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Chomsky on the Late Michael Ratner & How U.S. Thawed Cuba Ties to Avoid Dwindling Regional Influence

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At the opening of the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C., last year after almost half a century, Democracy Now! spoke to attorney Michael Ratner, who played a key role in fighting for the habeas corpus rights of Guantánamo prisoners and wrote several books about the U.S. role in Cuba and Latin America. We discuss his legacy and new U.S. stance toward Cuba with Noam Chomsky, who argues the change came about in part because the United States was being driven out of the hemisphere. “Latin America used to be just the backyard. They do what you tell them. If they don’t do it, we throw them out and put in someone else. No more. Not in the last 10, 20 years.”

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StoryMar 03, 2015Chomsky on Cuba: After Decades of U.S. Meddling & “Terrorism,” Restoring Ties is Least We Could Do
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the passing of Michael Ratner, Michael Ratner, the former head of the—or the late head of the Center for Constitutional Rights, the trailblazing human rights attorney, who died last week at the age of 72. I had interviewed Michael last year in Washington, D.C., at the reopening of the Cuban Embassy, after it was closed for more than five decades. And I asked Michael to talk about the significance of this historic day. This is an excerpt of what he said.

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, Amy, let’s just say, other than the birth of my children, this is perhaps one of the most exciting days of my life. I mean, I’ve been working on Cuba since the early ’70s, if not before. I worked on the Venceremos Brigade. I went on brigades. I did construction. And to see that this can actually happen in a country that decided early on that, unlike most countries in the world, it was going to level the playing field for everyone—no more rich, no more poor, everyone the same, education for everyone, schooling for everyone, housing if they could—and to see the relentless United States go against it, from the Bay of Pigs to utter subversion on and on, and to see Cuba emerge victorious—and when I say that, this is not a defeated country. This is a country—if you heard the foreign minister today, what he spoke of was the history of U.S. imperialism against Cuba, from the intervention in the Spanish-American War to the Platt Amendment, which made U.S. a permanent part of the Cuban government, to the taking of Guantánamo, to the failure to recognize it in 1959, to the cutting off of relations in 1961. This is a major, major victory for the Cuban people, and that should be understood. We are standing at a moment that I never expected to see in our history.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Michael Ratner. It was July [20th]. It was that historic day in Washington, D.C., when the Cuban Embassy was opened after almost half a century. If you could talk both about the significance of Michael Ratner, from his work around Guantánamo, ultimately challenging the habeas corpus rights of Guantánamo prisoners, that they should have their day in court, and winning this case in the Supreme Court, to all of his work, also talk about Cuba, Noam, something that you certainly take on in your new book, Who Rules the World?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, Michael Ratner has an absolutely fabulous record. His achievements have been enormous. A tremendous courage, intelligence, dedication. A lot of achievement against huge odds. The center, which he largely—it was a major—he ran and was a major actor in, has done wonderful work all over the place—Cuba and lots of other things. So I can’t be excessive in my praise for what he achieved in his life and the inspiration that it should leave us with.

With regard to Cuba-U.S. relations, I think what he just said is essentially accurate. In fact, it’s even worse than that. We tend to forget that after the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy administration was practically in a state of hysteria and seeking to somehow avenge themselves against this upstart who was carrying out what the government called successful defiance of U.S. policies going back to the Monroe Doctrine. How can we tolerate that? Kennedy authorized a major terrorist war against Cuba. The goal was to bring “the terrors of the earth” to Cuba. That’s the phrase of his associate Arthur Schlesinger, historian Arthur Schlesinger, in his biography of Robert Kennedy. Robert Kennedy was given the responsibility to bring “the terrors of the earth” to Cuba. And it was—he in fact described it as one of the prime goals of government, is to ensure that we terrorize Cuba. And it was pretty serious. Thousands of people were killed, petrochemical plants, other industrial installations blown up. Russian ships in the Havana Harbor were attacked. You can imagine what would happen if American ships were attacked. It was probably connected with poisoning of crops and livestock, can’t be certain. It went on into the 1990s, though not at that—not at the extreme level of the Kennedy years, but pretty bad. The late ’70s, there was an upsurge, blowing up of a Cubana airliner, 73 people killed. The culprits are living happily in Miami. One of them died. The other, Luis Posada, major terrorist, is cheerfully living there.

The taking over of southeastern Cuba back—at the time of the Platt Amendment, the U.S. had absolutely no claim to this territory, none whatsoever. We’re holding onto it just in order—it’s a major U.S. military base—it was. But we’re holding onto it simply to impede the development of Cuba, a major port, and to have a dumping place where we can send—illegally send Haitian refugees, claiming that they’re economic refugees, when they’re fleeing from the terror of the Haitian junta that we supported—Clinton, incidentally, in this case—or just as a torture chamber. Now, there’s a lot of talk about human rights violations in Cuba. Yeah, there are human rights violations in Cuba. By far the worst of them, overwhelmingly, are in the part of Cuba that we illegally hold—you know, technically, legally. We took it at the force of a gun, so it’s—point of a gun, so it’s legal. I mean, in comparison with this, whatever you think of Putin’s annexation of Crimea is minor in comparison with this.

