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Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister on Immigration, U.S. Blockade & Why Cuba Hasn’t Denounced Russia

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The United States and Cuba held their highest-level talks in four years last week in Washington, where they discussed the soaring numbers of Cubans immigrating to the U.S. We speak with Cuba’s Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Fernández de Cossío, who participated in the talks. He says the U.S. has failed to implement the mutually set immigration goals between the two countries, which, paired with economic sanctions on the island, has resulted in “irregular and uncontrolled migration” of Cubans to the U.S. “If the United States would have fulfilled its commitment of granting 20,000 visas a year, it would perfectly have avoided thousands of Cubans reaching the border of the United States,” says Fernández de Cossío, who blames the Biden administration for upholding the same destructive policies as the Trump administration, which applied maximum economic sanctions starting in 2019 to “make life as difficult as possible” in Cuba. He also speaks about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, saying “this war could have been avoided,” and calls out the U.S. for pushing “double standards” under the guise of international human rights law.

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StoryApr 24, 2024Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister: Deliberate U.S. Policy of “Destroying Cuban Economy” Drives Migration
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The United States and Cuba held their highest-level talks in four years last week in Washington. The talks focused on the soaring number of Cubans arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. Since October, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has arrested over 80,000 Cubans. That’s double the number in 2021 and five times the total in 2020. Cuban officials blame the growing number of residents trying to leave the island in part on the U.S. economic blockade.

Meanwhile, Cuba has accused the Biden administration of pressuring allies to block Cuba from participating in the upcoming Summit of the Americas, which is scheduled to take place in Los Angeles in June. Cuba took part in the last two summits, in 2015 and 2018.

We’re joined now by Carlos Fernández de Cossío, Cuba’s deputy foreign minister. He’s the former Cuban ambassador to South Africa and to Canada. He’s joining us from Washington, D.C., where he participated in the talks with the U.S. last week. This was the first time in four years.

It’s very good to have you with us. Can you talk about what is at issue and what you feel needs to happen?

CARLOS FERNÁNDEZ DE COSSÍO: Good morning. Glad to be here.

The relationship in terms of migration between Cuba and the United States is governed basically by four agreements that we’ve signed during the years and that establish a mutual commitment to ensure that we can avoid irregular, insecure and disorderly migration between the two countries. But if you fail to implement the agreements, if it’s not implemented comprehensively, then you don’t achieve the goal that we set mutually between the two countries. So, the figures that you have today, some of which you mentioned, and also the threats of an irregular and uncontrolled migration through the Florida Strait in the coming months of the summer are issues that need to be discussed.

You need to put an end to what U.S. calls pull effect, which is the incentives for Cuba to believe that if they do reach the border of the United States, they almost automatically will be accepted, as a difference to migrants from any other country in the world. There’s a discriminate, privileged treatment for Cubans at the border. Also there’s legislation in the United States, the Cuban Adjustment Act, that grants only Cubans the possibility of permanent residence within a year. That is an incentive to Cubans.

But if, in addition to that, you do not process and do not grant visas normally and legally in U.S. Embassy in Cuba, then people have no legal avenue to migrate to the United States and to follow that incentive to migrate to this country. Since 2017, the U.S. shut down the processing of visas in Havana and then, since then, has not fulfilled its commitment to grant a minimum of 20,000 legal migrant visas to Cuba. When you accumulate that during the years, you have to understand that there’s a potential to migrate.

If, in addition to that, you apply against Cuba an economic blockade, of maximum pressure since 2019, then you have the perfect conditions and the perfect recipes for irregular migration to the United States, something that Cuba wants to avoid and that we understand the U.S. also wants to avoid. It increases problems to countries in the region. It creates an incentive to use the ocean — not only by Cubans but by migrants or potential migrants from other nationalities that want to enter the United States, and not only from our region, from other regions of the world. If U.S. politicians believe, as they state, that to tackle migration, irregular migration, you need to address the economic conditions of the countries of origin, it is contradictory with the fact that against Cuba what’s being applied is a policy of making life as difficult as possible for the people of Cuba, to diminish their standard of living, to make them want to, in many cases, go to another country to seek their aspirations of prosperity. That’s the issue that is in place today, and that’s part of the issues that we discussed on the meeting that we had last week.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Deputy Minister Cossío, I wanted to ask you, in terms of the surge in migrants from Cuba, especially the — because most of the migration attempts in the past have come directly over the straits, but now we’re seeing a significant number of Cubans trying to cross at the Mexican border, a fourfold increase this year, this fiscal year, compared to last. Why is that happening, and especially this direction, trying to get in through Mexico? And you mentioned that, since 2017, legal visas have not been provided by the United States in Havana itself. Why is that?

