NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington. As a candidate, Barack Obama promised to loosen travel and financial restrictions for Americans with family in Cuba.
Now as president, he appears to be ready to make good on that. White House officials said the changes will be announced before the president attends next weeks Summit of the Americas, and will allow Cuban-Americans to send unlimited amounts of money to family members in Cuba and travel to the island as much as they would like.
And meanwhile, Congress considers legislation to allow all Americans to travel to Cuba. A delegation also from the Congressional Black Caucus met yesterday with Cuban President Raul Castro in Havana.
We want to hear today from our Cuban-American listeners about how this is playing out in their families and whether there are divisions. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, actor Michael Caine joins us to take your calls. But first, Washington, Havana and Cuban-American families.
Katrin Hansing lived in Cuba for many years. Shes now associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. She joins us today from the studies of member station WLRN in Miami. Nice to have you with us.
Ms.�Katrin Hansing (Associate Director, Cuban Research Institute): Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And also with us, Otto Reich, a Cuban-American who served as assistant secretary of state for Western hemispheric affairs under President George W. Bush and as ambassador to Venezuela under President Reagan, and he joins us here in Studio 3A. Very good of you to be with us.
Mr. OTTO REICH (Former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs, Former Ambassador to Venezuela): Thank you very much.
CONAN: And Ambassador Reich, I know this is a very important policy issue. Well get to that in just a couple of minutes, but I wanted to ask: How is this playing out in your family?
Mr. REICH: Well, like a lot of families that came here a long time ago, we really - my family doesnt have any close relatives in Cuba. There are some distant relatives that some other members of my family do send money to within the law, within the limits of the current law.
CONAN: And is this something that they would like to expand? Is this something, they would like to be able to travel more frequently to Cuba?
Mr. REICH: I think you can travel to Cuba if youre a Cuban-American, within the limitations of the current restrictions. Remember that one of the reasons why President Bush limited the travel in 2004 was because of the massive abuse of the privilege.
What was happening was that a lot of universities and even churches were practically renting and selling their general licenses, which the Treasury Department grants to groups to go to Cuba, allegedly on cultural visits, but it was really like to learn salsa dancing and to participate in tour groups that contributed absolutely nothing to lifting the freedoms, or lifting the dictatorship that exists on that island.
CONAN: And that gets to your policy point. Am I wrong in saying that you believe that loosening the restrictions on sending money and on travel restrictions to Cuba would aid the regime in staying in power?
Mr. REICH: It depends on how you do it. Im not totally opposed to modification of some of the restrictions. I just think a lot depends on how you do it, and so far, it looks like the Obama administration is giving a lot of thought to this.
It looks like President Obama is going to comply with his campaign promises, I think we can expect any serious politician to do, but theres a big difference between the formulation and the implementation of a policy.
I think hes going to be careful. It appears that theyre going to be careful that they dont assist or help the regime. That is the actual reason - the Castro regime, which is the reason why the people of Cuba dont have enough to eat, literally.
CONAN: Lets bring Katrin Hansing into the conversation. And am I incorrect in feeling that - is it, we dont know exactly when. We dont know exactly how, but its no longer a question of if, but when, that restrictions are going to be eased regarding Cuba.
Ms.�HANSING: Right. Thats my understanding as well, apparently. And by the end of this week, we will get a formal, official statement from the president saying that these restrictions will be lifted, both remittances and travel restrictions.
CONAN: Now, do you view this as a positive step?
Ms.�HANSING: You know, I think this is a very positive step, and really the step in the right direction. For the last eight years, Cuban-American families have only been able to travel back home once every three years and have only been able to send back home about $1,200 a year. And that has included only Cuban-Americans who have family on the island, and the definition of family has been very, very, very exclusive.
So the fact that this is probably going to change in the next few days is very, very positive. And I think, as Otto Reich rightly said, one of the main reasons or arguments that the restrictions were implemented eight years ago was to -basically, there was this logic or argument on the part of the Bush administration to not allow U.S. dollars into the Castro governments hands.
And I think thats been a very effective argument, because, of course, theres no doubt that some of that money and some of that remittance money does go to the Cuban government - not only because for every transfer that is sent over, whether its through Western Union or another agency, the Cuban government takes a small cut.
On top of that, the Cuban government forces the Cuban people to convert the U.S. dollar or the euro or whatever currency they get their remittances in into what is called a convertible Cuban peso, so a convertible currency. And by doing that...
CONAN: So it buoys the peso, yeah.
