"History Is Finally Moving On": Tom Hayden on Thawing of U.S.-Cuba Relations Despite GOP Opposition

April 30, 2015


Tom Hayden

longtime activist and former California state senator. He was one of the founders of Students for a Democratic Society. His new book is called Listen, Yankee!: Why Cuba Matters, based in part on conversations with Ricardo Alarcón. He is speaking at a major conference in Washington, D.C., this Friday and Saturday called "Vietnam: The Power of Protest. Telling the Truth. Learning the Lessons."

In a wide-ranging discussion, Tom Hayden, author of the new book, "Listen, Yankee!: Why Cuba Matters," argues the United States and Cuba have much more in common than a 55-year disagreement. This comes as Republicans have launched an attempt to block President Obama’s efforts to restore U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations for the first time in half a century with proposed legislation to stop new travel to Cuba from the United States. The bill would block the licensing of new flights and cruise ship routes to Cuba if the landing strip or dock is located on land confiscated by the Cuban government. Despite such efforts, Hayden says, "Travel is being expanded. You will be able to use your credit cards. The beaches will be open to tourists instead of tanks. History is finally moving on." He recalls his interviews with former senior U.S. officials on why the Obama administration is trying to end the embargo and remove Cuba from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, and also discusses the Cuban missile crisis, the Cuban 5 and how the U.S. has sheltered Cuban exiles who were at virtual war with Cuba. Hayden’s book is based in part on conversations with Ricardo Alarcón, the former foreign minister of Cuba and past president of the Cuban National Assembly.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to what could be the first roadblock in President Obama’s efforts to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in half a century. Earlier this month, Republicans said they would not mount a challenge to Obama’s plan to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, a move that could come as soon as next month. But then on Tuesday, Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban American who represents South Florida, proposed legislation to stop new travel to Cuba from the United States. The bill would block the licensing of new flights and cruise ships’ routes to Cuba if the landing strip or dock is located on land confiscated by the Cuban government.

AMY GOODMAN: The measure is attached to the transportation appropriations bill and could prompt a veto by President Obama. This comes as another group of lawmakers has introduced a bill that would end all restrictions to Cuba.

Well, for more, we’re joined in our New York studio by Tom Hayden, longtime activist, former California state senator, just published his new book called Listen, Yankee!: Why Cuba Matters. It’s based in part on conversations with Ricardo Alarcón, the former foreign minister of Cuba, past president of the Cuban National Assembly. You can read the introduction to the book on our website at

Why Listen, Yankee! now? I mean, you were writing this and coming out with this before this very surprise announcement. Were you surprised?

TOM HAYDEN: No, I was—I had an intuition that this was going to happen in 2013. I had visited Cuba several times, and I had met Ricardo Alarcón. And he had actually interviewed me in 2006 about participatory democracy and the history of the New Left and the history of the many North Americans, like myself, who had opposed the embargo and supported better relations with Cuba. And I went back in 2013 because I thought that there was a legacy factor, that Raúl Castro and Fidel Castro, on the one side, and Barack Obama had reasons for wanting to resolve this endless dispute within the framework of their presidencies, to leave a legacy, that it was time. There was no more explanation based on Cuba being an agent of the Soviet Union. The Obama administration really needed to improve relations with Central and Latin America. Our country had become isolated from the region. Cuba had become fully integrated into the region. And the way to better relations with Latin America was through Havana. And Obama saw that in meetings that he had with people.

So, I thought it was going to happen. And I started interviewing people on both sides, including very high-level members of the Obama administration, former Clinton officials, Kennedy officials, Carter officials. And the clues were there, but it was a tightly kept secret. So I started writing the book as if this was going to happen. And then I finished, and it hadn’t happened. And then it did happen as the book was to go to press, so I rewrote the first 50 pages to describe how it actually had come about. And—

AMY GOODMAN: How had it?

TOM HAYDEN: Well, the good thing about this is you can read the book, take it to Cuba and decide for yourself. Despite Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, travel is being expanded. You will be able to use your credit cards. The beaches will be open to tourists instead of tanks. History, I think, is finally moving on. It shows you how painfully, agonizingly slow, and at what cost, any significant gains are. I know progressives don’t declare victory, because they always have the gloomiest possible twist on everything. Juan thinks that they’re going to snatch this away with this amendment to a bill. Maybe, but I don’t think so. I think this is going forward. There will be bumps. And history has a lot of parents. I don’t know the exact reason everybody decided to do this, except the political will to overcome the obsolete comes to mind.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Tom, the amazing thing in your book, you go through this really detailed history of Cuban-U.S. relations in modern times. And you put at the center of it, as the main protagonist of the book, Ricardo Alarcón. And in our conversation last night at Barnes & Noble’s, you talked about what a tragedy it is that most Americans really don’t know who Ricardo Alarcón is, even though he’s perhaps one of the most important diplomats in terms of the 20th century. Could you talk about him and his role?


