBut largely, U.S. society is isolated from Cuban society, and Cuban society is isolated from U.S. society. And so I think that we need to, you know, to smarten up, look at what happened and what worked in Europe and try to emulate those type of policies, so…
REHMAnd especially if you think about China, if you think about other countries, still questionable as far as the U.S.
BROOKESYeah. I have some concerns about where this conversation's going on this because I've experienced, you know, I've been to North Korea. I've followed that. I've been to China many times. I've been to other parts of the world. I've seen reforms come and go. At North Korea today, they'll talk about how they're opening up little markets and stuff like that. When I was there in the late 1990s as a congressional staffer, they were doing the same thing. And then when it got a little too out of control, they clamped down.
BROOKESThe Chinese people can travel today, but the Chinese government hasn't changed. It's still very repressive. So this -- I'm not saying that people-to-people contact is not an important issue. But the fact is is that this government, since it is a, you know, totalitarian government, can cramp -- crack down on these reforms, stop them, and they can -- and thus the people that go back there still have to live within that system. So I'm not convinced, and I think each case is unique, but I'm not convinced that we can necessarily say what happened in Eastern Europe is going to happen with Cuba.
REHMWe haven't talked about money at all and how important is easing of restriction could be economically beneficial to Cuba. Tomas.
BILBAOWell, I think you're referring to economically beneficial to the Cuban government, correct? But I think that the -- without correcting you, in other words, if we just discuss how it can be beneficial to Cuba, then we need to take into consideration how it's beneficial to Cubans and not just the Cuban government. U.S. policy obsesses on how money helps the Cuban government. And it completely ignores the benefits that these exchanges or these resources can have on the Cuban people.
BILBAOAnd so the Cuban Study Group believes it's time to stop obsessing with hurting the Cuban government and time to start obsessing with helping the Cuban people. I mean, sure, the Cuban government can roll back on the travel restrictions, but the U.S. government does that just about every four years. The Bush administration clamped down on travel by Americans to Cuba, and the Obama administration opened them. Something will happen with the next administration. I think the focus here needs to be what the benefit is to the Cuban people.
GJELTENI'm not so sure it's accurate to say the U.S. government policy obsesses on the financial benefits to the Cuban government because, under this administration, there's been a major relaxation of regulations about sending money to Cuba. Now, basically, any American can send money to any Cuban, and that has been a huge source of income for the Cuban country, for the Cuban government and for ordinary Cubans.
GJELTENNow, unfortunately, I think the bad thing about this is that the only Cubans that benefit are the ones that have relatives in the states or friends in the states. So this actually widens the gap between those Cubans who have relatives abroad and those who don't.
BROOKESThis is -- Diane, this is always a challenge. I mean, we have no problem with the North Korean people, but we have problem with the regime, the same thing with sanctions on Iran today over the nuclear program. We don't want to alienate the people of Iran, but we have problems with the regime. And the same thing here with Cuba, you know, keeping the government weak keeps them from -- makes them -- harder for them to repress their people.
BROOKESIt also -- you have to look back. We're 50 years after the Cuban missile crisis, and remember Cuban adventurism in Central America in the 1980s and Africa. So I think there's a strategic reason for keeping the government weak.
REHMPeter Brookes of the Heritage Foundation. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Tomas...
REHM...you wanted to weigh in.
BILBAOYeah. I just wanted to say that there's a major difference between U.S. sanctions towards North Korea and Iran and Cuba. And the main difference is we have targeted sanctions towards North Korea, targeted sanctions to Iran that focus on members of the regime, and on Cuba we have blanket sanctions for 50 years.
BROOKESThat's not true.
BILBAOSo -- well, I mean, we have no travel restrictions to North Korea. We have no travel restrictions to Iran.
BILBAONo. The Iranian government and the North Korean government may not let us in, but the U.S. persons are not prohibited from visiting those countries.
BROOKESThe North Koreans are under the Trading with the Enemy Act, OK?
BROOKESAnd the sanctions are different. You're right. Each set of sanctions is definitely different, but they serve the same purpose, and that's to try to guide the policies. Whether they're successful or not, that's another question, but to guide the policies of those particular governments.
BILBAOBut we can agree that sanctions towards Cuba are the most comprehensive blanket sanctions we have towards any country and that the sanctions that we have towards other countries are more targeted to members of the regime.
