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Guest Host: Katherine Lanpher
President Obama and President Raul Castro declared a “new day” of openness between the United States and Cuba yesterday in Havana. But old disputes over human rights are clearly visible during Obama’s historic trip to the island. It’s the first time a sitting U.S. president has visited Cuba in 88 years. The visit comes after Obama announced in 2014 that the U.S. would establish diplomatic relations with Cuba. But many think re-engaging with the dictatorship is a mistake. And most lawmakers do not want to lift the economic embargo of Cuba. Guest host Katherine Lanpher and a panel of guests talk about the debate over what a new era of relations with Cuba could mean for commerce, human rights and politics.
- Tomas Bilbao Managing director of Avila Strategies, a public affairs firm that assists corporations; member, Policy Advisory Council of Engage Cuba; board member, Cuba Emprende Foundation; senior associate, Center for Strategic and International Studies
- Mauricio Claver-Carone Editor, Capitol Hill Cubans; director, U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC.
- William LeoGrande Professor of government, school of public affairs, American University; co-author with Peter Kornbluh of "Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana"
- Geoff Thale Program director, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)
MS. KATHERINE LANPHERThanks for joining us. I'm Katherine Lanpher sitting in for Diane Rehm. President Obama's visit to Havana follows more than a year of work to thaw relations with Cuba. Embassies reopened in both countries. Some restrictions on travel and banking with Cuba have been lifted. Many, however, still disagree with the decision to work with the dictatorship.
MS. KATHERINE LANPHERWith me in the studio to talk about reengagement with Cuba is Tomas Bilbao with Avila Strategies and Engage Cuba, William LeoGrande at American University, and Geoff Thale with the Washington Office on Latin America. Joining us also from a studio in Florida is Mauricio Claver-Carone of Capitol Hill Cubans. Gentlemen, thank you all for joining us.
MS. KATHERINE LANPHERWilliam, I want to start with you. As we know, President Obama, at this very moment, is speaking in Havana, addressing both the Brussels attacks and then something that was more expected, his speech on Cuba. What exactly are we expecting from this speech?
MR. WILLIAM LEOGRANDEWell, I think that the president will go through some of the same themes that he did at his press conference yesterday after his meeting with Raul Castro. The fact that U.S. policy now is one of engagement, aimed at trying to build a constructive relationship with the United States, rather than the old policy of hostility that was aimed at regime change. He's also going to underscore, I think eloquently, his support and the support of the United States for human rights and for democracy, noting that there are sharp differences between Cuba and the United States on that issue. And I think he'll also talk about the kinds of issues of mutual interest on which we can cooperate going forward.
MR. WILLIAM LEOGRANDESome of those were named yesterday in the press conference as well -- global public health, counter-narcotics cooperation. And we've seen several MOUs already signed just in the last couple of days between the governments.
LANPHERMOU, what is that in civilian speak?
LEOGRANDEAh, sorry. That is Memorandums of Understanding between the two governments dealing with a number of issues of mutual interest.
LANPHERTomas, I'd like to go to you. Yesterday, President Obama, standing right beside President Castro, said he was confident the trade embargo on Cuba would end. How confident are you?
MR. TOMAS BILBAOI'm confident as well. I think it's just a matter of time. I think what we've seen is, of course, that in a presidential election year it's very difficult to get anything passed in Congress, especially a policy that's been around for 55 years. But if you look at the size of the congressional delegation that went with the president to Cuba, a bipartisan delegation, if you look at the number of bills in Congress, including, for example, a bill to repeal the ban on travel to Cuba that's been sponsored by Republican Jeff Flake, which has the support of 61 senators, so it's a bipartisan support -- and so I think we've seen more momentum than we ever have for this type of legislation.
LANPHERDoesn't it also mean something that there are so many representatives of business on this trip as well?
BILBAOYeah, clearly. As opportunities have opened, both in the private sector and for civil society, to engage with Cuba, there will be increased pressure on representatives in Congress to facilitate those transactions.