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: How you first got to meet him?

TOM HAYDEN: Yeah. No, it’s a tragedy for us, because we’re actually embargoed from reality by this policy. Ricardo Alarcón has been one of the top diplomats in the world for 50 years. And Amy described his credentials. And the fact that people don’t know him here is partly due to the fact that he’s virtually banned from coming here, except when he was at the U.N. People don’t interview him. I think you have. But he doesn’t come in to—

AMY GOODMAN: A number of times.

TOM HAYDEN: He doesn’t come in to meet with the editorial board of The Washington Post or New York Times. That’s why no one knows him. And I think he’s an interesting person to interview, and we’ve had about 60 hours of interviews. And I transcribe some of them in the book to create his voice as a companion to my voice, to look over many episodes in our twisted history.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Ricardo Alarcón. This is from 2013, when we spoke to him—


AMY GOODMAN: —the foreign foreign minister of Cuba and past president of the Cuban National Assembly. I asked him to talk about meetings Cuban authorities had with the FBI in Havana, to talk about the threat posed by the militant Cuban exile groups here in the United States.

RICARDO ALARCÓN: Well, there were several meetings, in fact. René was referring specifically to one that took place in Havana in July 1998, after some private exchanges between the two countries, the two governments, including President Clinton and a very well-known writer, García Márquez, who served as a go-between between us and them. They came down here, and they got a lot of information—recordings, videos, details of terrorist plots, and the addresses, the phone numbers, everything—so much that at the end of the meeting, the FBI officials thanked Cuba and said that they will need some time to process, though, that information, and they will go back to us. They never went back to us. They did act against the five, clearly to help to protect the terrorists. That is the substance of this process, of this trial.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Ricardo Alarcón in 2013 on Democracy Now! He was joining us by Democracy Now! video stream from Havana, Cuba, sitting next to one of the Cuba 5—or, he was talking about the Cuba 5, who actually have now been released. And maybe you can talk about that. He made that his mission, to get these men freed from U.S. prisons. Talk about who they are.

TOM HAYDEN: Well, nobody thought that was possible. So, everything turns out to be sometimes possible. The five who were arrested for being Cuban spies, sent to the United States to monitor the activities of other Cubans who were armed and who flew out of Opa Locka base in Florida to attack Cuba. In other words, our country—we’ll take this slowly—our country was sheltering Cuban exiles who were at virtual war with Cuba, and the Cuban 5 were arrested for monitoring those flights. And they got double life, in one case, long, long prison sentences.

So they were the subject of tough bargaining, in which it took about a year, but the Obama administration finally was convinced that Cuba was serious about the need to get these five back. They let two go, and there were three remaining. And the trade, so to speak—it couldn’t be—you couldn’t use the word "trade," but it was to get back Alan Gross, who was in a Cuban jail for having taken, I think, five trips to Cuba, smuggling high-tech communications devices and equipment to the Jewish community there and, I think, to a Masonic lodge—all supposedly innocent. But not many people carry luggage filled with high-tech communications equipment in their bag. And so, Gross was returned here at the same moment that the three remaining of the Cuban 5 were returned there. That was crucial to the deal, because that was something that the United States wanted really badly.

And you notice the issue has kind of gone away. I don’t hear the Cuban right in Congress screaming about that, because they would have to deal with Alan Gross. You got back your man. Cuba got back their three. So, it’s kind of magical how sometimes these issues that could be blown sky high just fade away when the parties want the issue to go away.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue this conversation with longtime activist Tom Hayden, former California state senator, one of the founders of Students for a Democratic Society. His new book is Listen, Yankee!: Why Cuba Matters. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a moment.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guest for the hour is Tom Hayden, longtime activist, protesting the Vietnam War, being—participating in antiwar teach-ins, becoming a California state legislator, then one of the founders of Students for a Democratic Society, now an environmental adviser to Governor Jerry Brown. His latest book, though, is called Listen, Yankee!: Why Cuba Matters. And last night, Juan, you and Tom had a conversation, a public conversation, at Barnes & Noble about this book.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah. Tom, one of the things I wanted to ask you about, which I think, again, for a younger generation that knows nothing about this—

TOM HAYDEN: So, almost everyone in America.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: One of the—one of the key aspects of why Cuba matters that people should know about is the enormous role that Cuba played once in the closest the United States has ever been to nuclear Armageddon, the Cuban missile crisis—

TOM HAYDEN: Exactly.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —of 1962. The impact of that crisis on you and on an older generation, and what exactly happened there?

