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ROBERT MacNEIL: Good evening. At midnight on Saturday the Reagan administration banned travel to Cuba for businessmen and tourists. Travel from the United States territory willstill be permitted for journalists, academics or for family reasons. The United States has thus reinstated a ban in force ever since the Kennedy administration but relaxed when President Carter began to normalize relations with Cuba. This new toughening of the American position comes just when Fidel Castro appears to be making subtle overtures to President Reagan to improve relations. Some Americans who have had high -- level talks in Havana recently believe this moment may be uniquely right to wean Castro away from his dependence on Moscow. Some see it as the way of solving a deepening crisis in Central America. The Reagan administration says that's all wishful thinking; Castro is just as bent as always on fomenting revolution and subverting U.S. influence. Tonight, the new Cuba debate: is this the moment to end two decades of antagonism? Jim?
JIM LEHRER: Robin, the official relationship between Washington and Fidel Castro's Cuba has been marked by a constant mutual dislike and distrust. But within that there has been some fluctuation from the Bay of Pigs invasion and CIA-sponsored plots to kill Castro of the Kennedy administration to unsuccessful attempts at some measure of reconciliation during both the Ford and Carter administrations. Under President Reagan the tone and substance have been mostly toughness from the beginning. One of his administration's first foreign policy actions last year was to accuse Cuba of arming leftist guerrillas in El salvador. Secretary of State Haig even threatened to go to the source, meaning Cuba, to stop it if necessary. But several weeks ago, Haig did have a semi-secret meeting with a senior Cuban official in Mexico City. Vernon Walters, his top-level troubleshooter, has also reportedly had some conversation with Cuban officials. But since all of that, the U.S. announced that tightening of travel restrictions to Cuba, and Cuba publicly announced its willingness to help Argentina in its Falklands fight with Great Britain. Where it all stands now from an official U.S. point of view is what we get first, from Myles Frechette, a career foreign service officer who is the director of the State Department's Office of Cuban Affairs.Mr. Frechette, do you believe Castro wants a better relationship with the United States right now?
MYLES FRECHETTE: Sure, provided that he were not asked to sever his relationship with the Soviet Union or stop supporting wars of national liberation.
LEHRER: And do you think he's willing to do that?
LEHRER: How do you know that?
Mr. FRECHETTE: Well, I think that, number one, he's not in a position, really, to sever his relationship with the Soviet Union. His dependence is altogether too great -- $3 billion-plus a year in economic assistance; enormous amounts of military assistance. There is no way the United States or even a consortium of Western countries could pony up that amount of money. And, remember, Castro insists on the right to support wars of national liberation, and to carry what he calls out "international solidarity." Again, I don't see how the United States or even the West would be willing to bankroll Castro, provided he were prepared to carry on that kind of role.
LEHRER: Is there no evidence, or at least evidence that's reached you, that you feel is reliable that he is willing to back off this wars of revolution mission of his?
Mr. FRECHETTE: No, no, not really.
LEHRER: In other words, you just don't believe these signals that have been coming up here from Havana?
Mr. FRECHETTE: At this time, no. That's right.
LEHRER: I see. I reported that one conversation that Secretary of State Haig had with a high-level Cuban official, and that's never been confirmed by you all, but a further conversation by Vernon Walters supposedly in Havana with Cuban officials. Are there any more conversations like that on the horizon?
Mr. FRECHETTE: Well, Secretary Haig said in New York in March that he had had conversations and that he didn't rule them out in the future, but nothing's scheduled.
LEHRER: What is there to talk about?
Mr. FRECHETTE: Well, I think that although Secretary Haig didn't speak about his conversations with the Cuban vice president in Mexico City, the Cuban vice president did hold a press conference, and he said that essentially Secretary Haig set forth the U.S. position with respect to Cuba and with respect to Cuba's international activities, and that he set forward the Cuban position. And I think that's probably a fairly accurate rendition of what went on. In other words, we do have very serious difficulties and differences with Cuba, and from what I gather, the conversation basically was an exploration of those differences.