LANPHEROkay. Now, Geoff, we know that President Obama, along with making his speech today, is going to be meeting with dissidents. When he arrived, there was a haul out, if you will, of international media's recording Cuban protestors being taken away.
MR. GEOFF THALERight. So, every Sunday for the last three years, four years, the Ladies in White have been demonstrating. Most Sundays they sit down in the street and most Sundays they are detained. This Sunday it was a bigger group than usual and this Sunday there was more international media following it. The president is going to meet today with a small group of dissidents and he's going to meet with a broader group of people from Cuban society and the emerging Cuban business community.
MR. GEOFF THALEAnd I think what's important is, while clearly the president is going to and should meet with the dissident community, the signal he sends by meeting with Cuban society much more broadly, I think, sees change in Cuba coming not so much through a small group of dissidents but through a broader kind of process of change from religious people, from academics, from the new and emerging business community. And I think that's going to be the impulse for reform in Cuba itself.
LANPHERMauricio, I want to make sure that we include you in this conversation.
MR. MAURICIO CLAVER-CARONEI appreciate it.
LANPHERMany Republicans oppose this trip. Could you give us a brief outline of why you and others are against engaging with Cuba?
CLAVER-CARONEWell, I think, geopolitically, I think it's a mistake. First and foremost, because this is the first visit by an American president to a Latin American dictatorship since LBJ went to visit Somoza in Nicaragua in 1968. Today we have 34 out of 35 countries in the Western Hemisphere are democracies. That's something we should embrace. The president has only been to five or six Latin American countries. The fact that he's now chosen a dictatorship -- a totalitarian dictatorship, an anomaly in the Western Hemisphere -- as one of the ones to visit, sets a horrible message, frankly, of all the progress that's been taking place over the last 30 years towards democracy in the region.
CLAVER-CARONESecondly, because I believe that on the island, domestically, the message that's being sent and any good, frankly, that might have come out, for example, of yesterday and the Q and A when Jim Avila of CNN asked Raul Castro about human rights in Cuba, all of that has been then downplayed and damaged by what Ben Rhodes and other Obama administration officials said afterwards, where they downplayed what human rights means. And we've actually heard now on the panel that there's differences. You know, there's a universal declaration of human rights. Eleanor Roosevelt would be rolling over in her grave.
CLAVER-CARONEWe agreed to -- including Cuba and the United States -- back in 1948, of what those international standards...
LANPHERMauricio, I'm going to make you pause here for just a minute. You mentioned the CNN reporter. I think details are important here. He is also a child of Cuban immigrants, correct?
LANPHERAnd Raul Castro, how did the President of Cuba respond?
CLAVER-CARONEWell, he didn't have an answer to...
LANPHERBut didn't he have...
CLAVER-CARONEHe actually said -- he actually didn't want to respond. And so I think, like, what my point is, that was a good moment. He didn't have -- and he said give me the list. There's been plenty of lists sent now of who the political prisoners are that he would supposedly release by the end of the night. And all those political prisoners are still in prison. So that was a good moment to show the world of what Raul Castro -- an unmasked Raul Castro. But the damage done was later done by administration officials who said -- then downplayed what the differences of what the definition of human rights are.
CLAVER-CARONEAnd Ben Rhodes said, well, you know, they think that people that -- that political prisoners, people that violate criminal laws. No, no, no. Political prisoners are people that are being held in prison because they are -- they -- because they disagree with the regime and are quote, unquote, "violating one of the standards in the universal declaration of human rights." And I think that when we muddle that picture and send those messages, we're actually then playing along to the themes of the regime in that regards.
LANPHERTomas, I think you had a response.
