SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
As the Summit of the Americas meets next week, there is serious talk for the first time in 50 years about lifting the U.S. embargo against the Castro regime. President Obama already plans to lift restrictions on family travel to Cuba and relax controls on relatives who send U.S. dollars to their families there.
We've invited two former U.S. diplomats who served in Havana to talk about all this. Vicki Huddleston was head of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba from 1999 to 2002. She joins us from Sedona, Arizona.
Ambassador Huddleston, thanks for being with us.
Ambassador VICKI HUDDLESTON (Former Chief, U.S. Interests Section, Cuba): I'm delighted to be here.
SIMON: We are also joined by James Cason, who succeeded Ms. Huddleston in Cuba from 2002 to 2005. He's at member station WLRN in Miami.
Ambassador Cason, thank you for being with us.
Ambassador JAMES CASON (Former Chief, U.S. Interest Section, Cuba): Thanks. It's a pleasure to be back with you again.
SIMON: Instead of asking why end the embargo, Ambassador Cason, let me begin with you and then Ambassador Huddleston. Let me phrase it this way. After 50 years and a second Castro in power, and perhaps change afoot, why not suspend the trade embargo?
Ambassador CASON: I think that the embargo, like everybody else's policy in the world, basically has failed to bring democracy to Cuba. However, I think ironically that it perhaps will have more relevance as we move forward, because there are going to be regime splits after the Castro brothers die. And then those military that control the hotels and the others that have been - had their hands in - on money and modern business practices will probably want to privatize a lot of the economy. And at that point the embargo will be, I think will have some affect in direction that the regime will go.
SIMON: Ambassador Huddleston, how do you feel about that?
Ambassador HUDDLESTON: First of all, I think that the embargo in fact has helped the Castro government stay in power because we prevented the Cuban people or helped prevent the Cuban people from getting information that they need. We've been unable to trade with them, so they've been more dependent on the government.
But I think what really matters now is that the Cuban government has learned to live without us. And we almost have no influence in Cuba anymore. And when there is a change from Raul, we're not going to have any say whatsoever.
SIMON: Ambassador Huddleston, you recently wrote a paper for the Brookings Institution that I understand outlined short, medium, long-term goals that would eventually lead to the restoration of diplomatic relations. How might this work? Can you give us a quick overview?
Ambassador HUDDLESTON: Well, the president has the popular support of the American people, and now even the Cuban-American people, as well as the authority to put into place a new policy. He can begin, just using his executive authority, and go ahead and do the things he's talking about, such as allow Cuban-American travel and remittances. But he can also return to the travel that was in effect during the end of the Clinton administration and the beginning of the Bush administration. That's people-to-people travel -cultural, education.
He could go further. He could allow the sale of communications equipment -televisions, radios - allow Cuban government to connect to the Internet.
SIMON: Ambassador Huddleston, let me - and I'm sorry if I'm interrupting - I guess I had the impression it was the Castro government that was preventing Internet connection more than the U.S. government. Honestly, is it disingenuous to suggest that somehow the U.S. has been preventing the island of Cuba from connecting to the Worldwide Web when that's not the case?
Ambassador HUDDLESTON: Actually, it's not at all. If Cuba could connect, it would be much, much more difficult to keep the many people in Cuba who are connected illegally to the Internet. I mean there are many people in Cuba who are connected. There are cyber-cafes where people can go and be connected. The Cuban government, they haven't succeeded in any way in preventing lots of people from being able to use the Internet. And if access were easier, then the Cuban people would have a lot more access to information.
SIMON: Ambassador Cason, do you have any problem with what Ambassador Huddleston just presented?
Ambassador CASON: We support much greater access of the Cuban people to the Internet. In fact, there are no U.S. government prohibitions on Internet connectivity. It's a question of whether companies can make much money. The Internet penetration in Cuba is only 2.9 percent, one of the lowest in the world. And it's that way because Cuban government deliberately keeps the prices high and has said that the Internet is an evil thing that they need to control.
SIMON: Ambassador Huddleston, Amnesty International and other groups will tell you, you know, there are dissidents in Cuban jails, there are reporters, there are gays. Why should the United States open relations with a government like that?
Ambassador HUDDLESTON: Well, I guess the first reason would be to say that the policy has failed. What we have to have is a policy that actually works. And what we found during the time I was down there, when we had a policy more or less of engagement - we allowed a lot more travel, we allowed to commute, Cuban-Americans to come down, more remittances. Former President Carter came to Cuba at that time. And because there was so much more flow of information, there was a lot more movement in Cuban society. To me, that's proof that when you have the flow of information, you have a real possibility to help the human rights activists.
Ambassador CASON: I disagree with that totally. I think that there's a tremendous civil society growing in Cuba. Now there's bloggers, there's clandestine newspapers that are springing up in spite of all the economic difficulties on the island. The young people are totally disenchanted with the revolution. International Republican Institute just did a poll and asked people what they thought the biggest problem was. Only six percent said the embargo. Think we have to work with civil society, and I agree with Brookings Institute that the population will find voice to express, when the time comes, when Fidel and his brother are not on the scene, to create the kind of society that they want for Cuba.
SIMON: How is it that countries we work with closely and admire for having freedom of expression and a civil society not unlike our own - Canada, Western Europe - they're able to trade with, maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba without feeling that somehow they're being part of an instrument of oppression or sullying their hands by dealing with that government? And in fact, they would tell you they've opened up some real business opportunities that might be good for the Cuban people.
Ambassador CASON: I would say that we should not be worried about having a policy like everybody else in the world. We should focus on what's good for the Cuban people, what our national interests are, what our values are. And if they don't go along with us, that happens many times in history. I think we should stay true to our values.
Ambassador HUDDLESTON: Well, I think in fact that this kind of policy of engagement would help us realize our values, help the human people have contact with the outside, and it would no longer be a domestic policy. And I think that's about to happen.
Ambassador CASON: Well, we're all in favor of real engagement. We just hope the Cubans will want to engage with us. And I think we're going to be disillusioned. Those that want to have rapid normalization, they'll find that once again the Cuban government will sabotage any efforts to have closer relations.
SIMON: Vicki Huddleston, former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana; and James Cason, who succeeded Ambassador Huddleston in Havana. Thanks very much for being with us.
Ambassador HUDDLESTON: Thank you.
Ambassador CASON: Thanks a lot. Bye-bye.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.