Nine years ago, former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared in Iran while on a mission for the CIA. The story of his secret journey to Iran, the CIA cover-up that followed and efforts to rescue the longest-held U.S. hostage.
A U.S. journalist and an expert on Cuba describe their unusual meeting with Cuba’s former leader in Havana at his invitation. What Fidel Castro said about Iran and anti-Semitism, his regrets about the Cuban Missile Crisis and desire to be a senior statesman.
- Julia Sweig director for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know."
- Jeffrey Goldberg national correspondent, The Atlantic and author of "Prisoners: A Story of friendship and Terror"
MS. DIANE REHMThanks you for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. A few weeks ago, journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic was on vacation. He got an unusual call from the head of the Cuban Intersection in Washington. Former Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, wanted Goldberg to come to Havana to talk about an article he'd written on Iran and Israel. Goldberg brought his friend and director for Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, Julia Sweig. They join us in the studio to talk about their three days in Cuba talking with Castro about issues ranging from nuclear conflict to dolphins.
MS. DIANE REHMAnd I'm sure you'd like to join us as well. Questions, comments, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to email@example.com. You can join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to both of you.
MR. JEFFREY GOLDBERGGood morning, Diane.
MS. JULIA SWEIGGood morning, Diane.
REHMJeffrey, let's start with the most controversial statement that was made during that interview that you had with Castro. You reported that Castro said, quote, "The Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore." He, Fidel Castro, has now said you misinterpreted what he said. Set the stage for us.
GOLDBERGWell, the comment was made during one of our lunches together. It was a sort of a throwaway line. It was in the middle of a more lighthearted conversation. He is very self-reflective now in ways -- and Julia has known him for 20 years. She can talk about this. But very self-reflective in ways that one does not expect from a Latin American dictator, for instance. And he said this as kind of a throwaway line, but it was -- it immediately, Julia and I looked at each other and thought, whoa, that was -- that's quite something. It actually isn't as big a deal as people might think. Because what his statement was saying was simply reflecting an ongoing reality on the ground.
GOLDBERGThe fact of the matter is the Cuban government under his brother, Raul Castro, has long recognized that the Cuban model doesn't work anymore for them, which is why they are engaged in the process of privatization, and they're opening up their economy. A couple of days ago, Castro, in giving a speech, said he was quoted accurately, but he meant the opposite of what he said. You and I both work in Washington. We've heard that line before. My quote was taken out of context or whatever. I don't think it's limited to someone in the Caribbean doing that. It was just very -- it was sort of very funny. He was quoted accurately, but he didn't mean it.
REHMHow did you interpret it, Julia?
SWEIGI interpreted the comment very much in the context of what's taking place in Cuba under President Raul Castro, his brother. Which is, for the last five years -- even starting with an acknowledgement by Fidel Castro before he became sick back in 2005 -- there has been a simmering and growing public and private discussion in Cuba about how to change the economy and to make it work, an acknowledgement that it doesn't work any longer. And this Cuban model that he referenced, and then the fact that it doesn't work anymore, was about acknowledging the changes underfoot being announced, especially since July in the economic realm on the island. An acknowledgement that his brother is taking the country in a direction that has been unfolding for some time now, as Jeffrey mentioned.
REHMSo you -- are you comfortable with what Fidel said afterwards in his speech, that what he actually meant was the opposite of the way it was interpreted?
SWEIGWell, when he first made his statement, I took it to not be a repudiation of the revolution but, as I said, an acknowledgement of the economic changes afoot. His statement last Friday, I'm comfortable with it because as he explained in - this is up on the website for any reporter to read. What he meant was, just because our model no longer works for us, it doesn't mean that we are now going to import U.S. style capitalism. And that is entirely within the realm of the Fidel Castro that I, as a historian and a policy analyst, have known for the last 20 years.
GOLDBERGJust to go -- to stick to this, the context we understand, the Washington context is you float a trial balloon. You say something bold like, we're going to -- we're leaving behind the Cuban model. He gets some push back from Communist Party functionaries and bureaucrats and then says, no, no. I didn't mean that we're going to adopt the Yankee model of capitalism. I just mean what I meant, you know. I mean, he's just -- they are -- they have to get -- the Castro brothers have to get the people ready for the changes that are coming. And this is one other way they get people ready.
