William LeoGrande, Dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University, discusses Cuba
I’m very pleased to have as my guest today my good friend, Bill
LeoGrande. Bill is the dean of the School of Public Affairs at American
University in Washington, D.C. He’s also an expert on Cuba, having
authored numerous articles and books on the subject. He traveled to the
island nation earlier this year, and he joins us today.
Glad to be with you.
So the Cold War is over, Cuba’s no longer a Soviet satellite nation, we
no longer have any sort of missiles pointed to us that we know of. So
if I’m an American and I don’t live in South Florida, why should I care
about Cuba today?
Well, one reason is immigration. There is continuing pressure on the
island of Cuba, as there is in a lot of Latin American countries, for
people to come to the United States, because of the discrepancy in
standard of living.
because there is a big Cuban-American community in South Florida, there
are still a lot of family ties of people who have come to the United
States with people on the island. And again, as with any other
immigrant country, that tends to draw people from the island to the
So that’s one reason. Security is another reason,
not because Cuba itself under the current government poses any threat,
but because the lack of relations and cooperation between Cuba and the
United States means that Cuban space is a hole in our border perimeter.
give you an example. Narcotics traffickers use Cuban waters to hide out
from the U.S. Coast Guard, for the purpose of then using fast boats to
smuggle drugs into the United States. We’ve got rudimentary cooperation
with the Cubans, but not enough to really close that gap in our border
And most people just don’t realize how close Cuba is, right? I mean,
it’s been a while since it’s been in the news, so particularly the
younger generation might not realize it’s right off the coast.
It is 90 miles from the coast of Cuba to Key West. And it’s so close,
in fact, that it’s been a smuggling entrepot to the United States since
So obviously there’s been a change in leadership in Cuba just this
year, at least officially just this year. And with Raoul Castro now in
charge, do you think that will make any difference in the way Cuba
It’s already begun to make some difference on the economic front. Raoul
Castro has always had a more pragmatic approach toward the economy than
Fidel. Fidel was very ideological in his approach to the economy, and
he was a firm believer — still is a firm believer — in communism and
socialism and organizing the economy in that way.
Castro is also a communist, but he’s a much more pragmatic one. He’s a
little bit, I think, like Deng Xiaoping of China, who famously said,
“What difference does it make whether a cat is black or white, as long
as it catches mice.” That’s Raoul’s view in terms of being willing to
use market mechanisms in the economy.
Since he was formally
named president earlier this year, he’s already undertaken a number of
small economic reforms aimed at trying to make the economy more
efficient and improve the standard of living of ordinary people.
I know you’ve made a number of trips to Cuba over the years, and you
were just there earlier this year. What was your sense on the ground
there? Does it feel different than it has in the past, or did it feel
sort of status quo?
No, it did feel different earlier this year, and the main difference
was a sense of anticipation among people in the street. Everybody is
expecting big changes from the new leadership, even though it’s people
who have been in power for a long time. They nevertheless, ever since
Fidel became sick and stepped down, they’ve been promising changes.
They’ve been raising people’s expectations.
Raoul Castro gave a speech last July in which he very explicitly said,
“The way we’ve been doing things hasn’t worked and we need to change it
and we’re going to make some major changes.” And then he ticked off a
number of areas where he thought there was real need for improvement.
there’s a strong sense of high expectations of change. I think the
danger the government faces is if it disappoints that expectation it’s
going to be in political trouble.
Now obviously some of these changes have led the Europeans, in
particular, to look at easing sanctions or removing sanctions on Cuba,
something we haven’t considered yet in the United States. Talk to me a
little bit about that, that European decision that was made last week.
Well, the European strategy for many years has been to engage the
Cubans diplomatically and to try to build good working relations with
Cuban leaders in the second and their tier of leadership in the
expectation that as the generation that made the revolution in 1959
passes from the scene and retires, that these younger people will come
into positions of leadership and it’ll be possible then for the
European Union to exert greater influence on the direction of change in
they’re betting, in effect, that change in Cuba is going to come from
within the existing political elite and that it’s going to be gradual
and evolutionary, and they’re looking to have ways of shaping it.
U.S. strategy, alternatively, has been to bet that the current regime
is going to collapse and that the people who will end up leading Cuba
are the current dissidents. It’s a very small group, very much harassed
and under constant threat by the government security police. And it’s a
group that, however courageous it might be, has never been able to make
much inroad in terms of politics.
But the United States is sort
of betting that the future of Cuba lies with them rather than with
anybody who’s currently involved in the government itself.
I guess, what’s your bet?
