Mel Martinez on President's Cuba Speech, RNC Resignation

U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, a Republican from Florida, is a first-generation Cuban American. Martinez reacts to President Bush's recent speech on a post-Fidel Castro Cuba. Martinez also sets the record straight on why he chose to step down as Chair of the Republican National Committee.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In just a few minutes, balancing old ways and new — an American Hindu woman on fasting for love.

But first, the lead story in today's Miami Herald: President Bush's speech on Cuba yesterday. He called Cuba a tropical gulag and he talked about his vision for the day when Fidel Castro is gone.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The day is coming when the Cuban people will chart their own course for a better life. The day is coming when the Cuban people have the freedom they have awaited for so long.

MARTIN: With me from that Republican conference is U.S. Senator Mel Martinez, Republican of Florida. He's also a first-generation Cuban American.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Senator MEL MARTINEZ (Republican, Florida): Great to be with you.

MARTIN: What do you think the president was trying to accomplish with this speech? A Washington newspaper had a headline saying Bush urges revolt in Cuba. Do you think that's what the president is doing?

Sen. MARTINEZ: Oh, no. I don't think so at all. I think what the president was doing - probably two or three different things to different audiences.

First and foremost, I think it was a reminder to all of us of the cruelty of the current regime. He had with him the families of three political prisoners, and so he highlighted the long history of cruelty and human right abuses in Cuba that continue even today.

I think, secondly, he was also laying down a clear marker that the United States is going to stay in as Cuba transitions, because there is in fact change occurring in Cuba within the society as well as in the governmental structures with the inevitable end of Fidel Castro's personal rule, that he is laying out a marker saying we stand on the side of freedom and not on the side of stability.

You see, there are those who would say that the most important goal as we look at a changing Cuban situation is that status quo or stability. The fact is -and I think the president correctly says - that we really need to be on the side of freedom and that we need to be on the side of those voices of dissent within Cuba, which are growing and which are more powerful and more united than ever.

MARTIN: But…

Sen. MARTINEZ: And so…

MARTIN: I'm sorry. But speaking of status quo, we know, as you mentioned, that Fidel Castro is ill and he handed over power to his brother, but he's been perceived as a much weaker political figure on the island over the course of the years. But still it doesn't seem that anything has changed for the people from a day-to-day standpoint. Do you think that that means that the regime is perhaps stronger than we had imagined?

Sen. MARTINEZ: Well, no. I think the regime is weaker now than ever. In fact, without the image of Castro, who has been a preeminent sort of image in Cuba -his brother Raul does not have the same ability to rally the people or to be an image of hope that I just don't think exist in the Cuban mind anymore.

The conditions in Cuba are worse now than have been in many, many years, tragically enough, and they are as a result of the very disastrous policies of the regime, so as a result of that, you know, where there's a sugar harvest which is the lowest it's been since the Spanish-American War, not enough to feed the Cuban people their sugar needs, or where there is a transportation system that seems to be collapsing, the fact is that I think it is a disintegrating situation. And I think the more transcending change will occur when in fact Castro is in fact dead. I think it's going to take, in fact, the actual passing of him before there are maybe more signs of change.

But what the president also was doing was speaking to the Cuban military and government officials and saying to them, you can have a future and a free Cuba and a future Cuba. And he was urging them to not repress their own people if they should be expressing themselves - which they are - you know, difficult for the foreign media to cover it, but we do hear of signs of demonstrations and peaceful petitions for change in Cuban society going on in many parts of the island.

MARTIN: Why now? Why this address this week? It's the first stand alone address just on Cuba that the president's given in four years. Why this week? Why now?

Sen. MARTINEZ: I think it was, you know, because of all the changes taking place, because of all that's transpired. And I think for a long time many of us have been urging him to do that, which I think there was no - I don't think there was any particular moment of timing. I think it has been building for some months. It's been talked about and discussed among some of us. And I think he felt this was just a good time to lay out some markers. I don't think it had, you know - I've seen some suggest that they have politics involved in it…

MARTIN: Well, some people wonder whether there is perhaps some intelligence on Castro's health that…

Sen. MARTINEZ: Well, I don't know.

MARTIN: …that he might be privy to that we aren't.

Sen. MARTINEZ: Right. Right. Well…

MARTIN: Or that you might be privy to that we aren't.

Sen. MARTINEZ: Yeah. No. I don't think there's a precise moment and timing. I think that the inevitable end of Castro's life is upon us. And I think it was - the idea was to have this speech out there before that occurred so that, you know, the international community could hear his call for solidarity behind the dissent movement in Cuba. And so that the Cuban military and government officials could also hear this message of, you know, we want to work with you and please don't be cruel to the Cuban people if they should take to the streets, you know.

MARTIN: And what about in Miami if - what happens in Miami if Castro dies? As you know better than anybody, that there are large numbers of Cuban Americans who are immigrating to the U.S., people who were born here, who have strong feelings about Cuba. What do you think happens in this community when Castro dies?

