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Meet the Filmmaker Behind “Embargo,” a New Documentary About U.S.-Cuba Relations

Web ExclusiveSeptember 29, 2017
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We speak with Jeri Rice, director of the film “Embargo,” a new documentary about U.S.-Cuba relations, and with attorney José Pertierra in Havana.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. This is Part 2 of our interview about the new documentary called Embargo. It’s premiering this week in New York, just played in Los Angeles. We’re joined by the director, Jeri Rice, as well as the attorney José Pertierra, who’s joining us right now from Cuba. As we talk about U.S. relations with Cuba over the last 50 years, what most surprised you, Jeri, about what you found?

JERI RICE: Well, you know, I’m an American, and I grew up during the—you know, the time of optimism, when we believed in the American dream. And when I got to Cuba and I met the Cuban people and I saw the joy and the incredible education system that they have and the arts that they have and, you know, the joie de vivre, really, on that island, I was surprised, because I thought, as an American, just listening to the propaganda that we get in the United States about Cuba, that it was a dangerous place, that it was a reason that Americans weren’t allowed to travel there. And I found out that it was a very, very different story.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, José Pertierra, I wanted to ask you about the issue of the embargo, and despite the openings of President Obama to Cuba, the embargo continues.

JOSÉ PERTIERRA: The embargo does continue. And if some people in the Trump administration have their way, it’s going to get worse. Still, we’re unsure to what extent—as Amy said before, we’re not sure to what extent they’re going to take these sanctions, how far they’re going to go in the travel restrictions, in the commercial restrictions. They still haven’t put out the regulations. But all indications are that this is not the Obama administration’s policy with Cuba. This is a new sort of policy that really goes back to the Cold War years. And it’s a shame. I can tell you this, though. This is a proud country, and the Cubans are proud people. And Cuba will survive and thrive with or without the United States. It’s up to Trump to make decisions of which way he wants to take policy, but Cuba will not change.

AMY GOODMAN: Right now, how are the—how is the Cuban administration dealing with the possibily that Trump is going to close off access to Cuba once again? I mean, it’s not clear what’s going to happen—I mean, even, for example, the direct flights of people between the United States and Cuba that just opened up recently.

JOSÉ PERTIERRA: Amy, he might. He might close off relations. He might bomb North Korea into oblivion. I mean, he may do all these things. He’s not a sane person in the White House. But Cuba has withstood—through the test of time, they’ve withstood president after president and policy after policy. They’ve withstood terrorism from the United States against Cuba. They’ve withstood biological attacks.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to turn right now to another clip of the film Embargo. This begins with Robert Kennedy Jr.

ROBERT F. KENNEDY JR.: On the day that President Kennedy was killed, on November 22nd, 1963, when my uncle Jack was killed in Dallas, he had an emissary who was meeting with Castro at that very time. Jean Daniel was a French writer talking about the common ground between the United States and Russia. He held out an olive leaf to Castro, and he said to him, “The United States history in Cuba has been a history of atrocities. And we understand that we’re going to have to pay for that in one way or another.”

PETER KORNBLUH: Jean Daniel was talking to Castro about these very issues, when an aide burst into the room and said, “Kennedy has been shot.” Castro turned to Jean Daniel, and the first thing he said was, “They’re going to say that we did it,” which was exactly true. That’s exactly what happened. But the second thing he said was, “There goes your mission of peace.”

AMY GOODMAN: And let’s go back to a clip that begins with the author Lamar Waldron.

LAMAR WALDRON: By the summer of 1959, the CIA is working with some mobsters to try and kill Fidel Castro. Nixon just ordered the CIA to ratchet up their plots with the Mafia, pretty audacious plan that’s now been very well documented but only in the last two or three years, when the National Archives found some files that really helped to lay some of this stuff out for the first time.

LAWRENCE SPIVAK: Dr. Castro, an American magazine published a story this week which says that Dr. Castro really hates America.

PRIME MINISTER FIDEL CASTRO: Why am I going to hate to the people of the United States? I don’t hate anybody.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was the late Fidel Castro, now in the film Embargo. Jeri Rice, as you watch that, your thoughts?