BILBAOYeah, two things. First, you know, Mauricio brings up the geopolitical implications. I think that's important to consider. Because, if we remember, it was the region -- Latin America and frankly the rest of the world, but let's focus on Latin America for a second -- that encouraged and in fact demanded that Cuba be re-included in the Summit of the Americas, that the United States engage with Cuba. And so I think that our standing in Latin America is improved, not diminished, by our engagement and our ability to work with Cuba on issues of bilateral interests. But also to press -- and we'll see President Obama now speaking to the Cuban people -- pressing on issues that are important to U.S. values.
BILBAOSo I think that that puts us in a stronger position to influence. As a Cuban dissident once told me, if you hope to influence, you have to be present. And the U.S. has been absent from Cuba under the previous policy. And now, for the first time, we have a presence in Cuba where we could actually have a American president -- sitting American president -- calling for improvements in human rights from Cuba.
LANPHERWilliam -- by the way, a lot of nodding heads here at what Tomas just said. William, you travel regularly to Cuba.
LANPHERWhat's your response to Mauricio and others who argue that engagement does not help further human rights?
LEOGRANDEWell, the first answer, of course, is that the policy that Mauricio and the conservative Republicans have advocated for the last 54 years did nothing to improve democracy and human rights in Cuba. But I think the president is right when he says that democracy and human rights are broader than just how the police are treating dissidents. Now, let me be clear. The Cuban government ought not be hauling off to jail people who are peacefully demonstrating. But human rights is not just how the police treat demonstrators. It's the right to own a business. The right to travel abroad. The right to practice your religion. The right to have access to the Internet, to own a computer or a cell phone or have a blog.
LEOGRANDEAnd these are all aspects of the broad tapestry of human rights. And in each of these areas, things have actually gotten better in Cuba over the last five or six years. And I think President Obama deserves some credit for that.
LANPHERI have been remiss in inviting you to join this conversation. We are taking your comments and questions. You can call us at 800-433-8850. That is, 800-433-8850. You can send us your email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can join us on Facebook or Twitter. We look forward to hearing from you. Yes, Geoff.
THALEJust a short comment. I think it's really important to emphasize that the climate of hostility between Cuba and the United States is a climate that encourages sort of the worst tendencies on the human rights issue inside the Cuban government. And I think the historical record in fact shows that, in moments of relaxation between Cuba and the United States, political prisoners are released and the human rights climate improves. And I think President Obama's decision, in that sense, broadly speaking, is going to contribute to the rights improvement.
LANPHERI'm going to ask Mauricio to respond to you, however, because I believe that since President Obama has announced a reengagement, the numbers on dissidents and political prisoners have not been what we could hope. Mauricio.
CLAVER-CARONEThat's right. That's right, actually the opposite has been the case. We've seen that, since the president's announcement in December of 2014, the number of political arrests in Cuba have gone up. There's been over 8,600 political arrests that took place throughout 2015. And just in the beginning of this year, in January or February of 2016, we've seen that there's been over 2,500. It's actually been the most repressive New Year's in decades taking place in Cuba.
CLAVER-CARONEBut, once again, I want to harp on this point because it's very important. We do a complete disservice to human rights throughout the world when we start saying, well, human rights can be this and they can be that, et cetera. That's why, in 1948, the nations of the world got together and agreed on a Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a set of those rights that was set within that framework. And that's very important.
CLAVER-CARONEBut another thing that we're not talking about here, which is very concerning in the region, is one of the things that the administration is doing is, we talk about the Cuban people and the rights of the Cuban people, but we're now authorizing through specific licenses, which we can discuss the legality, of doing business with entities owned by the Cuban military and intelligence services. And I'm not sure how that helps the Cuban people in any regards.
CLAVER-CARONEIf we were here in the 1980s talking about President Reagan pushing for businesses with General, you know, Che's families and the junta's companies, you know, many in the panel there would have been very, very critical of that. And Obama himself would probably be protesting at a college campus somewhere. So we're doing now -- we're actually doing a full 180 here and going back to the policies that we so criticized by the United States in dictatorships throughout Latin America 30, 40 years ago.