Ms.�HANSING: Right. So its - they take another cut by doing that. So theres no doubt that the Cuban government partially benefits from remittances. However, the point really is that most Cubans nowadays cannot live on their Cuban peso salary, which is a state salary, and need to make ends meet through other means, whether its the informal economy or working the tourist industry or getting remittances from their families abroad.
So this has really become a lifeline for most Cubans.
CONAN: And we want to find out how this is playing out in Cuban-American families. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. Lets start with Las(ph), and Las is calling us from Miami.
LAS (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
LAS: I was listening, and its kind of funny. In my house, its split down the middle. My in-laws dont want any kind of dialogue, dont want any kind of help. If they had their way, there would be no traveling back and forth, and anything short of the U.S. going in there and taking them out by force is unacceptable.
CONAN: So regime change is...
LAS: Yeah. Thats what they want, and they want a drastic regime change. Theyre in their 70s, and they remember Cuba before. Me and my wife, were in our 30s. And, I mean, its been 50 years of embargos and 50 years of strong policy, supposed strong policy, and nothings happened.
So, you know, maybe if things change, maybe if theres an opening of dialogue and people start going over there and people over there start seeing what the real world outside of it is like, because Ive been to Cuba. I have brothers over there. And actually, I was born here. My parents taught us that we were Cuban-Americans and we live here, but we came here because of what happened. My family had no plans on ever leaving Cuba. And, you know, we got displaced and we relocated here to Miami and, you know, Im American.
CONAN: Yeah, the division you - do you think that younger people in general take your view, and older people in general take your in-laws views?
LAS: Yeah. I mean, I talk to a lot of people, and you know, we have a large circle of Cuban-American friends and family that are our age, and, you know, almost unanimously, people are like whatever weve been doing hasnt worked. Its sad to say, but, I mean, you know, the embargo hasnt really changed much but made life more difficult for the average Cuban on the island, but Castros rich.
CONAN: Lets bring Otto Reich back into the conversation. Ambassador, is there a generational split that you see?
Mr. REICH: There are dueling polls in Miami. Depending on what position you hold, you can point to a number of public opinion polls that show that either the younger population would like to see a change in some of the restrictions, or they wouldnt.
The fact is, though, the embargo - one of the myths is that the embargo hasnt worked. People dont understand. The embargo was established in the early 60s because of the Cuban governments support for violent revolution in Latin America.
That was the purpose. Nowhere does it say that its to bring about an end to the Castro dictatorship. It did work because it contributed, in fact, not only to the end of the violent support for revolution in Latin America, it indirectly contributed to the downfall or the bankruptcy of the Soviet Union, which had to support the Cuban government to the tune of $5 billion a year for 30 years.
Thats $150 billion, which in todays world, with the way were throwing, you know, billions and trillions around, doesnt sounds like much.
CONAN: Well, you could also point out that the Soviet Union no longer exists and doesnt subsidize Cuba, and most of those governments in Central and South America have now elected leftist governments.
Mr. REICH: Well, there are leftist governments that are democratic, and theres a leftist government in this hemisphere which is totalitarian. I mean, you cant compare the government of Cuba with the government of Chile or the government of Brazil, which are headed by self-proclaimed socialists.
Those governments in Chile and Brazil dont throw people in jail because they happen to stand in the street and say I think that I would like to live someplace else, which is what happens in Cuba.
CONAN: Lets just bring Katrin Hansing back into the conversation. Fifty years of embargo. Las says a lot of people he knows in Miami think this hasnt done any good.
Ms.�HANSING: Well, the embargo really has been completely ineffective. Its failed completely on all fronts. Not only has it not brought about democracy, its been absolutely counterproductive in that its given the Cuban government a fabulous justification to not only blame the U.S. on basically every domestic problem they have, as well as repress its internal dissent.
But its also made the U.S. incredibly unpopular all over the world. I mean, if you look at every year, whether its in the U.N. elections or any other international organization that has any type of vote on Cuba, U.S., with Israel and now I think its the Palau Islands, are the only ones who vote in favor of the embargo. This has made the U.S. incredibly unpopular, and we need to restore that credibility abroad.
CONAN: Las, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.
LAS: Youre very welcome. Have a great day.
CONAN: You, too. Were talking with Ambassador Otto Reich, former assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs under President George W. Bush, and with Katrin Hansing, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.
How is this proposed change in Cuban-American affairs playing out in your family? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Im Neal Conan. Stay with us. Its TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington. This past weekend, the White House announced that President Obama will soon lift restrictions on family travel to Cuba and put an end to limits on the amount of money Americans can send their families on that island.
