A Miami Congressman Adamantly Defends Isolating Cuba
By DAMIEN CAVEMARCH 4, 2014
Representative Mario Díaz-Balart, the Republican congressman from Miami,
has been a leader among the pro-embargo constituency for years, serving
in Congress since 2003. His aunt, Mirta, was Fidel Castro’s first wife,
leading many to argue that the divide between Cuba and the United States
over the embargo is, at its roots, a family dispute. But Mr. Díaz-Balart
argues that his position is steeped in principle, and that despite the
recent changes in Cuba — allowing for more private enterprise and travel
— American policy should remain focused on politics and human rights,
rather than on ways to use private enterprise as a way to help move the
island away from communism and authoritarian rule.
Q. and A.
My story is about Cuban Americans who are going to Cuba, and not just to
see their homes, or just to travel or bring items for their families.
These are people who are prominent Cuban-Americans who are starting
nonprofits, who are doing many different things on the island, from
supporting artists to training entrepreneurs, to supporting people after
the hurricane. My question is: Do you think this is good or bad for Cuba?
Well, it is interesting, remember what the policy has always been, and
those of us who support the policy and have worked on the policy have
always pushed for — number one is to deny funds to the regime, i.e.
through the sanctions, and that includes for example tourism on
businesses, because as you know the hotels and everything else is
basically run by the regime, it is in partnership with the regime. At
the same time it helps the internal opposition, it helps the internal
society and the opposition to the point where we actually put money —
when President Bush launched it was $45?million [in 2008] — to do that
directly, and so we have always supported helping the internal
opposition, that is not new. That has always been the two-part policy,
which is to deny funds to the regime and those funds are either through
credits or massive tourism, which is the biggest revenue source, or
would be the biggest revenue source. And try to help the internal
opposition. And it’s either folks who are willing to help the internal
opposition, we have always been supportive of that, but what we do not
want is folks to be doing things that are helping fund the regime, which
actually those funds go to help further repress the Cuban people.
A lot of these things, like Cuba Emprende, are not specifically targeted
to the opposition; it’s targeted to average Cubans, trying to give them
some assistance as they start small businesses.
Yeah, again, what we should be doing is helping the families of
political prisoners who have a hard time, you know, eating, because as
you know, you depend on the regime for everything and so obviously our
emphasis, what we have always supported, what I have always supported,
is helping the internal opposition, whether it is the families of
political prisoners, whether it is the independent labor unions, the
independent libraries, you know, that sort of folks who are the ones who
need more help than anybody else. And so again, that is what we have
always emphasized and we have always supported. So, if there are groups
that are doing that, then I welcome it.
You don´t think it is necessary to help average Cubans? Just the formal
opposition? I mean a lot of Cubans have a hard time finding what they need.
Yeah, but everyone has a hard time because we have a regime that has
been there now for over half a century, so the question is how can we
better help the Cuban people free themselves from this regime that has
been there for over half a century. And the best way to do that, is
again, deny funds to the regime in any way we can, in the best way we
can, and again, to help the internal opposition who are the ones, by the
way, who are struggling the worst and the most. Right now, I am sure you
are aware of Antúnez, whose wife may be pregnant [Jorge Luis García
Pérez, who is known as Antúnez]. They can´t even go to the doctor and
they have been harassed ever since they returned and detained since they
returned. So, if you really are interested, if folks are really
interested in helping, and then you start helping those who are the ones
who run the forefront of the liberation movement. You know, you help the
Mandelas and their families, and you help the Vaclac Havels and you help
Not emphasizing that, I think, is not understand the reality of Cuba
which is, you have Mandelas and Sharanskys — you know there are
thousands of those in Cuba and that is what I continue to believe we
should continue to emphasize, the help to civil society and the internal
opposition. Not to be something to just in essence, take away the
pressure take off or release the pressure, from the Castro regime.
Do you acknowledge that the views of the Cuban-American community have
changed and that there are far more people that are interested in
engagement than when you first got into politics? You have 400,000 Cuban
Americans who are going to Cuba every year.
