This is the transcript for the episode "The US and Cuba: Obsession".

Marwan Bishara: After five centuries of conflict, five decades of hostilities and five years of ambiguity -

Carlos Alzugaray: The Americans have towards Cuba something called an obsessive disorder.

Marwan Bishara: Has change finally come to Cuba and US-Cuban relations?

Marwan Bishara: And here we are in Havana, looking for answers.

Reinaldo Taladrid: Cuba is a tiny lizard and we have very near, an enormous dragon.

Arldo Corto Antich: We survived the continuous harassment by the US government.

Marwan Bishara: Is Cuba the test of a new US policy towards the Americas?

Marwan Bishara: We've travelled through Washington, Miami and Havana to debate the opposing claims. Will they face the music or continue to dance around the issues? I am Marwan Bishara and this is Empire.

The Cuban Contradiction

Santiago Portal: They are the Mafiosos; they took control of a rich powerful country and turned it into the most poor and miserable country in the hemisphere.

Marwan Bishara: So why is life expectancy in Cuba the third-highest in all of Latin America?

Senator Marco Rubio: They don't know to how run their economy, they don't know how to build the country, they don't know how to govern a people.

Marwan Bishara: Yet, the literacy rate is the highest in all of the Americas, south and north.

Senator Marco Rubio: With your wonderful literacy skills, are you allowed to read The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal? 'Cause the answer's no, so it's great to have literacy, but if you don't have access to the information what's the point of it?

Marwan Bishara: The American Embargo.

Carlos Alzugaray: Embargo blockade, pressure, terrorist list -

Paul Ryan: But how important it is to make sure that we stare down the Castro regime and we do nothing that helps embolden the Castro regime.

Marwan Bishara: The Castro regime has never blinked, not once. But it has forced the Cuban people into some very peculiar ways of coping.

Abel Paz: The child is not only from the father who made it, but the father who grow up with the child. These motorcycles are Cuban because they grew up here in Cuba.

Otto Reich: Cuban economy today is being kept afloat by Venezuelan subsidies of free oil.

Marwan Bishara: What does Cuban export in return?

Enrique Reina: Today we have around 50,000 health workers, 42 percent are doctors.

Senator Marco Rubio: There are great doctors that they have in Cuba and I have no doubt that they are very talented, I've met a bunch of them. You know where I met them? In the United States because they defected. 

Marwan Bishara: And yet in Mississippi, USA life expectancy is lower, literacy is much lower, infant mortality is twice as high. The murder rate is higher and the number of people per thousand in prison is higher and yet, Cuba has real and severe problems.

Carlos Alzugaray: On the issue of economics, we have a disastrous economic situation.

Hugo Cancio: If you walk the streets on Havana, people want change, people are desperate for change.

Carlos Alzugaray: We've made many mistakes. We forgot about the market. You cannot have an economy that works if you don't take into account the market forces.

Marwan Bishara: In 2008 Fidel Castro, in ill health, turned over the government to his brother Raul. Raul surprised the world by immediately admitting mistakes and announcing changes.

Raul Castro: There are enormous efforts required to strengthen the economy - this an essential premise if we are to forge ahead in any other area of our society. 

Carlos Alzugaray: Cuba is now allowing Cuban Americans to invest in Cuba.

Joandra Alverez: I think it's been about three years since they began to allow people to open their own private business.

Carlos Alzugaray: Cuba is opening up to the world and I think things will change.

Marwan Bishara: Buying a computer was legalised in 2007, and cell phones too. Now, there are over two million in Cuba. Athletes get additional income, but does an extra $20 a month mean you've turned pro?

Hugo Cancio: Here, it's free.

Marwan Bishara: Musicians are making money.

David Blanco: Here in Cuba, there isn't a purchasing power to buy tickets for concerts but also you can make money by playing all venues like bars and night clubs.

Marwan Bishara: Is Cuba really going to change? In what ways? How will they do it? And how far will they go? Will it be two steps forward and one step back?

Discussion 1

We are in Havana, and are joined by Arnaldo Coro Antich, a popular radio show host in Cuba. Orailda Cabrera Gutierrez, former ambassador and a fellow with the Cuban Institute of Friendship With the Peoples, and Marc Frank, a foreign correspondent with Reuters and author of Cuban Revelations: Behind the Scenes in Havana. I began by asking if recent changes in Cuba are irreversible.

Arnaldo Coro Antich: It's irreversible because it's very well-planned, very well-organised, very well-thought and it has received acceptance by the majority of the population.

Marwan Bishara: So what for you are the important changes?

