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Danny Glover and Medea Benjamin on Assata, Guantánamo and Trade as Cuban Flag Rises in Washington

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As U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations are officially restored after five decades, we speak to two activists who have spent decades opposing U.S. policy on Cuba: the actor Danny Glover and CodePink co-founder Medea Benjamin. Both have traveled to Cuba many times over the past decades despite the U.S. embargo. Benjamin lived on the island for four years and has written three books on Cuba. They are both in Washington today for the reopening of the Cuban Embassy after 54 years. The reopened Cuban Embassy was built in 1917, becoming the first diplomatic building in this neighborhood and helping to establish this area as a diplomatic center. Fidel Castro visited the embassy in 1959 after he overthrew Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Two years later, in 1961, the United States unilaterally broke off relations with Cuba. The last time the United States and Cuba had diplomatic ties, President Dwight Eisenhower was in office. Today’s opening of embassies is just the first step in normalizing relationships between the two countries. On Wednesday, Cuban President Raúl Castro applauded the diplomatic renewal but called on Obama to use his executive powers to remove the ongoing U.S. trade and financial embargo. So far, the Republican majority in Congress has rejected Obama’s calls to lift the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Obama’s congressional opponents have also vowed to block any ambassadorial nominee to Cuba and have denounced the decision to formally remove Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

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StoryJul 20, 2015Special Broadcast from Opening of Cuban Embassy in Washington as U.S.-Cuban Diplomatic Ties Restored
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “The Sweet Abyss,” Silvio Rodríguez. Yes, the great Cuban musician will be part of the official Cuban delegation today led by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, who will be here in Washington, D.C., at the Cuban Embassy as the flag is raised. The Cuban flag will be raised here today for the first time in 54 years. We are here in the area of the diplomatic missions of many countries. The Cuban Embassy, behind me—we’re broadcasting just across the street—became the first diplomatic building in this neighborhood. Fidel Castro visited the embassy in 1959 after he overthrew Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. He was the toast of the town, invited to receptions all over. Two years later, in 1961, the United States, under President Dwight Eisenhower, unilaterally broke off relations with Cuba, the last time the U.S. and Cuba had diplomatic ties. Today, the opening of the embassies here in Washington as well as in Havana, the U.S. Embassy there, is just the first step in normalizing relationships between the two countries.

Our guests right now are two people who’ve fought for a very long time to see this day, the Cuban flag hoisted in Washington, D.C. Earlier today, it was hoisted at the State Department so it would be part of the more than 150 flags of countries that the U.S. has diplomatic relations with. Medea Benjamin is with us, longtime political activist, co-founder of CodePink, and Danny Glover, well-known actor, film director and political activist.

Danny, let’s begin with you. Your thoughts on this day? You’re about to make your way inside the Cuban Embassy.

DANNY GLOVER: Viva la Cuba. It is an important day for the Cuban revolution. It’s an important day for the Cuban people, an important day for the American people, and for the world, as well. The U.S. has now found itself within the protocol of nations in respecting the Cuban government and respecting the Cuban people and their choice, recognizing that they have differences, but at the same time there are mutual things that they can talk about, as well. But it’s an important day. But just the beginning, because the embargo is still in place.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you think that embargo anytime soon will be lifted? I mean, you have everyone from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to Republican governors who have been going to Cuba, as well as CEO after CEO—a lot of political pressure, a lot of capitalist pressure to open Cuba.

DANNY GLOVER: Well, I think the pressure and certainly the process has started. And I see that—a number of other things. We’re still—the question of Guantánamo is still on the table, too, as well. So there are many things on the table, and I think we’re in the beginning of a process right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts, Medea Benjamin? How many times, Medea, have you been to Cuba?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, I lived in Cuba, Amy, from '79 to ’83, and then I've been back to Cuba many, many times. The last time was just in May. I actually—

AMY GOODMAN: Leading major delegations.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Yeah, we took 150 people on our last delegation. We’re really encouraging people to go. I mean, you talk about what the future may bring; I think that depends a lot on how much we push, if we encourage people go. You know, there’s still—it’s still illegal to lie on a beach in Cuba. But the more people who go—

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: It’s illegal to go as a tourist. There are 12 categories. You’ve got to squeeze yourself into one of those categories, which is quite easy now. Educational, anybody can say, “I’m going to Cuba for educational purposes.” But it’s ridiculous that we still have to do that and that there aren’t commercial flights. So, the more people who go, the more this will be irreversible, the more Congress will feel the pressure. There are hundreds of thousands of Americans who are going to Cuba. The numbers have increased by 50 percent since last year, just since the announcement was made. But it’s now, I think, part of people’s political duty as progressives to go to Cuba and just keep this opening, make it grow bigger and bigger.