LANPHERWe'll get some responses on that in just a moment. I'm Katherine Lanpher and you are listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." All right, I know that we have several people here on our panel who want to speak. Tomas, a quick response and then we will go over...
BILBAOSure. I think it's important to be clear on the human rights situation as far as the political arrests go. We will all condemn -- everyone here on this panel, not one of us would stay out there and try to make excuses for the unjust political detentions that are taking place. At the same time, it's important to be clear so that we don't pay a disservice to those who are actually imprisoned. And there is a stark difference between the change in strategy that the Cuban government has had since the Obama administration implemented the new policy, which is changing long-term incarceration for short-term detentions.
BILBAOSo when Mauricio says that there's 86 imprisonments, what he means that there's been 8,600 instances where people have been detained, questioned, maybe held for 8, 12, maybe 24 hours and then released. That's deplorable. That shouldn't happen. But it is a sharp contrast to people being handed 15-, 30-year sentences and imprisoned in -- under deplorable conditions for many, many years, something that happened in the past under the policies of the last 50 years and which -- and many of those people, most of those people have since been released at the insistence of the U.S. and the Vatican.
LEOGRANDESo with regard to doing business with the Cuban Armed Forces, I assume Mauricio is referring to the recent announcement that Starwood Hotels is going to be taking over some management contracts of some of the Cuban hotels. The Department of the Treasury has a general policy of approving license requests that will benefit the Cuban people. Now I don't know what the details of the Starwood project are. But Starwood must have made a convincing case that that was going to benefit the Cuban people.
LANPHERI also have to point out that, if you are following business news, Starwood is potentially going to be acquired by the Chinese, which just furthers the geopolitical niceties here, doesn't it?
LEOGRANDEAlthough Marriott has a better offer on the table right now.
LANPHEROkay. Gentlemen, I want to go ahead and give us an email from Sharon in Rochester Hills, Mich. Why are human rights in Cuba held at a higher standard than many other countries, such as China, Russia and Egypt, which we have not sanctioned? I'm going to turn to Geoff.
THALESure. A couple of quick comments on that. One, I think, we're -- I work for a human rights organization and I think we believe there ought to be a single standard about human rights, whether it's Egypt of Chile or Argentine or El Salvador or Cuba. I think the question is how you get there. And I think how you get there, in the case of General Pinochet, who we were supporting and funding, is a very different question then how you get there in the case of Cuba, where we have an embargo in the country for 55 years. So I guess my basic point is that the goal is to advance human rights and political openness. The paths are very different and the leverage have is very different and you have to pick and choose.
LANPHERYeah, but to go on from Sharon's question, also, we don't have the same, say, threat from Cuba that we do from China, Russia. And we don't need Cuba necessarily as much as we might need Egypt in the Middle East. Doesn't that also come to bear?
LEOGRANDEWell, you know, I think that's actually not accurate. China, of course, is a strategic powerhouse. But Cuba is 90 miles away and there are -- almost all the issues we are dealing with in the Western Hemisphere are transnational issues. That is to say, they transcend national boundaries. We can't protect the environment without cooperation from our neighbors. We can't deal with problems like Zika without the cooperation of our neighbors, or narcotics trafficking or any of the long list of issues that are between us and Latin America. And I think Cuba's cooperation, because it is so close, is absolutely vital.
LANPHERLet's turn to another real estate matter, and that would be President Raul Castro calling on Obama to leave Guantanamo yesterday.
THALEI -- that's been Cuba's position...
THALE...sure, that's been Cuba's position since 1959. It's no surprise that it continues to be Cuba's position today. President Castro has said this repeatedly. President Obama has been clear that he's not contemplating shutting down the naval base and walking away from it. Although, I have to say, in the long term, I don't believe -- and I think people in the U.S. military don't believe -- that we have a geostrategic interest in keeping a base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And it's not hard to imagine that in the course of normalization of relations, the U.S. military would -- the Navy would happily leave that base for others.