Arnaldo Coro Antich: The most important changes is the change in mental attitude for inserting Cuba into the world in a way -

Marwan Bishara: You mean Cuba opening to the world?

Arnaldo Coro Antich: To the world in a way that it would be perfectly accepted not only by Cuba and the Cubans living here but by the Cubans abroad and by people around the world -

Marwan Bishara: Okay, but before we get to the world, how far is Cuba opening to Cubans?

Arnaldo Coro Antich: Well, there are many things that say a year ago were unimaginable that today are everyday practice, and that has developed. For example, entrepreneurship among many people, that was something that was hidden and it's coming up.

Marwan Bishara: Do you think it's really irreversible, the change in Cuba?

Marc Frank: Yeah, I think it's completely irreversible, first of all because the changes are based on a criticism of what was before. Cuba's gone from basically denying its own problems and only really blaming the outside world to very consistently now since 2006, the leadership has insisted on looking and for the people to look at their own problems and do whatever is necessary to overcome them up to the point of establishing, you know, tomorrow a capitalist country.

Marwan Bishara: But there are reports from Cuba - but there are reports from outside Cuba that speak of a thousand dissidents being in imprisoned this very last year.

Arnaldo Coro Antich: The first thing that I would like to say is that dissidents are financed from abroad.

Marwan Bishara: All?

Arnaldo Coro Antich: Practically all of them and I think that something - that's it's very, very bad for them, actually.

Marwan Bishara: But is that demonising them or is that fact?

Arnaldo Coro Antich: I'm not demonising them, I'm just saying that they - in one way or another, they receive financing from abroad and support from abroad.

Marwan Bishara: And that discredits them?

Arnaldo Coro Antich: Of course, that's essential. If their dissent will come from honesty and saying something that they don't like and use the way of expressions which are open in many, many ways here, then it will be different. We don't want a model of society to be imported from somewhere. We have a very peculiar, particular way of doing things here.

Marwan Bishara: You actually worked with grassroots here in some way, in some form or another. Do you think they benefit as much from the change that is going on and hence they are on board with it?

Orailda Cabrera Gutierrez: I think they are - the people - the grassroots are the one who really receive more benefit for that and I would like to just to say briefly, this is irreversible because this is start those changes, is starting with the discussion, with everybody since the bottom to the top. It was everybody was expressing what do they feel because with the Cubans really have voice and we are critic. We criticise putting the good manner, just looking for the best, not looking for create situations inside of the country, manipulated.

Marwan Bishara: But we are basically talking about economic change, about change in the economic system within the country.

Orailda Cabrera Gutierrez: And social -

Marwan Bishara: But is that really possible to develop if there is no political opening in the country?

Orailda Cabrera Gutierrez: It is because the government is opening also, it's changing, it's moving together with this international situation that is moving. It's improving. We are an island, so we are totally opening.

Marc Frank: It's very hard to say how things will develop, they are just beginning a process of change - the change is very important because it's changing the relationship of the government to the people from a paternalist type of system. So, we have to see the Cubans are very intelligent people, and as they evolve over the next 10 or 15 years, they are going to have look at what kind of system they still want. Right now, it's a one-party system as they go through these changes.

Marwan Bishara: But what I'm curious about, or you Frank, Coro and of course for all of us, if Cuba has done so well, so well on education, on health, on life expectancy, but is has not done well on economic growth?

Marc Frank: Well, I think you also have to look at the difference between 30 years ago and now, they went through a very serious crisis. By the time they had gone through the serious crisis, they had already built up with Soviet help, a tremendous education system and a tremendous healthcare system. And so, they had something to skate on in a way which has helped them get through this period.

Arnaldo Coro Antich: I think it's tremendously important to understand, when the Soviet Union and the socialist countries just collapsed, evaporated, disappeared, we were doing trade on very beneficial terms with those nations and this suddenly collapsed in a matter of weeks. Now, the problem is - and this is what I think is essential - the problem is the fact, the real fact that we survived despite this problem and the continuous harassment by the US government.

Marwan Bishara: So you think the economic lack of growth in Cuba is also caused by US?

Arnaldo Coro Antich: The US has a definite influence in harassing every company that wants to do business with Cuba and this has aspects that are very inhumane. For example, if Cuba needs to buy a certain pharmaceutical that is essential for doing surgery on children, then the company is banned by the US government to sell that product to Cuba.

Marwan Bishara: Pressure is on every day.

Arnaldo Coro Antich: It's a tremendous pressure.

Marwan Bishara: If it continues to open up towards international companies and those ones with the state and so on, and it continues to open up to society, what is the danger that Cuba will start losing the best of its achievements, its good health, its good education, its life expectancy and so on?

