David Green, Host:
An NPR team spent last week in Cuba. This week, we are in Miami. It has given us a glimpse of both sides of one of the most enduring diplomatic standoffs. While in Cuba, we met up with the veteran diplomat who is Havana’s point person in that standoff. Her name is Josephina Vidal. She’s director of U.S. relations for the Cuban government. We were brought into a small sitting room just off the lobby in the Foreign Ministry to chat. And I began by asking Vidal about President Obama and Raul Castro greeting each other at Nelson Mandela’s funeral back in December. Was it more than just a handshake?
JOSEPHINA VIDAL: This is what educated civilized people normally do, even though we haven’t had diplomatic trade and normal relations for more than 50 years now.
GREENE: As far as we know, the two governments aren’t even communicating about two cases that are really important to them. An American named Alan Gross was in Cuba as a USAID contractor. He was arrested for bringing communications equipment into the country, and now he’s in a Cuban prison serving a 15-year sentence. Meanwhile, three Cuban agents convicted of spying in the United States are also serving long sentences in a American prisons. They’re part of the so-called Cuban Five who are seen as heroes in Cuba. The U.S. government views these cases as fundamentally different, but Josephina Vidal says she sees the potential for some kind of deal.
VIDAL: This is what we have been saying to the United States for almost two years now. It is important to understand that Alan Gross came to Cuba, not because we invited him to come, he came to Cuba to implement a program of the United States government. That’s the reason why we tell the United States government that we need to sit down in order to talk about both our cases.
GREENE: And have any conversations started over those two cases at all?
VIDAL: Feeling responsible for our people and trying to look together for the best solution acceptable for both of us and that respond to our concerns. This is what I can say now.
GREENE: Now, the United States and Cuba are talking about a few things. The governments have been planning out how they’d respond jointly to an oil spill. They’ve also been working together on airport security, and the United States has worked out a deal to ship some agriculture products to Cuba, which made me want to ask Vidal this.
Is there a chance that, as years go on, we’re just going to see this relationship sort of quietly normalize and there’s not going to be some big meeting or announcement?
VIDAL: This is our hope, I mean, that relations between Cuba and the United States could be normalized. I have to tell you that Cuba is changing, as you may have seen. There are very important, significant transformations taking place in our country. There is a total change in the attitude of Latin America towards Cuba. Cuba is now totally integrated to the region and has become even a stability factor in the region as host to Colombia peace talks. The public opinion in the United States itself is changing, even in the Cuban-American community. What we are not seeing so far is a change in United States policy towards Cuba.
GREENE: You said there have been no changes in U.S. policy, but there have been some, I mean, in terms of the travel restrictions and in terms of agriculture. I mean, aren’t you seeing some policy shifts in the United States?
VIDAL: Yes, these are changes, but so far limited changes – the embargo, itself, is there. We are being subject, for example, to a very harsh financial persecution which makes, for our country, very difficult to function. So in general, with the exception of travel and certain sales of food, everything else is prohibited between Cuba and the United States. Another aspect of the policy which has not changed is the so-called, in the United States, democracy promotion programs, what is called in Cuba subversive programs – programs aimed at regime change in Cuba. As the ZunZuneo revelations made by AP recently showed to all of us, those programs are still in place.
GREENE: This was the USAID program…
VIDAL: USAID programs…
GREENE: …That created a Cuban Twitter that would…
VIDAL: And these are programs that are illegal in Cuba. They are implemented without any approval from Cuba, so these are illegal – even covered programs because you saw how ZunZuneo was implemented through different countries in order to hide that the United States government was behind this.
GREENE: Let me just ask you – you brought up the “Cuban Twitter,” quote-unquote. The larger question there – there’s some in the United States who believe that Cubans do not have enough access to the Internet. We’ve heard from people here saying that they wish that there weren’t these restrictions, that only people in certain professions can have access to the Internet in Cuba. I mean, is the Cuban government committed to making sure all Cubans have free and easy access to the Internet?
VIDAL: We don’t have now all the access that we would like to have to Internet because of economic and technological reasons. But there is a plan in Cuba to respond to that, to expand access to Internet – that has already begun. But again, one of the reasons why we don’t have good connectivity in Cuba is because we cannot have access to the dozens of cables, underwater cables, that surround Cuba that come from the United States because of the embargo.
So instead of creating a special, covert operation for a Cuban Twitter, what the United States should do is to review its regulation, its policies, its legislations and to eliminate all the restrictions that prevent Cuba for having normal access to the cables and normal access – and to expand the possibility to connect to the Internet.
GREENE: You’re suggesting that the embargo is a big impediment to building the Internet in Cuba…
VIDAL: And to Cuba’s economic development.
GREENE: It brings to mind a comment that Hillary Clinton made recently – I mean, former secretary of state, presumed to be potentially running for the democratic nomination for president – she suggested that the embargo should be eliminated at some point because, as she put it, it is the Castros’ best friend, suggesting that it gives the Cuban government…
VIDAL: A big taste.
GREENE: …The ability to complain and to blame the United States for problems. Is there any truth to what she said?
VIDAL: Our answer to that – this is not new – she has said that in the past. She said, this is a pretext, and the Cuban government is using that as a pretext to hide all the mistakes they are making in their own economy. So our response to that has always been, since a long time ago, if you think this is a pretext, lift it. Eliminate the embargo so that you can put us to test. Try us, OK? So lift it.
GREENE: Thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it.
VIDAL: Thank you very much.
GREENE: Josephina Vidal is director of U.S. relations for the Cuban government. Now, we asked for a U.S. response to her comments. A USAID spokesperson said Cuba, quote, “has severely restricted fundamental freedoms.” The spokesperson went on to say that the United States will continue to support the Cuban peoples’ ability to communicate with one another and freely determine their own future. This is NPR News.
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