REHMJeffrey Goldberg. He is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and author of the book titled, "Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror." Julia Sweig is director for Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is author of the book titled, "Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know." Do join us, 800-433-8850. Jeffrey Goldberg, do you think you were used?
GOLDBERGUsed in what sense?
REHMUsed in terms of becoming the mouthpiece for Fidel Castro's revisionist history?
GOLDBERGWell, Diane, I've been accused of a lot of things, but I've never been accused of being Fidel Castro's mouthpiece before. So that's a good one. No, I -- all I did was go down there and report accurately what he said in a number of subjects.
REHMWhy do you think he called you?
GOLDBERGOh, I know why he called me. He's fascinated by the subject of a looming, possibly nuclear confrontation in the Middle East. I wrote a cover story in The Atlantic a month ago about the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran. He's been thinking about this issue since the Cuban missile crisis almost 50 years ago. And he -- since he's semi-retired now, he has a lot of time to surf the web and read things and watch CNN and probably listen to your show. And he was -- he's very interested in the subject so he called me. And he had a very specific message. I mean, the whole -- this whole issue of whether the Cuban model works or doesn't work, sort of, he's overshadowing the thing that he actually wanted me to deliver, which was a message to the president of Iran, Ahmadinejad, to cease denying the Holocaust and stop talking in an anti-Semitic fashion.
GOLDBERGWhat was Fidel's motives in doing this? I don't know, probably a mix of things. I think he is genuinely offended by anti-Semitism, I really do. I think he's offended by Holocaust denial. I think he also wants to be a player in these issues. The broader context is Fidel Castro thought he was going to be dead by now. He was very sick and dying. He got better. It's such a miracle that I asked him if he now believes in God. And he said, no, I'm still a dialectical materialist, sorry. But it's been somewhat of a miraculous recovery. He has to recreate -- he has to create a new role for himself on the world stage, and this is one of the ways he is doing it.
SWEIGYes, if I could just add, as a historian, I watched him first as commander and chief and president of the country, and now, as Jeffrey says, a semi-retired state -- international affairs, matters of big -- war, peace, international security have always captured his attention. He is larger than Cuba. The world in his mind has always been his stage, and so this particular issue grabbed his attention. And he -- actually, his first public speech since that illness was in July of this past year. He came out and for seven minutes, spoke only at the national assembly -- seven minutes, not seven hours -- only about the coming potential nuclear crises. And within about 10 days, Jeffrey's article came out. And I actually said to myself, when I was on vacation, you know, if Fidel Castro sees this, it's going to grab his attention...
SWEIG...and lo and behold, he did.
REHMAnd of course, while he was at his sickest, this 6'3" man went down to how many pounds?
SWEIGSixty-six kilos, which translates to pounds to about 100 and...
SWEIGTwenty, 35, and he became very ill and talked about with us his surprise that he has actually recovered. So he is now refashioning, remaking himself. He has, just in the last two months, come out with two books about his early history. And so he is both revisiting his history and looking at world history and contemporary affairs.
GOLDBERGOne other quick point, if I may, which is that he's also on a bit of a redemption tour. You asked if I was used. Yeah, I was used in the sense that a reporter is used to communicate an idea. A few months ago -- or actually less than a few months ago -- a few weeks ago, he expressed regret for the way gays had been treated in Cuba. Now, he comes a month later and talks about the horrible role anti-Semitism plays in the world and makes it a point to be seen being photographed with the president of Cuba's Jewish community that was with us...
SWEIGAnd to American Jews...
SWEIG...by the way.
GOLDBERGAnd to American Jews. He's doing something interesting right now. He is thinking a little bit about his legacy, about the way he's perceived around the world.
REHMAnd here's how Fox News portrayed this. He said -- it says, "The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg recently went to Cuba at the bidding of that island's dictator. The results were not pretty. The tone of the first two articles by our man in Havana makes clear he was intent on presenting Fidel Castro as charming old rogue, a bit of a cute killer."
GOLDBERGWell, thank you, Fox News. I'm not finished writing my series on him obviously, and the next phase is on human rights. Is he a charming old man? Sure, he's a charming old man. Is he a charming old dictator? Sure, he is a charming old dictator. I don't have any problem reporting on what I saw and heard.
REHMJeffery Goldberg of The Atlantic, his piece on Fidel Castro, his conversations with him are published in The Atlantic.