Orailda Cabrera Gutierrez: That's why we will not change our system because one of the best things of the system is - the socialist system, because it must be clear for everybody.

Arnaldo Coro Antich: My perception is that changes will be coming gradually and intelligently and this is what has been happening.

Marwan Bishara: But I'm curious about, will this be sustained when, I don't know, Barclays Bank and Citibank returns to Cuba?

Arnaldo Coro Antich: You have to do it scientifically because the society needs scientific direction. It cannot be directed by just going like this and say the wind is blowing from the south, you need a manometer and a wind vane.

The Dragon and The Lizard

Carlos Alzugaray: In the formation of the American Empire, most American political leaders thought that Cuba was vital for the American Empire.

Marwan Bishara: Thomas Jefferson said, "We ought to at the first opportunity take Cuba". John Quincy Adams had a theory: "There are laws of political as well as of physical gravitation, an apple cannot choose but fall to the ground."

Carlos Alzugaray: I call it the ripe fruit syndrome. It's a belief that the United States has to control Cuba.

Marwan Bishara: By 1898, Washington decided that the fruit had to be ripe.

Hugo Cancio: Historians say that Americans blew their own ship in order to justify their invasion of Cuba.

Carlos Alzugaray: We were a banana republic before the Revolution.

Marwan Bishara: Washington decided that Fidel was a communist.

TV FOOTAGE: The biggest military parade ever staged in Cuba featuring tanks and other heavy weapons from Russia and Red Czechoslovakia.

James Hagerty: There is a limit to what the United States and self-respect can endure. That limit has now been reached.

Marwan Bishara: It was war, cold war, hot war, economic war, espionage war. The US fought the Cubans.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: I welcome the opportunity of having anyone assassinate Fidel Castro.

Marwan Bishara: Cuba fought back.

Florentino Noraz: I am a solider of the revolution, yes then and now.

Marwan Bishara: Cuba had a new export: revolution.

Florentinao Noraz: They said we exported the revolution. Here there weren't revolution factories to give to other countries, we didn't even buy arms. Our brothers asked for help and we came to their aid.

Nelson Mandela (1991): Today, this is revolutionary Cuba. The country that has done so much for the peoples of Africa.

Discussion 2

Marwan Bishara: Now the Cold War is history, ancient history, yet the conflict remains. There is a new divide, it's between the North and the South. Cuba, it acts like America. It drives like America. It sounds like America. Entonces, que bola? So what's the problem? I asked Cuban TV host Reinaldo Taladrid Herrero and Marc Frank if Cuba's troubles are a result of America's boycott.

Reinaldo Taladrid: Some people use it in Cuba to hide their failures but embargo or blockade as you prefer, is a real thing, it damaged the Cuban economy.

Marwan Bishara: Do you agree?

Marc Frank: Well look, I know a lot of international bankers, and right now there's no question the pressure on them to not do business with Cuba is greater than ever - in part because Cuba is on the terrorist list but they all say the same.

Marwan Bishara: Why is Cuba on the terrorist list?

Marc Frank: I have absolutely - there's no reason, nobody really has a good answer, we all - I don't know anybody really who doesn't say it's a political question.

Reinaldo Taladrid: Cuban is sending doctors, no military advisors. Cuba is sending teachers, doctors, no weapons to all Latin American countries. What is that kind of thing, an action against the United States?

Marwan Bishara: If Taladrid is right and Cuba is just exporting doctors, then what is the problem with Washington? Why does Washington still have this problem?

Marc Frank: My answer is that's a very important factor, but there are historic reasons as well. No other country has ever to the United States what Cuba did and in fact, in that sense the embargos worked because no country in Latin America, Caribbean would ever do again what Cuba did. It's also true that it's a different time, but if you look at their revolutionary processes, if you want to call it that, in Latin American now, Bolivia, Ecuador, they're not nationalising everything.

Marwan Bishara: If the American embargo failed, then why are we blaming America's boycott on Cuba's troubles?

Reinaldo Taladrid: It's not correct to blame the American embargo for all the problems but what is the problem with what Cuba has a lot of problems in economy, in buildings, in society, what is the problem with that? These are Cuban problems, for the Cubans, not for the United States government.

A Latin American millionaire once asked me what the original sin because I don't understand. What is the original sin that provoked all this situation? In the 21st century, for example, one government has the right to reject or to accept any kind of politics of any kind of government. It's the right, no, in any part of the world? Why is the thing with Cuba is accept or not accept any kind of politics? 

Marwan Bishara: So you actually think that the boycott remains where it is and relations are not normalised because of Washington, not because of Havana?