There are 400,000 Cuban-American trips going back to Cuba every year,
and as The New York Times did a story only a year and a half ago, a lot
of those are folks who are going 12 to 15 times a year, so the number of
trips has increased dramatically because of the loosening of the
sanctions, the unilateral loosening of the sanctions under Obama’s
administration. But unless what the NYT said is absolutely false, which
you guys did a story saying that a number of those folks are going over
a dozen times a year, you know, really what are those numbers?
But do you acknowledge that the views have changed?
If that is the case, then why is it that there is not one Cuban-American
elected official, state or local level or federal level, who does not
support the sanctions, and does not support the embargo? Including Joe
But there are a lot of people in the Cuban-American community, leaders
at the business and political level, who are having a more nuanced
conversation — it is not so black and white. Let me give you an example.
Cuba Emprende would like find a way to invest; they want to create
incubators so they can find and help Cuban businesses. All of this is
separate from the Cuban state. This is the beginning of civil society.
They don’t have the ability to do that because the embargo prohibits
that. Would you be willing to allow investment? I know the Cubans still
don’t allow that, but from the American side would you be willing to
support that? And if not, why not?
Because as I said before, because what we have to do, the question that
has to be asked is: Is that something that will help free people from
over half a century of totalitarian dictatorship? In other words, does
the Chinese model, you know, the fascist Chinese model, is that the
solution for Cuba, where you can invest in Cuba like we do in China,
with no internal opposition, with no political parties, with no
independent labor unions legalized, with no freedom of press, available
and legal. There are folks who would like to have China 90 miles away
from the United States, as fascist, totalitarian regime where big
business can invest and make money with no labor unions, with no freedom
of press, with no political parties, with no freedom, which is why in
the law, which has strong bipartisan support in the House, in those laws
it says that for those sanctions to go away, three conditions have to be
One the one hand, freeing all the political prisoners, free the Mandelas
and the Havels and the Walesas of Cuba. Number two is allowing all those
freedoms that I just mentioned, that is in the law. Freedom of press,
labor unions etc. and then start the process towards free elections —
and then all sanctions would go away.
So the question is which one of those conditions do the Cuban people not
deserve? Before, precisely U.S. businesses go and invest, i.e. the
Chinese fascist model. There are only two answers, two solutions, two
possible futures for the Cuban people with the Castro brothers’ regime,
one is going to Poland, the Czech Republic, Spain, Portugal, you name
it, places where there have been dictatorships and now they have
democratic societies, or, yes, the Chinese, Vietnamese model, which is a
fascist dictatorship where you have foreign investment and yet the
people are still not free. Those are the two options and if you ask me
which one the internal opposition in Cuba supports, the vast majority of
them, I can refer you to two statements made by the internal opposition
saying: ‘Hey, what we want is freedom and therefore do not lift
The only thing that is required for the sanctions to go away are those
O.K. so on Twitter we took a bunch of suggested questions, and somebody
suggested that I ask you this: “Do you think the embargo has been
effective in achieving its goals?” You are talking about what might
happen if the embargo is dropped, you would create China, but has the
embargo in its five decades achieved its goals?
That question has to be asked both ways, to be honest. There are around
200 plus countries in the world, I believe but two or three have
relations with the Castro regime, I believe most of them do business
with the Castro regime, Canada, being one of them, Mexico, where you are
at being another one they do business there, tourism and everything
else. Has that, has doing business with the vast majority of the
countries of the world, has that freed the Cuban people? Has that done
something to free the Cuban people?
You know United Colors of Benetton are in Cuba. Has that freed the Cuban
people? No, what it has done is just the opposite. It has allowed the
revenue for the regime in order to continue to oppress its people. It is
the same argument about South Africa, actually. Remember the whole South
Africa thing? “Oh no, we are doing business to help the blacks, that is
why we are doing business.”
It wasn’t to help the blacks, it was to do business with slave labor.