BROOKESNorth Korea is very broad.
REHMHow much of this change is coming because of the internal pressure, Tomas?
BILBAOI think the Cuban government realizes, especially with the change of leadership from Fidel, who's a very charismatic leader, to his brother Raul, who's perhaps more of a pragmatic, bureaucratic type of person that they needed to institute some types of reforms to gain legitimacy and also to try to address the failures of the Cuban economy and provide some type of relief so that the Cuban people will -- I don't want to suggest the Cuban people are going to rise up and rebel against the government anytime soon.
BILBAOBut they do have certain sense of making sure that they at least maintain a certain level of standard of living. So -- which, I think we can all agree, is a low level or deplorable level. That being said, I think that they do feel that they have to respond in certain areas, but I think that we shouldn't be naive. Most of these reforms will always be taken by the Cuban government in light of what benefits to the Cuban government helps perpetuate their system.
BILBAOWhat our job is to find those reforms that also provide a collateral benefit to the people and focus on how we help empower the Cuban people vis-à-vis the state. And that's what we can do with the migratory policy and with the reforms on -- economic reforms allowing entrepreneurship in Cuba.
GJELTENIf you look at each of the reforms that Raul Castro has introduced over the last six years, they have responded to particular grievances by the Cuban people. I mean, if you talk about cellphones, if you talk about the right to self-employment and if you talk about the right to travel, he is highlighting those very issues that matter the most to ordinary Cubans. And that, I think, does show that he is concerned about popular support for the Cuban system, and he is trying to sort of respond to these grievances.
GJELTENOn the other hand, there is this great fear on the part of Raul and his comrades of losing control over the system. So it's kind of you give a little bit, you pull back. There's -- they're very cautious.
REHMAnd to what extent do you think that the -- even these tiny relaxations could lead to a rethinking of U.S. policy toward Cuba? Peter.
BROOKESWell, we're going to have to see what happens. Obviously, January is important. You know, the death of Fidel could make -- open things up a little bit more. I think we should be flexible and understanding in our policy. I think we should be reviewing our policy regularly. We may have a different administration, you know, in -- next year. But in the same sense, I think we have to stand behind our principles regarding political and social freedom, human rights, and this government in Cuba is not supportive of those.
BROOKESAnd so in terms of sanctions and other things, I have no problem with trying to help the Cuban people, but I do have problems with empowering the government. And right now, it still is -- I mean, this -- Cuba is already our seventh largest trading partner. I mean, Cuba -- we're Cuba's seventh largest trading partner. There's hundreds of millions of dollars in food, in pharmaceuticals and other things. They go back and forth.
BROOKESThey've mismanaged the economy horribly, they've inflicted these wounds on themselves, and the Cuban people are the victims of their government. But I think as United States of America, we need to stand strong with the Cuban people against their government.
BILBAOYeah. I would agree with Peter. In fact, that's why last year, when 74 of Cuba's most prominent dissidents wrote U.S. Congress, asked him to lift, unilaterally, all travel restrictions to Cuba, they were telling us that U.S. government should not put reforms in the hands of Cuban government by expecting a tit for tat on changes of U.S. policy for theirs.
REHMTomas Bilbao, he is executive director of the Cuban Study Group. When we come back, we'll open the phones, take your calls. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd before we open the phones, let's get some clarification on this. From Yvette who identifies herself as Cuban and disagrees with our guest comment -- she doesn't specify which -- she says, "What the law does not address is the current monthly fee Cuban nationals have to pay to the Cuban government for staying outside of the country. Currently, to stay in the U.S., that fee is $150 per month of stay and the fees vary from country to country." Tom Gjelten.
GJELTENI believe it does address that. I might be wrong, but they have to, yeah. Each month that Cubans prolong their visit in the United States, right now, they have to pay $150 or have, up until now, had paid $150 to the Cuban diplomatic mission here in Washington. And Cubans refer to this jokingly as renting their abuelitas, renting their grandmothers, because in order to stay, they have to pay this. Now, I was thinking that this actually does relax that, but I might be wrong.
BILBAOYeah, I don't believe that the way that this was announced was actually in the Federal Register, and I don't believe that the Federal Register establishes the fees for that. I believe it leaves that up to the bureaucracy to establish the fees. It does talk about how long you're allowed to stay outside the country without having to renew that, and there have been some small changes there, but I don't believe it speaks to the fees.