Reinaldo Taladrid: Absolutely, Cuba is ready to talk, but talk; not to unconditional surrender-

Marwan Bishara: But Taladrid already Obama said mutual respect and mutual interest. Raul Castro said civilised dialogue.

Reinaldo Taladrid: What is mutual respect from America? For example, you have to organise elections with different, multiple parties, no? Okay, and what about Saudi Arabia? There are no political parties, no elections and it's an ally, not just a friend. Look, Cuba is a tiny lizard and we have very near an enormous dragon. If you are a little lizard and you have a big dragon trying to destroy you, you can't live in an ideal world as if nothing is happening and then even the Cuban political system was built and designed to protect Cuba against the big dragon. The day the big dragon desists, okay I don't want to destroy you anymore, I don't want to interfere in your house. Okay, I am sure many things will change.

Marwan Bishara: Do you think President Obama sees the relationship with Cuba as the one between the dragon and the lizard?

Marc Frank: Yes, because that's just objective. It's not really a question of ideology. The fact is Cuba is very small, I mean some people call it an elephant and a mouse, some people call it. But it's certainly there so - he's running that country and I think what he does understand just like Kerry, and just like actually the head of the Pentagon, they have all said it in the past before they had position. They feel the embargo has failed and they need another strategy.

Marwan Bishara: So you think it's pragmatism?

Marc Frank: Of course it's pragmatism.

Marwan Bishara: So the goal is still the same but the means have changed?

Reinaldo Taladrid: That's right, that's right. New strategies for what? For a control, a foreign government by different means.

Marc Frank: I would say the most important change right now in Cuba is the dialogue going on between Cubans on the island and off, and there is a tremendous national discussion going on here under the table that you don't see about what kind of country all those Cubans want Cuba to be.

Reinaldo Taladrid: But the new guys, when they arrive to Miami or Florida, they don't want to be involved in politics, less than 20 percent of them register to vote.

Marwan Bishara: You don't think Washington - it's allowed for that kind of influx of Cuban Americans into Cuba. There was a goal behind the mean, meaning they want to change Cuba from the bottom. 

Renaldo Taladrid: Obama expressed it. When Obama present his new policy toward Cuba, was in the campaign of 2008, he said I'm going to authorise unrestricted travel and remittances to all Cuban Americans to Cuba. But the second part of the phrase was not in the big media. He said and not only because humanitarian resources, because they are a very powerful tool of our goals to our new Cubans.

Marwan Bishara: Sixty percent of the American people now want to lift the embargo. Is it Washington or is it Havana that is pushing the brakes on normalisation?

Renaldo Taladrid: No, no, no. Havana, it's totally false that Havana wants that embargo will keep in place. It's not true.

Marwan Bishara: So there's change in the United States, there is change in Cuba. Why isn't there change in Cuban American relations?

Renaldo Taladrid: Do you think for an internal decision of US policy, it's important what the rest of the world thinks? Do you think they're really concerned that the Latin American counties will not go to a summit without Cuba? Do you really think it's so important for them?

Marwan Bishara: You don't think America is becoming more isolated because of Cuba and South America?

Reinaldo Taladrid: Absolutely, in all Latin America, absolutely but my question is how many times the US government didn't care what the world thinks about anything? They just care about numbers, elections, internal politics and they don't care.

Marc Frank: You have to remember that yes, the US is big and bad and everything else, but they have normal relations with everybody else in the Western Hemisphere.

Marwan Bishara: It seems to me that there is a good number of influential people both in Havana and in Washington that are still stuck in the Cold War, at least the Cold War mindset.

Marc Frank: It's not the Cold War mentality; it's a total lack of trust on both sides. That's what there is and that's continued to exist. Both on the US side and the Cuban side and not just at the top but all levels and that's the problem.

Marwan Bishara: Back to your dragon and lizard, it's much easier for the dragon to trust the lizard than the lizard to trust the dragon.

Reinaldo Taladrid: What kind of damage could the lizard inflict on the dragon? There is a government in Cuba, a legal government, they can't recognise that there is a legal government, a legal system in Cuba and they didn't accept that. They only accept unconditional surrender.

Marwan Bishara: Miami and Washington are next when we ask about America's obsession with Cuba.

Avi Chomsky: It's necessary to US foreign policy in its larger picture to demonise Cuba-

Mike Gonzalez: I think that Cuban policy; you can characterise it as benign neglect.

Ideological Obsessive Disorder

John Kennedy: I want to say a few words to the captive people of Cuba. I have watched, and the American people have watched, with deep sorrow, how your national revolution was betrayed.

Jimmy Carter: If I can be convinced that Cuba wants to remove their aggravating influence …

George W. Bush: Trade with Cuba will merely enrich Fidel Castro.