And not until the world got serious, particularly the United States got
serious, did that regime, a very wealthy country, have to change.
But let’s talk about what Cubans want. The Cubans that I’ve talked to —
some of them are activist, real opponents, and some of them have been
put under a lot of pressure by the government — they live very difficult
lives. I said to a particular young artist, who was basically an
up-and-coming activist, what would you like to tell Cuban-Americans who
are thinking about getting involved, to Cuban-American lawmakers. And he
said: “The thing with the Cuban-American community is that for a long
time they have only looked at the end point, they have only looked at
those three conditions being met. What they don’t realize is that this
is a long process and there are a lot of steps to be taken, and there
needs to be more activity to do that because we do not have the
resources to be able to do that.” Why is that not convincing to you?
Let me just tell you for example about Yaremis Flores, or Danilo
Maldonado or Navarro, or Angel Moya, and Dr. Hilda Molina, who just
recently did a video on YouTube by the way, saying, “Please do not lift
the sanctions right now.”
Do they receive money from the American government?
No, no they don’t.
They don’t receive any democracy support?
Not that I know of. I don’t know; that I don’t know. That is a very good
question. But how about the head of the Ladies in White, Las Damas de
Blanco, who has been very clear about that, or talk to Antúnez, and
remember when there was the same group of these guys who wanted to do
business and they did a letter and got 75 people who I greatly respect,
because what we want is for the Cuban people is for them to be able to
expose whatever opinions they want, they got 75 people saying, “You
should lift the sanctions.” And then there was a letter of 500-plus
known opposition leaders and other, who at great risk wrote a letter
saying, “Do not lift the sanctions.”
So look this argument that you are telling me, which is a very good
argument, is not new. And with all due respect, your newspaper has been
writing the same thing since 1972, how the Cuban community has changed,
how the vote has changed, I can send you a million of those.
Regardless of just the Cuban-American community, the American public,
clearly a majority, supports a change in policy in Cuba.
That is an absolute lie.
That is an absolute falsehood what you just mentioned, because even in
that push poll that a group of folks that has been the largest and
strongest advocates for unilateral lifting sanctions forever, regardless
to any conditions, regardless of the repression, that poll states, when
the American people are told that there is repression in Cuba, then the
majority of American people support keeping the sanctions just when they
are informed one thing, that there is repression. Now, if they were
further informed of the fact that they hold an American hostage, if they
were further informed that they are helping a North Korea skirt their
sanctions by that ship that was stopped in Panama, if they were further
informed that they are holding American fugitives, including cop
killers, that numbers goes to about 70 percent.
So that is absolutely not the case, and the reason I am telling about
all these articles that have come out is because there has been this
wishful thinking by those that have been trying to either do business
with slave labor, with no freedom of press, with no labor unions, with
all those things that I just told you about, they have been saying this
ad nauseam for decades and it has always been proven to be false. Show
me the one American member of local government, state government or
Congress who opposes the sanctions, who opposes the embargo and I can
show you the articles in The New York Times, and it’s not only the NYT,
talking about how the community has changed, since 1972. And you are
telling me that Cuban-Americans supported lifting the sanctions during
the Reagan years? Really? So which one has been factually incorrect?
What your newspaper has been reporting or what the facts are showing.
Which one? You are telling me about a poll, but here is the poll that
matters. We have elections every two years, show me where
Cuban-Americans get elected who are against the embargo? Show me.
Again, you are oversimplifying in terms of making it the embargo, yes or
no. As I said, what you have here is a lot of people who are saying,
“Hey, is there a way to adjust it?” You in 2011 tried to insert language
into a spending bill that would have cut off travel or made it much more
difficult for Cuban-Americans to go Cuba to travel. Do you feel most
Cuban-Americans would welcome that? The cutting off travel to Cuba?