REHMWelcome back. Jeffrey Goldberg is here. He's had a series of conversations with Fidel Castro. He's a national correspondent for The Atlantic. Julia Sweig is director for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She was with Jeffrey Goldberg for those conversations. How long did the conversations last, Jeffrey?
GOLDBERGWell, the first day, we spent about five hours with him, and then we spent a couple of hours with him the next day and a couple of hours after that. I left for Miami after that, and Julia spent a couple of more days there, including another basically full day with Fidel, talking about especially material -- historical material, which she can talk about, which is very interesting.
REHMAnd how difficult was it for the two of you to get down there, to make the arrangements, to do all of that?
SWEIGWell, Diane, it's actually the case that for journalists like Jeffrey and historians and professional researchers -- that's the technical term that the Treasury Department uses -- we can go there under what's called a general license. Most Americans can't travel to Cuba at all. But for us, we didn’t have to ask permission in advance from the U.S. government. And there are now 30 flights per week just for Miami alone. When you...
REHMCharter, yes, of course.
SWEIGBringing -- exactly. Bringing Cuban-Americans and all of this stuff: flat screen televisions, microwave ovens, you name it. So we -- I had already -- I was supposed to be there that week anyway for my own work. We just switched our tickets, met in Miami and were able to fly down very easily.
REHMWait a minute. You're talking about Cubans moving back and forth from Miami to Havana?
SWEIGThat's right. There's about 1.2 million Cuban-Americans living in the United States, and the Obama administration last year opened up a small loophole allowing them to travel whenever they like to and to send remittances to their family members. And they're now, quietly through the side door, investing in Cuba, I would observe.
GOLDBERGThey're also bringing an extraordinary number of plasma TVs, which we saw on the plane, coming over. It's incredible.
REHMHere's an e-mail from J.M., who says, "Curiously, while finally denouncing Iran and anti-Semitism, Castro does not explain why his revolution devastated a thriving Jewish community in Cuba. My family immigrated to Cuba from Russia and emigrated out in the early '60s, losing everything. He did not show any concern for Jews then. It seems like crocodile tears now. As to gays, he set up work camps for them, including my mother's cousin in the '60s, with the sign,' work will make you men,' at the entrance."
SWEIGIt's true. The 1960s were a very, very dark time in Cuba. Jewish Cubans, most of whom immigrated there at the beginning of the 20th century from Eastern Europe, lost their businesses, as the rest of the business and middle class did in Cuba, and left the country. Gays, likewise, in a very, very homophobic environment, were subject to these work camps as well. Religious practice and being openly homosexual in Cuba, starting in about the 1990s -- but especially in the case of gays much more recently -- has become much, much more tolerated. On the Jewish front, the Jewish community president, Adela Dworin, with whom we met, spoke about and showed us evidence of the ability for the Jewish community there to grow, to educate itself, to visit Israel, to return to practice their faith without the kind of oppression they experienced in the 1960s.
GOLDBERGLook, in the '60s, many of the Jews who left, they didn't leave because they were Jewish. They left because they're members of the middle class. They left because they're small business owners. And they were fleeing the same thing that other Cubans in the middle class were fleeing. It was not an anti-Semitic purge. It was a purge of middle class landowners and business owners.
REHMHere's an e-mail -- no, a message on Facebook from Enrique, who says, "I'm a Cuban-American. I know for a fact there's an alternative motive for Fidel to comment on this issue. In his old age, he's lost his tenacity and has softened, but it doesn't excuse him for 50 years of being a bloody dictator and tyrant. His communist model has separated my family for over 50 years."
SWEIGThe family divisions and separations have been enormously painful over the last 50 years. Of that, there's absolutely no doubt.
REHMSo what does he say about that?
SWEIGYou know, when I was meeting with him after Jeffrey left, I sat down and talked to him about the 1950s. This was a clearly understood framework for our discussion. I wrote a book called "Inside the Cuban Revolution," which is about the politics and strategy of how he took power. What he says about it is less explicit now than what he does about it and what his government is doing about it, which is rebuilding a terminal on the island so the Cuban-Americans can come and visit, doing what it can within the framework of a communist country that sees Cuban-Americans, importantly, some of them, as hostile and part of a hostile U.S. policy, working to reunify families outside of a political framework. What does he say about it? Does he apologize? No, of course he doesn't apologize.