Today, Cuban President Raul Castro met with six members of the Congressional Black Caucus, making it the first meeting with American elected officials since he took over from his ailing brother, Fidel, last year.
A flurry of news. What does it mean for Cubans and the estimated one-and-a-half million Americans who have relatives in Cuba? Were talking with Katrin Hansing. Shes associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, and with Otto Reich, a Cuban-American who served as assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs under President George W. Bush.
Of course, we want to hear from those of our Cuban-American listeners how this is playing out in their families. Where are there divisions? 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Ambassador Reich?
Mr. REICH: Yes, I just wanted to react quickly to what Ms.�Hansing said. The fact that people may object to the embargo by no means, of course, implies that they support the government of Cuba.
The term regime change, of course, acquired a number of definitions in the last few years. I think what most of the people, regardless of their position on the embargo, Cuban-Americans, feel that the real reason for the repression in Cuba and for the shortages which have been brought about in the last 50 years is certainly not the embargo.
Castro began repression long before there was an embargo, executing people, throwing people by the thousands in jail, and has continued that, even when the U.S. government, for example, under President Carter and under President Clinton, toyed with or modified the embargo and gave the Cuban government an opportunity to change its behavior, which it didnt.
CONAN: But just to clarify, were not talking about lifting the embargo right now. Were talking about eased travel restrictions, easing the restrictions on sending the amount of money involved.
Congress is talking about a wider travel - restricting even more broadly the travel restrictions. So thats whats on the cards now. Nobodys talking at this point about lifting the embargo, and least of all the Obama administration, which says they want to see considerable improvement in human rights before they would even consider such a thing.
Anyway, lets get some more callers on the line. Lets go to Eddie, and Eddies calling us from Little Havana.
EDDIE (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Hi, Eddie.
EDDIE: No government - I dont want to talk about the embargo, but no government, no decent government should put an embargo on family. There is no president of the United States or any other place that is going to separate me from my family in Cuba.
I have people in my family, only maybe one or two possibly, that made a point of not going to Cuba even if their mother would be on the deathbed. In my case, I have gone to Cuba many times because I am not going to divorce my family to please anybody in the United States.
Otto Reich was one of the architects of this absurd, un-American policy of separating families. It is absurd, and its more than absurd. Its criminal to tell somebody that I cannot go to visit my father or my mother but once every three years regardless of the condition of those persons.
That is totally un-American, and thats why I will not ask favors or I do not ask any license to governments, whatever government, Clinton, Bush or whatever, to visit my family.
And I dont want to visit them when they are sick. I want to be able to visit them when they are well and able to go out with me and go to a restaurant and talk about times or go to a beach.
CONAN: Eddie, I assume you did this by just taking a flight to Mexico or Jamaica and then transferring...
EDDIE: Over a hundred thousand Cubans went to - illegally, quote, "illegally," according to the United States government - to visit their relatives in Cuba because in order to please a small sector of the right wing, most right wing neo-fascist elements in Miami that is going to dictate to us who is our family and when can we see.
Mr.�Bush, President Bush, washed their hands and gave this right-wing sector in Miami the right to decide the United States politics toward Cuba, and those people in Congress that support this policy does because of the money that it receives from the Cuban PAC here in Miami and in other places.
Nobody - the young people and the old people - because Im not young - that have family in Cuba and believe to be decent, ethical, moral people, are not going to allow any government to separate us from our family.
CONAN: Eddie, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it. And, of course, people can disagree on policies. It does not make disagreement criminal, and Ambassador Reich, we apologize for that characterization.
Mr. REICH: No, no, thats - believe me, Ive heard worse. But the fact is that the gentleman is wrong on a number of points. The Cuban-Americans do receive certain conditions, certain benefits from the United States government, for example the Cuban Adjustment Act.
If a Cuban citizen whos never been in this country arrives on U.S. soil, he or she is eligible for legalization one year and one day after arriving here. Why? Because the United States Congress has determined that the government of Cuba is a totalitarian regime, and therefore, the people who are able to escape that regime deserve certain considerations.
So this gentleman is wrong. If the Congress says that that regime is so bad that the people who escape are able to receive freedoms, the freedoms of this country, then they should not be allowed to go back and party or go to the beach like he says he wants to do.
CONAN: To what other countries does the United States restrict travel?