Carlos Alzugaray: The Americans have towards Cuba something called an obsessive disorder.

Marwan Bishara: Why?

Marco Rubio: Our real goal there is to ultimately have Cuba become a democracy.

Marwan Bishara: As a Cold War policy, it was at least coherent.

Hugo Cancio: A commonplace policy to bring about democracy in Cuba, a country 90 miles away, 45  minutes away from the Florida coast.

Marwan Bishara: The military threat is over. Their ideological war has been won.

Hugo Cancio: Unjust, incoherent US policy towards Cuba it's a, it's a thing of the past.

Marwan Bishara: And yet...

Jorge Duany: The public voices in Congress that represent the Cuban-American community still believe in the embargo hasn't achieved the objective of overthrowing the Castro regime for the past 50 years or so.

Marwan Bishara: US policy continues to be regime change.

Ted Cruz: I look forward to the day when we can lift the embargo, but that needs to happen after we've restored freedom to Cuba, after the tyranny ends.

Marwan Bishara: In 2009, America's new president reached out.

Barack Obama: I didn't come here to debate the past. I came here to deal with the future.

Marwan Bishara: Cuba's new leader responded.

Raul Castro: We've told the North American government, in private and in public, that we're prepared, wherever they want, to discuss everything.

Marwan Bishara: Then they shook hands at Nelson Mandela's funeral.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: When the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raul Castro, Raul Castro uses that hand to sign the orders to repress and jail democracy advocates.

Marco Rubio: But you want us to change. Why doesn't the Cuban government change?

Marwan Bishara: But Cuba has been changing.

Elias Acef: In Cuba you could be Catholic, Protestant, practice Afro-Cuban culture, Communist, and homosexual at the same time without problem.

Marwan Bishara: But Cuba remains on the terrorist watch list.

Mitt Romney: The Cuban people still live in constant fear of a brutal totalitarian regime that has demonstrated time and again its utter disregard for basic human dignity.

Marwan Bishara: What do the American hardliners, the conservatives, the Miami Cubans want? Will they accept anything less than a return to the good old days when everything was for sale, even the president? Especially the president. Polls agree. Everyone wants change, but American policy seems stuck in the past. 

News Commentator: Attesting to Cuba's conquest by Communist imperialism.

Marwan Bishara: Doing the same things that have failed for 50 years.

News Commentator: The Cuban drama goes on.

Marwan Bishara: Is Washington in the grip of a left over ideology?

Hugo Cancio: The US government has provided over $200m to Cuban American organisations in south Florida. It became an industry.

Marwan Bishara: How can a group of angry ex-patriots, in a rage left over from 1958, hold the foreign policy of the entire United States hostage?

Jorge Duany: Miami has become, for many years, the center of the organised opposition by Cuban exiles to the Castro government.

Marwan Bishara: A significant minority that comes out to vote over a single issue like the anti-Castro Cuban Americans, they can provide the margin of victory. And winning Florida usually means winning the presidency.

Carlos Alzugaray: Obama can do it. Obama can do it if he wants. Still has time.

Marwan Bishara: Can this president make the changes all by himself? By executive order?

Jorge Duany: The current situation cannot change unless Congress lifts the embargo.

Marwan Bishara: Is American foreign policy towards Cuba the place where reason goes to die?

Discussion 3

Marwan Bishara: We are in Washington and are joined by Avi Chomsky, a historian of Latin America at Salem State University in Massachusetts; Philip Brenner, a specialist on US foreign policy towards Latin America at the American University and author of A Contemporary Cuban Reader: The Revolution under Raul Castro; Mike Gonzalez from the Heritage Foundation and former US State Department official; and last, but not least, Mark Weisbrot, an expert on Latin America at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. I began by asking what the view is from Washington.

Philip Brenner: I don't think there's much thinking in Washington about Cuba. In fact, a few years ago, the number two person in the Latin American Bureau visited Cuba for the first time and she - her first remark when someone said what did you learn, she said, people laugh here. They smile. I was so surprised by that. So I think they largely don't think much about Cuba and know much about Cuba.

Marwan Bishara: They're not looking at the changes, Avi, of what's going on there - keeping track of them?

Avi Chomsky: They're keeping track of them but I would agree with Phil that I don't think it's a high-priority issue. I don't think the administration feels that it has much to gain with engaging in the issue. I don't think that the Obama administration wants to ruffle any feathers about Cuba. I don't think it has anything to gain by doing so.