LEHRER: But not really what you'd call a negotiation, right?
Mr. FRECHETTE: Absolutely not. There's a big difference between dialogue and negotiation. I think one of the things that's happened is that the press and some other countries have seized on the contact between the Secretary and the Cuban vice president to call them negotiations without listening to what the administration has been saying. And the administration has never called them negotiations at all.
LEHRER: And as far as you know there aren't any further conversations or part of a dialogue in the wings, right, I mean, ready to go?
Mr. FRECHETTE: No, nothing scheduled, but the Secretary did say that he didn't rule them out -- such contacts -- in the future.
LEHRER: I see. What is the reasoning behind these travel restrictions that went into effect over the weekend?
Mr. FRECHETTE: The Secretary has been saying, and Assistant Secretary of State Enders has been saying, for some time that we intended to tighten the embargo. And tightening of the embargo is intended to show that this administration --
LEHRER: This is the economic embargo that is in effect and has been in effect since --
Mr. FRECHETTE: That's right, since the early '60s. That's correct. In some ways it has been relaxed over the years, but we were going to tighten it up to show that we did not agree with Cuba's present foreign policy, and this was one way of making that displeasure felt. And in tightening the embargo, we were actually going to take some measures which were going to have some economic impact in Cuba so that the -- as the phrase we use is, increase the cost to Cuba of its adventurism.
LEHRER: And the economic effect in this case would be denying them money from tourism, right or U.S. tourists and business people?
Mr. FRECHETTE: That is correct. At the present time, yes. At the present time, that isn't a great deal of money, but we do know that the Cubans have big plans for tourism. You know, they have a hard time earning hard currency, and one of the ways they hope to earn more hard currency is to encourage tourism from Canada, West Europe, and from the United States. By this action we have denied the Cuban economic planners the American tourist market.
LEHRER: I see. Finally, Mr. Frechette, as you know, some people have interpreted the decision on these new restrictions as an answer to Castro and Cuba for these supposed attempts to open up new negotiations or whatever. Is that a correct interpretation?
Mr. FRECHETTE: That's not correct. These were steps that have been announced, that we have said we were going to take, and we have taken them. The problem is that people have not been listening to what the administration has been saying. The problem is that people have seized on the conversations by the Secretary to interpret them to mean negotiations. And that's why this step, although announced, shall we say, several times by the Secretary, by Assistant Secretary Enders, seemed to catch people by surprise.
LEHRER: I see. Thank you. Robin?
MacNEIL: The most recent interview with Fidel Castro by an American was conducted by Randall Robinson at the end of March. Mr. Robinson is executive director of TransAfrica, the black American lobby for Africa and the Caribbean. His interview was published in the TransAfrica Forum. Mr. Robinson, what did Fidel Castro tell you about relations with the United States?
RANDALL ROBINSON: He said that he was prepared to have talks with the United States that would move towards normalization, that we should move towards peace. I think there is an interest there in reducing tension in the area. If one would look behind his words, I think one would recall that for 23 years the United States has tried to overthrow the government of Cuba with notable lack of success, and that only two options perhaps remain for the U.S. A range of options have been tried, from the support of the Bay of Pigs invasion to the economic embargo. But only two options remain, and that would be a massive U.S. invasion that would provoke a confrontation, perhaps nuclear confrontation, with the Soviet Union, or movement towards normalization of relations. President Castro said to me in the clearest terms that they are prepared to more towards normalization and to entertain discussions without precondition. That does not mean, at the same time, that they are prepared to compromise what they feel are very principled commitments in Africa and Angola and Ethiopia, and their support for progressive movements in Latin America. I think one ought to underscore that they feel that too much emphasis has been put on the East-West dimensions of this crisis, and that if the U.S. is to respond in any sensitive, constructive way to the problems of Latin America, we're going to have to look at the real cause of those problems. Certainly the Cuban government has not caused the problem in El Salvador or the problem in Guatemala. If Cuba were that able to foment problems, it would be more powerful than it is now. Certainly the U.S. has tried to do the same thing to Cuba without success.
