On July 20, the Cuban flag was raised over Cuba’s newly reopened embassy in Washington, DC, marking a rapprochement in relations between the U.S. and Cuba after 54 years. Travel and banking restrictions have been eased but the two countries have yet to establish full diplomatic and economic normalization, including the lifting of the embargo.
Here to discuss the significance of all this is Michael Ratner. Michael is President Emeritus at the Center for Constitutional Rights, and he’s a board member for the Real News. Thanks for joining us, Michael.
MICHAEL RATNER, PRESIDENT EMERITUS, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: [Good to be] with you, Jessica.
DESVARIEUX: So Michael, what do you make of all of this?
RATNER: Well, you said a number of important things. Yes, it does mark a rapprochement of sorts, but as you pointed out, there’s still an economic embargo and that’s severe. There’s some other issues which I’ll address. But I had the honor, really, of going to the opening and watching the flag go up. I went down to the celebration on Monday. One of those 95-Washington-degree days.
The Embassy is this huge limestone building on Embassy Road in Washington. It’s not that it hasn’t been open over the last few years, it just wasn’t called an embassy. It has not been the Cuban Embassy since 1961 when the U.S. ordered it closed, and then the U.S. closed its embassy in Havana as well. Fifty-five years later–now 54 years later, it’s finally an embassy again.
During that period it’s not like there was nothing going on in that building. It was what’s called an interest section. An interest section is not the same level as an embassy. It was actually run by the Swiss as the Cuban interest section. Likewise in Havana, the U.S. Embassy was run by the Swiss as the U.S. interest section. It could do things like issue visas, et cetera, but it wasn’t–there were no diplomatic relations.
As I said, I got there in time to see the most–one of the most moving events of my life, because I’ve worked on the Cuban struggle in support of the Cubans for some 40 years. And I got there to see the Cuban flag raised in front of a group of us with people singing the Cuban national anthem. It just brought tears to everyone there. We then heard, we went inside the Embassy, and we heard a talk by the foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez. And you might have expected, or people who don’t know Cuba might have expected, oh, it’s going to be a soft talk. He’s going to say how wonderful this all is, and now we’re the best of friends, et cetera et cetera.
Well, he’s Cuban, and the Cubans have been really tough and good on their revolution and not conceding very much of anything since that revolution. They have not surrendered. And what he talked–had not surrendered. And what Bruno Rodriguez talked about was the history of its relationships, of Cuba’s relationship, with the United States.
It began early on with the liberation fighter and a poet named Jose Marti. Jose Marti wrote the words to Guantanamera, a well-known historical figure both in the independence movement in Puerto Rico as well as in Cuba. And he was killed early on when he was shot off his horse within a week because he wasn’t a fighter. But he wrote a book about the United States. And as Bruno Rodriguez said, that book said the United States is this wonderful, interesting and important place. And then he thought, oh my God, this is interesting. And then all of a sudden, Rodriguez goes on and says, but be careful. This country can essentially eat you up and absorb you.
So that was his first note. His next note was about something which perhaps a lot of our viewers don’t know, the Platt Amendment. The Platt Amendment was essentially part of the Cuban constitution which the United States be required be put in in the early 1900s as a condition of, quote, independence. And that essentially allowed the United States to intervene in Cuban affairs whenever it wished to. He then went on to say at the same time Cuba was forced to cede Guantanamo in southeastern Cuba, and that’s where the U.S. military base remains today.
And then Bruno continued. U.S. has supported dictatorships in Cuba, including of course the last one, which was Batista. And then in 1959 when the revolution finally triumphed, the U.S. refused to recognize it and did everything in the world to undercut it. They didn’t recognize it, they fought against it, they did terrorism against it. The Bay of Pigs is of course well known. And then Bruno Rodriguez went on to say, as we just said, and then today there is still Guantanamo and Guantanamo must be returned. And there is still the embargo. And we want real recognition and sovereignty.
So it was a tough speech. I mean, not an angry speech. But just a tough speech that indicated to all those people worried about what’s going to happen in Cuba this revolution is not going to go away easily, despite what the United States may hope.
Now as I said, it’s a great victory for Cuba despite the fact that there’s a ways to go to get rid of the embargo, get back Guantanamo, et cetera. But they’ve survived. They’re not giving in. And many people don’t realize how hard it’s been for Cuba. Cuba in 1959 had 85 percent of its trade with the United States. Three years later that number was zero. So Cuba had nothing left in terms of trade. No exports, no imports, nothing. And then it struggled through that and eventually the Soviet Union came and replaced that trade. So that trade again with the Soviet Union was 85 percent of Cuba’s trade. Then in 1990 what happens, the Soviet Bloc falls and Cuba again, the economy goes down to zero. But Cuba got through it.