GOLDBERGCan I also add one thing about American foreign policy in this regard -- is that much of the separation and much of the pain that has been caused by what I think of as slightly irrational, even absurd, American foreign policy, vis-à-vis Cuba, this embargo, this travel ban. Americans can travel to Burma and Zimbabwe and Iran and Syria and all kinds of nasty places -- far nastier, by the way, than Cuba -- but we have a policy in place that forcibly has separated Cubans from their relatives on the island because it's slotted into a Cold War narrative. And you had a very, very strong Cuban-American lobby talking about this issue in Washington in very effective ways.
REHMAnd Cuba has been on the U.S. terrorist list for quite some time.
GOLDBERGRight. I mean, they can't even export papaya, much less terrorism, nor are they interested in exporting terrorism. I don't understand that one at all, to tell you the truth.
SWEIGAnd, frankly, the State Department's most recent rationale for keeping Cuba on the terrorist list, essentially within the line, says, it's still on the list but actually should come off. We just can't figure out the political way to get this done.
REHMHere's a message from Jose, who says, "Fidel is sending a message to the U.S. that he is backing Raul and the economic reforms if the U.S. is willing to lift the embargo and open investments in Cuba. The thing here is Fidel and the apparatchiks of the Cuban Communist Party are looking for a transition to capitalism, Russian style, where they get to keep all the state assets."
SWEIGOne of the things that I've observed in the last four or five years, is the increasing irrelevance of the United States and the embargo. It's true that it's a rhetorical point rather than it's a matter of foreign investment and trade. The embargo does matter to Cuba. But this process underway in Cuba of opening up to small businesses, to foreign investment and real estate, that has nothing to -- that's not framed as a quid pro quo. That is not a statement or a movement that requires the United States to do something in order for Cubans themselves to reform their model.
SWEIGWhat is the case, of course, is that the embargo, the travel ban, the laws that prohibit Americans from investing in Cuba affected the American economy, affected American citizens. But at this point, the United States is an increasingly marginal player within Cuban society, and even within the domestic politics that for so long allowed Fidel Castro to blame Cuba's problems on the United States. Raul, his brother, now explicitly says the United States, of course, is a problem, and they have aggrieved us for many, many years. But our own problems are ours to fix. They were ours in the making. And the United States is just increasingly marginal.
GOLDBERGYou know, I mentioned on my blog at The Atlantic, I called the embargo and the travel ban self-defeating. And they really are self-defeating even when you -- especially when you take them in context of what American goals are. America believes in free trade, but America is cutting itself off from the possibility of free trade with Cuba. It believes in investment and privatization and land ownership and real estate ownership, and we are cutting ourselves off from Cuba's future. And, you know, there will be people to fill in the gap that is left by the absence of American investors. Brazil, the European Union, Japan, China, these places are going to be coming in there and developing, with Cubans, the economy. And unless we change our policy, we are not going to be involved in the capitalist revolution, if you will. That's an overstatement, obviously.
REHMHow is he re-evaluating the role -- his role in historical events like the 1962…
GOLDBERGWell, this was...
GOLDBERGThat was very interesting because mostly what we talked about -- I mean, I went down there to talk about one thing mainly, which is this nuclear, potential nuclear crisis. And I asked him, I said, you know, would you have behaved differently in the Cuban Missile Crisis, knowing what you know now? I was thinking of one very specific moment, sort of the -- there was a moment about halfway through the missile crisis when Castro wrote to Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, asking him to nuke the United States of America, to annihilate America if the Americans launched an invasion of Cuba. And, you know, this is, you know, he was basically calling for the destruction of humanity. Khrushchev -- obviously, as we know -- didn't listen to this letter, thank God. And he said -- Castro said very interestingly, he said, knowing what I know now, I don't think it was worth it at all. I don't think that writing that letter or taking the position that I took was the right thing to do.
REHMBut let me ask you both, I mean, Fox News talks about deathbed conversions. Is that what's going on here? Castro is looking back. He's saying, oh, I should have said something different. I should have behaved differently during that '62 Missile Crisis. For God's sake, he almost brought us to...
REHM...the point of total annihilation.
