(WATCH) Cuba

The Middle East is the focus of American and international concerns, with a war that’s threatening to expand. But the U.S. has to simultaneously keep eyes wide open on a number of fronts. That includes our closest adversary by proximity: Cuba. As the U.S. continues to enforce a longstanding embargo against the communist nation, the UN General Assembly recently voted to condemn the restrictions. Meantime, cut off from the U.S., Cuba is strengthening ties with another nemesis: China. Our laws forbid Americans from visiting the island as tourists, and journalists require a visa from Cuba. We finally got approved for one after several years of trying. So today from Havana, we examine the rocky U.S.-Cuba relationship, and how that impacts where Cuba finds its support.

The following is a transcript of a report from “Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson.” Watch the video by clicking the link at the end of the page.

An hour-long flight from Miami to Havana on a near-empty plane delivers us to the beautiful but impoverished Caribbean island of Cuba. One of America’s closest foreign neighbors — yet mostly cut off from the U.S. Partly frozen in time. People stand in line to collect their government food rations of bread, milk, and eggs. Classic cars from the 50s populate the roads. Under the U.S. embargo, newer cars — even necessities — are expensive and difficult to get.

Sharyl (on-camera): There aren’t many images of Fidel Castro around Havana anymore. He died seven years ago. His brother Raul, who succeeded him, stepped down as Cuba’s leader in 2021, officially ending 62 years of Castro rule. The two and a half years since have been marked by ongoing challenges, historic changes, and new appeals to the U.S.

Sharyl: How do you suspect Cuba would look today if not for the embargo?

Carlos Fernandez de Cossio: That’s what we would like to see.

Carlos Fernandez de Cossio is vice minister of foreign affairs and Cuba’s chief spokesman for our government-approved visit.

Cossio: Anyone who would visit the country would know that we live a very modest life, that our infrastructure needs a lot of investment in it, that we have lots of problems with our economy. But I would push to put to a test: allow the U.S. to lift the embargo for just two years, just two years, and measure what Cuba can be done.

It was in the 1950s that the U.S. began cutting back on buying Cuba’s number one export — sugar. In 1959, revolutionaries ousted the U.S.-supported Cuban dictator. His replacement, Fidel Castro, cozied up to the Soviet Union and closed a deal to trade Cuban sugar for Soviet oil. In 1960, Castro seized American sugar factories, and Esso, Texaco, and Shell refineries that refused to process Soviet oil. In 1961, the U.S. supported the Bay of Pigs military invasion to overthrow Castro. It failed.

In 1962, the U.S. banned most trade with Cuba. A growing Soviet weapons buildup on the island led to a confrontation with America called the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Obama eased restrictions on Cuba. Trump re-tightened the clamp and even listed Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism. And Biden has continued down the Trump path.

Fernandez de Cossio terms it “economic warfare.”

Sharyl: What do you suspect are the true reasons the United States has the policies that it does?

Cossio: An aim to control the fate and the destination of Cuba. And as I said at the beginning, the failure to recognize that we have the right to have our own government, and the way we feel, and to carry out a system of economy and policy which ensures social justice, which we call socialism. We don’t do it against the United States. We do it for the benefit of the people of Cuba.

With the U.S. relationship strained for so long, it’s hard to overlook U.S. adversaries making new plays.

In July, the first official visit by a Russian naval vessel in years. The two countries have forged deals to let Russia bring in more tourists, develop hotels, and supply Cuba with lots of oil.

China’s influence is as evident as the thousands of China-made buses on Cuba’s streets.

Sharyl: Do you see any merit to the argument that in the United States, there may be concern with Cuba so very close to our shores, that Cuba has close relationships with countries that are considered adversaries, such as Russia and China?

Cossio: There’s no evidence to prove that. The U.S. government — the people in the government — have raised it, but there’s no evidence of any hostile or offensive activity by either Russia, China, or any country that the United States would think is an adversary against the United States. The United States would have it, they would have taken action on it. It hasn’t occurred. But it has — it serves as an excuse for those that do not want any progress in the bilateral relationship.

Sharyl: China has really made a lot of inroads in many countries where the United States has perhaps stepped back economically. Is that happening in Cuba as well?