MacNEIL: Let me ask a couple of questions. Did you determine from Fidel Castro whether he would do anything as an earnest [demonstration] of sincerity or good intentions towards the United States -- and you know the catalogue of things that various American administrations have set as sort of prerequisites. For instance, you said that he wouldn't compromise his commitment in Africa. That presumably means he wouldn't withdraw from Angola. What might he do as a gesture?
Mr. ROBINSON: Well, he said again on the Angola question that they would of course be prepared to withdraw from Angola. They've said that before. They made a joint statement on February 4th that they would begin withdrawing their troops as soon as Angola was secure from South African attack; as soon as the situation in Namibia was resolved, the Cubans would withdraw their troops. He said at the same time, of course, that they are in support of a negotiated solution to the problem of El Salvador. The guerrillas in El Salvador have said the same thing. The Americans have urged, of course, the government there not to go to negotiation with the guerrillas. They have supported the Mexican plan, of course. They have developed relations with Mexico, with Columbia and other moderate regimes throughout the area. So that, I think over the last few years the Cuban government has shown its measure of good faith. And one ought to remember that the olive branch that one sees from Cuba now is not a new olive branch. The Cubans offered to talk as far back as 1959. The cold shoulder has been turned all of these years, all of these 23 years, by the United States, and not by Cuba.
MacNEIL: How, in your view, is the Reagan administration reading these signs?
Mr. ROBINSON: I think awfully badly. Inasmuch as with the offering to talk and to try to reduce tension in the area and to reduce probability of a generalized war, the Reagan administration has tried more of what has been so notably, conspicuously unsuccessful over the past 20 years, and that's an increase in the kinds of restrictions that we've talked about here before. They can't have any small chance of success.
MacNEIL: Well, thank you. Jim?
LEHRER: There are those who disagree strongly with the idea that now is the time to soften our approach to Castro and Cuba. Among those who feel that way is Senator Steve Symms, Republican of Idaho. Senator Symms is sponsoring a Senate resolution that would restate one passed in 1962 during the Kennedy administration. It among other things affirms the determination of the United States to prevent Cuba by force if necessary from engaging in aggressive or subversive activities in the Western Hemisphere. Senator, what are you trying to achieve with your resolution?
Sen. STEVE SYMMS: Well, first off, you know, I think we all recognize that there is an ongoing effort for a Marxist-Leninist revolution in Central America, specifically, which is being aided by Castro's government, which of course is financed by the Soviets. And I think that we -- recognizing that security problem, which could involve ultimately a massive immigration of people from Mexico into the United States, if a revolution should start there, if you apply the rule of 10% that every country that a revolution of the kind that Castro calls progressive -- and it's interesting that he talks about progressive revolutions when in Castro's Cuba itself they have to ration salt. The whole country is surrounded by salt, but they can't produce enough that they have to ration it out. They have very, very small amounts of consumer goods in the stores. They don't have anything, really, to export except terrorism. So the timing is appropriate in the first place. The security threat, number one. Secondly, the timing is appropriate. One million, five-hundred thousand El Salvadoran nationals voted against what the guerrillas, financed by Castro, armed by Castro, are trying to do in El Salvador. You know, if there's ever been a time for firm resolve, it would be now. Now, those that want to have friendship with Castro, I would be the first to jump on the bandwagon if we thought it was in good faith, but who now really believes that Fidel Castro, as far as he's committed with the Soviets, will ever be able to come over to the United States? I mean, the Soviets would take him to Russia and put him in a hospital before that would happen and say he was sick.