GOLDBERGWell, he was more of a tool than that than -- I mean, Khrushchev is the one who brought us there. He was more of a tool, but yes, the point is correct. Is it a deathbed convertible? He's not on his deathbed, but it's a late-stage…
GOLDBERGIt's a late-stage conversion in some ways. He's become more contemplative and self-reflective.
GOLDBERGI don't have a problem with that. I'd rather have deathbed conversion than...
GOLDBERG...no deathbed conversion. He's done bad things in his life, and I'd like to hear about it.
REHMBut how much of it is self-interest, and how much of it is really for -- as he talks about Ahmadinejad and the Jews, as he talks about gays -- you know, how much of this does he really mean, or did he state for your consumption?
SWEIGWell, I think that's going to have to be -- remain to be seen.
SWEIGI look at...
GOLDBERGI can't look into his soul.
SWEIGThe truth is...
SWEIGHe got a lease on life that he didn't think he was going to have, and he is reinventing himself somewhat on an international stage, somewhat thinking about his history. You know, when people face death, things happen that they don't anticipate. So who really knows for whom this is to be consumed? But he is a person that has a history. This isn't the first time that he has said, you know, we should have done something differently. It isn't only because of his illness. Before he got sick -- and subsequently he has been talking about mistakes that were made, mistakes were made. So, you know, this is -- what you see is what you get, and I think interpreting the motive is a lost cause.
REHMJulia Sweig. She is director for Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." One last question, and then we'll go to the phones. How much authority, how much influence does he have over the decisions of his brother, Raul?
SWEIGWhen Raul Castro took office in the beginning of 2008, in his inaugural address which was 35 minutes long, one of the things he did say is that I will be consulting my brother, Fidel Castro, on major strategic decisions. And let it be known that that kind of consultative process would continue. How much -- he is not involved in the granular day-to-day governance of the country, neither on domestic policy nor in the conduct of foreign policy. But he, of course, exercises a huge influence because he is Fidel Castro. And, in my view, the fact that he has stayed around -- and he's historically so allergic to the market, to private economy -- has been one factor that has slowed the pace of the implementation of these reforms now just underway.
GOLDBERGThe -- one of the things I was very interested when I -- to find out when I went down there, was whether he was in fact really retired or semi-retired. And I'll tell you, I have this moment, the end of a very long luncheon on Sunday when he turned to us and said, let's go to the aquarium tomorrow and see the dolphin show. Now, this is a Monday. Besides the fact that the aquarium was closed until he decided to go, here he is two hours in the middle of the day at the aquarium, watching the dolphin show. Now, you can't really be running your country if you're at the aquarium, watching the dolphin show for a couple of hours. So I was fairly convinced that he is in a different, fully different mode right now. I'm sure his influence is very great, but he is living the life of a semi-retired autocrat.
SWEIGI think he sees himself as a raiser of consciousness. After Jeffrey left, he went to the university on the first day of school, and he gave a speech in front of a bunch of university students. And he said, 65 years ago, today I started my university career. Now you people do good in school. And the speech was about climate change, about nuclear crisis, about the need for young people to pay attention to the world and get involved. It was about trying to energize them as young people with opportunities ahead of them and raising consciousness both domestically within the country because his brother Raul doesn't go out there and make speeches. He doesn't go out there and do mass mobilizations of the sort that Fidel is known for. He, I think, feels perhaps that he can fill some sort of void while Raul has -- is up to his eyeballs in the nitty-gritty granularity of an economic transition.
REHMAnd does he still have the power to influence those students?
SWEIGOh, I think very much so. I mean, what I observed was an adoring crowd. Now, this was about 10,000 people. These are university students. Universal education is free and accessible to everyone, so you can't say that the people in the audience were necessarily just true believers. I think he does influence them, and I think that Fidel has -- he is an iconic figure. And of course you could find many, many, many Cubans who would say, you know, we need to just get on. And we need opportunity, and we care about bread and butter and choices and having a future. But that doesn't actually take away from Fidel's enormous presence with his charisma and his history.
GOLDBERGTwo conflicting observations, one is I have a lot of experience in closed societies and autocracies. Fidel Castro is -- seems to be popular in a way that many dictators are not in those other countries. On the other hand, he is not very popular with the political dissidents that he and his brother have kept in prison in Cuba, hundreds of political dissidents. It's a one-party state with a non-free press, so there are obviously people who don't like him. And when you don't like him, the historical pattern has been that you get punished for not liking him.