Mike Gonzalez: I think that Cuba policy, you can characterise it as benign neglect. If an American president had been serious about Cuba, or had Cuba risen to a priority, Cuba would have been free many decades ago. Cuba is - there are people here who do know about the situation in Cuba about, ah, that the changes that have taken place, the increase in arrests and reported, documented arrests, the increase in repression.

Marwan Bishara: But you know what there is in Cuba, there is an intersection, an interest section for the US.

Philip Brenner: A diplomatic mission.

Marwan Bishara: Diplomatic mission with at least 70 or something diplomats. So they must be doing - following something. They know what's going on in Cuba.

Mark Weisbrot: Yeah, I think they're paying attention and, you know, we don't know what they do. I think in recent months there's been a lot more focus on Venezuela. The anti-Cuba lobby together with other neo-conservative allies in the US, they see this as much more strategic right now and partly because, you know, Venezuela is sending tens of thousands of barrels of oil to Cuba every day and they feel if they could get rid of Venezuela, if they could take out the Venezuelan government, Cuba's going to be a lot weaker.

Avi Chomsky: I would also just say on the issue of political repression in Cuba, to the extent that there is political repression in Cuba, I don't really think it's very much in the US interest to focus on it. The United States knows full well that the kinds of so-called political repression that happened in Cuba are child's play compared to the kinds of political repression that happened in places like China, for example, where the United States maintains full diplomatic relations and has, you know, good trading relations. So I don't think that the United States has much to gain by going down the road that you're talking about either.

Mike Gonzalez: Well, let me answer that. No, Avi. I really disagree. I don't think you should - you don't really want to qualify what takes place in Cuba by calling it 'so-called', or 'to the extent'. I mean, are you really denying that in Cuba there's huge political repression today? Do you really - have - what happens to the Ladies in White? They go - they leave their houses. They chant on the way to church and government organised mobs set upon them. Cuba has.

Avi Chomsky: The 75 political prisoners who the Ladies in White were protesting have all been released already so it's not even really an issue at this point.

Mike Gonzalez: Really? So why - Avi, that's when we - so you're denying that what's happening to the Ladies in White is happening? Are these staged by, by Cuban Americans in Miami? Are these, are these video-staged? There are no independent political parties in Cuba. There are no independent labour unions. There is no independent media. There is no right to meet. In order to meet at the park you have to have a card from the secretary - from the minister of the interior, and you only have to be there to discuss baseball, otherwise you cannot gather. There's no freedom to gather.

Marwan Bishara: Let me tell you what the Cubans told me about this. There are new openings, new debate - they've just now put a new law where a president can be - can serve only for two terms, and then they ask the other question that Avi a bit talked about is why does America have good relations with all these, all these other countries from Vietnam to China to Saudi Arabia and others who have similar situations America talks about?

Mike Gonzalez: China has had a great economic opening. What's happened in Cuba, it's not really an economic opening. It's barely - it's very cosmetic and basically it boils down to a recognition of the black market which has happened for decades as the only rational economic system in Cuba. And the only reason they have recognised it is because they want to tax it.

Mark Weisbrot: I don't think that's really a believable story that US-Cuba policy is based on what they do with their economy. It doesn't really make any sense.

Marwan Bishara: What is it based on then?

Mark Weisbrot: Well, it's part of US foreign policy and it's a domestic policy thing as well. I mean, as long as Florida is a swing state in the presidential elections you're going to have a problem.

Marwan Bishara: So what you're saying is it's only politics, that there is no ideology behind the strategy?

Mark Weisbrot: There's both. There's both of them.

Philip Brenner: I disagree, I disagree with Mark. I, you know, I think it began because Cuba defied US dominance in the western hemisphere and it continues to -

Mark Weisbrot: Well, that's absolutely true. And it's also true of the US has towards Venezuela and all the left governments. The only thing I think that is partly explainable by the Florida aspect of it is the embargo itself, that is, there is a certain amount of pressure. They might have, or they might be closer to lifting it if not for that lobby. But you're absolutely right. The overall attitude towards Cuba is the same as the attitude towards every independent left government in the region. They would like to get rid of all of them.

Avi Chomsky: We should also recognise that several very important US sectors that have wanted to be able to sell to Cuba are now able to sell to Cuba, like the agricultural sector. So it's not a complete embargo. It's a partial embargo, but to the extent that it's necessary to US foreign policy in its larger picture to demonise Cuba, it's really important to keep people from going there because once people go there they're going to see it's not what the US government is telling us it is.

Mike Gonzalez: Nobody's demonising the Cuban government. We ought to be able to call the demon by its proper name. The Cuban government is a highly repressive government that, for 50 years, has not allowed internationally recognised human rights standards, has not allowed independent parties, has not allowed a free press, does not allow freedom of expression, does not allow the freedom to gather. Why are Cubans any different from anyone else? Cuba is not a place like any other place in the world. I'm sorry to say this to you.