TOM HAYDEN: Well, I think we were inspired by Cuba, coming at the same time as the civil rights movement and the student movement here. Ricardo Alarcón was a philosophy student at the University of Havana when I was the same at the University of Michigan. Then the Bay of Pigs invasion, which was quite shocking, then the Cuban missile crisis, where—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: This is 1962.

TOM HAYDEN: '62. And I have to tell you, to go through the experience of being told that a nuclear war or an atomic war is about to begin is something I wish on no one, and it's traumatizing, and it leaves a scar. So, Cuba was apparently so important to some people that they considered a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, with Cuba as collateral damage. And it had a shaping effect. It taught us about how frightening the Cold War concept was, that you had to go to the brink and even threaten to use nuclear weapons if a country like Cuba was thought to be acting in the interests of the Soviet Union in our hemisphere, Latin America, our backyard, our Imperial domain. And I think it had a big effect on the feeling of the student movement at the time, that we had to attack the idea of the Cold War, not simply fight for civil rights, because we wouldn’t get very far on the issues of civil rights and justice and jobs if the Cold War was always looming and threatening. We had to somehow do away with the Cold War’s mentality, as we called it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how close were we to a nuclear war? I mean, the Russians had how many missiles already?

TOM HAYDEN: Hours, an hour, I don’t know, minutes, an hour. I.F. Stone, who we all looked up to, a great journalist in the Amy Goodman and Juan González tradition, told us at a church in D.C. that the missiles were coming. So I went into complete numbness, and everybody around me, for thousands of us. It didn’t happen, which also—

AMY GOODMAN: And it didn’t happen because?

TOM HAYDEN: A deal was reached behind the scenes between Robert Kennedy and the Soviet ambassador in discussions that have not been completely declassified.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Dobrynin, right, was it?

TOM HAYDEN: Dobrynin.


TOM HAYDEN: But most of that record has been made clear. Even people in the Kennedy White House—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the deal was that the Russians would take their missiles out and the United States would take their missiles out of Turkey? Or—

TOM HAYDEN: Well, that had to be kept secret. We would separate that. It’s kind of like the current U.S.-Cuba—the deal for the five and Alan Gross. The Americans would withdraw their obsolete missiles from Turkey, but they would never say that they were doing it, and it would be one year later. But that was done. And there would be an agreement, which apparently had some force, that the U.S. would never again overtly attack Cuba.

AMY GOODMAN: Two Republican presidential candidates, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, are taking Cuba on big time. Earlier this month, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, possible Republican presidential contender, was asked if the next president should put Cuba back on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism. This was his response.

JEB BUSH: ... this negotiation, he’s going to ease travel restrictions, ease currency flows, all of which prop up the Castro regime. He’s made these concessions and got nothing in return. And it’s disappointing because—look, I live in Miami, and there are a lot of people that want to see liberty and freedom in their former country. And that aspiration hasn’t died. That sentiment isn’t—it hasn’t died. But a lot of people are really saddened by this, because there’s not—we’re not a step closer to freedom in Cuba because of the actions the president has taken.

AMY GOODMAN: Quick comment, before we go to Marco Rubio?

TOM HAYDEN: He better get another platform. Even the Cuban Americans who live in Cuba [sic] are in favor of normalization. They’re anti-Castro, but—

AMY GOODMAN: Cuban Americans who live in Florida.

TOM HAYDEN: Yes, Cuban Americans in Florida have changed. That’s one reason that this deal is viable. They believe in normalization, but they’re anti-Castro. He doesn’t want them to have a normal life. He doesn’t want them to travel to Cuba. That’s not going to fly as a platform.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is Republican presidential candidate, Senator Marco Rubio, after the Obama administration announced plans to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Well, the decision made by the White House today is a terrible one, but not surprising, unfortunately. Cuba is a state sponsor of terrorism. They harbor fugitives of American justice, including someone who killed a police officer in New Jersey over 30 years ago. It’s also the country that’s helping North Korea evade weapons sanctions by the United Nations. They should have remained on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. And I think it sends a chilling message to our enemies abroad that this White House is no longer seriously—serious about calling terrorism by its proper name.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s presidential candidate, Republican presidential candidate, Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Tom Hayden?