LANPHERLet's also talk for a minute about Internet access and what we think will happen after this historic visit. Tomas.
BILBAOYeah. So the first thing to highlight is that there is -- there have been limited improvements in the very limited access to Internet in Cuba. Cuba currently has the lowest Internet penetration in the region, less than Haiti, but with, of course, much higher development indexes. So it's something that the administration called on, when the president made the announcement on December 17, 2014. The Cuban government has quietly opened dozens of free Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the country. And we anticipate, today, that Google will announce that they've reached an agreement also to provide high-speed Internet at a location in Havana, which is very encouraging, because it gives people the access that they deserve.
LANPHERWe're going to continue this conversation and we're also going to continue to take your calls, your emails and your tweets here at "The Diane Rehm Show."
LANPHERWelcome back. I'm Katherine Lanpher, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we are talking to William LeoGrande, a professor of government at the School of Public Affairs at American University, Tomas Bilbao, he's managing director of Avila Strategies, Geoff Thale, program director at the Washington Office on Latin America and by phone Mauricio Claver-Carone, editor of Capitol Hill Cubans. The topic, of course, is Cuba, President Obama still speaking to an assembly in Havana. We are asking you to join our conversation. That's an email to email@example.com, you can find us on Facebook or send a tweet, and of course you can always call us.
LANPHERMauricio, I'd like to go to you. What we know right now is that Obama in his speech this morning has called the embargo an outdated burden on Cubans. I suspect that you might have a different opinion.
CLAVER-CARONEWell, I mean, it's very simple to lift the embargo. There are just some very fundamental conditions in the law, amongst which is the release of all political prisoners, which not only short-term detentions have increased, but long-term detentions have increased, as well, according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights. The recognition of fundamental rights, those in the universal declaration, including a free media, an independent media, independent labor unions and the legalization of opposition parties. In other words, the standards that we have, the rest of the 34 countries in the Western Hemisphere have, those geopolitical standards, that right away would do so.
CLAVER-CARONEBut I think the important point here is why do we have a premium on Cuba in regards to human rights? And it's very simple, because we're bound by it geopolitically and in our interest. We have the Vina del Mar Declaration, the inter-American democratic charters, for the same reason that the European Union has a premium on human rights in Belarus. You know, the European leaders aren't trotting over to Minsk and meeting with Lukashenko over there for a reason, because it's in our regional interest to do so in that regards.
CLAVER-CARONEAnd by the way, I know that Latin America might want us to change our policy, but Latin America has been doing business, traveling and coddling the Castro regime for decades, and that has not done one bit of good in regards to the promotion of freedom and democracy in Cuba.
LANPHERMauricio, it's not just Latin America, however. A recent New York Times poll showed that a majority of Americans support -- a majority of Americans support for ending the Cuba embargo.
CLAVER-CARONEI think you'd also need to ask if the majority of Americans know, those people that support that, what the embargo entails. If you ask Americans whether they support doing business with Cuba's military and intelligence services, I'm pretty sure they would be against that. If you asked them whether they should be trafficking in American properties, I'm pretty sure that they would be against that. If you ask them whether that should be conditioned on those very fundamental rights, including the release of all political prisoners, independent labor unions, independent media, legalization of opposition parties, I'm sure that the answer would be very different also. So we need to also understand what the fundamental of that policy means.
LANPHERTomas, I'd like to go to you and talk about a particular that perhaps most Americans, a detail that perhaps most of us who aren't -- civilians on this issue don't know about, and that is that when U.S. agricultural businesses want to do trade with Cuba, it has to be done in cash.
BILBAOYeah, that's the result of the Trade Sanctions Reform Enhancement Act that passed I believe in 2001, which carved an exception into the embargo, which allowed the sale of agricultural commodities to Cuba as long as Cuba pays for those goods in advance.
