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Rapprochement With Cuba: What It Includes And Excludes


OK, that report came to us from NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, and she's on the line with us still this morning. Hi, Lourdes.


GREENE: So just listening to the end of your piece, there's so many unanswered questions about what this all means. That dissident blogger in your piece tweeting, will we be able to eat meat - what does he mean?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, it means that state subsidized food is rationed. The average salary in Cuba is $20 a month, and a lot of people can't regularly eat meat. So they're just looking to their bellies.

GREENE: And I guess one of the questions is, I mean, will this decision by President Obama open the door for meat to come in? And he might be able to get meat, which is something we really don't know at this point.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: No, we don't know. There are so many different questions that are unanswered right now. And I think that is what everyone's feeling after the euphoria has faded - many questioning, what does this actually practically mean for us? And certainly the dissidents that I spoke to yesterday, they are very uncertain as to how this will help them. They want democracy. They want respect for human rights.

GREENE: Well, let's try and explore these questions as best we can. Lourdes, stay with us. I want to bring in another voice here. It's NPR's Tom Gjelten. He's covered Cuba for years. He's the author of the book "Bacardi And The Long Fight For Cuba." He's here in the studio with me. Tom, hi.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: The president's action does not lift the trade embargo for one thing. I mean, that would take an act of Congress. But how far do these actions that President Obama announced yesterday go in terms of undermining the embargo and bringing real economic change?

GJELTEN: Well, you know, David, listening to the president yesterday, it seemed like there isn't any embargo because a lot of the changes that he announced covered areas that are also mentioned in the embargo. One example, he said, communications technology will now be exported to Cuba. Well, the U.S. embargo specifically prohibits the export of telecom equipment to Cuba. So it's not clear how that can happen.

On the other hand, a lot of the specific rules for implementing the embargo are laid down in government regulations, and the president can rewrite those regulations. That's what he's talking about doing. For example, the president can fiddle with banking regulations. That's how he's going to allow Americans to use credit cards in Cuba, which they haven't been able to do before. Another thing that the president can unquestionably do is establish full diplomatic relations with Cuba, and regardless of the embargo, that is within the authority of the president. He said yesterday's doing that Congress can't do a thing about that. So, yes, he does have the authority to undermine the embargo.

GREENE: But you're saying in some ways, it sounded like he was acting as if the embargo doesn't exist, talking about bringing in telecom equipment. That's something that is restricted by the embargo which seems like it might set up a confrontation with Congress if he decides to push that forward.

GJELTEN: Well, in that regard, David, there is this - already this framework of disagreement between the White House and Congress over whether the president is acting too imperially. So we could see possibly a court fight here over some of this.

GREENE: I want to ask you and Lourdes as well, if we look at the embargo that's still in place, what is the most important thing that remains in terms of keeping these two countries apart, Tom?

GJELTEN: Well, I think the one thing that the president really could not do much about is to change the financial relationship between United States and Cuba. Right now, you know, the United States is a trading partner - very important trading partner of Cuba already. We sell Cuba food and agriculture products on a cash basis, not on a credit basis. I think it would be very difficult in the embargo for the president to do anything about that.

GREENE: Lourdes, what do you see as the sort of the thing that remains in place with that embargo that is not going to change for Cuba right now?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, what's not going to change for Cuba right now is the fact that if you are an American and you do not fall under the categories that have been relaxed such as tourism, if you just want to hop on a plane tomorrow and go sun yourself at the beach in Varadero, you can't do that still. And I think that is something that, certainly for Americans and for Cubans, is a sticking point.

GREENE: Well, Lourdes, people from other countries in Latin America, Brazil and elsewhere, they can go to Cuba whenever they want to. They can sun themselves in the beautiful beaches of Varadero. Those countries have really close cultural and political ties with Cuba. What do those other Latin American countries think about the U.S., you know, beginning to normalize relations here?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I'm going to give you a few quotes. A historic, brave decision, said Peru's president. Something that has moved the whole world, said the president of Argentina. You know, Latin America has had a very different relationship with Cuba than the U.S. They see the country as an icon, and this move is being celebrated.

GREENE: Based on what you both know about the Castros, can economic change bring about political change on this island?

GJELTEN: Well, David, in announcing the Cuban side of this deal yesterday, President Raul Castro said the goal remains to build a prosperous and sustainable socialism. So they're certainly not interested in changing their economic model. And I think one of the things that we've seen over the years is that the Castro brothers have opposed those economic changes that they fear will have political implications. So even though the White House may hope that some of these changes will bring about political changes in Cuba, I think the record shows that the Castro brothers are unlikely to allow that to happen.

GREENE: Lourdes, maybe that's not what dissidents want to hear right now in Cuba.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I think that's what dissidents have been saying. They say that this is a historic change certainly, but they're not sure that it will have the desired results in so far as bringing democracy and freedom of speech to Cuba.

GREENE: Tom, let me give you the last word here. We can talk about policy changes and think about what may or may not happen, but there's something psychological going on here, isn't there? If the U.S. is no longer the enemy that it has always been, does that change the psyche for Cuban leaders?

GJELTEN: You know, the history of the last 50 years, David, shows that Fidel Castro, in particular, has actually resisted overtures from the United States when they have been offered to him through various presidencies. And the lesson there seemed to be that Fidel had felt almost that Cuba had an existential need to have the U.S. as its enemy. It gave the revolution an identity and an integrity. So now a real big test - can they get by without the U.S. as its enemy?

GREENE: NPR's Tom Gjelten in studio with me and NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro on the line. Thank you both so much.

GJELTEN: You bet.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten and Lourdes Garcia-Navarro
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