TOM HAYDEN: Well, he’s talking about individuals who have fled to Cuba after being charged with crimes here. And whatever we think of those individuals—you’ve interviewed some of them—they’re not state entities. And Cuba is not a state sponsor of terrorism. And they’re not going to be returned to the United States, in any event. They were left out of the negotiations. And Rubio is trying to put them back in. I don’t think that’s a good presidential platform, either.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think will happen to Assata Shakur, Assata Shakur who was convicted of killing police officer—Trooper Werner Foerster, after being pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike? But this is something she absolutely denies. The encounter left both the officer and Black Panther Zayd Malik Shakur dead. Assata Shakur said she was shot by police, with both arms in the air, and then again from the back, sentenced to life in prison but managed able to escape to Cuba, where she’s lived since 1984. And there have been discussions. Will this be put back on the table?

TOM HAYDEN: I think it will be discussed. I don’t think anything will come of it. I’ve interviewed her. I know her. Her body was completely—I don’t even know how she lived. She was shot at close range. I can’t imagine how she shot anyone. Charges have been brought against her before. Nothing has come of them. But the New Jersey law enforcement lobby is very insistent that that issue be put on the table. Menendez, who is perhaps going to jail on federal charges, is still the senator there, and he’s been one of the most staunch enemies of this rapprochement with Cuba, and he wants that issue put on the table.

AMY GOODMAN: The indicted senator.

TOM HAYDEN: He’s indicted. I don’t think anything will come of it. I don’t know. I think the next issue is whether the U.S. continues to fund secret democracy programs. It’s kind of an odd idea, but there’s $20 million in the budget for secret programs in Cuba to foment an open society. How you do that secretly, I don’t know. But Congress will have to tangle over that. The U.S. continues to want to sponsor these so-called democracy programs. Cuba doesn’t want them to be covert programs. Senator Leahy’s subcommittee is going to have to deal with that. There’s a succession of issues. And I don’t think this issue of the fugitives in Cuba is going to be a big deal. I hope it’s not. I can’t say for sure.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Tom, in the few minutes we have left, why does Cuba matter? What has been the impact of Cuba on progressive thought and movements here in the United States and around the world?

TOM HAYDEN: Well, on the negative side, you know, the Cuban exiles have intimidated a lot of people, but they’ve actually been quite cancerous in our society. They’ve created a kind of a mafia clique in Florida. They gave rise to the Jeb Bush dynasty. The Cuban exiles were directly involved in the killing of a Chilean diplomat and his assistant, Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt. They blew their car up in Washington, D.C.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the Watergate burglary.

TOM HAYDEN: They broke into the Democratic Party headquarters at Watergate. They were part of Nixon’s plumbers. They made good use of their time here in the United States of America, mainly in very dubious and sometimes horrific activities, including attacks on Cuba from bases in the United States.

On the positive side, I think Cuba sent a wake-up call to the world that small countries could indeed rebel against the United States and could indeed be self-determining and autonomous. And even with the alliance with the Soviet Union, when the Soviet Union went away, Cuba proved that it didn’t fall like eastern Europe. It had a sovereign nature. It had a self-sustaining quality. They get the best baseball players, some of the best food, best music, free education, free healthcare. They’re trying to create a model. And I think that they do matter, especially now that immigrant rights is so important in this country. We’re becoming more Latino-ized, as I think you, yourself, have written, and we’re changing. And Cuba can be very, very central to making us understand ourselves as living in the Americas. And this is our home region, and we should be welcoming of honest, open relations with Cuba and other countries in the hemisphere.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Hayden, I want to thank you for being with us. We’re going to talk about the 50th anniversary of the first anti-Vietnam War teach-in, 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, and put it online at Tom Hayden is the author of—well, his latest book is Listen, Yankee!: Why Cuba Matters, part of—based on conversations with Ricardo Alarcón, the foreign Cuban foreign minister. Tom will be speaking at a major conference in Washington, D.C., this Friday and Saturday at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, not to be confused with New York. It’s in D.C. I’m there. Juan González will be there. Love to see you there.

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