BROOKESI would be surprised if it went away, Diane, frankly. I mean, the Cuban government is very hungry for foreign currency, for especially hard currency. They're trading, you know, the -- one of the reasons people don't want to trade with them is because they become debtors, they don't meet their obligations. So if they can get $150 a month, I think they'll probably be wiling to continue collecting that.
REHMAll right. Let's go now to Miami, Fla. and to Gloria. Good morning. You're on the air.
GLORIAGood morning, Diane, and I think you're the most outstanding, fabulous lady.
GLORIAAs far as this issue, the Cubans are very, very privileged group in the United States, especially in Miami. There is a very large -- a large population of them. And when they came, starting in the '60s because of communism, they were greeted very warmly. They came by plane then and later, of course, there was the Cubans that came with the boats. But they get a Social Security check after they're here a very short time. They get Medicaid, and they get food stamps.
GLORIASo they are really a very privileged group. And they don't seem to want to learn English as readily as other immigrant groups. And in Miami, you -- Americans can't get jobs unless they're bilingual. But the Cuban people get jobs in all the grocery stores and all the wholesale stores, in all stores, and they assume that you speak Spanish as soon as you walk in, and they approach you in Spanish. And then their English is very limited.
REHMAll right. Tomas, do you want to talk about that?
BILBAOYeah. You know, I understand what the caller is saying. However, I have a problem with the characterization, having served as personal aide to Mel Martinez who came to the United States as an orphan, as a child and became a member of the president's cabinet, and then the first Cuban-American center in the history of the United States, and as the executive director or a group of 20 hugely successful Cuban-American businessmen.
BILBAOI have a problem with the characterization that seems to -- or the insinuation that's -- that the caller seems to be making that Cuban-Americans are coming to the United States for the social benefits. I think the contributions of the exile community here in the United States is unquestionable, and, you know, I hope the listener understood my English 'cause I think it's pretty good.
GJELTENYou know, she's calling from Miami, and Miami's a very singular place. There's no question. I have spent a lot of time in Miami myself. There's no question that it's in many ways more of a Spanish-speaking city than an English-speaking city and certainly in many sections of the city. You know, that's a phenomenon that has existed in sort of immigration centers, you know, throughout U.S. history.
GJELTENAnd, again, I agree with Tomas. I don't think it's fair to say that Cubans don't want to learn English. I mean, if you look back, particularly if you look back in the 1960s, Cubans who arrived, came in from exile from Cuba, have a tremendous record of business and professional achievement and assimilation into U.S. culture.
REHMTomas, is there any indication that those Cubans who've come more recently and have found a community within Miami may be less -- have less incentive to learn English because they find themselves comfortable within their own language and maybe have less access to education?
BILBAOWell, I think that inevitably, any immigrant population that tends to concentrate in any geographical area is going to have a much easier time maintaining their native culture and maintaining their native language. I know that when my brother and his family were expats in Moscow, they lived in a community where everyone spoke English. So my sister-in-law isn't exactly fluent in Russian. But I wouldn't say that that is any indication of her disdain or love or taking advantage of the system in Russia.
BILBAOAnd I think that, of course, as an immigrant myself -- and I came from Venezuela. My father is Cuban. My mother is Argentine. We're all immigrants. We all made an effort to assimilate to the United States, to study hard, to contribute to the country, to serve any way we can. And I think that that's what the overwhelming majority of immigrants do.
BILBAOBut I do think that if you're in a community where everyone speaks Spanish, it's -- and, you know, you can go to the store and buy the same food you ate at home, that becomes more difficult. But people should make an effort to learn English, of course.
REHMAll right. To Ann Arbor, Mich. Good morning, John.
JOHNOh, good morning. Someone mentioned -- you touched on the travel issue, but they did it for the perspective of what the Cuban government does towards its citizens. But what about the focus of the United States? I would like to be free to travel to Cuba, as would many citizens of the United States, just as free as we are to go to Mexico or China or Canada.
JOHNAnd this policy is actually repressing us, the U.S. policy, which continues the embargo, of course, also was a long-term, really, questionable legal policy that the U.S. continues. And as far as the alleged adventurism of Cuba in Angola when they help defeat the South Africans and help liberate the colonies and protect the colonies in Portuguese Africa, I think that's to Cuba's credit.
