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ROBERT MacNEIL: Good evening. Are Jimmy Carter and Fidel Castro on the verge of patching up the quarrels that have separated Cuba and the United States for 16 years? There have been plenty of signs these last few weeks that Castro is anxious to start mending fences. As recently as February 8, Castro told Bill Moyers at CBS that Carter was a man with a sense of morals who might bring an end to the hostility.
Last Wednesday Carter said he had learned privately that Cuba intended to remove its troops from Angola. The President added that if that and other conditions were-met, he would be willing to move towards normalizing relations with Cuba.
Tonight we look at the prospects for Cuban-American friendship and the conditions each side is laying down. Jim?
JIM LEHRER: Robin, the freshest information on the wants and desires of Fidel Castro comes from a couple named Bingham. Congressman Jonathan Bingham, Democrat of New York and his wife June. They returned last Tuesday from a five day visit to Cuba where they spent hours talking and listening to the Cuban leader. The Congressman is Chairman of the House International Relations Committee`s subcommittee on International Trade. And the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba falls under his jurisdiction, thus one of the key reasons for the Cuban invitation for the visit.
This is actually their second visit to Cuba. Their first was 38 years ago on their honeymoon.
Congressman, Mrs. Bingham, welcome. Congressman, first, how did the trip come about?
Rep. JONATHAN BINGHAM: Well, I had two years ago introduced a bill to lift the trade embargo against Cuba, and the Cubans knew about that. And so for about a year, they have been sending informal messages through their mission at the U.N. saying that I would be welcome if I chose to come. It wasn`t a formal invitation from the government, and we didn`t go as guests of the government. But when a time came, a Congressional recess that seemed like a good time to go, and the new administration offered possible new opportunities, we went.
LEHRER: But it was not a formal invitation from the government. It was delivered informally?
Mr. BINGHAM: No, it was not. And we paid our own way.
LEHRER: I see. All right, was it clear going in what they wanted, what Fidel Castro wanted to talk to you about? Obviously the trade embargo and that sort of thing?
Mr. BINGHAM: No, he wasn`t exactly anxious to talk about things. During most of the hours we were with him, it fell to me to raise the political issues. He had a lot of things to talk about but it was not always easy for me to bring around the conversation to those issues. He has a very active mind. It wasn`t as if the embargo or any other one thing were just at the top of his mind all the time. Not by any means.
LEHRER: Ms. Bingham, did he include you in his conversations? I mean was it clear he wanted to talk about everything and not just the things that the Congressman said, not just necessarily political issues. Is that right?
JUNE BINGHAM: It is and I was amazed at his response. Our first interview with him was seven hours. It started at three in the afternoon in his office, and then he kept to his feet and` strapped on his belt with his holster, and said, "I shall drive you to Varadero which is the beach resort where we had gone on our honeymoon. And he was quite funny about his belt and his gun. He said that he always tried to take it off before he sat down because it kind of pressed against his belly and the other day he had been sitting down, and he felt it. And he got up to take it off, and it was already off. And he said it was his belt, and he thought he must have gained some weight.
LEHRER: How many hours were you with him altogether?
Mr. BINGHAM: Seven hours on that occasion and then the final night before we left, another hour and a half.
LEHRER: I see. What was the thing I read in the paper where he woke you all up; you all still were in your pajamas in your hotel room? What was that all about?
Mr. BINGHAM: Well, actually we had just gotten back from a dinner at a little restaurant that Ernest Hemingway used to frequent, and we were getting undressed. And there was a knock on the door, and I opened the door, and there he was. And he was obviously very embarrassed because he felt we had been forewarned. I was in my pajamas, and June was in a bath towel.
LEHRER: He thought that you all had been told that he was coming?
Mr. BINGHAM: That`s right. And he was embarrassed. But anyway we asked him to come in and sit down, and he came in and sat down and chatted for another hour and a half. So we had eight and a half hours altogether.