Avi Chomsky: To the rest of the world it is. Only to the United States it isn't.

Marwan Bishara: There is no denying that there's an opening, that there is an economic opening.

Mike Gonzalez: No. There is denying. I am denying that there is no economic opening.

Mark Weisbrot: I think I'm understanding Mike's argument now is, he's saying that because China, maybe Saudi Arabia, too, because they have these economic freedoms that they're going to become less repressive and, therefore, the US has good relations - I don't think anybody in the world believes that. I mean, there's an obvious history and context of our relations with Cuba, which we've all described here, and it's part of US foreign policy towards Latin America and those are the things that are determining it. It has nothing to do with repression or economic opening.

Marwan Bishara: Is there any good reason why Cuba is still on the terrorist list?

Philip Brenner: Cuba doesn't - at one point provided arms to terrorist groups around the world. It no longer does. Cuba allegedly supported the ETA, the Basque organisation, but they did so under the request of the Spanish government. So even the state department report on terrorism provided all the rationale that the president would need to take Cuba off. It is not a country anything like the other countries that are on the list, for example, Sudan. It is not a state sponsor of terrorism.

Mike Gonzalez: Cuba is a supporter of every bad actor in the world, sharing intelligence - 

Avi Chomsky: Cuba is a nuclear power?

Mike Gonzalez: - it's sharing intelligence with Assad, Assad Syria, shares intelligence with Iran. Cuba is a friend to every bad regime in the world. Arms shipments. Not nuclear shipments, arms shipments.

Philip Brenner: That's - first of all, that's different than being a state supporter of terrorism. Supporting governments that - other governments that might - we also have supported terrorist states.

Mike Gonzalez: Cuba Supports the FARC.

Philip Brenner: Cuba has given - it provides no arms or assistance to the FARC. What it does is allows members of the FARC to come to Cuba after - for what's called rest and recreation, sometimes medical aid.

Avi Chomsky: The government of Colombia is negotiating with the FARC in Havana.

Philip Brenner: They're able to act as a -

Mike Gonzalez: Which is the majority of the Colombians.

Philip Brenner: The Colombian government - 

Mike Gonzalez: On this issue they're not supporting all these talks.

Marwan Bishara: But what does it say that the president shakes hands with a guy who's accused of terrorism, or supporting terrorism?

Philip Brenner: The handshake, I think, was more of a signal to countries in Africa and in Asia and it was in President Obama's interest. Had he not shaken Raul Castro's hand it would've looked much worse, much like a United States being a bully. I don't think it signified anything positive. It think it was avoiding the negative.

Marwan Bishara: I think I heard in Cuba about this question of American policy is that perhaps it's, whether it's a pretext or it's a true justification, because of American policy the Cuban government will have to take certain measures, whether it's on security level, whether it's in terms of not opening enough. And if only America or Washington would open up maybe then change will be much faster-paced in Cuba. Do you agree with that?

Avi Chomsky: The more the United States tries to infiltrate and control people in Cuba who are talking about change, the less they are going to be accepted and trusted and the less political openness there is going to be in Cuba.

Marwan Bishara: Let's round it up, and I know historians don't like to talk about the future, so let's talk about the history of the future. If you look at it a few years down the road what would we see happening now? Is something going to give on the question of US and Cuba? Is this going to be the test of America, or the America's relations?

Philip Brenner: Well, let's start with some facts that we know are likely to happen. President Raul Castro will step down from office in 2018 and the likely person to replace him is Miguel Diaz-Canel. Miguel Diaz-Canel seems to share a lot of the same policies. He's much younger. He is not historical. So there are also likely to be some changes in Cuba.

Marwan Bishara: Are you saying there's a generational factor that's going to be important in determining the future relations between the US and Cuba?

Philip Brenner: Absolutely. And it's here, too. Because as the Atlantic Council Poll in February showed, the younger generation of Cuban Americans are much less antagonistic towards Cuba. They are the people who would like to visit Cuba more. They are more willing to send money to Cuba. And they want the United States to change.

Marwan Bishara: There's a majority of Hispanic Americans, Americans and, apparently, Cuban Americans that want normalisation of relations with Cuba.

Mike Gonzalez: So much to say, so little time. The Atlantic Council Poll, if you look into and read it again, once you tell people the conditions on the ground and what we're actually demanding then support for continuation of demanding changes in Cuba is wide. Let me give you the parade of horribles of what we're asking the Cuban government to do, and this is codified into law, and that is, release of political prisoners, allow internationally recognised standards of human rights, allow political parties - independent political parties, allow a free press, allow - this is the bare minimum of decent society that we're asking the Cuban government to enact - 

Avi Chomsky: Who is "we"?