REHMAll right, Peter Brookes, travel.
BROOKESYeah. I mean, I understand the caller's concern. I think it goes back to the fact that most of the instruments of tourism, most of the infrastructure belongs to the government, so it goes -- once again, it goes back to the issue of putting money in the pockets of the Cuban government which would allow them. I think, as to the economy, about 75 percent nationalized now or more than that.
GJELTENIt's more than that.
BROOKESIt's probably more than. I've seen numbers high as 90, 95 percent. I've seen numbers as low as 75 percent. So if you go to Cuba and you stay in a hotel, until things change, you're basically going to be putting money in the pocket of the Cuban government which would allow them to repress people, to do other things. And so I think that's the concern here. I don't think it's trying to keep people from traveling there. It's -- you can -- it's actually trying to keep them from spending money in Cuba.
BILBAOYeah. I'd think that if what Peter is saying, you know, if you believe or if you hold the belief that denying money to the Cuban government as we've been doing for 50 years is going to cause change, which it hasn't, then you could at least make the argument that giving the growing independent sector inside Cuba where they now have almost half a million of the people, and by the way, there were private places you could stay in the past, but, of course, they can't handle the full load of tourist visitors to Cuba.
BILBAOThen this is a great opportunity for American travelers to go to Cuba, stay in a private hotel, eat at a private restaurant, buy things from private, you know, musicians and private entrepreneurs, and help empower those people as opposed to the -- as a libertarian and a conservative, I have a problem with the U.S. government telling me, we're going to tell -- we're going to decide, just like the Cuban government does with its passports, whether you're a good traveler or a bad traveler.
BROOKESBut we're overlooking the fact the others trade and travel to Cuba, Canadians, Europeans, and it hasn't changed anything at all. That's my view. See, that's the difference. You see, we always say U.S.-Cuba. And we don't step back, open the aperture and say the fact that the Europeans can travel there, the Cuban -- the Canadians can travel there, the Chinese can travel there, Russians can travel there, and it isn't changing anything. So what -- I agree with you. We haven't reached our final objective, seeing the Cuban people free, democracy.
BROOKESBut I've -- the problem is, is we can't just say it's all the United States' fault. Cuba has mismanaged its economy. And it's an authoritarian state.
GJELTENWell, you know, I mean, you can look at the fact that the Canadians and Europeans can travel and invest in Cuba, and conclude from that that the policy of engagement does not work because Cuba hasn't changed. Or you can look at the policy of isolation and come to the exact same conclusion: isolation doesn't work 'cause Cuba hasn't changed. I think it has to do with Cuba itself.
REHMTom Gjelten, he's national security correspondent for NPR. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's see. "Just yesterday," says an email from Eduardo, who was born in Cuba, who's been a U.S. citizen since 1967. He said, "Just yesterday, another Cuban-born friend and I were discussing the recent measures by the travel government -- by the Cuban government regarding travel. What a sham."
REHM"It is all intended to make it look to the foreign press, and that includes 'The Diane Rehm Show,' as if Cuba were truly letting its people go just like the foreign press has swallowed the story about Cuba having a terrific health care system and education system." Tomas, do you want to address briefly the health care system and the education system in Cuba?
BILBAOI think that we shouldn't shy away from the fact that the Cuban government did make certain strides in access to health care, in access to education. I mean, quality is a different issue. But over time that has deteriorated. And, in fact, just the other day, they closed hundreds of hospitals because they can no longer sustain them.
BILBAOI think that focusing on what the Cuban government may or may not have done wrong over the last thing year -- over the last 50 years is a conversation that could take forever. I think we need to continue to encourage reforms even while we are cautious and wait and see how they play out.
REHMIs this a sort of sham game from your point of view, Tom?
GJELTENYou mean to talk about Cuban health and education system being...
REHMNo, no. The idea of loosening these rules as being sort of a, you know, we want you to focus on this. This is not really a big change.
GJELTENNo. I don't think the target audience here is the foreign press or foreigners. I think the target audience is the Cuban population, the Cuban people. And I think the Cuban government does want the Cuban people to conclude from these reforms that things are changing. I think that the Cuban leaders want Cubans to feel encouraged and hopeful about the future. I think the problem again is that they are just not -- they don't dare go all the way.