CARLOS FERNÁNDEZ DE COSSÍO: Well, first, this is not a new process. It’s grown in the past few months, but this has been going on for several years now. If the United States would have fulfilled its commitment of granting 20,000 visas a year, it would perfectly have avoided thousands of Cubans reaching the border of the United States to enter Mexico. Now, if they have an established belief that is a difference — that, contrary to the rest of migrants around the world, they, because they are Cubans, will have a privileged possibility of entering the United States, then you have reason for those who want to migrate to believe that it is possible.

You have difficult economic conditions in Cuba, above all, since 2019, when the Trump administration started to apply what they called maximum pressure to make life difficult in Cuba as a way to overthrow the government or weaken the government. The current government continues to apply the same policy as the Trump administration, so people have no aspiration or no hope that this will change. And if economic conditions are difficult, if they have no way to legally migrate to the United States, if they have family at the other side of the Florida Strait, then they use whatever means. And they are convinced that if they do reach the border of Mexico, they will be accepted.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about another question, apart from migration: the war in Ukraine. Cuba has been one of Russia’s key allies over the years. You’ve criticized — your government has criticized how the United States and other Western powers are involved in this crisis. Could you talk about why your government has taken the position it has, and why so many other governments in Latin America have actually sought not to directly condemn Russia? I’m talking about Mexico, for instance, or even Brazil. Could you explain the perspective of Cuba on what’s going on in Ukraine?

CARLOS FERNÁNDEZ DE COSSÍO: I’ll do that, yes. The position of Cuba, we’ve stated, is that this war could have been avoided. And we spoke about this not now. We spoke about this in 2014. We said that it was irresponsible for the U.S. government to continue to push NATO towards the border of Russia, that Russia would naturally feel threatened, that Russia would want to avoid a position in which it is surrounded by NATO and then having to take action against a NATO country to protect itself. We’ve been saying that for years. It’s not now. So we say there’s a responsibility of the United States in pushing NATO towards the border of Russia.

In addition to that, we said that as a matter of principle and as a matter of our traditional position in respect of international law, we oppose any transgression, any intervention from one nation against another, the transgression of the border of a sovereign country. Russians know that, the international community knows that, because that is a standing position of Cuba. And we said from the very beginning, from when this conflict began, that talks needed to take place, that assurance needed to be given, so that each country in Europe could live in peace and not have been forced to war because of hegemonic ambitions, because of wanting to push war against the borders of Russia.

That has been the Cuban position. And we also follow the positions of the countries of Latin America. They can speak for themselves, and one would understand that not all nations around the world see that the attempt to push NATO against Russia has been a good idea. They’ve seen that for years as a threat.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let me ask you, Carlos Fernández de Cossío — China, Cuba, Iran and Syria were among the 24 nations that voted against expelling Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council, but Cuba abstained when it came to criticizing Russia, rather than voting for Russia. What was your reservation, instead of standing directly with them?

CARLOS FERNÁNDEZ DE COSSÍO: They were different resolutions and different contexts. In the resolution of expelling Russia from the Human Rights Council, we said that there was a double standard. For the reasons explained to take that decision, you should have expelled the United States every year that it has been in the Human Rights Council, because of aggression, because of massive and flagrant violations of human rights of peoples all over the world, including people within the United States, constantly and every day. So there was a total double standard in that, and we could not support that.

In the case of the resolution at the General Assembly in which we abstained, it’s a resolution that contains many principles that Cuba has espoused, many principles that Cuba has promoted, by the way, against the will of the United States for decades. So we could not vote against a resolution that stands for the principles that we have against aggression towards — against any country in the world, and therefore, we had to abstain, because it put us in a difficult position of having to take a vote on something that does not stand with Cuban principles and traditional position at the U.N.

AMY GOODMAN: You are deeply concerned about the sovereignty of nations, like your own, like Cuba, fiercely opposed to the U.S. sanctions that have so hurt Cuba. Do you feel the same about Ukraine? And are you concerned about the brutality of the Russian invasion?

CARLOS FERNÁNDEZ DE COSSÍO: We are concerned about the brutality about everybody at war, and it’s not only Russia. And I will leave it at that. We’ve been very careful trying to avoid — we have a very good relationship and a traditional historic relationship with the people of Ukraine and with the people of Russia. We have visited. We have people in Cuba who have studied in both countries. We are visited by people from both countries. We have a relationship with both countries. So we abstain from making pronouncements of that type.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the Biden administration’s relationship to Cuba. Clearly, as vice president, Joe Biden was part of the Obama administration, that sought to normalize relations with Cuba. Donald Trump reversed that, and there were many expectations that once Biden got back into office, that he would follow the Obama path when it came to Cuba. What has gone wrong? And what — and how do you see the Biden administration, the reasoning why it has not gone back to the Obama policies?