Mr. REICH: The United States has restricted travel to North Korea, to Iran, to a number of dictatorships. In fact, it used to be on the back of...
CONAN: Used to be.
Mr. REICH: Used to be.
Mr. REICH: Well, travel, I believe, is still restricted to a number of places in the world where we dont have, for example, diplomatic representation or consular representation.
CONAN: Iran might be an example.
Mr. REICH: Thats right. And, in fact, you know, we have U.S. citizens in Iran right now who are in jail, who are - Secretary Clinton, Hillary Clinton, tried to raise this issue with her Iranian counterpart recently in Europe because, you know, citizens of any country can sometimes do some very foolish things when they go overseas. They get in trouble.
And the Cuban government has consistently violated the rights of American citizens - for example, not recognizing the U.S. passport. When American citizens of Cuban descent have gone to Cuba, the Cuban government has demanded that they travel not on American passports, but on Cuban passports. What does that do? It makes it very difficult for American consular or diplomatic agents to protect those people if they get in trouble.
CONAN: Katrin Hansing, a lot of people see some degree of a double standard here, that, in fact, there are very few restrictions on travel to, for example, China.
Ms.�HANSING: Right. Well, I think that actually right now, Cuba is the only country to which Americans are not allowed to travel to. So I think that should be just made clear. U.S. citizens are allowed to travel to China, to Iran, to even North Korea.
Theyre legally allowed to do that. Cuba, theyre not allowed to do this, and this includes, obviously, all Americans, and in terms of Cuban-Americans, they have these specific restrictions right now.
But Id like to just get back to the point, one point of the last caller, and its partly also reflected in the first callers comments, which is basically that theres a change of attitude happening here - not only in Miami, but also in South Florida and among, you know, Cubans all over the world in the larger Cuban diaspora, which is not only generational, but also demographic.
A lot of young Cubans who are second or third generations, you know, are curious. They want to reach out. They want to know where their parents and their grandparents came from. They want to explore this place for themselves.
And beyond that, weve had so many new waves of migrants over the last 20 years, starting with the Mariel exodus and the recent rafter crisis, and people come, as you know, to South Florida every day from the island.
And these are Cubans who were socialized under the revolution and have a very different understanding of the world than some of the people who came in the late 50s and early 60s and 70s.
And they - most of them have family in Cuba. And they want to be able to not only support their family members in terms of remittances, but also go see them, and as the last caller rightly said, not only during a crisis time - for instance an illness or a funeral - but also in good times. And this is an attitude that is becoming stronger and stronger here in South Florida.
CONAN: Lets get Tony on the line. Tonys calling us from Minneapolis.
TONY (Caller): Yes, hi.
TONY: Thank you for taking my call.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
TONY: My main point here is that if you care about the United States, if youre (unintelligible) the United States as a land that opens the arms to you and giving you opportunity, you wouldnt want to do business with a regime that all it does is establishing bad propaganda and also some actions against the United States all over the world.
So, like my mother is going there after four years of being here, shes going to visit, and shes all for going there. But, you know, I dont think that after you leave Cuba, running away from a regime like that, supposedly for political reasons, and you shouldnt be allowed to go, after a few months, to go three or four times to spend your money and have a good time in Cuba.
If you really care about this country, you have to understand that this Castro regime is like a snake, and every penny you put there, youre feeding a snake thats going to bite you back.
CONAN: Must make for some interesting conversation at the dinner table.
TONY: Oh, yeah. Yeah, its always a point people here say, oh, my God. There are people here in America that say, oh, I wish we could live like Cuba. They have no idea what Cuba is like.
CONAN: And there are people who just left Cuba not that long ago who said - who say the opposite.
TONY: Yeah. And there are people that come here, and a few months after being here, supposedly on a political - getting away from a political regime - that are being prosecuted and give us access to papers. I mean, you know, Mexicans are getting papers. Salvadorians are getting papers. We come here with special circumstances, running away from a regime that oppresses us, and then we want to go back there and spend three or four months there every year doing business with Cuba. Many Cubans that go there, go there for business, not even to see their families. But they have to do to make money, and theyre here, instead of getting ahead here in the United States, they go back and spend their money there and they live here off the government.
CONAN: Is your mother going back to do businesses or to see family, or what?
TONY: My mother is a 76-year-old. Shes going there to see her grandkids. But if she has to go once every three years, thats the price of freedom. I dont want her to go there and spend all their money, or all my money, three or four months every year because Im here on a political condition. If I have that (unintelligible) freedom, I would be in Cuba.