Sen. MARTINEZ: Well, I know it's going to be a very emotional time. It will be for me personally. It's - you know, it'll be a really passing of an era and it'll be a time of great hope, of tremendous excitement, and hope for the future. There is planned, I know, a mass at the Orange Bowl, which I think will be a wonderful way to bring people together and rather than celebrating a death, which frankly - probably it's a little inappropriate, we would be coming together in prayer, praying for the future of the Cuban people and praying for the lives of so many victims of Castro's cruelty over so many years.

And so that's going to be, I think, a good way to approach that day. But there will be great hope and great desire for people to be able to be reunited with family. I myself, never having returned there since 1962 when I was just a young boy, I can't wait for the opportunity to travel there freely.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Sen. MARTINEZ: And to have an opportunity to, again, visit and see and help the Cuban people to rebuild what has been a disintegrating and destroying infrastructure as well as society. So many of us hope for the opportunity to help rebuild and to help our brothers and sisters in Cuba to have a better life.

MARTIN: Would you anticipate, though, that many people would view that as an opportunity to try to rescue relatives who have not been able to leave the country? And what is this government prepared to do if that happens? I mean, is this - is the U.S. government prepared to stop people from traveling 90 miles by boat to get their relatives?

Sen. MARTINEZ: Yeah. This is a very important question that you ask, and I'm glad you asked it, because the United States government is prepared with the Coast Guard and the United State Navy, both working together to prevent any type of massive movement of people in either direction.

It's very, very important that this not be done because it's a very dangerous enterprise, and frankly, it violates U.S. law. So what we need is for people to remain calm and be orderly and the United States, through the Coast Guard and the U.S. Navy, is prepared to prevent a mass migration sort of crisis like we had in Mariel and frankly at two or three other times during these last 40-some years of tyranny in Cuba. So…

MARTIN: Are you participating in spreading that message?

Sen. MARTINEZ: Yes, absolutely. And I'm - we look forward at the time to also continue to spread that message. It is not the time for people to take to the high seas and what is a very, very dangerous enterprise, and frankly in violation of law.

MARTIN: Yeah. But that must be hard though. I mean, if you have family members…

Sen. MARTINEZ: Well, sure.

MARTIN: …whom you have not seen, it's must be very hard to say stop and wait.

Sen. MARTINEZ: No. I have family members there myself. I understand how difficult it is. And the fact is that - but it must be done. We have to do this orderly. We've waited this long. Let's wait and do it right. And I think that it would be - because, by the way, it's 90 miles of very treacherous waters, and many lives would be lost if this was to happen. And I think people are understanding that.

And I think that if in fact it portends to the end of a regime, I think that at that point people would be more willing to wait. I think the desperation has always been because I know how difficult life is in Cuba and the repression and oppression, but I think once there is hope that that will end, maybe people will use cooler heads.

MARTIN: Senator, we only we have about a minute left but I did want to save one minute to talk a little bit about politics. You were the first Hispanic or Latino American head of the Republican National Committee, and you resigned after only 10 months. Can I ask you why?

Sen. MARTINEZ: It was tough to balance two jobs. And we had accomplished an awful lot while I was there. It was never intended to be a very long tenure. And when a nominee is identified, which will be in the next two or three months, they will essentially begin the heading of our party - not technically but really in spirit and shape. And so it was a good time. It was really hard for me to balance both jobs. But most of all, I also felt a good sense of accomplishment to have done some good things. And so I was glad to chat with the president and asked to be excused. And he was glad to do it, and we move on.

MARTIN: Well, he should have been glad.

Sen. MARTINEZ: Well, actually, he was nice enough to say job well done and thank you, and I appreciated that. And now I can have all of my attention devoted to the people of Florida, which is really my main job.

MARTIN: I'm sorry. Forgive me - very, very briefly. But it's no secret that you disagree with many of the national Republicans or many Republicans about immigration policy.

Sen. MARTINEZ: Right.

MARTIN: And I do wonder whether that was a factor in your desire…

Sen. MARTINEZ: Not really.

MARTIN: …to step away from this national position - to focus more on your state.

Sen. MARTINEZ: No. Not really. No. The president has been very clear in his position on the side that I am on, which is to have a sensible immigration policy that secures the border, and allows people to have a decent life as well. But no - so I felt very much in sync with him…

MARTIN: All right.

Sen. MARTINEZ: …and many other Republicans. There are some who disagree, but, you know, family always going to have disagreement and still be family.

MARTIN: All right.

Sen. MARTINEZ: So no, that was - not at all.

MARTIN: All right. Thank you so much. U.S. Senator Mel Martinez of Florida. He joined us from the Senate Republican Conference.

Senator, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Sen. MARTINEZ: Good to be with you.

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