REHMAnd while medical opportunities are free of charge, there is still a fair amount of poverty in Cuba, is there not?
SWEIGWell, you know, Cubans have, for a very long time, lived on basic ration cards, and then they make do in the black market and buying and selling. And, you know, poverty per se according to the Word Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization and the United Nations that the poverty numbers compete with actually the best of the developed world.
REHMInteresting. Julie Sweig, Director for Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Jeffrey Goldberg, who has written for The Atlantic about Fidel Castro.
REHMAnd welcome back. As you may have heard, Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He was invited by Fidel Castro to see him in Cuba. He went along with Julia Sweig, who's director for Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Jeffrey's articles have been published in The Atlantic. We'll open the phones now. First to Obet in Dallas, Texas. Good morning to you.
OBETGood morning, Diane. I'm a long-time listener.
REHMAre you there?
OBETYes, I'm here.
REHMGo right ahead, sir.
OBETI guess my question is in reference to Fidel Castro's comment over the Cuban system. And you know, I can obviously see -- I can see this personally plastered all over the Tea Party signs at Freedom Alleys and how his message -- his comment could possibly misinterpreted. I guess my question for Mr. Goldberg is, you know, since he was -- Fidel actually said it to you, what do you think (word?) is setting? Now, you had a read on him. What do you think he actually meant by saying that? Because, I mean, after six years, I mean, I wouldn't back off something I believed in after six years. And I guess both my question to you, what do you think he actually meant?
GOLDBERGOh, I back off things I said all the time. I think he meant that -- I think he was reflecting a reality. I think he knows that the Cuban model hasn't worked for Cuba or anywhere else for a long time. And I think you'll see -- and you are seeing on the ground already -- the -- these idea put into policy. And I think he was simply acknowledging what he's known and what his brother has known to be true for a long time.
REHMDoes that answer it?
OBETYep. Thank you very much.
REHMThank you. Let's go to Miami, Fla. Joe, you're on the air.
JOEHi, Diane, and good morning.
JOELong-time listener, first-time caller.
JOEI am a Cuban-American, and I was born in 1957 in Cuba. I'm a Democrat, so I really don't belong to the -- to this establishment that your guest is talking about, the Cuban-American Republican establishment in Miami. But I really wonder whether or not your guest is naïve or is being naïve or is trying to classicize to the -- back from reality that is Cuba. And whether or not, before he went to Cuba, he did any research and spoke with actual Cubans who are coming out of the islands who can actually speak, for the first time, their minds and free of any of the oppression and can actually tell them the incredible physical conditions that Cuban people face every day in their lives.
GOLDBERGYes. Before I went, I read all the human rights watch and amnesty international reports on human rights conditions in Cuba. And I spoke to various people. I'm not naïve about the lack of freedom in Cuba. Like I said, I have a fair amount of experience in countries that are not free. And Cuba strikes me as kind of a tier, not free country, compared to some of the gross oppression going on around the world. I also have to say this, it's controversial, but I'll say it anyway. I also judged Fidel Castro to some degree based on what he replaced. And what he replaced was a gangster government, of (word?). It doesn't mean that Fidel has necessarily done a good job organizing the economy of Cuba. But I would have to say, if you really study Batista in that time, that was no good for anybody except for a few oligarchs and American mafia figures. So I do keep that in mind. I try to look at the --the overall reality.
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling, Joe. To Ken in Raleigh, N.C. Good morning.
KENGood morning. I was curios if Fidel made any comments about returning the assets that he had seized from Americans -- well, with that 46 companies that had their assets seized. And some of them are major companies. And 6,000 Americans that had their assets seized. Is he going to re-appropriate those assets?
SWEIGHe didn't say anything about that. The nationalized properties that Americans lost in the early 1960's, there was a claims commission established by the U.S. government. Those large companies, to which you refer, Ken, many of them have been compensated by their own insurance companies. Some of those companies no longer exist. Having said that, the issue of property claims and counter-claims, by the way, the Cuban government has a long list of claims against the United States for damages afflicted by -- to Cuban property as a result of U.S. policy. That's one of the deeper and thornier and more costly issues that potentially the two governments could address together were they to actually engage is some sort of a political dialogue to move the relationship forward. Until there's a broader policy framework to get that done -- and it currently doesn't exist -- I can't imagine the property issue getting much attention by other government.
