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Obama Visits Cuba in Historic Trip, But Will U.S. Ever End Embargo & Give Back Guantánamo?

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President Obama has arrived in Cuba for a historic three-day visit, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit the island in 88 years. Obama is scheduled to meet Cuban President Raúl Castro this morning at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana. While diplomatic ties have been restored between the two countries, many issues remain unsolved. The 54-year-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba remains in place. The United States has also refused to give up control of its Navy base and military prison at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. Last year, Raúl Castro said Cuba will not be able to normalize relations with the United States until Washington returns Guantánamo to Cuba. We go to Havana to speak with former Cuban diplomat Carlos Alzugaray Treto and Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C.

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

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama has arrived in Cuba for an historic three-day visit, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit the island in 88 years. On Sunday, Obama and his family toured Old Havana after meeting with U.S. Embassy staff and their families.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It’s been nearly 90 years since a U.S. president stepped foot in Cuba. It is wonderful to be here. Back in 1928, President Coolidge came on a battleship. It took him three days to get here. It only took me three hours. For the first time ever, Air Force One has landed in Cuba. And this is our very first stop. So, this is a historic visit, and it’s a historic opportunity to engage directly with the Cuban people and to forge new agreements and commercial deals, to build new ties between our two peoples and, for me, to lay out my vision for a future that’s brighter than our past.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama is scheduled to meet Cuban President Raúl Castro this morning at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana. A state dinner for the Obamas will be held tonight. On Tuesday, Obama will give a speech to the Cuban people. During his visit, he’s also scheduled to meet with Cuban dissidents. Just hours before he landed, Cuban authorities broke up a march by the Ladies in White, reportedly detaining dozens of members of the group.

While diplomatic ties have been restored between the two countries, many issues remain unsolved. The 54-year-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba remains in place. The United States has also refused to give up its control of its Navy base and military prison at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. Last year, President Raúl Castro said Cuba will not be able to normalize relations with the United States until Washington returns Guantánamo to Cuba.

Obama is visiting Cuba along with nearly 40 U.S. lawmakers and the CEOs and executives from almost a dozen companies, including Xerox, PayPal, Marriott, Airbnb and Starwood Hotels & Resorts.

We go now directly to Havana, Cuba, where we’re joined by two guests. Carlos Alzugaray Treto is a former Cuban diplomat who served as ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg, and head of the Cuban Mission to the European Union. He is a former professor at Havana University. And we’re joined by Peter Kornbluh. He directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C., and is co-author of the book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.

Let’s start with Ambassador Treto. Can you describe the scene yesterday in Havana when the Obama family arrived, President Obama, the first sitting U.S. president to go to Cuba in 88 years?

CARLOS ALZUGARAY TRETO: Well, unfortunately, it was raining, so it was kind of marred by climate conditions. But I think, in general, what has to be described is the general attitude of the population here is an attitude of sympathy to President Obama, but at the same time of expectation about what’s going to happen with the embargo. I think it was best represented by this 75-year-old lady who wrote to President Obama saying, “I like you. I like you being re-elected. But you have to do something about the black page of U.S. embargo against Cuba.”

AMY GOODMAN: Right before the Obamas landed, the group Ladies in White held a protest, and it was broken up by authorities. Reports are that a number of people were arrested. Can you explain who this group is?

CARLOS ALZUGARAY TRETO: Well, basically, this is a group that has been receiving money from the United States. And in the Cuban—according to Cuban law and Cuban interpretation of that law is that these people are not exactly representing Cuban society, but more representing the old policy of the United States, which has been designated to create a regime change situation in Cuba. President Obama himself has criticized this policy, when he mentioned at the beginning of this process that the United States was not interested in destabilizing Cuba. But the fact of the matter is that Cuban authorities consider that these elements are doing exactly that, destabilizing the Cuban system. And they are paid agents of U.S. imperialism.