GJELTENThey just -- they are very cautious in the way these are implemented. They're worried that the people will sort of -- their expectations will arise too much, that there'll be too many demands for more change. So they're half-hearted. But I do think that they sincerely want the Cuban people to feel things are changing.
BROOKESYou know, the regime -- all these authoritarian regimes, the most important thing to them is regime survival. So if whether this -- we're going to have to see in January whether this is real or not, OK? So, we'll have -- the court is still out on that. But the fact is they probably would like more investment in Cuba because that would help the regime stay in power, and so they're looking at it from both ways. They have social pressures at home.
BROOKESThey have an international image they're trying to portray. They have this relationship with this large country 90 miles away. So there's a lot of things at play here, and we're just going to have to see them. I mean, they have the finger in the dike. There's some water coming out around it. But they may decide to patch it over completely, or they could open it up a little bit more.
REHMAnd you're saying we have to wait until January to see, when these rules are actually implemented, who is affected, how much good it does, how much change it could bring to relations with the U.S.? The Congress moves to make any changes at the tone.
BROOKESI'm very hardcore about Cuba. There shouldn't be any doubt about that. But I want to see the Cuban people free. I want to see political and social changes there. I'm willing to be open-minded about it if those things will happen. I just haven't -- I want to see them happen.
GJELTENYou know, I'm not convinced that the Cuban government really wants the United States to totally lift the travel restrictions to Cuba because I think there would be a huge interest in the part of Americans wanting to visit Cuba.
GJELTENAnd I'm not sure that the Cuban authorities would feel entirely comfortable with hundreds of thousands of Cubans so all of a sudden coming to their island sort of roaming around, staying in private houses, talking freely to Cubans. There are a lot of Americans that speaks Spanish. You know, I think the Cuban authorities would have mixed feelings, to say the least, about that.
BROOKESI think that's a good point. I think that's a good point. You've heard stories about this. I mean, in Asia, they used to talk about it. Kim Il-sung, the leader of North Korea, went to southern China, and Deng Xiaoping showed him the changes that were going on, their economic changes in the '80s. And he says -- he said to Kim Il-sung -- he said, you see what happens when you open a window to the West? And Kim Il-sung respond, when we opened the window to the West, you also get the flies and the mosquitoes as well.
BROOKESSo there's a concern about having people in and the same with the Iranians. They don't want, you know, they have concerns about a lot of Americans running around there and what trouble might -- they might cause.
BILBAOWhat better argument to allow all Americans to travel to Cuba. But I think it goes back to the conversation earlier about, well, Canadians and Europeans have been able to travel to Cuba, and that hasn't changed Cuba. I don't think anyone is saying the travel alone is going to changed Cuba. But at the same time, we need to recognize that Canada hasn't had a 50-year policy of confrontation with Cuba, or that the majority of Cubans living abroad don't live in Canada. They live in United States.
BILBAOSo it's a very different scenario between Europe and between Canada and between the impact that U.S. and -- contact between U.S. and Cuban society could have.
REHMWhat happens when both Fidel and Raul are gone? Tomas.
BILBAOWell, I guess that's the big question. I mean, Cuban government obviously has a process of succession. Raul has said he'll handle -- he won't stay in power for more than five years. So when his term is up, there will be a change in leadership. I think the Cuban government is concerned with preserving what it calls the revolution. And a lot of these changes are aimed towards winning some support that has been eroding over 50 years, especially in the younger generations for the revolution.
BILBAOAnd so I think that to the extent that we can help facilitate that process of reforms, even if the Cuban government thinks it's in its interest, I believe it helps empower Cubans, vis-à-vis the state.
GJELTENI don't know of a single Cuban leader under the age of 60 who is in position to succeed Raul Castro. So I think they can say they have a succession plan. Boy, it's hard to see what it is.
REHMTom Gjelten, he's national security correspondent for NPR. Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuban Study Group, and Peter Brookes, senior fellow for national security affairs at the Heritage Foundation. Thank you all so much.
BILBAOThank you, Diane.
BROOKESThank you, Diane.
REHMThanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Susan Nabors, Rebecca Kaufman, Lisa Dunn and Megan Merritt. The engineer is Toby Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program is a production of WAMU 88.5 from American University in Washington, D.C. This is NPR.
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