GOLDBERGWell, I would hope that when our relations do become normalized or somewhat not absurd, that one of the issues the American government brings up with the Cuban government, when they do begin to talk to them, is this issue of compensation. I think it's -- definitely should be on the American agenda.
REHMWhat advice did Fidel Castro have for the U.S. in regard to Iran and Ahmadinejad?
GOLDBERGWell, that's interesting. He is very afraid of the possibility that this will escalate into a nuclear war. And his advice was unfortunately very abstract when it came to the U.S. and Israel or what they should do. He believes that all these countries should give up their nuclear arsenal simultaneously. It's a wonderful thought. It's a thought that President Obama has in theory, but it's not a practical solution. What was more interesting was his analysis of Iran, to me, which is that he believes looking at Cuban behavior in '62 and Iranian behavior now, he believes that Iran will not divert from its course or compromise with the U.S. because of its essentially religious nature, because of the religious theocratic nature of its government. And that was his analysis based on -- actually, he knows these guys. I mean, he has good relations with them, so that I found more interesting than his prescription.
REHMTo Falls Church, Va. Good morning, Chris.
CHRISYes, thank you. I have a question about -- mostly one, but of two earlier reporters who saw Fidel. One was Jean Daniel who was interviewing Fidel when the news came of Kennedy's death. That's more peripheral to my question. The other was the woman, Lisa Howard of ABC News, who had two of those long marathon, all-night interviews with Castro and cigar smoke in '62 and '63, and involves the situation where the U.S. under ambassador to the U.N., Stevenson's assistant Mr. Mahoney, had started talking with -- I think it was Carlos (word?) of Cuba on the ambassadorial staff to the U.N. -- about normalizing relations. This would have been the summer of '63.
REHMOkay, Chris, what's the question?
CHRISWell, relations would have been normalized along the lines that Che Guevara and Mr. Goodwin of -- Doris Kearns Goodwin's husband who was undersecretary of state had talked about it, the alliance for progress founding convention. It would have involved, essentially, Castro saying we will not export revolution anymore if you will recognize us.
SWEIGThere's a long history, as the caller points out, of secret talks between the United States and Cuba through emissaries about the conditions under which normal or, I like to call them, more natural relations could unfold. During the Cold War, the United States established, essentially, to Cuba stopped exporting -- trying to ferment revolution. I shouldn't say export the model, but ferment revolutionary change, and we can have diplomatic and economic ties. After the Cold War, the United States' message shifted from -- become -- from stop exporting to become a liberal democracy, open up your society, and then we can recognize you. The back and forths between journalist like Jean Daniel, who potentially had a messenger from his -- from a message from Kennedy, up until very recently when you have members of Congress communicating with the Cuban government continues.
SWEIGWhat is absent is an --but -- is the political will at the senior levels. In this administration, we haven't quite seen it yet to get some -- to recognize what's happening in Cuba, including the release of political prisoners now, that has started and will be done, we are told, by the end of the year, and to recognize the changes under Raul Castro and to put in process of a framework for talking one other, not through back channels but through our professionals.
REHMAnd to follow up on that, here's an e-mail from Clyde in Syracuse. He says, "Do your guests think there is something the government is keeping secret that is the real reason for maintaining the Cuban embargo? Even Presidents Carter and Clinton, the rabid anti-communist right wingers, did nothing to lift the embargo." Jeffrey.
GOLDBERGI tend to not look for the conspiracy answer to these kind of questions. I think that this is -- that our policy is formulated out of -- sort of a Cold War narrative, A and B, out of a narrative of the Cuban-American exile population, which is very politically powerful and which has a lot of friends in Congress. I don't think there's any mystery about the reasons our relationship with Cuba is what it is.
REHMAll right. And to Fort Wayne, Ind. Good morning, Leonard.
LEONARDGood morning. As an exporter to Cuba 50 years ago, I visited Havana and had the opportunity to speak for a few minutes with Fidel Castro about collecting debts. I returned about eight years ago and met with the head of the small Jewish community in Havana and heard this very interesting story. She attended a meeting of the clergy in Havana at which Fidel was also present. And she went up to him and said to him, Mr. President, you have attended churches all over Cuba, but you've never attended our synagogue. And he said, you have never invited me, and she responded by inviting him to the upcoming holiday of Hanukkah. He attended the party. And not only did he attend, but he gathered the small group of children and proceeded to tell them the story of Hanukkah.