PETER KORNBLUH: And I think that it wasn’t a very positive gesture on—

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kornbluh, if you could weigh in?

PETER KORNBLUH: —on the part of the Cuban—well, it wasn’t the best opening gesture on the part of the Cuban authorities yesterday to intercept the Ladies in White. My thinking is, if they just let them proceed to their destination, they would have gotten there and then turned around and gone home, as they do often on Sundays. But, you know, that is an issue I’m sure will come up in private conversations between President Obama and President Castro. I’m sure the Cubans have advice for the United States of America on human rights issues, as well, perhaps even as bold as saying, you know, “What’s going on down there, down at Guantánamo base?” But these are—the point is, is that the two sides are talking. And they’ll talk about this, and they’ll talk about many, many other things. The arrival of President Obama under a huge rainstorm really can’t dampen the fact that this is a historic trip, a major step forward, I’d say a historic game changer in not only the future of U.S.-Cuban relations, but the future of U.S. relations with the world and particularly the Latin American region. I hope that what Obama is doing is leaving a model for future presidents of diplomacy and civil—and civil connection with the Cuban government, with the Cuban people, that will live on in the annals of U.S. foreign policy.

CARLOS ALZUGARAY TRETO: I agree with Peter. I think that’s what’s happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador?

CARLOS ALZUGARAY TRETO: But on the other hand, you have to understand Cuban authorities, what they have in mind. On the one hand, they want to give the president the best possible reception, welcome, which is the sense of the Cuban people. But at the same time, they are concerned about the security situation surrounding the visit. They don’t want the visit to be marred by any kind of a situation. I would agree with Peter that the best thing for the Cuban government would have been to let the demonstration go on. Sometimes you have to balance that—on the one hand, the security concerns, and then, on the other hand, the issue that is related to the image of the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kornbluh, the significance—

PETER KORNBLUH: The image of the country, Amy, right now is—

AMY GOODMAN: I don’t know if you can hear me, with the winds of change slamming your microphones. But the significance of the CEOs of the various corporations, from Marriott to Starwood to PayPal? Talk about what President Obama is doing with the corporate delegation there.

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, on his agenda for this afternoon is to kind of hold an entrepreneurial summit with Cuban kind of small new business leaders and with U.S. business leaders. We ran into José Andrés, the famous Spanish chef who lives in Washington, D.C., has a wonderful set of restaurants there and across the United States. And he’s here promoting the idea of good food and good restaurants and the future of the culinary kind of business in Cuba, which has a great future, along with so many other businesses here. And, of course, the Starwood CEO—Starwood just signed an agreement, making it the first major corporation since 1959 to have an agreement in Cuba, to manage and invest in several hotels in the coming years here. So that’s what Obama wants to do. You know, I think President Obama feels that opening the doors of commerce between Cuba and the United States is going to help a transition, an economic transition, that Raúl Castro himself has initiated to move Cuba into a mixed economy, from a more strict socialist economy to a mixed economy. And, of course, for that to happen, you have to have a private sector. And that is what those business leaders and business thinkers are doing here in Cuba with the president of the United States today.

AMY GOODMAN: Might it also be that with the—

CARLOS ALZUGARAY TRETO: [inaudible], Amy, there has to be added also.

AMY GOODMAN: Might it also be that with the Republicans wanting to turn back whatever Obama does this year, that with corporate investment and a stake in Cuba, it will be harder for the Republicans to reverse the opening with Cuba, Peter?

PETER KORNBLUH: Of course, you are absolutely right, Amy. And I’m negligent for not mentioning that from the outset. President Obama has this really super-interesting strategy. He’s bringing business leaders down here. He wants them to get connected down here, be invested down here, both psychologically and monetarily. And then he wants them to go back to the United States and unleash their lobbyists on the Mitch McConnells of the world, to push the Senate and House leadership to go ahead and vote to lift the embargo. There’s, I think, no doubt in my mind, at least, Carlos, that if there was a vote, we would get the embargo lifted, because the embargo is really a skeletal framework now, as—with Obama punching holes in it with his executive orders. But we’re not going to get that vote, of course, until the leadership changes. But by that time, I think Obama’s hope is that U.S. businesses will be entrenched here, will have interests here and will be pushing their own legislators with lobbyists to lift the embargo entirely.

AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, Republican presidential—

CARLOS ALZUGARAY TRETO: Amy, there is another side to this.

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador, on Sunday, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz criticized President Obama for his trip to Cuba. Cruz tweeted, quote, “I have a word for the people of Cuba who will witness the gaudy spectacle in Havana: America has not forgotten you.” Cruz then linked to an article he wrote for Politico headlined “In Cuba, Obama Will Legitimize the Corrupt and Ignore the Oppressed: What’s American About That?” In the article, Cruz writes, quote, “In Cuba the Castros have been the implacable enemies of the United States for more than half a century. It is in our interests to make common cause with the brave souls who oppose them.” That’s Ted Cruz, of course, whose ancestry, his father, is Cuban. Your response to that, Ambassador Treto?

CARLOS ALZUGARAY TRETO: I think is unfortunate that still some politicians in the United States are buried in this ancient discourse. Cuba is changing. It is important that in the process of change we have as normal a relationship that we can have with the United States.

I wanted also to make the point that something that has been not very much reported in the media in the United States is that—something that was announced yesterday by the minister of foreign trade of Cuba. As you know, secretary of commerce of the United States is here, and there is going to be a business meeting not only with the private sector, but also with the state sector. If the United States wants to make business in Cuba, obviously, it has to make business with the two sectors, not only with the private sector, but also with the state sector. It makes sense. Well, in fact, the agreement of Starwood is with the government enterprise.

PETER KORNBLUH: That’s right.

CARLOS ALZUGARAY TRETO: So, it’s inevitable that they have to come to realize that reality. Cruz is repeating an old language that I don’t think even reflects what most of the Cuban-American community in the United States think. The majority of Cuban Americans are more in line with Carlos Gutierrez, for example, or Carlos Rodriguez. They are business people who have been successful in the United States, but they want to do business with Cuba. And this is important for both sides.

Cuba is changing. I’m going to repeat something I said a few days ago to another media. Cuba is changing. Cuba is changing in its own terms. You cannot expect Cuba to follow a foreign script about the changes that are going to happen in Cuba. And these changes, as the foreign minister said it the other day—it was very important that the Cuban foreign minister, answering a question of a journalist, said, “Listen, Cuba is a country in permanent transition, in permanent change. The changes started in 1959, but right now we’re more interested in having an efficient economy.” And he said something—he added something very interesting. At the end, he said, “We’re having the Congress, and we are working in expanding civil and political rights for Cuba.” So, obviously, the agenda is big for the Cuban government. But something the Cuban government won’t do—and I would suppose that most Cubans agree with that—we don’t discuss the problems of our change with foreign partners that come on the position of imposing. We want to hear President Obama. We want to hear what he thinks, as advice, as something that we should consider in our process, but not as an imposition from the outside world. That’s what the United States used to do before 1959, and that’s what’s not going to happen after 2018.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kornbluh?

PETER KORNBLUH: Amy, if I can just say, I’m here—I’m here with the White House Press Corps, credentialed for The Nation magazine and reporting for The Nation magazine on what’s happening here. And there was a private, off-the-record reception with Obama’s White House staff last night. Susan Rice was there; Benjamin Rhodes, who’s really negotiated this whole trip with the Cubans. And I think people there are sensitive to the points that Ambassador Alzugaray has just made, you know, that the president of the United States can’t just come down here like Calvin Coolidge or Woodrow Wilson used to in the past, or Teddy Roosevelt, and say, “This is what’s going to happen in your country.” And I think they understand the tone and the need to respect Cuba’s independence and sovereignty. I think that’s the symbolism of President Obama being on this island for three days—