CONAN: Tony, thanks very much for the call.
TONY: Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate it. Now, were talking with Katrin Hansing, whos the associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University; and also with Otto Reich, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs under President George W. Bush, former ambassador to Venezuela under President Reagan.
If youd like to join the conversation, want to hear from Cuban-Americans in our audience today, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. And youre listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.
And lets talk with Juan. Juans with us from Fort Myers in Florida.
JUAN (Caller): Oh, hi, thank you for taking my call.
CONAN: Go ahead.
JUAN: I wanted to agree that removing the embargo would be beneficial to the U.S., U.S. businessmen, to the Cuban-American community and the Cuban people financially and being able to travel back and forth. In the, I think, the U.S. governments violating my human rights and my familys human rights by not allowing us to support them and to help my family. I think that family comes before government and thats...
CONAN: Juan, as the previous caller pointed out, Cubans have special privileges when they arrive in this country. If they make it to the United States, theyre automatically granted citizenship. Your human rights are protected in that regard, arent they?
JUAN: Well, yes. But thats a credit to the Miami - Cuban-American community in Miami that is all controlled by right-wing talk radio, and they all think the same way. Thats why they have a strong political clout in Washington to be able to do that, because youre right, no other human being in the face of the earth can do that, and doesnt that...
CONAN: Well, if you normalize relations with Cuba, dont you normalize that relation, too?
JUAN: I dont understand the point. What...
CONAN: In other words, if Cuba is just another ordinary government that we have normal relations with, doesnt that provision that gives Cubans the right to American citizenship, doesnt that go away?
JUAN: Yeah, its okay that goes away. Being a Cuban citizen is fine. Theres no problem with being a Cuban citizen. You know, I would probably - Ive been here since 1962. I came as a, you know, as a child without my parents and I have no problem with living a part of my life in Cuba. And I visited once there a few years ago, and theres a lot of poverty there. But that is due to the fact that the United States does not allow Cuba to borrow money from the monetary funds -World Monetary Fund, they control that, and not just trade, theres other things. They go after their tourism by not allowing, you know, through (unintelligible) laws and other laws.
The problem is a lot more complicated. But I think - I think that Cuban-Americans, and any Americans, should be allowed to, you know, to go to Cuba. They talk about - today about - the women and right, like Otto Reich was referring to some of the operations and you have to travel there in a U.S. passport.
I went there in 05 for the first time in 50 years, and I went with a U.S. passport. I dont know what hes talking about. But I want to ask Otto Reich if it was okay for the United States to back the Batista government, when there were the women in black marching through the streets of Havana because there were death squads, you know, killing their husbands because they were from the opposition of the government.
CONAN: Well, Ambassador Reich, I dont know if you want to reply to that directly, but well bring you back in.
Mr. REICH: Yeah. No, very briefly, I think the United States should not have supported the Batista dictatorship as long as it did. The fact is the U.S. government imposed an embargo on Batista, an embargo on military sales, which is one of the things that contributed to the very quick victory by the rebels.
And I happened to welcome Fidel Castro. I was there on the 8th of January, when he marched into Havana, and I thought he was going to be a liberator. He turned out to be, frankly, a liar. Everything he said was false - about bringing freedom and democracy to Cuba.
And the reason why this last gentleman was brought to the United States by his parents because, obviously, his parents thought that they could not live under that kind of a regime. And I think that its - he probably - the next time he visits, should spend a lot of the time living as a Cuban, where he doesnt have the ability to speak, to criticize the government, to travel outside of Cuba, because Cubans cannot travel outside of the island, except with a very, after a very long process of permissions and checks by the Cuban government. Even officials of the Cuban government are not allowed to travel abroad with their families because the government is afraid that theyre going to defect.
CONAN: Again, the President Barack Obama is expected to announce lifting of travel restrictions and financial restrictions for Cuban-Americans before he attends the summit of the Americas next week in Trinidad and Tobago. Obviously, this is a conversation of great controversy and passion, which will continue long after that.
Thank you both very much for being with us. Katrin Hansing was with us from WLRN, our member station in Miami. Thanks very much for your time today.
Ms. HANSING: Thank you so much.
CONAN: And Ambassador Otto Reich joined us here in Studio 3A. Thank you.
Mr. REICH: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: When we come back, Michael Caine takes your calls. Hes played everything, from a dashing lady killer in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," to an actual lady killer in "Dressed to Kill," not to mention a little movie called "Batman." Stay with us.
Im Neal Conan. Its the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.