Ms. BINGHAM: I have to say I had time to put a wrapper on. (Laughter) But never any slippers. I sat barefoot in a wrapper for the next hour and a half.
LEHRER: Ms. Bingham, what was your impression of the man?
Ms. BINGHAM: Very bright. Sort of a vacuum cleaner of a mind. You just felt he was going zzt-zzt-zzt, pulling ideas out of you and facts out of you. Tremendously observant. We had asked him to autograph a baseball for our oldest grandson. It says, "Para Edward. Afeccionamente, Fidel Castro." A funny little thing happened in that regard because one of the newsmen I showed it to after the first, long interview noticed that Fidel Castro had put the wrong date on. So-when he came back the second time, I mentioned to him he had put the wrong date. And he sort of went boink! "Oh my god, I`d better put `76 on."
Mr. BINGHAM: You mean `77.
Ma. BINGHAM: No, he had put `76 first.
LEHRER: Yes, let`s hold that to a camera so we can see that. There we go. So you may have the only edited, autographed baseball from Fidel Castro there exists. Yes, there you can see it. Here is what we are talking about (camera shot of baseball with autograph) there. He changed the six to a seven.
Ms. BINGHAM: But an example of his mind was, he said, "Give me back the pen that I used when I autographed it originally." And I said, "Well, which one. I don`t remember which one I gave you."
And he said, "It was blue and white." And that is an example of his observation powers.
LEHRER: You said he asked a lot of questions. What kind of questions did he ask you, Ms. Bingham?
Ms. BINGHAM: We also had a picture of our -- we have four married children and ten grandchildren, and during the seven hours in the car I showed it to him. And he studied it and studied it. And he asked questions about the children, "Which one is Edward?" And "What do you feed them when they visit?" "What do you feed them for supper?" "When you have family reunions, what time do the children eat?" "What games do they play?"
LEHRER: There we go. (camera shows family picture) There`s the Bingham clan.
Ms. BINGHAM: And then he noticed our son-in-law with a beard, and he wanted to know all about that.
LEHRER: Compare beard stories, huh?
Ms. BINGHAM: Yes. Compare beards, and then he asked how much one of our sons-in-law weighed. And I took a sort of guess, and the President said, "Well, that is too much." He said, "You tell him to eat less or he won`t live very long."
LEHRER: Well, obviously this is the first time you had ever met the man, and you went into this visit and the conversations with him probably with your own preconceived ideas of what the man was going to -- did he match your preconception?
Ms. BINGHAM: He didn`t match ours, and we didn`t match his. You could hear stereotypes just crashing to the floor. We certainly didn`t expect him to be as beguiling really. He`s very warm, and he loves children, and he`s very interested in everything. We almost sort of had a feeling that he was hungry for ideas. He complained about having to read too many official papers. I think he is a-person who would love wide contact.
LEHRER: Well, let`s talk about that for a moment. Wide contacts, say with the United States. Congressman, do you think he is really serious about wanting to normalize relations with the United States?
Mr. BINGHAM: I think he is serious. I don`t think he`s in a hurry. I don`t think he`s anxious. But I think he certainly would like to normalize relations with the United States. He is tremendously interested in the United States. He follows politics here. He`s read President Carter`s book of Why Not The Best? He would like to see the trade embargo lifted.
LEHRER: That`s his number one thing. Is that what he really wants?
Mr. BINGHAM: That`s his number one thing, because they feel that that`s a knife at their throat. He didn`t use that expression, but others of his colleagues did. This was, they feel, an aggressive act. And indeed, we don`t do that to anybody else now in the world except Vietnam.- We don`t have such an embargo against
Ms. BINGHAM: You mean except Cuba. You said Vietnam.
Mr. BINGHAM: Cuba and Vietnam are the two where we have an embargo. We don`t have an embargo against China or the Soviet Union.
LEHRER: Of course, you had introduced a bill that would have withdrawn this embargo, and then you withdrew the bill after . . .