There is absolutely no doubt that when folks are confronted with the
options, which is unilaterally lifting the sanctions, asking nothing in
return, which is what the proponents of lifting the sanctions want, or,
condition the sanctions on the three conditions that are in the law,
there is overwhelming support, by the way, not only of Cuban-Americans,
of the American people.
Beyond the politics, let’s talk about practicality. A lot of people I
talked to said this is an issue of trust, and the system that you set up
creates nothing, very little interaction except with dissidents, and
then suddenly a flood of activity when these conditions are met. Do you
think that the dissidents have legitimacy in Cuba, do you think that the
assistance that they receive and the attention that you give them helps
them have legitimacy?
I think what gives them legitimacy is not any assistance that they get,
what gives them legitimacy is what they do within the island. Look, the
Ladies in White, who on Sundays they walk to the church and they get
dragged in the streets, and there are YouTube videos to show this, that
is what gives them legitimacy, not what everybody else does. It is what
they do. Antúnez has spent 17 years in prison, I am sorry, but what
legitimacy does he need? Legitimacy has nothing to do with what foreign
assistance, with what different embassies allow them to use the Internet
or not, that does not give them the credibility, what gives them the
credibility is who they are and what their actions have been. And there
are thousands of people who are standing up demanding freedom and they
are suffering horrible consequences for that.
In Marc Frank’s new book on Cuba, he talks about the “gray zone,” people
who are neither dissidents, nor supporters of the government, and what I
see is a lot of people saying “we need to work within that zone.” And I
don’t hear you saying that is a good idea.
No, well, look, again here is another fallacy. The United States, i.e.
mostly through Cuban-Americans, gives more humanitarian assistance to
the Cuban people than the rest of the world combined. So that does not
hold water. In essence, there is assistance going directly to the Cuban
people, not only to the ones that are known to be the opposition leaders
and the opposition movement but to Cubans, and it has been going on like
this for years.
Continue reading the main story
But do you support that? There are lots of people and families that are
very very strong opponents to the embargo, who give money to the
Catholic Church in Cuba.
Yeah, and the Catholic Church, summons assistance and do really good
things, to help Cubans survive that horrible system. However, as you
well know, Cardinal Ortega, who to say was controversial is an
understatement, a lot of the folks in Cuba call him Colonel Ortega, has
not been frankly very supportive, and you know, historically the Cuban
church, has not been very good with Cuba, going way back to the war of
independence. Unlike the case of Poland, or Nicaragua, where the church
has been very very strong, in the support of their people, in Cuba, the
hierarchy unfortunately, has not been. Now, there are great religious
leaders who are extremely important, and doing a great job in trying to
help the Cubans survive and we have always been very supportive of that.
But again, to the misnomer, there is a lot of assistance going to the
Cuban people, humanitarian, what we try to do, is try to make sure it
does not go directly to the government. That is what the sanctions are
In terms of travel, you have been an opponent of widening travel by
Cuban-Americans to the island, recently when Alfy Fanjul went down you
criticized him for going to his house. Do you think Cuban-Americans
shouldn’t have that right?
I criticized him for statements about, I mean, I am going to look at
this as a regular investor in essence, in other words, not focusing on
the reality of the Cuban people .
He was very clear that would only happen under the right conditions. And
you also criticized him for crying in his own house, saying he should
have been crying for the dissidents. Do you think Cuban-Americans have
the right to go back and find some way to reconcile themselves with what
The issue of property, that is for a free Cuba to decide. What I support
are efforts to help the Cuban people liberate itself from 55 years of a
repressive dictatorship. That is what I support and that is what should
be the emphasis, and what our efforts should be focused on.
I have never criticized Cuban-Americans for visiting relatives. I have
criticized Cuban-Americans when they go down there to look for
investment opportunities with the Castro regime and with those conditions.
But what about investment opportunities, you know, in a house or in a
private business, these are things that are separate from the state but
they have to pay taxes. Is that too close to supporting the state for you?
