A Cuban-US caravan of academics, social movements and trade organizations were at the centre of negotiations leading to the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries, says Larry Wilkerson.
Lawrence Wilkerson is a retired United States Army soldier and former chief of staff to United States Secretary of State Colin Powell. Wilkerson is an adjunct professor at the College of William & Mary where he teaches courses on US national security. He also instructs a senior seminar in the Honors Department at the George Washington University entitled “National Security Decision Making.”
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
Discussions between Havana and Washington about the restoration of diplomatic relations are currently underway. One item of serious concern to Cuba is that they continue to be on the list of state sponsored terrorism. They would like to be removed from it.
According to the State Department and the Cuban officials, however, things are going and progressing quite well. But how did all of this come about in the first place? Thawing of relations between Cuba and the U.S., which has been on and going on for fifty-four years. That is the topic of our next discussion with Larry Wilkerson.
Larry is, as you know, the former Chief of Staff for the U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell. He’s currently the adjunct professor of government at the College of William & Mary. Thank you so much for joining us, Larry.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Thanks for having me, Sharmini.
PERIES: So Larry, this is very intriguing. We know that the thawing of relations between the two countries didn’t just pop up and get resolved. How did all of this come about?
WILKERSON: I think there have been I don’t think, I know, there have been quite a few people I’m trying to adjust my screen right now. There have been quite a few people working on this for quite a long time.
If you want to, if your viewers want to read a really good text on this, the new book by Billy
LeoGrande at American University, who is an expert on Latin America, and Peter Kornbluh at the National Security Archives at George Washington University, who has done seminal work on getting, uncovering, grasping and pulling out of the government official documentation. Their new book, Back Channel to Cuba, is an extraordinary read on all of the attempts, from the very beginning. Dwight Eisenhower through John Kennedy, through Lyndon Johnson, through Richard Nixon, on up to Bill Clinton and then to George W. Bush, and the attempts we have made over those half-century worth of years plus to have better relations with Cuba.
You can imagine that, among others, Wayne Smith, former member of the U.S. Intersection in Havana, who under Al Haig’s secretariat actually resigned his position based on his objections to U.S. policy and so forth. A host of others, including myself, were in Cuba for a conference in December, and on 17 December we were in a conference room with the Cubans, and we were able to pipe the TV in and listen to Raúl Castro, President of Cuba, and President Obama announce this latest attempt at a new relationship, a closer relationship. I guarantee you that in that room of some two hundred or so people, there was not a dry eye in the room, Cuban or American.
PERIES: Larry, the latest version of these negotiations that actually lead to the official announcements were, were being done through a committee, I understand, that have been working at it for a very long time which you have been a part of. Tell us a little bit about that process.
WILKERSON: I don’t want to take too much credit for it, because there are all manner of nonprofit organizations that have been oriented towards better relations with Cuba. Trade organizations, just, organizations involved with democracy and freedom and liberty spreading, and so forth.
I’ve been involved for the last four or five years with a group sponsored by a host organization that tries to mediate between states in terms of antagonisms, tensions, and so forth. Under their guise, meeting in São Paulo, Brazil, with then President Lula’s people. Meeting in Buenos Aires, meeting in Mexico City, meeting in Toronto, and meeting in Havana, we conducted this sort of track to a diplomacy. We tried to meet in Washington, but OFAC at Treasury wouldn’t allow us visas for the Cuban visitors, so we doubled up on Havana.
What we did was put togetherMeeting with Cubans. Cuban academics, Cuban economists, Cuban environmentalists, and so forth. Moving as we needed to into the various sectors of the Cuban ministries, and into U.S. government, too, and consulting for time to time. We put together a road map for better relations between the two countries. We delivered that to Western Hemisphere Affairs, the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the State Department, in May of 2013. We were told by the Assistant Secretary that it was read line-by-line. And so we like to think that we had a little bit to do with putting together, perhaps, some of the specifics of what now is beginning to take place.