Well, I think the last year has shown that institutions in Cuba, the
political institutions of the current regime are pretty resilient. They
survived the passing of Fidel. They survived back in the 1990s, the
collapse of the Soviet Union, which demolished the Cuban economy and
lead for the first time since 1959 to really widespread hunger on the
island. And yet the regime was able to survive that.
it’s got a track record of being able to adapt to diversity and
persist. So I think that particularly now if the current leadership
does what they say what they are going to do, in terms of economic
change, then the process is more likely to be the gradual and
So obviously, Cuba is sort of a third rail of American politics with
the importance of Cuba particularly in presidential elections — I’m
sorry — Florida in presidential elections. How do you see the changes
playing out? Is there a hope that Cuba could make substantial enough
changes that American policy makers might be willing to take another
look? I mean, how is this going ever change?
I think the way it’ll change is because politics within the
Cuban-American community are changing. If you look at polls that have
been done in the community over the last decade and a half, one of the
things that is really striking is there’s a consistent trend towards
more moderate views about U.S.-Cuban relations within the
Cuban-American community itself.
who are younger are more inclined to favor some kind of dialogue
between Cuba and the United States. People who are more recently
arrived from Cuba and have come mainly for economic reasons and have
maintained their family ties with people on the island, they don’t want
an unmitigated relationship of hostility, they want to be able to
travel back and forth. They want to be able to send remittances to
their relatives still on the island. So they’re in favor of a more
The younger people, the more recently arrived
people, those are demographics that are getting larger over time, not
smaller. The people who came in the 1960s for political reasons and
left everything behind and who are adamantly opposed to any kind of
normalization with Cuba as long as Fidel Castro’s government is in
place, those people now are retiring, they’re dying. The inexorable
passage of time is reducing that part of the community.
still powerful because it’s economically very prosperous. But I think
you can see in Barak Obama’s approach to Cuban-American community an
effort to try to appeal to that younger group and that more moderate
group. Obama’s position is that he’s in favor of completely free travel
to Cuba for Cuban-Americans and completely open remittances. In other
words, Cuban-Americans should be able to send as much in the way of
remittances as they want to their relatives on the island.
Explain what remittances are, if you would.
I’m sorry. Remittances are what immigrants typically send –it’s cash
mostly. So an immigrant in the United States will send cash back to his
family. It’s become a billion dollar a year transfer of funds from
Cuban-Americans to the island every year. And this is typical. Several
billion in remittances go from Salvadorans in the United States to El
Salvador, Dominicans in the United States to the Dominican Republic,
Mexican-Americans to Mexico.
So have these changes that we’re seeing take place, has it had any
impact on the number people who are leaving Cuba illegally to try to
come to United States or has that remained relatively constant in
It’s remained relatively constant, although one of the things that’s
changed, interestingly, is that 10 years ago the main strategy is
people leaving illegally was to try to come across to Florida Straight
and land somewhere in South Florida. Now, the principal channel is get
yourself smuggled from Cuba into Southern Mexico, make your way through
Mexico to the U.S. border and cross the border from Mexico.
reason for that is that the Cubans benefit from something called the
Cuban Adjustment Act, which was passed in the 1960s, and essentially it
makes it possible for any Cuban who gets to the United States to stay
and become a permanent resident. Cubans are the only nationality that
has this advantage. So for a Cuban to get to the border crossing in
Texas and get across, all they have to do is say, “I am a Cuban” and be
able to prove it and they are actually paroled into the United States.
Do you get the sense that Raoul Castro and rest of the current
leadership of Cuba wants to have better relations with the United
States, or are they content with the way the things are now?
I think they do want better relations with the United States, but I
don’t think they feel desperate about it. Cuba has been able to build a
good economic relationship with Europe and with its neighbors and the
Caribbean and in Latin America. They have developed some investment
from Brazil and China, some trade credits from Brazil. So they have
been making do without an economic relationship with the United States.
there is no question that if the United States were to normalize their
relationship and the embargo were to be lifted, that there would be a
flood of trade between Cuba and United States, there would be flood of
investments from the United States into Cuba, and there would be a
flood of American tourists going to enjoy Cuba’s beaches.
now the only hole in the embargo is for food and medicine. It is legal
to sell food and medicine to Cuba, and we sell so much food and
medicine to Cuba that we are Cuba’s seventh largest trade partner.
Is normalization really possible? I know one of the issues — and I’m
no means an expert in these — but I know one of the issues is that the
property that were seized by the Cuban government 50 years ago, that
people want reparations for that. Wouldn’t that just bankrupt Cuba if
they got those reparations? And if not, how do you ever get those
people on board who had their property seized?
That’s going to be the toughest issue, no question about it. All the
other issues pale in comparison. There’s two sets of property issues.
There is the property of U.S. citizens and corporations that was seized
in 1959, 1960, 1961. The Cuban government acknowledges that it owes
some compensation for that property. Under international law that is
pretty basic premise.
negotiation will be about how much we owe the Cuban government in
reparations for the CIA’s covert war in the 1960s, because that’s their
counter-claim. If there was political war on both sides, you could sit
down at the table and negotiate some cents on the dollar for U.S.
investments and make that work.