LEHRER:Well, you heard what Mr. Robinson said, that the -- or he sees there are only two options right now. One is a massive invasion by the United States and the other is some normalization of --
Sen. SYMMS: Well, I reject that, in all due respects, Randall, because I think first off, if we would reaffirm a strong position, then you would have a framework with -- you could sit down with Castro and possibly have some friendship. But as long as Castro is allowed to load airplanes with guns and ammunition, fly them to Nicaragua and Honduras and export them into El Salvador to foment a terrorist revolution, a Marxist revolution, how can we in good conscience deal with that with that going on? So I think you have to get the rules straight enough. We'd show the strength of determination --
LEHRER: In the resolution? By passing the resolution.
Sen. SYMMS: Or by reaffirming it. It's the law now. So I think the Reagan administration is on a correct course.
LEHRER: Now, you got -- the Senate Foreign Relations committee eliminated the use of arms line, did they not?
Sen. SYMMS: Well, they did that and many other things.
LEHRER: In other words, they --
Sen. SYMMS: Their resolution on one hand condemns the exportation of Marxist revolution and the export of arms and equipment out of Cuba into Central America, and then on the other hand says we should sit down with the very guerrillas which they're -- and welcome them into the club of negotiations. So I -- it's very ambiguous.
LEHRER: Are you going to give up on this now or are you going to try to get that tougher language back in when it goes to the Senate floor?
Sen. SYMMS: Well, I certainly couldn't accept what's in the resolution on the Senate floor. I would be surprised if that resolution -- that resolution brought in about five resolutions, part of Dodd's, Senator Robert Byrd's, my own, and others, and tried to make one statement, but you had about five or six different points, and it ended up, I think, being far too ambiguous to have any meaning, and that in itself would weaken our position. We'd be better off not to pass that resolution and just stand on current law.
LEHRER: So what your position basically is, Senator, is that the time may come to talk, but it's not going to come time to talk until we toughen up our position and then talk after that.
Sen. SYMMS: Well, I guess what I'm saying is that if the United States of America can't demonstrate a very firm, clear, concise policy in our own front yard, in the soft underbelly of the United States -- the Caribbean Basin -- well, then, what are we doing with troops in Europe and the Far East, etc.? Trying to resist a Communist expansionism.
LEHRER: So you believe that Mr. Frechette and the Reagan administration are reading things correctly and are following the right policy?
Sen. SYMMS: I do.
LEHRER: Thank you. Robin?
MacNEIL: In April, 10 American specialists on international relations went to Havana for a two-day conference with high-level Cubans. Heading the delegation was Seweryn Bialer, director of the Research Institute on International Change at Columbia University, and the Ruggles Professor of Political Science there. He is also the author of the recently published book, Russia at the Crossroads. Professor Bialer, reporting on your talks in Havana in the current New York Review of Books, you write that "an historic change may now be possible." What historic change?
SEWERYN BIALER: I think that historic change starts always with small steps, not only with giant steps, and a historic change, first of all, of trying to change Cuban policy and trying to change Cuban-American relations. And I think that politics is the art of the possible, both for us and for the Cubans. And I think that the Cubans start to understand that, that much less is possible now than it was a few years ago, that the balance is shifting in our direction. And therefore, despite the fact of course they are revolutionaries, they are our enemies, but so was China and so was Yugoslavia some time ago if I remember correctly. And the question is, why should we refuse to negotiate? Of course, if we start the negotiation by saying you have to cut your ties with the Soviet Union, there would be no negotiation. But let's start with small problems which are, by the way, very large, like, let's say, the question in Central America where the Cubans can show, whether they truly mean it or whether this is only a propaganda ploy.
MacNEIL: How could better relations with Cuba help the United States in Central America?