PETER KORNBLUH: —while Fidel Castro is still alive, while Raúl Castro is the leader of this country. I think they’re saying that. And, of course, there will be a delicate presentation, you know, and speech that President Obama is going to make tomorrow, and I think we’ll be discussing the tone of that speech and what he says, but I know that U.S. officials are sensitive to that. There’s a political campaign back in the United States, Carlos—


PETER KORNBLUH: —and there’s a lot of politics around that. Just like there are politics here around this visit, there’s certainly politics around the visit back in the United States with Ted Cruz. But, you know, the focus is here, so that’s what’s important.

CARLOS ALZUGARAY TRETO: I agree with Peter. I think we are seeing a different thing. And that’s very, very, very stimulant for us.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to—I want to talk about the loosened restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba, the new measures allowing Americans to travel to Cuba if they plan educational activities, including interacting with Cuban people or visiting museums, also allowing Cubans to have U.S. bank accounts and earn salaries from U.S. companies and permit the use of U.S. dollars in transactions with Cuba. White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said the shift could advance economic reforms in Cuba.

PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST: It also could apply more pressure to the Cuban government to implement additional reforms to the Cuban economy. All of that would be a good thing, and all of that would be in service of the basic policy goals that we’ve laid out from the beginning. I would just observe that those were also the policy goals under—that were prioritized by the U.S. government for 50 years under a Cuba embargo and attempts to isolate the Cuban nation.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kornbluh, the latest restriction lifting that is taking place now—direct flights, bank accounts?

PETER KORNBLUH: And Obama’s decision to let individual U.S. citizens become people-to-people ambassadors by simply checking off a box on the ticket to Cuba. I thought it was extraordinary last night that the president of the United States arrived on Air Force One. The very first thing he does is take a tour of Old Havana like a tourist with this family. And yet the truth of the matter is, is that it is still technically against the law—


PETER KORNBLUH: —in the United States to travel as a tourist to Cuba. And this is one of the extraordinary idiosyncrasies and contradictions of what’s going on. The Republican Congress has to lift this restriction on U.S. citizens’ rights to travel, so that we can all follow in the path of the president of the United States. But what he has done is set the tone by taking these steps to meet several key Cuban demands. And Carlos can speak to the issue of the dollars. He also met the Cubans’ request that they’ve made over the years, and repeatedly recently, that Cuban baseball players be able to play for Major League Baseball teams and not have to defect to the United States. And he has authorized now all Cubans to come and work in the United States, get a paycheck from the United States, without having to immigrate to the United States or defect to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: And there is going to be a show baseball game that’s going to end the trip. But I wanted to very quickly ask you, Peter, about President Obama going, before Cuba, to Argentina and saying that he will unseal the files on Argentina’s dirty war. But the significance and the politics of that trip to Argentina?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, we’ve lost you, Amy, but I—your question is about an announcement that President Obama is going to make in several days, on March 24th, when he’s in Buenos Aires. And that happens to be the 40th anniversary of the vicious military coup that took place in 1976. And Obama is going to be there. He’s going to visit the Parque de la Memoria, a monument to the human rights victims. And he’s going to announce that he’s going to authorize and direct a special declassification of CIA, Defense Department and FBI records on the repression in Argentina, to help advance truth and justice and memory in that country. And I just think that’s an amazingly important human rights gesture that will also set another precedent. He’s going to unveil and reveal history in order to make history.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Again, President Obama actually is going to Argentina after Cuba.


AMY GOODMAN: Carlos Alzugaray Treto, former Cuban ambassador, and Peter Kornbluh, directing the Cuba Documentation Project, National Security Archive, reporting for The Nation magazine in Havana on this historic three-day trip, the first trip by a sitting U.S. president in 88 years to Cuba. We’ll have more on it in the coming days.

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