Most of the corporations have
already written that debt off or they’ve received tax credits from the
U.S. government. So it’s really going to be a government-to-government
negotiation. The tougher piece is the property of Cuban-Americans that
was nationalized, because that’s literally the entire rest of the Cuban
The Helms-Burton Act that was passed in 1996 gives
Cuban-Americans the right to make claims against the Cuban government
if they’re nationalized citizens, to make claims against the Cuban
government for the property that they lost. The Cuban government does
not recognize the legitimacy of those claims and that’s really a brand
new area of international law. International law generally doesn’t
recognize claims like this either.
That’s going to be much, much
tougher to negotiate because it’s just impossible for the government to
really pay off those claims. It would bankrupt them. But it might be
possible — if, again, there was great political will on both sides —
to give Cuban-Americans who lost property some kind of preferential
access for new business and new investment and new trade, so that they
would have the opportunity to do well financially. But in a way that
would help the Cuban economy today grow going forward.
You mentioned earlier Barak Obama’s position in re-appealing to some of
the younger Cuban-Americans. How do you see this presidential election
impacting the Cuba issue, if at all? Is it something where that the
candidates are really going to say certain things during the election,
but once they take the White House it’s not really going to matter? Do
you think this will be an important issue in the next administration?
Well, I think it will be an issue that will be coming up in the next
administration inevitably, because the things are changing in Cuba and
the changes are going to put it on the agenda of the next president,
whether he likes it or not.
McCain’s decision is basically unchanged from President Bush’s, and he
has the support of the most conservative Cuban-American members of
congress. So in all likelihood, I think he has locked himself into a
position that would make it very hard for him to do anything
Senator Obama, on the other hand, has
said explicitly that the policy of the last 50 years of hostility and
isolation has failed and it’s time to take another look at it. Now he
said he is not in favor of just lifting the embargo, but he has also
said he is willing to talk to the Cubans without preconditions. So he’s
at least set for himself a position that gives him the flexibility as
president to try some new things.
I think that there is no doubt
that if Obama is elected president, you will see a relaxation of some
of the constraints on travel, not just for Cuban Americans but most
likely for others as well.
Back at the tail end of Bill
Clinton’s administration, it was much easier to travel to Cuba from the
United States. It wasn’t free — a tourist couldn’t go — but if you
were going for an educational mission or if you were going for cultural
exchange or for humanitarian missions or under the auspices of a
religious organization, you could travel to Cuba. All those categories
of travel have been closed down in the last eight years.
think at a minimum, a Democratic president is likely to go back to
where we were at the turn of the century and open up travel for a lot
Now you address, obviously, some of the smaller changes that you think
could be made under, say, an Obama administration, but for a wholesale
change in the policy, wouldn’t it be easier for someone like a McCain
to do that, just as it was easier for Reagan to cut a deal with the
Soviets, than it would have been for Carter or that sort of thing? That
the opponents of particular country or issue often have an easier time
Well, I think that’s true, of course. It took a Nixon to be able to go
to China, as they say. But I take McCain at his word that he accepts
the current policy, and he would really have to go back on the promises
he has made to Republican Cuban-Americans who were important backing
him in the primaries in Florida in order to make a wholesale change.
it’s possible that change on the island might give him an opportunity
to say, “Well, this is a completely different situation and we have to
look at it anew.” And I think he’s generally been somebody who is been
willing to re-examine positions. By having spent all those years as a
prisoner of war in Vietnam, he nevertheless was one of the leaders in
the normalization of U.S. relations with Vietnam.
Right. You talk about potential game changing events. Even though Fidel
is no longer technically in power, will his death be a triggering event
for anything? Or is that just sort of something that is just going to
happen and it’s not going to make a difference?
I think it won’t make a huge difference. It’ll be traumatic. The vast
majority of the Cuban population now hasn’t known any other government
than the government led by Fidel Castro. But he’s no longer in the
center of decision making. He’s now been relegated to the position of
sort of retired elder statesman, and they consult him for his advice on
things, but mostly he occupies himself writing op-ed pieces for the
daily newspaper. Every other day he has a new op-ed piece in which he
holds forth on his current views, mostly on international relations
rather than what his brother is doing in terms of domestic politics.
I think the transition from Fidel has already happened, and the
transition from the older generation to the younger generation is under
way. They have promoted a lot of younger people in the leadership. So I
think his death, while it will be a very emotional and traumatic, I
don’t think it will disrupt in any significant way the day-to-day
operations of the government.
And on that note we have run out of time, I know we could spend quite a
bit more time talking about Cuba. My guest today has been Bill
LeoGrande, the dean of the School of Public Affairs at American
University in Washington, D.C.
Thanks for joining me.