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First Secret Meetings, Then Open Diplomacy: Leahy On Restoring Relations With Cuba

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Sen. Patrick Leahy
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Colorful antique cars have become an iconic image of Cuba. Sen. Patrick Leahy took this photograph during the first congressional delegation visit to the country since President Obama announced his intention of restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba.

This past weekend, Sen. Patrick Leahy led a special congressional delegation to Cuba. It’s part of an effort to normalize relations between the two countries – relations that were severed in 1961 when Fidel Castro came to power.

Leahy’s was the first congressional delegation visit since President Obama announced his intentions last month of ending the current restrictions between the United States and Cuba.

Sen. Leahy talked with VPR about his weekend visit and the overall plan to restore full diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.

On the basic goal of the trip

"We wanted to go down and talk to so many of the key players. Obviously the foreign minister [Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla], we spent hours with him. People like Cardinal [Jaime] Ortega. And we talked about things that have now become public, but we were doing secret meetings back and forth in New York and in Canada. Cardinal Ortega helped arrange letters to the pope [Pope Francis]. The pope talked to President Obama and sent letters back to President Obama and President Castro.

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Credit Office of Sen. Patrick Leahy
Senator Patrick Leahy meets with Abel Prieto Jimenez, former Cuban Minister of Culture and current advisor to Cuban President Raul Castro. "I don't think anybody wanted to have the courage to actually step forward," Leahy says on the decades-long freeze in diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

"In a way, we could sit back and just relax and talk about what happened. At the time it was happening, it was all very tense, because we did not know what the final result would be."

On how the secret meetings played out

"There were all these different obstacles, from the … Cubans we had in prison, to one of our spies they had in prison, and it seemed almost insurmountable. And I said, well, ‘Why try to solve every one of them? Let’s see if we can … begin normalization, and the rest will fall in line.’"

"We were doing secret meetings back and forth in New York and in Canada. Cardinal Ortega helped arrange letters to the pope. The pope talked to President Obama and sent letters back to President Obama and President Castro." - Sen. Patrick Leahy

"I met a couple different times with Raul Castro. I found him a lot ... more flexible than ... Fidel Castro did when I met with him. And it suddenly all started coming together. I think the Pope was very helpful. Raul Castro said something very interesting to me, just before the last presidential election. He said, ‘Do you think President Obama will be reelected?’ I said, ‘Yes I do.’ He said, ‘Well, I hope so, because maybe we can work something with him. He seems like a good man. I I hope he gets reelected.’ But he said, ‘I’ll be sure not to say that publicly because then he’d never get reelected.’ I think the American public – the emails I’m getting, the calls I’m getting in my office – are overwhelmingly in favor of improving our relations with Cuba."

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Credit Sen. Patrick Leahy
Vermont Rep. Peter Welch, right, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) meet with officials in Cuba.

On why it took so long to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba

"I don’t think anybody wanted to have the courage to actually step forward. It’s a lot easier to say no than to say yes ... It actually took a lot of bravery for Richard Nixon to go to China. Some thought it was the third rail of American politics. But what do you want? To get elected, or to do the right thing with Cuba? Well, I found that I could be helpful in this because in Vermont, we did not have an electorate that was strongly one way or the other. And I think I’d built enough of a reputation in Vermont that people knew I would try to do the right thing, as I have with the ban on land mines and other issues. Now, as soon as President Obama announced [his intention to re-open relations with Cuba], he started getting very positive reaction from Central America and Latin America that before, they kind of looked at the United States [and] considered us more of an out-of-step bully. Now, we had our reasons; Cuba had their reasons, but nobody could see a reason for us to keep the way we were going. Certainly not in this century."

On those who say it's a huge mistake to restore diplomatic relations with a country that confiscated private property, that eliminated their political enemies and imposed a communist dictatorship  

"I think the same arguments were made to President Nixon when he wanted to reopen relations with China. It was the same thing when President George H.W. Bush and others wanted to renew relations with Vietnam. And I could give a whole lot of other countries: We fought a war with Germany and Japan, and the Vichy France. But obviously we went ahead with restoring relations with them."

"I'm in no way excusing some of the excesses of the Castro regime any more than I excuse the excesses of the Batista regime before them. But the fact is, we have to look at what makes sense for the United States. And it makes no sense for the most powerful, wealthiest nation on earth to act as though we are threatened by a small island nation like Cuba."

"I’m in no way excusing some of the excesses of the Castro regime any more than I excuse the excesses of the Batista regime before them. But the fact is, we have to look at what makes sense for the United States. And it makes no sense for the most powerful, wealthiest nation on earth to act as though we are threatened by a small island nation like Cuba. We’re not. I think we look foolish in the eyes of the rest of the world. I realize there are some who, in this country, think they have political gain by saying it’s terrible we renew these relations, others because they truly feel that way. And they have the right to their opinion."

On the key issues that still need to be resolved before the United States opens an embassy in Cuba, and Cuban diplomats come to the United States

"One of the first things I’d do is make it easier for them to travel around our country, and for our diplomats to travel around their country without having to get permission everywhere they go. I mean, that’s why I met with their foreign minister in New York City, because he could go to the United Nations. It would take all kinds of things for him to come to Washington. Now, that’s one thing that should be done.

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Credit Office of Sen. Patrick Leahy
Sen. Patrick Leahy and Marcelle Leahy meet with Cardinal Jaime Ortega. The cardinal, whom Leahy first met 15 years ago, helped facilitate secret communications between President Obama, Pope Francis and Raul Castro.

"I would work as quick as we can to restore regular air service between the United States and Cuba. There are a lot of companies who want to, who make it easier to have mail service if we do that. The thing that I would like as much as anything, is if some of our Internet [companies] could be allowed to operate. Now this, I think, causes a lot of concern among the Cubans, and I’m sure they would love to control what people say on the Internet. And as a matter of fact, once that starts, they’re not going to be able to control it. That’s going to be the thing that’s going to  bring about democracy as much as anything. Now, when people have a free exchange of ideas – and we already have some student exchange now. We should have a lot more."

On the potential to have additional agricultural exchange programs between Vermont and Cuba

"You know, we did this once before with the Holstein Friesian Society, and getting Holsteins down there. I think Cuba’s going to be a double-edged sword. They’ve got to do more to develop what could be some potential agricultural steps in Cuba. They do not do anywhere near enough now. But in the meantime, there are things we can export. One example that’s given to us is powdered milk. Most of the milk they get there is reconstituted; it’s sent there as powdered milk, and then they add the water. But they get it from New Zealand. Vermont’s a lot closer to New Zealand  – we could sort of be sending dairy products. They have a shortage of cheeses there."

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