AMY GOODMAN: Airbnbs, there have been 2,000 of them opened in Havana?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: And that is fantastic. I mean, to be able to go and stay in a Cuban’s home is just wonderful.


MEDEA BENJAMIN: I mean, you know, Danny, it’s just wonderful to go to Cuba anyway, but to understand now that this opening is still not normalized, and if we encourage people to go, if we encourage trade with cooperatives—we, as CodePink, for example, are training with co-ops right now. We’re buying shirts made in Cuba. This is part of encouraging an alternative economy in Cuba, somewhere between the state economy and the private economy. So there’s lots we can do to encourage an opening that’s good for all of us.

DANNY GLOVER: And there’s been changes happening in Cuba over the last few years, as well, you know. And certainly, Medea mentioned the fact that the alternative cooperatives, cooperatives as a stage, it’s not simply in creating or realizing some sort of form of capitalism here, but cooperatives as a reinforcement of socialism, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask about Assata Shakur. The new U.S.-Cuban relations could impact Assata Shakur, the legendary figure within the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army who now lives in Cuba, where she has political asylum. Assata Shakur was convicted May 2nd, 1973, killing of a New Jersey state trooper during a shootout that left one of her fellow activists dead. She was shot twice by police during the incident. In 1979, she managed to escape from jail and later fled to Cuba. She has long proclaimed her innocence. In 1998, Democracy Now! aired her reading an open letter to Pope John Paul II during his trip to Cuba. This is an excerpt.

ASSATA SHAKUR: In 1977 I was convicted in a trial that can only be described as a legal lynching.

In 1979 I was able to escape with the aid of some of my fellow comrades. I saw this as a necessary step, not only because I was innocent of the charges against me, but because I knew that in the racist legal system in the United States I would receive no justice. I was also afraid that I would be murdered in prison. I later arrived in Cuba where I am currently living in exile as a political refugee.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Assata Shakur speaking in 1998 in an open letter to the previous pope, interestingly enough. The pope also will be going to Cuba and served as a crucial secret intermediary in the thawing of relations between the United States and Cuba. Our guests are Medea Benjamin and Danny Glover, two people who have long fought from their various perches, from the activism of CodePink to Danny Glover as a world-renowned actor, director, activist. Danny, what will happen with Assata Shakur? There is a multimillion-dollar bounty on her head. She has had political asylum in Cuba for decades. Are you concerned about what will happen?

DANNY GLOVER: Well, from the standpoint of the Cuban government, they have made it very clear that there’s no—the discussion about Assata, about her, is not on the table. They made that very clear. I don’t know what this country, the United States, will determine, determine what they’ll do in terms of what happens to—in this situation. I’m not aware of anything that’s happening in terms of the discussions, so I would be taking a leap to say anything about that. And I think it’s important that we’re very careful about what we say about her, as well, you know, at this particular point in time, because she’s still in a dangerous situation, even though the Cuban government has taken every step to protect her livelihood and protect her. But it’s still a very dangerous situation. So I’m not so sure what the dynamics are about that and what discussions, if any, are happening about that.

AMY GOODMAN: Medea Benjamin?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, every time we’ve taken a delegation, we meet with high-level Cuban officials, and we always ask that question. We want the Cubans to know that there’s a lot of support for Assata here in the United States. And they always answer the same way, which is that “It’s not on the table. We feel we have the total right to give political asylum to people in Cuba and that we have gotten on the path of normalizing relations with the United States without that being on the table, and we’re going to stick to that.”


AMY GOODMAN: Medea Benjamin, this issue of high-level politicians in the United States, not to mention CEOs, you have a lot to do with what these delegations are doing in Cuba.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: You mean the—

AMY GOODMAN: The, for example, corporate heads that would like to do business in Cuba, like the embargo lifted. Talk about some of the people.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, the CEO of Google has been there, Eric Schmidt; the head of— Tom Donohue of the Chamber of Commerce, a very right-wing guy; the head of—the head of Cargill has been there. And actually, one of the Cargill staff people is a key lobbyist in opening relations with Cuba. I met the CEO of Cargill and talked to him, and he said that not only are they interested in selling their GMO, I must say, products to Cuba, but they’re interested in buying organic products from Cuba.

Look, this is up to the Cubans. We can be very critical of the companies that are going to Cuba, and worried about what it means for the Cuban people, but Cuba has had over 50 years to be worried about this. They’ve also had time to deal with CEOs from other countries. And I think we should trust that they’re going to make the decisions that they feel are best for them. And I think we can do things like support the co-ops, support the very small businesses, do things that kind of shape—

DANNY GLOVER: Absolutely.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: —the economy that our friends in Cuba would like to see.