Mr. BINGHAM: That`s right. I never did withdraw the bill. There were several things that went on that led me to say I wasn`t going to press the matter any further..
LEHRER: Are you going to now?
Mr. BINGHAM: No, not at the moment. I think that the ball now is in the court of the administration. We have a new administration; I think it`s up to the President and the Secretary of State to decide how they want to move. My hope is that they will move in the direction of normalizing relations. I`ll be glad to help from where I sit, but I don`t think there`s really any chance that Congress would take the action if the President was opposed to it.
LEHRER: Well, you`re going to see the President, of course, on Wednesday. What are you going to tell him in terms of what Castro wants? Of course he wants the embargo lifted. What else does he want?
Mr. BINGHAM: I think that`s the big thing, and there are certain things that Castro and his people are quite willing to discuss right away. For example, sports exchanges, cultural ex changes. He`s crazy about baseball.
LEHRER: He told Bill Moyers he`d love for the Yankees to come down.
Mr. BINGHAM: He invited the Yankees to come, and they`d like to have exchanges of that type without any pre-conditions. He`s also anxious to talk about-the fisheries problem. Right away, both have adopted the 200 mile limit for fisheries, and obviously, we gotta discuss that because we`re only 90 miles apart.
LEHRER: Sure. President Carter the other day said that he had information that led him to believe that Cuba was now going to withdraw their troops from Angola. Did Castro tell you -- are you the President`s source?
Mr. BINGHAM: No, I`m not. What President Castro said to us was that he had withdrawn more than half the troops that had been in Angola. I did not get the impression he was going to withdraw the rest of them soon. I think he would if either he was satisfied that there was no further threat from South Africa to Angola, because their version is that they went in to meet an aggression by South Africa, or I think he would withdraw them if the Africans asked him to.
LEHRER: Would he do it in exchange for lifting the embargo?
Mr. BINGHAM: I didn`t get that impression. I don`t think he feels that this is a matter for U.S. primary concern. This is a matter between him and the Africans primarily.
LEHRER: In a word, though, you believe that the atmosphere is right for moving toward a normalization.
Mr. BINGHAM: In a word, I do, yes.
LEHRER: All right. Thank you. Robin?
MacNEIL: Not everyone in this country thinks that a swift resumption of normal relations with Castro is possible or desirable. Roger Fontaine is Director of Latin American Studies at Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies. He`s written extensively on Latin America and contributed foreign policy advice recently to both the Ford and Reagan Presidential campaigns. Dr. Fontaine, do you agree with the Bingham`s general assessment of what Cuba wants and what she`s willing to pay for it?
ROGER FONTAINE: Yes, for the moment. They certainly want an end to the embargo. They`ve been saying that for a long time, although they call it the "criminal blockade," and now even more so because there are two new developments in all of this. One is Jimmy Carter is now President, and he has intrigued the Cubans, and secondly, the Cuban economy`s taken a nose-dive in the last six months to a year.
MacNEIL: Why does Carter intrigue the Cubans?
FONTAINE: Because he`s a new face because he`s, well, because why we all are intrigued by Carter. Nobody knows much about him. He`s a tabula rasa; he`s a new boy in town. He doesn`t have any connects with the old anti-Cuban or anti-Castro community in Washington. And he feels, I think, in his own mind, that maybe he can squeeze out substantial advantages from someone who is new and perhaps inexperienced.
MacNEIL: Do you yourself have or see any hard evidence that Castro has withdrawn any more of the troops from Angola, or is going to, than Mr. Bingham learned?
FONTAINE: That`s a good question. I don`t know; I don`t have any special information. I think the more important question is -if he does withdraw, the question is "why?" The reason why he`d withdraw a substantial number of troops is because the NPLA is now more firmly in control over Angola, meaning that the other two groups, the FNLA of Uberto, and the Unita are pretty well taken care of.
Some think, by the way, that the Cubans don`t like to talk about them. They want to talk about South Africa as the Facist agressor, but they don`t like to talk about other Angolan groups.