Mike Gonzalez: - the world should be but the United States says this is the law.

Marwan Bishara: So you think more of that changes of the law - and are happening, whether you like them or not, do you think that change is coming to the US-Cuban and US-Latin American relations?

Mike Gonzalez: I love to live the life that my partners live because they talk about progress and change in Cuba. I wish that could be the case. It isn't. Everything that's happened is cosmetic. There's no, there's no recognition of private property. There's no recognition of independent contracts. There's no recognition of the right of people to speak their mind. I wish that these changes were indeed taking place. They're just not.

Marwan Bishara: We're going to speak, right after this, with the young Cuban director of this latest film, Conducta. We're talking about changes, problems, and solutions for Cuba by Cubans. But for now, Avi, gentlemen, thank you for joining our panel.

Beyond Revolution

Marwan Bishara: Despite 50 years of troubled history, 90 miles of choppy waters, and the occasional trading of blows, Cuba has long had a love affair with Americana. Fidel himself knew a thing or two about pitching for glory and as a US amateur boxing team competed in Cuba for the first time in 27 years, I met with filmmaker Ernesto Daranas, whose new film, Conducta, recently won the Best Film prize at New York's Havana Film Festival.

Marwan Bishara: You seem to concentrate on education in your latest movie, Conducta. Do you think education has deteriorated since you were a child?

Ernesto Daranas: I think, in general, education is in crisis all over the world because these children, these people that live in small towns, in many cases the only refuge they have is a teacher since the failure of society, since the failure of family, since the failure of the economy, in many cases, the only thing that is left for these children is the teacher.

Marwan Bishara: If Cuba opens up do you think those places that are important for the country or for the society, like education and health, do you think they will suffer or they will benefit?

Ernesto Daranas: It's a really abstract term thinking of what it will mean for Cuba to open up. Cuba to open up to what? To what things? It's not about change just for the sake of changing, it's about a change in social attitude - a more humanistic approach.

Marwan Bishara: Do you think Cuba is ready for a major change?

Ernesto Daranas: The changes that are taking place right now are basically aimed at the economy. These changes are intended to make sure that we don't lose the things that are most essential to us. But the reality is those changes have not reached the poorest parts of the population. Those people are ready for change.

We have the training, the education, the health. I believe in those things. That's why this movie that I'm shooting right now - 

I haven't wanted my other movies to be humourous because even though we are portrayed as fun people, we laugh so as not to cry. This is the country where soap operas were born. This is also a part of us. If we laugh, we laugh a lot and if we cry, we cry a lot.

Marwan Bishara: It seems there is a sort of a paradoxical obsession between Cubans and Americans.

Ernesto Daranas: I think that we've lived through extreme moments in history. We've learned to hate and respect each other. History's been manipulated many times and it's always the ordinary people, Cubans and Americans, that are caught in the middle.

Marwan Bishara: And you seem to have a lot of this in common things. We've been to baseball games and we've watched boxing - and Cuba won - and we see movies and we see how much that is in common, how much you are also people who watch American movies so much in this country. There's deep implicit integration already.

Ernesto Daranas: This is what makes this relationship wonderful. There's a profound knowledge from the Cuban people of the United States which is based on the essentials - family and friends that we have living over there, through their culture, music, and movies. The rest is just politics.

Marwan Bishara: We also started with the show and let's end with the show on the following reflection. It seemed that Cuba and America went through three major historical breaks. One after the American and the Spanish, one after American and the Soviets, and seems like one between the United States and Latin America, in general. Are we now tipping towards a new era between Cuba and the United States?

Ernesto Daranas: There's been talk announcing a new era for a long time now. That's why the expectations have to be based on reality and goals. The people that I mention in my movies, they're crucial to everything because those are the people that are going to really define the future. That's the future first for us, for the relationship with the United States, and the world.

Marwan Bishara: So you're an optimist about the future?

Ernesto Daranas: I think so.

Marwan Bishara: And I'll be back with a final note.


Marwan Bishara: As we round up our journey through the nerve centers of US-Cuban relations, namely Washington and Miami and, of course, here in Havana, I am left wondering whether we did solve the mystery of their enigmatic relationship. I shall leave that for you to decide.

I am certain of three things: One, people on both sides are ready and eager to move forward. Two, the leaders, while hesitant, are perhaps willing to face the music. And three, when there is a will there is a way and it does take two to salsa. So is this the cha-cha-cha of change?

Source: Al Jazeera