MEDEA BENJAMIN: But it’s really obviously up to the Cubans.

DANNY GLOVER: And I think Medea is right when she says that the Cubans have been dealing with countries, other countries in the world, and other CEOs in the world, other major corporations in the world, and have developed some guidelines in reference to and modified those guidelines and terms at different points in time, in reference to the relationship that they want to have. And that’s important. And they’ve been very steadfast in that, in developing that.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about healthcare? What can the United States learn from Cuban healthcare—the system, the doctors?


DANNY GLOVER: Everything.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Really. I mean, it’s amazing this very poor, poor country—


MEDEA BENJAMIN: —is able to have family doctors, so you can go down the street, or the doctor will come to your house—


MEDEA BENJAMIN: —at a fraction of the cost that we pay for healthcare. And the Cubans developed this high-tech bio industry that’s producing things that would be so positive here in the United States to stop the amputations for limbs of people who have diabetes, to help in cancer treatment.


MEDEA BENJAMIN: So there’s so much to learn on both the preventive and as well as the high-tech end.

AMY GOODMAN: The World Health Organization recently declared Cuba the first country in the world to eliminate the transmission of HIV and syphilis from mother to child.


MEDEA BENJAMIN: And they say that’s because of the preventive care that they have.

DANNY GLOVER: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, just this weekend, there was a Klan rally in Columbia, South Carolina, protesting the taking down of the Confederate battle flag. It’s interesting in this country, as the Confederate battle flag goes down, the Cuban flag goes up—

DANNY GLOVER: Goes up, yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —in Washington, D.C., right here. Danny Glover, if you can talk about the Black Lives Matter movement here, and can you relate it to anything that you see going on in Cuba right now?

DANNY GLOVER: Well, the black lives movement, along with the Dream Defenders and so many other groups, I think there’s a process also that is happening in their own politicalization. And what they’re beginning to do is to find these relationships with other movements around the world, so there’s an international view as well as the kind of perspective from inside right here. And I think—I think that where it is—and, in fact, there’s a conference this week—next week—this week, right here, beginning in Cleveland, I believe, of Black Lives Matter. And it’s really encouraging to see how they’re able to frame not only their relationship with other movements, particularly the Palestinian movement, and to begin, I believe, the kind of radicalization that’s necessary for young people. And I think that they’re opening up another space, how that connects with supporting groups like NUMSA in South Africa and other groups, you know, the groups that I’m sure that they would want to connect with within Cuba, groups that they want to connect within Venezuela, of young people, who views their platform as a way of transformation and changing their society, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And the consciousness of black Cubans, the whole Afro-Cuban population there, is something that you have long been interested in.

DANNY GLOVER: Well, we’ve been talking—and we think it’s important. And let me note that this is the decade of the Afro descendant, this decade. The U.N. has designated that. In fact, Venezuela is going to have a major assembly, a conference, there in 2013—in 2016, excuse me, 2016. And I think that—and Cuba is going to play a major role in that. And this is a conversation and a possibility to have another discussion about Afro descendants in Cuba. The Cuban revolution has done extraordinary things to change the life of African descendants, but there’s still more to be done. Remittances that are sent here don’t go often to black Cubans; they often go to white Cubans. So I think there’s more to be done. And so, I think it opens up the space for us, for progressives, young progressives, to now begin to have a relationship and connect with young Cubans, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: In this last minute that we have, Medea Benjamin, you’re holding a party outside the embassy?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Yes, we’re going to have a party all day long, dancing and music, for people who are in the D.C. area to come on down. It’s going to be great. And, Amy, I also want to say that we’re taking a group to Guantánamo in November. And people who are concerned about the issue of the Guantánamo base can join us and go—we’re leaving from Miami, but we’re going to Guantánamo, and we’re going to be part of a Cuban seminar on foreign military bases. So, it’s a great thing for people to do [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: And your assessment, Danny Glover, finally, of President Obama, in these last seconds that we have, and the path he is taking now?

DANNY GLOVER: Well, I think, certainly, we have to commend him on what he’s done, and there’s still more that he could do while he’s still in office here. And certainly, I am very proud for what he’s done. But I’m also—we also have to acknowledge that the nations in the region say that we don’t want to have anything to do at any meeting, unless the Cubans are there at the meetings.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Danny Glover, Medea Benjamin. That does it for our show. Again, today, an historic day in Washington, D.C. We are right here in front of the Cuban Embassy. Today, the Cuban flag will go up for the first time in 54 years. Special thanks to Amy Littlefield, Sam Alcoff, Denis Moynihan, Julie Crosby.

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