CARLOS FERNÁNDEZ DE COSSÍO: It’s a very relevant question. I don’t have an answer to that. But in practical terms, and, above all, for the livelihoods of the people of Cuba, the current policy of the U.S., the policy of the Biden government, is exactly the one from the Trump administration. No Cuban in the street would make a difference between the two. The impact of the economic measures, above all, is not short of criminal against the people of Cuba today. And because of COVID, there has not been much contact, but Americans who would visit Cuba would understand the difference today than what we experienced in 2013, ’14, ’15, ’16 and ’17 in terms of our economic output, our standard of living. The measures applied by the U.S. starting in 2019 escalated the economic blockade to a different dimension and has had a huge impact on people of Cuba, and it remains in place. It was based on excuses fabricated by the Trump administration that are not repeated anymore, yet the measures are still in place. So the question is very relevant.

What we find in Washington and what we are told is that it is a matter of perception. It is a matter of political risks. I’m talking about domestic politics, electoral politics. That is the only excuse that is truly presented to us, because the Trump administration, for example, included Cuba in the State Department list of countries that sponsor terrorism. Nobody in Washington has been able to tell me in a straight face that they honestly believe that Cuba sponsors terrorism. No American that I talk to can — may put an argument of why Cuba is in that list. And it’s not only that morally discredits Cuba. That list has a huge impact in the way the international community — banks, financial institutions, trading companies, private companies — trade with Cuba. They fear that they will be punished. They feel a backlash from the U.S. if they engage with countries which is in that list, even though they don’t believe the country should be in that list. And that’s a reality we face today. When Trump put Cuba in that list, it was firmly criticized by the Democratic Party, that had not entered government yet. They have been elected, yet we still remain in that list, with the consequences and the punishment that it entails.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you say what that punishment is? Can you — for an audience who is not familiar with what’s going on in Cuba, the effect of the sanctions that have been imposed on Cuba for more than half a century, and if you have any indication from the Biden administration that they will lift some of them?

CARLOS FERNÁNDEZ DE COSSÍO: Let me give you just one example. Within about 30 to 40 days after Cuba was included in that list, over 30 financial institutions, non-American financial institutions around the world, shut down their relationship, their commercial relationship, with Cuba because of fear of U.S. sanctions, so that you have a practical impact on that, which is based on nonsense. It’s based on a fabrication by the Trump administration at the end of his term.

But the implications of the economic measures are huge. It costs Cuba annually some $5 billion. In a country of the size of Cuba, imagine that impact. And the worst case is that they were strengthened during the COVID pandemic. The U.S. government found that COVID was an ally in its attempt to punish Cuba. And that’s what they did. They applied extreme pressure so it was difficult for us to cope with the pandemic, to cope with our economic needs and to cope with the international economic crisis that came out of the pandemic. And that’s what described Cuba’s economic situation in the past two years.

Now, this government, we spoke with people of the Democratic Party before they went into office. They were highly critical of what was happening. But yet they’re in government now, and no change has taken place. The reason, again, you’d have to ask the White House.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you so much for being with us. But, Juan, you have one last question?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I just wanted to ask the foreign minister about the — you mentioned the COVID pandemic. Cuba quickly developed five different COVID-19 vaccines. Could you talk about the success that Cuba has had in combating the pandemic compared to many other countries, including our own United States?

CARLOS FERNÁNDEZ DE COSSÍO: The success was based originally in the robust nature of our health system, which is unique, it’s worldwide, and we had the capability of immediately attending people and taking measures that everybody could follow so that the spread was not grown.

Also, there was a very early decision, led by our president, that we needed to develop vaccines. And there were questions within our scientific community. Why would we do that? Others are going to produce vaccines. And he said, “When they are produced, Cuba will be the last one to get them.” And that has been the truth. Thanks to that, we were able to develop not one, but five vaccines. We’ve fully vaccinated our population.

And if you look at the figures, we have led this process quite well, above all, in terms of deaths, but also in terms of amount of people infected. That has allowed us in the past months to recover normal life in the country, to try to push the economy back forward. But it had been a huge success. And some of these vaccines have been shared around the world. But also, from the very early moment, our doctors went around the world, to Italy, to Spain, to several countries in Latin America, to help to cope with the vaccines, not only with our professional capability but with the methods and the procedures and the protocols that we have in Cuba that have proven to be successful.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much for joining us, Carlos Fernández de Cossío, Cuba’s deputy foreign minister, speaking to us from Washington, D.C.

Next up, the world’s richest man has reached a deal to buy Twitter for $44 billion. Stay with us.

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