Prof. BIALER: I think that we have really three options in Central America. The first option is to send our troops to Central America. I believe that if we send our troops we will gain an immediate victory and then we will withdraw those troops, and in 10 years we will have a new situation which is similar to today. Anyway, 89% of the American public, as the Gallop Poll shows, is against it and the Congress is against it. So it is not really an option. The second option is the option that the Reagan administration is now suggesting -- adopted -- it's an option of arming the right-wing government of El Salvador and instructing, let's say, the troops, and hoping that they will really gain a victory over the guerrillas. In my opinion, this option is unrealistic, and those who sound so tough-minded when they speak about the policy in Central America are really very naive. And when we enter now the tunnel in Central America, we should see what the walls are made of. And they are made of major trouble if we continue this policy because this will not -- the right-wing government in El Salvador will not win. And there's a third option. The third option is an option of trying to reach a peaceful settlement, a negotiated settlement between the government and between the left-wing guerrillas. I do not know whether this is possible. The polarization in El Salvador went very far, and it may be impossible, but I say, why shouldn't we try? Let's at least try. And here enters Cuba. Cuba expresses in words, not in deeds yet, but in words, expresses a readiness to understand that politics is the art of the possible, and to influence the guerrillas and the Nicaraguan government, on which it has a major influence, to agree to some armistice on the U.N. supervision, and to a new election in which the left would also participate --
MacNEIL: And what does the United States have to do to get Cuba to do that?
Prof. BIALER: I think that United States -- that the Cuban are now very afraid. I think, for example, I must say I disagree with Mr. Robinson. I do not believe at all that if we invade Cuba that the Soviet Union will start an atomic confrontation with us. Not at all. I think that the Soviet Union will hit us somewhere in Europe or in the Persian Gulf, but not here. And Cubans know very well that they are alone. They are seeing a cold war starting, and they don't want to be squeezed between the two superpowers, and therefore they want to make some concessions, even if the United States doesn't do more but tone down its rhetoric.
MacNEIL: You mean that might be all that the Cubans would settle for at the moment as a first move?
Prof. BIALER: I think so, as a first step, yes, and I must say I do not think that rhetoric is a substitute for a policy or that rhetoric can carry the policy. And the Reagan administration, if the Reagan administration had the option of sending troops -- our troops -- to Central America or against Cuba, maybe I wouldn't like it but I would understand the logic of the policy. But in my opinion the Reagan administration talks very tough and carries a very little stick.
MacNEIL: We must go on. Thank you. Jim?
LEHRER: Mr. Frechette, both Mr. Robinson and now Mr. Bialer have said, what's the harm in at least calling Cuba's bluff? They're saying the right words; why not sit down and talk to them and find out if in fact they are sincere?
Mr. FRECHETTE: Well, frankly, our information, of course, doesn't just come from the contacts that Mr. Robinson had or that these experts had. We have other information, including what has been said directly to us by the Cubans.We simply don't think they're serious at this moment. But I must say that I think that there are an awful lot of ideas and options being thrown around here that are not the only options. I don't agree with Mr. Robinson that the only option is invasion or negotiation. I don't agree that in Central America there are only three options. And I must say I object very much to the proposition that the Reagan administration is proposing to send troops down there. We haven't said that. Assistant Secretary Enders and Secretary Haig have testified that that is not our intention. Not at all. Our policy in Central America is not to send troops. So I do think that there are some bases here for discussion which are not really quite accurate.
LEHRER: All. Well, let's pick up the point on Cuba specifically. Why is Mr. Robinson wrong when he says the options are either invade Cuba or negotiate -- be friends?
Mr. FRECHETTE: I think that --
LEHRER: What other options are there?
Mr. FRECHETTE: Well, I think some options that have been suggested, not by this administration, but by others, for instance, simply ignore Cuba. We're making too much of Cuba. That's one. But I think we have another alternative, which is basically to increase the cost to Cuba of its adventurism and carry forward in the Caribbean Basin with the Caribbean Basin initiative and other initiatives to help to solve some of the economic, social and political problems. I must say that the administration has never said that Cuba is the source of all the problems in Central America and the Caribbean. Not at all. We do say, though that Cuba is trying to exploit the existing social, economic and political problems, and trying and in so doing -- particularly in promoting armed violence and training guerrillas, that sort of thing -- injecting East-West issues into the thing. It is not we who are injecting the East-West thing, it's the Cubans.