Cossio: It’s happening, perhaps in a lesser level than other countries in Latin America, but it’s a good relationship. Most of our relationship is trade. We buy a lot of products for our industry in China. If we could, we would buy them in the United States. It’s much closer and perhaps cheaper. But the U.S. laws prohibit it. We have to buy a lot on China. They give us financing, and they have invested in some infrastructure. For example, an important plant for addition for news, addition in printing, I think in the rail, in some industries. But it’s a normal relationship, as we’ve had with Canada, as we’ve had with European countries, as we would have with the United States, if it were to be possible.

U.S, officials have raised serious concerns amid reports of Chinese spy operations out of Cuba, just 90 miles from Key West, Florida.

Antony Blinken/Secretary of State (June 20): This is something we’re going to be monitoring very, very closely, and we’ve been very clear about that. And we will protect our homeland. We will protect our interests.

Sharyl: In the news in the United States, there is a lot about China and concerns and allegations that China has already been operating some sort of base or surveillance operation out of Cuba, and plans to have some sort of larger operation out of Cuba. Is that true?

Cossio: We — that came out in a story that was published by the Wall Street Journal, and that has been repeated. No evidence has been put in place…

Sharyl: I mean, “no evidence,” — but is it true?

Cossio: It is totally untrue. We’ve told the U.S. government, we’ve spoken with them. We said more. We said that Cuba is a country under aggression from the United States, that we have the right to defend ourselves, that we have the right to establish defense cooperation with other governments, and we don’t have to give excuses for that. Now, that being understood, what has been proclaimed, it’s totally untrue. It’s a fabrication, again, as others that have happened, the many that have happened in history, to try to make it impossible for there to be progress in the relationship between our two governments.

That’s Cuba’s side of the story.

Saily Gonzalez: So the regime, of course, Cossio and everyone from the regime in Cuba is lying.

Another side more often heard in the U.S. is expressed by Cubans like Saily Gonzalez, a former business owner now living in Miami, Florida.

Gonzalez: The situation of human rights in Cuba has been always bad, but right now it’s massively bad, okay?

She and others point to government arrests after mass protests on July 11, 2021.

Gonzalez: Cuba is a dictatorship, and they are owning and been in the power in Cuba as the dictators that they are. That means they are just there because they want to keep the power. They own the island, they create business for themselves, they create institutions for themselves, for protecting themselves.

Sharyl: Democrats and Republicans alike have joined to criticize Cuba on a number of fronts, including alleged human rights abuses. One example they give is the July 11 protests. They say there are still many people imprisoned unjustifiably.

Cossio: It is difficult to gauge how many people went on the street to protest that day. Some say 15, 20, let’s say 25,000. Most of them did it peacefully. A small group, maybe about 1,000, practicing vandalism, violence, inciting violence, attacking police stations, burning cars — those were prosecuted. Most of them went to jail. Of those, perhaps about half have already been released. But in the U.S., on January 6, many people went to protest in the United States. I would suspect the great majority of them peacefully that were protesting the government. And many have been prosecuted, some that have been sent to jail. Some with sentences as large as 18 years without any violence or critical violence being committed. So why does the United States feel it has the authority to condemn Cuba and not look inside what is happening in the United States?

The State Department declined our requests for an on-camera interview. 

Lawrence Gumbiner was a senior U.S. diplomat in Cuba. We asked him a question that Cuba’s vice minister of foreign affairs asked us: why is it fair that the U.S. does lots of business with other communist states, like China and Vietnam, but shuns Cuba?

Lawrence Gumbiner: I don’t think you can state it’s fair. I don’t think there’s a rationale that can distinguish that activity. It’s the same. A U.S. citizen can travel to North Korea with less restrictions than it can travel to Cuba. The foreign policy establishment and U.S. Congress is very, very hard to agree to loosen or release the embargo right now. And for most presidents and most secretaries of state, the upside of opening up is not matched by the perceived downside risk for the — in terms of their domestic political standing.

Sharyl: Americans will hear you say one thing and the United States government say something else. What are they to make of the two entirely different pictures being portrayed?

Cossio: They would have to look at it for themselves. Cubans are not prohibited to travel to the U.S. Americans are prohibited to travel to Cuba. Americans should ask their government to allow them to freely travel to Cuba and allow them, for themselves, to judge reality. Not to have to ask for permission to seek this grant, or run the risk of being punished for exercising the wish to visit another country, and learn by themselves.

Sharyl (on-camera): A new analysis of the Cuba-China relationship concludes the two countries are likely to increase their political and economic cooperation in the next 12 months, but that it’s unlikely China will open new surveillance bases there.

Watch story here.

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