LANPHERWhat kind of advance -- what kind of advantage, if you'll excuse me, is that really?
BILBAOWell, the truth is that that's been interpreted differently. The Bush administration required a cash payment before the goods left the U.S. port. Under the Obama administration, it's been on delivery. And the idea was to not extend credit to Cuba for those transactions. And so that's largely it. But going back to the point about the conditions in the embargo. We really have to be honest with ourselves and say do we think it's more likely that Cuba's going to meet all those conditions through an all-or-nothing approach that says you must look like Switzerland before we will engage with you? Or, as President Obama believes, and many of us believe, and many Cuban dissidents believe, the majority of Cuban-Americans, the overwhelming majority of the Cuban and the majority of U.S. voters, I don't need to speculate, I know that's a fact, believe that if we engage with them, and we empower civil society in Cuba, it's more likely that Cuba will implement the type of changes that we'd all like to say.
LEOGRANDESo we know something about embargos historically. Embargos are effective when they are multilateral, when there are not other countries that break the embargo and when the demands are limited on the country. And the Cuban case is exactly the opposite. There is not a single country in the world that supports the U.S. embargo against Cuba, and many of our closest allies in Latin America and Europe are against it. We are not asking for limited concessions from Cuba. We are asking them to completely revamp their entire social and economic system and their foreign policy. So it's not a surprise, actually, that for 54 years it hasn't worked.
LANPHERI'd like to turn to Geoff Thale from the Washington Office on Latin America.
THALESure, just a quick comment to come back to your original question. I think not only do most American citizens agree that the policy ought to change, but I think we're seeing that change take place in the Congress and that not only in the Senate but in the House of Representatives, we've seen a working group -- a bipartisan working group emerge. We have Republicans on President Obama's trip. We have bills to end the trade and travel ban introduced by Republican. And so whether it happens this year or happens in the next Congress, I think it's pretty clear that most Americans and behind them the U.S. Congress are moving toward ending the embargo and taking a new approach.
LANPHERLet's go ahead and take a call. We have Greg from Colfax, North Carolina. Greg, you're on the program.
GREGYes, good morning. My father-in-law flew in the Bay of Pigs invasion. So this is a topic that's near to my heart and to my family's heart. I can tell you that as long as we have a communist regime in power, the money and the benefits never get to the people. We have a church mission group that goes down every year to help the people there. They live on $15 a month. I can promise you that as long as we support what's going on to try and change things, only the government and the military will benefit. The benefits never get to the people.
LANPHERAll right, Tomas, I'd like to hear your response to that.
BILBAOYeah, I mean, that's a typical claim, and perhaps in the past that was true. But since Cuba has authorized half-a-million private entrepreneurs to operate those businesses independently from the Cuban government, to earn significantly more than the monthly average salary, to employ other people to sell their products on the open market, then the situation has changed significantly. If you go, and you stay in an Airbnb entrepreneur who pays taxes just like we pay taxes here, but that money is going directly to the entrepreneur.
LANPHERBut aren't the number of those people who are using their homes, sort like the Cuban version of Airbnb, if you will, aren't there fewer of those people than there used to be because -- no, Geoff's shaking his head.
THALENo, in fact Airbnb recently issued a fact sheet on how the exponential growth of the number of these rooms that are signing up to subscribe to their service in Cuba. And now that the administration has allowed foreigners to also book through Airbnb, I suspect that would increase demand. There will be an increase in the number of families who now will be earning revenue directly from tourists or from travelers without having to go through the government.
LANPHERAirbnb in Cuba, hipsters, hipsters invading Cuba. That doesn't seem fair, does it? Geoff?
THALEI only wanted to comment that, you know, if you just hear about Cuba from a distance, I think it's a very different experience than traveling there, and I think everybody who has traveled to Cuba in the last three years to five years will see on the street that the opening of the private sector, that greater political debate, all that is -- is very visible to people. And it's not something you see in the newspapers reporting here, but it's the reality you see in the street in the country.