LEHRER: Mr. Robinson, what's wrong with raising the cost to Cuba?
Mr. ROBINSON: Costs have been raised as high as they can be raised, and the Cubans have forded the stream well over the last 23 years. They've done a remarkable job domestically. It's a Third World country of 10 million people opposed by the United States, blockaded economically, who have achieved nearly 100% literacy. They've dropped infant mortality to 18 per 1,000. They've raised the life span from 59 to 72. If Castro were some years ago unstable, he certainly has a broad base of public support in Cuba now. The U.S. cannot dislodge Cuba through any of the measures, or any similar measures that they've taken over the last 23 years. It just isn't possible. The broad base of support is too deep. We've got to look at the Latin problems in another way. We've got to understand at last that the problems in Nicaragua and Guatemala and the problems in El Salvador and the other countries are caused by extreme poverty and repressive regimes -- many regimes that owe responsibility to the United States. And if we're going to solve these problems, we have to look at those problems and not at Cuba.
LEHRER: You agree with that, Senator?
Sen. SYMMS: I agree that poverty is one of the problems, but I think that where I would disagree is that where have the Communist countries produced a great deal of wealth? If it were not for Soviet foreign aid, the Cuban people couldn't even feed themselves right now. Like I mentioned, they're rationing salt. If you visit a Cuban grocery store, they ration milk, eggs -- the basic things that we take for granted in this country. So the President's program in the Caribbean Basin is one to try to export some of the ideas that built America, where people can have an opportunity to have some upward mobility. There is no opportunity for that in Castro's Cuba.
LEHRER: Mr. Bialer, what's wrong with that -- trying to import the ideas that have built America to Central America and Castro -- I mean, to Cuba, etc.?
Prof. BIALER: I didn't understand the question.
MacNEIL: Can you repeat the question, Jim?
LEHRER: Yes. The Senator said that what the Reagan administration is simply trying to do is to import into Cuba and to the rest of Latin America, particularly Central America, the ideals and ideas of the United States; that it worked here, why not try to get them there as well?
Prof. BIALER: Well, I don't know whether this is what we're trying to do, but I can judge by what we are doing and what are the results. And I will say that the last election were not such an undisguised blessing as was described by the administration, because in this election also the key positions of power were assumed by extreme right-wing people who are opposed to reforms. But my point is rather different. I am saying something else. How should a citizen of the United States who has no access to any secret information judge the policy of an administration which neither gets tough militarily nor does it want to negotiate, but it is simply involved in extraordinary rhetoric that alienate our friends in Mexico and Venezuela and in our central interest -- weaken very much our central interest in Western Europe?
LEHRER: We have to go, Mr. Bialer. Robin?
MacNEIL: Yes, I'm sorry; that's the end of our time. Senator Symms, Mr. Robinson, Mr. Frechette, thank you for joining us, Professor Bialer. Good night, Jim.
LEHRER: Good night, Robin.
MacNEIL: That's all for tonight. We will be back tomorrow night. I'm Robert MacNeil. Good night.
The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
US/Cuba: Back to the Fold?
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This episode's headline: U.S./Cuba: Back to the Fold?. The guests include SEWERYN BIALER, Columbia University; MYLES FRECHETTE, State Department; RANDALL ROBINSON, TransAfrica; Sen. STEVE SYMMS, Republican, Idaho. Byline: In New York: ROBERT MacNEIL, Executive Editor; In Washington: JIM LEHRER, Associate Editor; PETER BLUFF, Producer; PATRICIA ELLIS, Reporter
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Politics and Government
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