MacNEIL: What is the liklihood of Castro responding to the conditions that President Carter listed the other day when he was speaking at the Department of Agriculture? I might just list them -- remove the aggravating influence from this hemisphere; not participate in violence overseas -- I presume he meant the Angola situation and like ones -- and a recommitment to human rights in Cuba. What`s the likelihood of Castro actually responding to those in a positive way?
FONTAINE: On the face of the record, not much. Number one, they will say that we don`t expect revolution; we went into Angola at the request of the legitimate government -- something they will say over and over again, so therefore, they`re not getting themselves off into revolutionary situations around the world. For example, Carlos Raphael Rodrigez, the number three man, said, "We`re no Joan of Arc; we don`t hear voices. We simply help friends who want help from us." Secondly . . .
MacNEIL: Excuse me. Why would he need then make a point of saying to Congressman Bingham, for instance, well, look I`ve removed half of them from Angola. Presumably he knows the political weight of that.
FONTAINE: That`s right. And he said that to this particular audience. The reason why it`s difficult to figure out what Fidel has in mind is because he tells different things to different people, and he also has other people, in this case Carlos Raphael say other things than what he`s been saying. And this has been true since the beginning of the revolution. The last point, the human rights one I think, is going to be very delicate. The standard Cuban response to that is "we have no political prisoners; we simply have counterrevolutionaries who have committed acts of terrorism and they`re in jail and they should be." As far as the Americans who are in jail, the numbers vary, perhaps a dozen, perhaps ten; we can talk about that. But in terms of people like Ubernatos and other political prisoners, they don`t exist.
MacNEIL: Ubernatos is?
FONTAINE: Ubernatos was one of the key rebel leaders during the revolution against Batista. He fell out with Castro in 1959, said that Fidel was turning the revolution into a Communist revolution, and he was arrested, and he hasn`t been seen since 1959.
MacNEIL: Thank you. Anti-Castro feelings of many Cuban exiles in the United States are also important considerations to any possible shift in our relations with Cuba. Dr. Jorge Dominguez is a Cuban exile who is also a professor of government at Harvard University and the author of a forthcoming book on Cuban internal politics since the revolution. Dr. Dominguez, how do you read the latest overtures,. if that`s what they are, from Cuba?
JORGE DOMINGUEZ: I see them as a an effort on the part of the Cuban government to try to take up once again the process of some kind of rapprochement with the United States. I think, as Roger Fontaine was saying, their own internal conditions have changed; their economy could very much benefit from relations with the United States. And also, I think, and this is not so much a disagreement with what Roger Fontaine said as perhaps a slightly different angle, I think they can meet some of the criteria that President Carter asked for. They have, for example, a large commitment to Angola in terms of trained, skilled manpower. There`re not that many trained, skilled Cubans in Cuba. It is, therefore, difficult for them now to move into another country. It would be so costly in terms of manpower to do so that they can say "Yes, we`re not willing to go into another African country." Take something like human rights. It`s not likely that all of a sudden they`re going to change their policies, but some of these people arrested in 1959 in 1960, a great many of them, as he was saying before had 20 year terms. Well, those 20 .year terms are about to expire, and these people are let out of prison when their terms expire, at least many of them have been, so he could say, we are complying with our own laws, and we`re also being responsive to President Carter; see, so many of these long term prisoners are going to be coming out of prison and probably out of the country.
MacNEIL: What concrete things are coming up in the near future which might test his sincerity or the degree of his passion for normalizing relations?
DOMINGUEZ: Well, there is one in a short term and it is a hijacking agreement. The hijacking agreement was financed by the Cuban government.
MacNEIL: We had the agreement with them.
DOMINGUEZ: We had the agreement. Cuban airlines plane was the subject of a terrorist attack which was blown up over Barbados last fall and Cuba then gave notice that this agreement would end around mid-April. But we have a deadline mid-April; we have an interest on the part of the United States not to have you or anyone who may be watching this program hijacked to Havana. And also, I think the Cubans have an interest in controlling terrorist attacks against the island. Thus, they`re using the hijacking agreement as a deadline, as an edge on the administration saying, let us have an agreement that is a short term test, and we will know in a couple of months whether we have an agreement, and if we do, the way in which it is reached, the way in which it is settled will tell us something about their willingness to proceed further on.