LEOGRANDEYou know, there was...
CLAVER-CARONEMay I comment?
LEOGRANDEA recent poll done in Cuba by Bendixen & Amandi at the behest of the Washington Post, and it found that about half the Cuban -- a little less than half the Cuban respondents had a favorable opinion of their government. But 97 percent of them thought that the opening to the United States was positive for Cuba. So even Cubans who don't support their government are in favor of this opening because they expect that it will, in fact, make the life of ordinary Cubans better.
LANPHERLet's go to Santiago, who is joining us from Kalamazoo, Michigan. Santiago, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
LANPHERYou had something to say?
SANTIAGOI had a question for the guests who are in the studio today. What is the position -- I think it's very important to discuss human rights with regards to Cuba, but what is the position of the Cubans who live inside the United States when the United States sponsors coups in Latin America, like the recent coups in Honduras or Paraguay or Ecuador or Venezuela. Were the position of the Cubans in the United States with regards to political prisoners inside the United States or with regards to the immigration policy that gives preferential treatment to Cubans over every other community of Latin Americans in the hemisphere or with regards to the violations of human rights inside the United States where a person of color is killed every 28 hours by a government officer?
LANPHERThank you, Santiago. Gentlemen, what can the United States teach Cuba about human rights? Tomas.
BILBAOWell, I think that President Obama, in his recent -- in his speech that's actually still taking place right now, acknowledged that the United States has a lot of work to do on the issue of human rights, inequality and other issues. But the point that the president made directly to the Cuban people is that in the United States, in our system, we don't fear those type of debates. In fact, we encourage those type of open debates and that that's something that while there may be things that we can learn from Cuba, there's certainly a lot that Cuba can learn from the -- a type of debate that welcomes differing opinions and criticism of the system.
LANPHERI'd like to remind you that you can join this conversation here on the Diane Rehm Show. You can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find us on Facebook or send a tweet, and of course we welcome your phone calls. You are listening to the Diane Rehm Show.
LANPHERAnd let's resume our conversation on the -- as we were saying, President Obama is still delivering his speech in Havana, Cuba. Now while he's talking, William, let's talk about what concrete changes we might expect from this visit.
LEOGRANDEWell, I think we will see a number of additional agreements on issues of mutual interest. Global public health is certainly high on the agenda. They've been talking about deepening cooperation there, although there hasn't been an announcement yet. There's also been a discussion of deepening our cooperation on counter-narcotics, particularly trafficking through the Caribbean. That was mentioned yesterday, as well. So I expect that we'll see an agreement on that.
LEOGRANDEAnd I think we're going to continue to see a number of announcements of commercial deals. There was one just this morning by General Electric that it's going to be selling some generators to Cuba. I think we can see some additional commercial deals in agriculture. So there are a number of deliverables coming out of this, and also I should mention that Secretary Pritzker, Secretary of Commerce Pritzker, is meeting with her counterpart, the Minister of Foreign Trade and Investment Malmierca, to talk about what might be done on the Cuban side to make it easier for U.S. companies to do business there.
LANPHERI've been remiss in giving out the phone number. If you would like to engage in this conversation, it's 1-800-433-8850. I'm Katherine Lanpher, sitting in for Diane Rehm. One thing that strikes me whenever we talk about trade, it reminds me, back in the old days, when we were trying to normalize relations with Russia, and there was a sort of diplomacy that depended on blue jeans and The Beatles. How similar is this?
THALEI mean, just to say, there's a certain irony in it's Ronald Reagan who increased trade and engagement with Cuba, I'm sorry with the Soviet Union, making -- you know, I think Ronald Reagan wanted to see the Soviet Union overthrown, and he saw engagement as a way to do that. I don't know that the way -- that the goal of engagement with Cuba is overthrowing the regime, but it's opening it up and encouraging processes internal to the country of change.