GOLDBERGThe -- it's -- it is an interesting story. We heard the same story when we were down at the Jewish community. One of the things that I was struck by -- I had spent some time in the old Soviet Union. It was actually in 1986. I was arrested and expelled by the KGB for working with the Jewish community in the Soviet Union. And one of the things I was struck by in Cuba was the openness, was that the freedom of religion that the Castro brothers have granted to the people. The -- their three synagogues -- the Jewish community is free to do what it wishes. The other religious communities are free to do as they wish. This is not -- I guess I was thinking in the old Soviet mode where I was expecting religious oppression, but there is none of that kind of Soviet-style religious oppression.
REHMJeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Here's an e-mail from Ann in Indianapolis, who says, "Kudos to Mr. Goldberg for the honest revelation of Fidel Castro. It's long past time that our country sees this neighbor in proper light. Cuba has almost 90 percent literacy, complete health care coverage provided for all citizens and free secondary and college education for its children. Cuba has never invaded another country. A pretty good pattern for the U.S. to emulate." Jeffrey.
GOLDBERGWell, let's not go overboard here. I would trade a lot as -- I'm just speaking for myself. I would trade free health care for political freedom. I would trade a lot for political freedom, and people don't have political freedom. That...
REHMHow is their political freedom restricted?
GOLDBERGThere's only one party. It's a one-party state. You can't belong to another party. You can't form a political party.
REHMCan they express their views?
GOLDBERGThere are bloggers. Now, Julia can speak on this. There is a blogging underground. It's not that underground, actually. Everybody knows who they are. People are experimenting and pushing the limits a little bit...
GOLDBERG...but it's still un-free.
REHMWhat about homosexuality?
SWEIGWell, as we were talking at the break, Mariela Castro, who's Raul Castro's daughter, directs the center for -- I'm going to get the name wrong. But she has become a big gay rights advocate.
REHMMany people have reported that she herself is gay.
SWEIGAll I know is that she is married to an Italian male photographer. There are gay rights consciousness raising, discussion groups held in workplaces and at schools now. There is diversity training that sounds like local private schools in Washington, D.C. that I know of. The president of the writers union, the president of the whole artists and writers organization guild, each of them are openly gay. Homosexuality is no longer persecuted or prosecuted.
REHMAnd what about Fidel Castro's views on President Obama?
GOLDBERGWell, I guess I'll break this little piece of news or gossip on this show. I was going to put this is in the blog in a little while. But I asked him -- he's very, very careful not to talk about President Obama. He's -- he had some redlines in our conversations. But I said -- I kept pushing. I said, what do you think of President Obama? And finally he said, well, he's better than Nixon, which I thought was great. I don't know damning with the same phrase or something. I'm not sure what it was. But Nixon is his archenemy. He blames Nixon -- going back to the late '50s when he was vice president -- for much of the trouble that Cuba and America have had with each other. So his response was, he's better than Nixon.
SWEIGAnd he also met Nixon when he came here in 1959, once he had taken the country, and he met Nixon as the vice president. They had a very, very terrible meeting. Nixon's report on it to Eisenhower and the National Security Establishment essentially green-lighted all of the subsequent assassination attempts and other sort of efforts by the United States to get rid of Fidel.
REHMNow, next month the E.U. votes on lifting sanctions against Cuba. What could happen and what affect could it have?
SWEIGWell, the European Union has had for about the last 10 years, instilled a soft sanctions in place against Cuba, which essentially prevents the E.U. and member countries from having formal assistance and cooperative agreements with Cuba. But what's happened over the last 10 years, and especially since Prime Minister Zapatero came to head the country of Spain, is that European private sector investment in Cuba -- excuse me -- has taken off. So there's a kind of private and commercial in investment relationship and a lack of diplomatic ties. If that common position is listed -- lifted, cooperative ties, economic assistance programs will then take off.
REHMYes or no. Do you believe that U.S. relations with Cuba will become better?
SWEIGThey're very slowly improving.
GOLDBERGFive years from now, yes, they'll be a lot better.
REHMJeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic. Julia Sweig, director for Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you for being here and for offering your interview with Fidel Castro. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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