PERIES: Larry, in this road map, what were some of the points of contention, or what was perceived to be points of contention, that are transpiring now?
WILKERSON: One of the things you see from Peter and Bill’s book that I mentioned, Back Channels, and one of the things we learned very, very up close and personal, as we went through this some five years of talks and other activities that have been going on around them, the first prerequisite for Cuba is to be treated with respect. To be treated as an equal. Not an equal in power or economic might or financial might, but an equal in terms of diplomatic and political relations. To be treated as a sovereign country, and not to be always treated as if until you change what you’ve determined to be your governance system, we won’t talk to you. So that was the first prerequisite, that we treat Cuba with human decency.
Probably the second one was that everything’s on the table. This has particularly become true since Raúl took over from Fidel and has been more or less the leader of the Cuban government. In this case, it meant that we would talk about anything. If we were Cubans, we would talk about anything, so long as you respected our sovereignty and treated us with respect and equality, we were willing to put any issue on the table.
We’re willing to talk about migration, we’re willing to talk about oil spills, hurricane preparedness, disaster relief. We’re willing to talk about human trafficking and drug trafficking, and all the things that we have been more or less cooperating in ever since JFK’s time, but on a very, very limited, narrow focused basis.
We’re willing to talk about anything including approaching a normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States, with the Cubans understanding what the Mexicans understand. You know, so close to the United States, so far from God. That’s sort of the mantra. And when you’re close to the United States, you’ve got to be very careful about how you deal financially, economically, and so forth.
In fact, one of the things that I warn the Cubans about, they don’t need any warning on this but I felt it would be especially significant coming from an American academic and a military man. I warned them about opening too fast. If this is a genuine opening, if it is a genuine attempt to normalize relations, lift the embargo, take them off the State Sponsors of Terrorism list which they haven’t belonged on for at least ten years, maybe twenty. If it is that, then be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.
That is to say, you don’t want the United States coming back in in its enormously predatory, capitalist way, and ruining some of the real gains of the revolution, like crime-free states, universal health careindeed, some of the best health care in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world, and the other gains of the revolution, you don’t want to ruin those. They protected the environment really well, for example. You need to be careful about how you let this colossal economic and financial giant re-enter your country.
PERIES: Now, we know that Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Senator Marco Rubio in Florida are all challenging President Obama about these negotiations and the restoration of diplomatic relations, and promising to undo it. Where do you think that stands?
WILKERSON: I think it’s about as Luddite a stance as I can identify in my Republican party, and that is saying something because all they’ve been is Luddites for the past decade or so, and I say, all they have beenThere are some holdouts. There’s a Jeff Flake, there’s a Susan Collins, there’s a Lamar Alexander. There’s apparently a Bob Corker in charge of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee now that have a pragmatic approach to politics and really want to get something done.
But the innumerable members of the Republican Party now, and I put that in a category of forty or so, maybe a little more, that are just simply bent on punishing this president, just simply bent on doing anything that’s contrary to the President, even if it’s in the disinterest of their country, that alarms me greatly. I would put a few Democrats in that category too, with regard to Cuba. You mentioned one of them, Senator Robert Menendez, former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He will do anything he can, as will Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and others, to stop the President in this attempt to normalize relations with Cuba and eventual lift the embargo and take them off the state sponsored terrorism list.
They are out of sync with Cuban-Americans. Poll after poll now shows that the majority of Cuban-Americans are for closer relations with Cuba, are for better relations, are for eventually eliminating the state sponsor of terrorism stigma, and lifting the embargo. These are young Cubans, I would say forty-five and below. They are dominating the Cuban community in New Jersey, Nevada, and of course Florida now, the Miami area in particular. They are beginning to shift this, so Senator Menendez, Mario Rubio, they’re on the wrong side of history and I’m frankly very glad about that
PERIES: All right. Well, we’ll continue to keep a watch on this. Larry, thank you so much for joining us.
WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Sharmini.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.