JERI RICE: Well, it just shows—you know, here you have one of the Kennedy family, Robert Kennedy Jr., that—you know, I was really taken back by the freely—the way that he freely shared his feelings and how his uncle tried to reach out to Castro, and they were working on a deal a long time ago. And then he was assassinated. And there were also all of these assassination attempts on Castro’s life. And, you know, we’ve been tied back to the 1960s for all these years. We’ve been trying to move forward with Cuba, but there’s definitely been something holding us back. And, you know, we see it in Miami now with Marco Rubio. It’s just more of the same.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in the film, also, you had an interview with Ted Sorensen, just shortly before he died, the famous Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, adviser. Could you talk about that interview and what you learned there?

JERI RICE: Well, I learned that the CIA was very much involved in this and that they really tried to force John F. Kennedy into, you know, the Bay of Pigs war, you know, following up on the failed invasion. And like Ted Sorensen said that, you know, you couldn’t force John F. Kennedy to go to a war, that they were talking to the wrong person, basically. And we got some very clear insights into the Kennedy administration. We have Sergei Khrushchev in the movie, Nikita Khrushchev’s son. So, between Bobby Kennedy Jr., Ted Sorensen and Sergei Khrushchev, I think we got a pretty complete view of what was going on there. And then, in the film, we also have former President Ricardo Alarcón, so we have the Cuban side of the story. I really tried to get all sides, you know, people from Miami—

AMY GOODMAN: And what did Khrushchev say?

JERI RICE: Well, it was interesting, because Khrushchev and Kennedy had been writing letters to each other that were being smuggled by a Russian spy, you know, so when that—we hear today “Russia, Russia, Russia,” but, you know, the truth is that Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy averted a nuclear war that was destined to happen by their generals. And how far have we come from that point then to where we are today?

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to our previous guest, José Pertierra, not in Havana speaking to him live, but in your film, where he’s talking about the heated custody battle involving 6-year-old Elián González in 2000, Pertierra talking about Elián’s father Juan Miguel’s fight to get his son back from Miami.

JOSÉ PERTIERRA: The part of the story that the Cubans in Miami and the United States government didn’t really get, there are many Cubans who want to leave Cuba, but there are many Cubans who want to stay. Because Juan Miguel was tempted by a lot of people to stay in the United States and make political statements. In my presence, he was offered one time over $2 million. Juan Miguel is a waiter in a restaurant in Cuba. He makes very little money. But Juan Miguel was not tempted by money, and he was not tempted by Miami or by Disney World. He wanted simply to live at home.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s very interesting, and especially for younger people. I mean, Elián González, that story of the battle, this epic battle, over this little boy who survived coming by water to Miami. His mother died tragically. His family in Miami demanding they keep him, and this becoming a huge national story in Cuba. Pertierra, the lawyer for Elián González. Jeri Rice, talk about why that was significant then and even today, in 2017.

JERI RICE: Well, I think, first of all, you know, we always hear that everybody wants to flee the island. There’s something that has been now rescinded, but was called the “wet foot, dry foot” act, so that if you came to the United States and you landed on a rock in America, a year later you got a green card and—as José told me, and a parade in Miami. So we were issuing like a magnet to bring these people to make it look as though Fidel Castro’s Cuba, you know, everybody hated it. There were problems economically, and a lot of those problems stemmed from the embargo and the blockade, that affected all the rest of the world, as well as our relationship, because people can’t trade with Cuba if they’re trading with the United States. I mean, so it’s a big problem.

And I think, you know, the fact that the Miami—that section of the Miami Cubans were bribing, trying to bribe him to make political statements, it just shows, you know, the kind of collusion, the kind of—the kind of chaos that goes on in Miami and the kind of anger, sadness and hatred that has been ingrained, not just in the older generation but in some of the younger generation. And, I mean, you know, when I look at it, I’m a baby boomer. There are 76 million of us. There are 2 million Cuban Americans in the United States. And of those, a very small amount want to hold this policy. So, in a democracy, if we’re really a democracy, this should not stand.

AMY GOODMAN: And among them, Juan, is Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who’s on trial right now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right, right, who’s a Democrat, but who’s also very—and also, on the Cuba issue, maintaining the line of the Cuban exile, the wealthy elite of Florida.

JERI RICE: I think the main message of this movie is that there is no purpose for this embargo. It doesn’t—they’re not a danger to us. And in this time, where natural disasters are coming down on all of us, the only humane thing to do, and especially for Cuban Americans, is to reach across the water to their families and help. We all need each other.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. Thank you so much, Jeri Rice, director and producer of the new film Embargo. This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our discussion with Jeri Rice and the lawyer José Pertierra in Havana, go to I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks for joining us.

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