MacNEIL: How will the Cuban community in the United States react to any easing of relations, and how important or decisive will it be politically. How much would it weigh in Mr. Carter`s considerations?
DOMINGUEZ:I don`t know how much it would weigh. Carter did not have a great deal of electoral support in the Cuban community in Miami, though he may want to be responsive to their concerns. I think he may try to be responsive to them in terms of internal economics support for the community more than a foreign policy. The community`s views are, I think, fairly well known. Most Cubans, not only in Miami but probably elsewhere though we only really know about the Miami community, oppose reconciliation between Cuba and the United States. Further, there is, I think, a difference in intensity as well as in orientation. There are only very few who, I think, will try to engage in armed struggle to prevent that. Most, I think, simply are opposed but will deplore this but not do much more. Among the young, in the public opinion services that have been taken, among people who are under age thirty, there is an even split between those who favor a change in U.S. policy, and those who do not. So when we`re talking about opposition, we`re talking primarily about adult Cubans in Miami who feel that this clearly would be wrong for the U.S and for them.
MacNEIL: Thank you. Jim?
LEHRER: Yes. Congressman, did Castro mention the hijacking agreement that Dr. Dominguez just mentioned?
Mr. BINGHAM: Yes, indeed. We discussed this at some length, and I also discussed it with Carlos Raphael Rodrigez. I don`t agree with Dr. Dominguez that this is something we can expect them to do in the next couple of months. I don`t think they`re going to extend that agreement. As a matter of fact when you look and read carefully Fidel`s speech of October 15, he as much as said that he wasn`t going to renew the agreement until he had assurance that terrorism was going to stop -- terrorism under some control by the United States. And also acts of aggression would cease. And it turned out from our conversation that what was meant in that statement by acts of aggression was the embargo. So I think he will not extend the agreement. On the other hand, he said that he would abide by the terms as substantially the terms of the agreement although it wasn`t formally extended. I think it`s very important to make a distinction between the total normalization of relations -- let`s say exchange of ambassadors, recognition and so on which, I believe, is quite some ways down the road. I`m not sure at all the Cubans are ready for that either next month or the month after. Distinction between that and the ending of the embargo, what the President was talking about President Carter -- was normalization of relations and a lot of things have to be discussed before that takes place or in the context of those discussions.
LEHRER: But the embargo . .
Mr. BINGHAM: The embargo is a separate thing, and it is that that they feel is discriminatory against them. As I said before, we have trade relations with other Communist countries that are certainly behaving in odd ways by our standards. Well, we don`t embargo trade against them, and that is what sticks in their craw and they feel should be withdrawn before we really get into the discussion of human rights and the other big questions that divide us.
LEHRER: Mr. Fontaine, what`s your view of that? Would you agree with that?
FONTAINE: Well, it certainly is going to be a long process. The problem with the embargo, and this is really the key issue -it`s a key issue because it`s the most important thing to the Cubans in terms of their own economic needs and while most people or a lot of people will say in terms of resuming or normalizing relations which should be on a Quid, pro quo basis, the problem is that we have a lot more quids than they have quos, and most of those quids happen to be the embargo. If we do it at all, I think we should do it in steps and piecemeal fashion and at one time. I think it was about two years ago -- it was some statement by either Fidel or Carlos Raphael -- to the effect that, well, they could live with that. I think we ought to pick that up if we continue on this track.
Mr. BINGHAM: I would be in favor of lifting the embargo with respect to tourism which might be done next month and food and medicines. I think that would go a long way because the main thing they want from us is wheat and rice and that would open up the possibility of their selling us such things as sugar and nickel. By the way, we have, I think Mr. Fontaine would agree, we have certainly an advantage in the possibility of being able to import nickel from them, and their production of nickel, I`ve discussed this with them, is not committed to the Eastern- European block, at least the expansion of production that they expect in the next few years.