They then got through, of course, the Bay of Pigs. They got through the attempt to assassinate Fidel. They got through the fact that Cuba was isolated in the early part of the revolution from every single country in Latin America. Kicked out of the organization [of] American states. No country was allowed to relate to it or trade to it.
And then despite all that, they saved the revolution. And let’s think about it today. The tables have now been turned. Instead of Cuba being isolated, the U.S. was isolated. There was a meeting at Panama a few months ago. The U.S. was said, yes, you can come, but Cuba’s coming and every other country is coming. Every other country said Cuba has to be back in the OAS. We have to continue our relations with them. The U.S. I think at that point, rather than stand outside the entire hemisphere, cried uncle and said okay, we’re going to start a process of recognition and getting our relationships back.
Thinking about Cuba, I was asked when I was there, Michael, what do you think of the importance of the Cuban revolution, and what kind of example is it? Well, for me as a person growing up in the ’70s and my political evolution, it was perhaps the most important country in revolution in the world. And it remains that, I think, today for many people. But what is it an example of?
Within Cuba, what it did was something no other country or almost no other country does, is it leveled the playing field. After the revolution there were no rich, there were no poor, everybody was roughly the same. Everybody got healthcare, schools, education. They took the lesson of the rights that people are entitled to, economic and social rights, and they used them with a–they used them with, they gave everybody those rights. You know, people used to complain there’s not free speech, et cetera. There’s not elections. But in fact there was more, I would say, popular support. More popular input into the government process than we probably have in the United States. And sure, their, quote, free speech rights were not exactly the same as the United States, and they aren’t something that people in the United States necessarily agreed with.
But the question is and the question for me has always been, what I want to see first. I want to see children looking healthy, having houses, getting an education, having healthcare, and being able to be part of a society and not begging on the street. And that’s the example Cuba gave domestically.
And I had personal experience with Cuba internationally. Internationally its most famous thing probably was apartheid. The effort to defeat apartheid in South Africa. And what they, they sent as part of that effort to both support Angola against the colonists as well as against South Africa, which was invading South Africa, which was invading Angola, Cuba sent 25,000 troops. And in a key battle in 1980 or so they defeated the South African army. And that was really, if you have to put a mark on the real shift in the beginning of the end of apartheid, it was that battle that the Cubans won with the Angolans, and some apartheid activists, against the South African army. It was the beginning of the end of apartheid.
And I remember, I was in Cuba in 1976. I have been their many times. I was there for a and I did construction. On May 1, 1976 which is of course a workers’ holiday in most of the world except the United States, I stood in Revolution Square in Havana with 100,000 at least other people. Fidel was giving a speech. I still remember the speech as if it was yesterday. He said to everybody in that audience, we are going into Angola. We are going into Angola because of apartheid, because of South Africa. We are going in, and this is the words that struck me, because in the blood of every Cuban vein is black blood. In other words, we’re all black. And of course that’s, that’s true in Cuba.
So that, that was incredibly moving on the international solidarity. Of course, we were all probably more familiar with Venezuela, where Cuba sends, still has 25,000 doctors. And I have personal experience in Central America where I was working with the revolutions in El Salvador, in Nicaragua, in Grenada. And the Cubans were deeply involved in supporting those revolutions. If there were disagreements among the leaders they would meet in Havana to try and straighten them out. And you could go on and on.
So I saw this solidarity with my own, with my own eyes. And then I was in Grenada ’80-’83. Cuba supported the revolution there, supported Maurice Bishop. One of the reasons the United States claims it went in, of course that’s not the reason, is because Cuba was building the international airport. It gave the Grenadians fishing boats. And when the U.S. invaded that island the Cubans fought the Grenadians even though it was a completely hopeless cause against the United States. So this is real international solidarity, which I think is an incredible lesson, incredible lesson for all of us.
And then I want to end on this, what a great joy it was for me to be in this incredible embassy. It’s fixed up, it’s absolutely drop-dead beautiful inside. And then we did something that of course I’d never done in there, done before. They had a big room set up with a bar with the handwriting of Ernest Hemingway on top of it, because he had lived in Cuba for a long time and he had actually known Fidel, and there were some pictures of him and Fidel. And on that bar were hundreds of the Cuban drink, mojitos. So it was a joyous occasion, important occasion. I’m sorry that a number of my friends who worked so long in the struggle could not live to see it, but it was really incredible to be there some 54 years after the embassy closed and some 56 years after the revolution. And it’s still with us and vital after all this time.
DESVARIEUX: It sounded like such a glorious day, Michael. Thank you so much for recounting that, and thank you for joining us.
RATNER: Thank you for having me on the Real News.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.