LANPHERLet's go ahead and take another phone call. We have John calling us from Salisbury, Maryland. John, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
JOHNThank you, Katherine, and good morning to the panel. Just one quick question. I was wondering if anyone knows whether or not President Obama will be making, for want of a better way of putting it, courtesy call to Fidel Castro.
BILBAOWell, so far there hasn't been anything scheduled, and before the trip, the White House said he would not. But I understand that in a comment to the media yesterday that he suggested that he would be open to the idea. Now his schedule is very, very packed, he's leaving later today, so I doubt that they're going to find time to fit that in, but we'll have to wait and see.
LANPHERI thought he had to watch a baseball game.
BILBAOHe does indeed. He's going to go watch the baseball, but -- and if it goes into extra innings, he may miss his plane.
LANPHERAll right, I'd like to ask each of you what concrete steps you might expect from this visit. I'd like to go in, and Mauricio, if you could give a short summation of what you think is going to happen.
CLAVER-CARONEWell, I mean, we've already seen what's going to happen. I don't think there's much more time for anything else, despite what kind of -- what we see in the speech, and I hope in the speech, I guess, the litmus that was set by President Carter in 2002 as former president when he gave the speech at University of Havana that was televised, that he talked about the Varela Project, which was a pro-democracy project that was assigned by over 25,000 people led by Cuban democracy leader Oswaldo Paya, who was then murder in 2012 under General Castro, I think that that's, you know, that would be the litmus to set in that regards.
CLAVER-CARONEBut I think the more important point here in kind of talking about all these other issues that you've been dealing with is, look, first and foremost, we don't have to speculate about what lifting sanctions towards Cuba is going to look like. We already know. And those sales that we've been doing since 2000, that -- by 250 American companies of $5 billion, have all gone to one entity in Cuba, and that's the Cuban regime. Since Obama lifted some of the sanctions and changed his policy in 2014, he said this was going to be to help the Cuban people, to help the cuentapropistas, these entrepreneurs, and that was the goal. And therefore, U.S. business was going to challenge the regime to help those cuentapropistas and et cetera.
CLAVER-CARONEAnd what have we seen? The opposite. The U.S. business community has been pushing the Obama to do business with Castro's monopolies, and that's why in the last year, we've also seen the number of those cuentapropistas, the self-employed gone down by 10,000 because they're occupying all the spaces. That's how doing business with totalitarian states works.
LANPHEROkay, that's Mauricio Claver-Carone, editor of Capitol Hill Cubans and direct of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC. In the time we have remaining, if I could also get brief overviews from the two of you, starting with Geoff.
THALESure, very quickly, I think we're going to see more trade and more travel, which I think helps in the internal process of reform and opening in Cuba. And I think the real question is there'll be a Cuban Communist Party Congress in April that will make more change. I think the question is, a year from now, what will, or two years from now, what will Cuba look like, and I think the answer is it will be more open and a more diverse society, and that is where we want a seat.
LANPHEROkay, that's Geoff Thale, program director at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy group. Tomas Bilbao?
BILBAOI think we need to decide whether we want to continue a policy that for 55 years has obsessed with hurting the Cuban government or whether we want to shift, as President Obama is suggesting, to a policy that instead obsesses over helping the Cuban people. And what I would suggest is that if you're trying to promote change, if you're trying to promote capitalism, if you're trying to promote democracy, you don't do that by violating the rights of Americans to travel abroad. You don't do that by shutting our private industry from engaging. You don't do that by dismissing or diminishing the hard work of private entrepreneurs on the island.
BILBAOSo I think that the policy of engagement is much likely to bring about the type of change that we'd like to see than the failed policy of half a century.
LANPHERThat's Tomas Bilbao. He is a member of the Policy Advisory Council of Engage Cuba. We also heard earlier from William LeoGrande, a professor of government at the School of Public Affairs at American University. And we heard from you. Thank you for joining our conversation. I'm Katherine Lanpher, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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