Because right now who would you be buying it from? Would you be buying
it from legitimate donors? Or would you be buying it from the regime
that stole those properties from legitimate actors? It is also bad
business sense because as you know in every country in international law
there is something about dealing with stolen property, so buying
properties that were stolen, confiscated by that regime, you are dealing
with stolen property.
But not just the property but the businesses.
Same thing. Again, all these issues that you are telling me about are
the same arguments in favor of doing businesses with the apartheid
regime in South Africa, which I think is one of the really sad points in
U.S. history, is the fact, I am a huge Reagan supporter, but I think
that was a huge huge blunder on his part when Congress supported
sanctions against South Africa to stop doing business with the apartheid
regime and President Reagan vetoed that, and Congress overruled that
veto, which I think was a very good thing for Congress to do. And the
same arguments that you are telling me right now are the same arguments
that were used in order to justify doing business with the apartheid regime.
Continue reading the main story
But you are confusing two things, you are talking about the big
businesses that are tied to government — in this case it would be the
Cuban military that runs just about every business, as I have written —
but what we are talking about here is small private businesses — for a
lot of Cuban-Americans see this as the beginning of civil society. What
you are saying is that these small businesses are in fact tied to the
No, what I am telling you is that even the “paladares,” and there are
some that are legitimate, that there are small businesses that are run
by Cubans, but even the ones that are constantly talked about in the
press, a lot of them are actually run by the regime. So you can’t take
away the fact that the regime has been there for 55 years, controls the
entire financial structure in Cuba, decides who can open a private
restaurant in Cuba or not, and if you tend to be that you are someone
unfavorable of the regime it would be very difficult to do that, that is
just the reality of life there.
So here is the question, do we then, unilaterally lift sanctions not
asking for something in return. And if we are going to ask for something
in return, what should that be? I think there are some basic freedoms
that have to be demanded in return for lifting the sanctions: freedom of
press, otherwise you have no freedom, whether we like it or not, whether
we bitch or not about the press; independent labor unions, and as a
Republican that sounds strange; political parties, freeing the political
prisoners. Or do we go there and invest and go there with our flipflops
to the beaches while Cubans are being held in prisons just for their
Raúl Castro has released a bunch of political prisoners, opening up to
private enterprise has brought in some freedom, there is more discussion
in Cuba about the future of the country than there has been in decades.
I mean, there are signs, according to some people, that the country is
making steps toward those things.
Well, it is interesting when you say that, but if you listen to the
folks, whether is Yoani Sanchez or all the folks that have been
traveling that were recently allowed to travel outside of Cuba, they
will tell you that the changes are not real, that they are just
cosmetic, and just a way for the Castro brothers to try to keep
themselves in power.
Can’t it be both an opening and an effort to keep themselves in power?
Is it possible that it is not either/or?
Here is the issue, during the Carter administration they released I
think 1,200 political prisoners, and then they took them back to prison.
Now they released the 75 and then they rearrested hundreds more. I don’t
know if you aware that last month was a record number of detentions.
There were eleven hundred detentions in Cuba, last month that is the
change we can believe in. Those are the reforms that Raúl Castro has
been imposing, increased repression.
I was there two weeks ago. There was more surveillance on the streets
than I have ever seen and I have been going to Cuba for 15 years. But
somebody said to me that is a sign of insecurity, a sign that these
changes are creating a space for things they are not familiar with.
What changes? That Cubans can buy an automobile that is the equivalent
of 250,000 U.S.D. for a Peugeot? That change? There are cosmetic changes
according to every single person
If you would go to Cuba I would send you to a couple of places where the
changes are quite visible, and whether it is the Ultimo Jueves
discussions that happens every last Thursday of the month, or Atelier de
Paladar, run by a woman that was one of the first students of Cuba
Emprende that is doing very well. It is a clearly privately owned; she
worked for 15 years to make this work and she is supporting dozens of
families with their businesses, and this kind of thing just didn’t exist
10 years ago.