LEHRER: All right. Robin?
MacNEIL: Yes. Could I ask you is there any substance, do any of you believe to Castro`s charge that we, through the CIA or whatever are behind anti-Cuban terrorism still. I mean is there substance to that charge?
Mr. BINGHAM: I think the answer is no and I think Fidel in an interview in a Mexican newspaper or magazine Siemre, again a couple of years ago, essentially said that. He said t at these people are unleashed; they`re no longer under CIA control.
MacNEIL: Do you believe that we are officially responsible for anti- Castro terrorism?
DOMINGUEZ: No, I do not believe that we are officially responsible for that nor do I think that there has been a direct link between the CIA and any specific acts of terrorism.
MacNEIL: Is there still a large body of anti-Castro terrorism going on by these people who are not in control?
FONTAINE: There`s a fairly substantial amount and it has been going on rather regularly and all over the world. That is to say, it includes attacks not only on Cuba itself, but also attacks on Cuban installations in other countries -- offices of Cuban airlines, embassies, consulates and the like.
MacNEIL: Um-hmm. Congressman, do you have an opinion on that. Do you think that we are in any way for minting anti-Castro terrorism?
Mr. BINGHAM: No, I fully agree that we`re not responsible.
The CIA is not responsible for the recent events, and I so told President Castro in very clear terms. The complicating factor is that the individuals who apparently were responsible for this terrible crime against the Cubana plane, did have contacts with the CIA in the past. And focusing on that, he accuses the CIA of responsibility.
I honestly don`t know if he believes that accusation or not, but there is a basis for it in the fact that they had had this past contact.
MacNEIL: Well, it must be difficult for him to believe that with all the revelations that have come out about the CIA in the last few years, I suppose.
Mr. BINGHAM: Well, he`s remarkably philosophical in discussing the attacks on his life that were made in the early days. And it`s rather amazing how readily he talks about that.I mean, he doesn`t seem to have any animosity about the American people or the American government in that regard. He speaks of the CIA as if it were an entity unto itself.
MacNEIL: Did he joke about the attempts on his life?
Mr. BINGHAM: Not joke exactly, but he spoke for example, in a friendly way about President Kennedy and he felt that in the latter months of his life, President Kennedy was moving toward a different position on Cuba. That if he had lived, he would have changed the policy toward Cuba. So he`s not bitter on that subject.
MacNEIL: Could I ask one of you, since there`s only time for one I`ll ask you, Dr. Fontaine. Could you just enumerate what you think the advantages would be to the United States. You say all the quids are on our side. What could Cuba give us that would be worth our while in normalizing relations?
FONTAINE: Well, economically, I don`t think there`s very much. I think American corporations who think they`re going to do a booming business in Cuba are in for a severe disappointment. Cubans have broken off trade agreements with the Argentines and the Japanese, for example, simply because they have no foreign exchange. The sugar problem, the foreign exchange problem, the economic problem, in general, is not going to go away. It may get a little better. Aside from that, I think the major objective, the major thing we want to get from that is a long-term one, not a short-term one. The long-term one is really separating Cuba from the Soviet block -- what I have called "peaceful subversion."
MacNEIL: I think we have to leave you there, but I think we get your point. Thank you very much indeed, Congressman and Mrs. Bingham. Good night, Jim, and thank you, gentlemen. Jim Lehrer and I`ll be back tomorrow night. I`m Robert MacNeil. Good night.
The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
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The main topic of this episode is Cuba. The guests are Jorge Dominguez, Roger Fontaine, Jonathan Bingham, June Rossbach Bingham. Byline: Robert MacNeil, Jim Lehrer
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Global Affairs
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Politics and Government
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Chicago: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Cuba,” 1977-02-21, National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed September 30, 2023,
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