All of this is correct, but we have to ask: Why did the U.S. decide to normalize relations with Cuba? The way it’s presented here, it was a historic act of magnanimity by the Obama administration. As he, himself, put it, and commentators echoed, “We have tried for 50 years to bring democracy and freedom to Cuba. The methods we used didn’t work, so we’ll try another method.” Reality? No, we tried for 50 years to bring terror, violence and destruction to Cuba, not just the terrorist war, but the crushing embargo. When the Russians disappeared from the scene, instead of—you know, the pretense was, “Well, it’s because of the Russians.” When they disappeared from the scene, how did we react, under Clinton? By making the embargo harsher. Clinton outflanked George H.W. Bush from the right, in harsh—during the electoral campaign, in harshness against Cuba. It was Torricelli, New Jersey Democrat, who initiated the legislation. Later became worse with Helms-Burton. All of this has been—that’s how we tried to bring democracy and freedom to Cuba.

Why the change? Because the United States was being driven out of the hemisphere. You take a look at the hemispheric meetings, which are symbol of it. Latin America used to be just the backyard. They do what you tell them. If they don’t do it, we throw them out and put in someone else. No more. Not in the last 10, 20 years. There was a hemispheric meeting in Cartagena, in Colombia. I think it was—must have been 2012, when the U.S. was isolated. U.S. and Canada were completely isolated from the rest of the hemisphere on two issues. One was admission of Cuba into hemispheric systems. The second was the drug war, which Latin America are essentially the victims of the drug war. The demand is here. Actually, even the supply of weapons into Mexico is largely here. But they’re the ones who suffer from it. They want to change it. They want to move in various ways towards decriminalization, other measures. U.S. opposed. Canada opposed. It was pretty clear at that time that at the next hemispheric meeting, which was going to be in Panama, if the U.S. still maintained its position on these two issues, the hemisphere would just go along without the United States. Now, there already are hemispheric institutions, like CELAC, UNASUR for South America, which exclude the United States, and it would just move in that direction. So, Obama bowed to the pressure of reality and agreed to make—to accept the demand to—the overwhelming demand to move slowly towards normalization of relations with Cuba. Not a magnanimous gesture of courage to bring Cuba—to protect Cuba from its isolation, to save them from their isolation; quite the opposite, to save the United States from its isolation. Of course, with the rest of the world, there’s not even any question. Take a look at the annual votes on—the U.N. has annual votes on the U.S. embargo, and just overwhelming. I think the last one was something like 180 to two—United States and Israel. It’s been increasing like that for years. So, that’s the background.

As for Michael, Michael Ratner, his achievements are just really spectacular.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Noam, you’ve just written this book, Who Rules the World? You’ve written more than a hundred other books. And, I mean, you have been a deep, profound thinker and activist on world issues, for what? I mean, more than 70 years. You were writing when you were 14 years old, giving your analysis of what’s been happening. And I’m wondering where you think we stand today, if you agree with—well, with Dr. Martin Luther King, that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Actually, it was 10 years old, but not—nothing to rave about. If you look over the past, say, the roughly 75 years of my, more or less, consciousness, it’s—in general, I think the arc of history has been bending towards justice. There have been many improvements, some of them pretty dramatic—women’s rights, for example, to an extent, civil rights. It should be remembered that there were literally lynchings in the South until the early 1950s. It’s not beautiful now, but that’s not happening. There have been steps forward. Opposition to aggression is much higher than it was in the past. There’s finally concern for environmental issues, which are really of desperate necessity. All of this is slow, halting, significant steps bending the arc of history in the right way.

There’s been regression, a lot of regression. Things don’t move smoothly. But there have been bad periods before, and we’ve pulled out of them. I think there are opportunities—they’re not huge, but they’re real—to overcome the—and I stress again—to overcome problems that the human species has never faced in its roughly 200,000 years of existence, problems of, literally, survival. We’ve already answered these questions for a huge number of species: We’ve killed them off.

AMY GOODMAN: Noam Chomsky, world-renowned political dissident, linguist and author, institute professor emeritus at MIT. He taught there for over half a century. His latest book, Who Rules the World? If you want to watch Part 1 of our conversation—it was all of Monday’s show—go to democracynow.org.

I’ll be speaking today in Chicago at 6:30 with Jeremy Scahill at the Chicago Temple Building on West Washington Street; then on Wednesday in Madison, Wisconsin, at the Barrymore Theatre; to Toronto, Canada, Thursday and Friday; then on to Saturday in Troy, New York, at the Sanctuary for Independent Media; on Sunday in New York; and on Monday at the Philadelphia Free Library. You can check our website at democracynow.org as we continue our 100-city tour.

Oh, Democracy Now! is hiring for our video news production fellowship and our internship program. Get more information at our website.

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Chomsky on Cuba: After Decades of U.S. Meddling & “Terrorism,” Restoring Ties is Least We Could Do

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