Well except that Castro has done this in the past, again. In the past,
he would open up, remember, the special period, they did this then, they
would open up, allow for more investment or certain business to be run
or taxi cabs, and then Castro conveniently pulls it out again, and this
is all at the whim of the Castro brothers. That is the gist of the
problem, all of these things, whether is that the Castro brothers allow
a group of people to travel outside of the country, which by the way is
not a such gift, it is a recognized universal free human right.
Except for Americans who want to go to Cuba … under the embargo, they
don’t have that right
There is a difference and we can talk about that but I think to equate
what the Castro regime does to Cubans, and what the U.S. does is frankly …
I am not equating, but some would argue that Cubans, now with the new
travel law, have an easier time getting to the United States than
Americans have getting to Cuba.
Well, some would argue that with the loosening of Obama regulations it
has been pretty easy to get to Cuba and has been abused rather
extensively and I can show you examples of that.
Speaking more in terms of the future, what is your vision for how this
works? In five or ten years.
Here is how it works. The Castro brothers are not going to be there
forever because they are going to die, one is, what, 88 and the other is
83, and not even in good health, so the question is this. Do we
unilaterally give that regime normalized relations, unilaterally, with
Yes, but when they are gone, what happens?
When those conditions are met, sanctions go away. And that is what we
have to always keep an eye on, which is what the Cuban people deserve is
the same freedoms that we have here or that they have in Spain — those
are the freedoms the Cuban people aspire for, that is what they demand,
that is why they are hitting the streets for, that is why they are
serving prison times for, that is why they get beat and dragged in the
streets. That is what Damas de Blanco are demanding, freedom. And what
is the best way to get there? By unilaterally, giving the regime
billions of dollars asking nothing in return or conditioning the
billions of dollars that normalization would be on basic freedoms.
I understand but my question is, say those conditions are met. This is
personal for you; your parents were born in Cuba. Say the conditions are
met, what do you do? This issue gets caught up in ideas.
I am a member of Congress and I am going to run for one more time at
least so …
But do you go back to your house, do you experience some of that catharsis?
No, no, no, absolutely not. No, no, what I do, all I aspire for is for
the Cuban people to regain their freedom, end of story. Nothing else. No
more, no less.
No properties and by the way we are not a wealthy family, so we didn’t
have properties anyways, but no dreams of owning anything because we
didn’t and we don’t But that is not an issue. What I aspire is for the
Cuban people to be free. Totally free, not like in a totalitarian
fascist state like China, to be free. Cuban people deserve no less. That
is what I aspire to and when it comes to Cuba that is what I work for.
On a totally human level you have never had doubts and said “I really
want to head back and see it or even just the idea of I want to go back
First of all, they wouldn’t let me in because Chris Smith and Frank
Wolf, have been trying to get to Cuba for over a decade and they are not
allowed in by the Cuban regime
You are a Republican, you support private enterprise, what everyone is
talking about is not government but some other form of assistance that
helps private enterprise.
Again, what you are saying is that it is the China model that allows for
U.S. investment, like we did in there, which has not been really good
for human rights.
I am not talking about China. The ideas I hear are microloans for some
guy that has a restaurant and five employees; that is not China. Under
American law, the embargo, that is illegal.
Because what we want to do is do things that would help the Cuban people
free themselves from that regime. So in other words if we can help to
break the communications jam, the information jam, if we can help
through cellphones like the Bush administration did to facilitate
cellphones going into Cuba, if we can get radio broadcast and TV
broadcast and printers and CD burners, and that kind of stuff, that is
absolutely legal and encouraged. What is illegal is investing in
state-sponsored, state-owned, state-controlled enterprise. And you
mention the small paladares, the small little tokens that the regime
allows certain Cubans to have that I guess we should be very grateful
for. But I will be grateful when the Cuban people enjoy freedom.
To open their businesses without the government interfering and deciding
who can open who cannot, when they are allowed to have open and free
press and opinions without getting arrested or killed in detention. That
is what the goal has to be, not “migajas,” not crumbs, but true real
Source: A Miami Congressman Adamantly Defends Isolating Cuba –