Press Conference By Members Of The Congressional Black Caucus
Subject: The Caucus' Trip To Cuba To Meet With Fidel Castro
Briefers: Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Chairwoman, Congressional Black Caucus; Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC); Rep. Laura Richardson (D-CA); Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL); Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH); Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO)
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REP. LEE: Thank you all for coming on such short notice. We have just returned, as you know, from Cuba -- probably about an hour ago.
Let me first thank our leadership, our Speaker, Chairman Obey; I wanted to especially thank the Department of the Air Force, the Department of State, the United States Interest Section, of course the Cuban people and the government of Cuba -- for ensuring that our mission, our Congressional delegation accomplished its mission, and we did. And I'm very pleased to be here today to report back the results of our visit.
First, let me introduce members of our delegation, Congressman Melvin Watt, from North Carolina; Congresswoman Laura Richardson, from Long Beach, California; Congressman Bobby Rush, from Chicago, Illinois; Congresswoman Laura Richardson -- excuse me, Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, from Cleveland, Ohio; and Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, from Kansas City, Missouri. Congressman Mike Honda, who is chair of the Asian Pacific American Caucus, was with us for a couple of days before returning to California.
We departed for Cuba, and our mission was -- as an official U.S. delegation, was really to look at the trade, cultural, educational aspects of U.S.-Cuba relations. We had many productive meetings with the minister of foreign affairs, foreign trade and investment. We met with the families of the Cuban Five; we met with the Martin Luther King Center; the representatives from the National Council of Churches.
Congressman Cleaver and Congressman Rush actually preached sermons on Palm Sunday at two Cuban churches. April 4th was the 41st anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and our delegation held a memorial at a memorial site in Cuba and placed a wreath at the memorial.
We also had the opportunity to visit the Latin American Medical School, where students from all over Latin America are receiving a medical school education. We have, I believe, about 114 American students at that campus. I know previously I had several constituents who went to school -- medical school at that school. We have students from all around the country, though, there now, and we met with the students and saw the campus today.
We also had a chance to visit the staff -- and there's about 300 staff of the United States Interest Section, both Cuban and American. We had the privilege to meet with President Raul Castro last night, and three of us met with Fidel Castro today. And I must say -- and I know there have been many questions about that, that President, former President Fidel Castro is very engaging, very energetic; discussed a wide range of issues, as did President Raul Castro.
Our conclusion, of course, is that given the new direction in our foreign policy, that it's time to look at a new direction in our policy toward Cuba. The 50-year embargo just hasn't worked -- just hasn't worked. American citizens should have the right to travel to Cuba. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as well as other business organizations, believe that it's in our economic interest to do business with Cuba, so do we.
And (the) conclusion, and our recommendation -- and we will be contacting our president, our leadership, the Speaker and the secretary of State right away, to sit down with them and talk about our results and recommendations. But, bottom line is we believe that it's time to open dialogue and discussion with Cuba, time to talk to Cuba.
We are convinced, based on the meetings which were held, that the Cubans do want dialogue; they do want talks; and they do want normal relations with the United States of America. And I believe that it's in the United States' best interests to do that.
So, let me stop now and as Congressman Mel Watt -- each one of the members of our delegation will have a statement, and then we'll open for Q & A. Thank you very much.
REP. WATT: First of all, let me thank, on behalf of all of our delegation, our leader, Barbara Lee, for organizing and marshaling the resources and the people to go on this important Congressional delegation trip. This is actually my second time in Cuba. I was there in 2004, and made essentially the same assessment in 2004 that Barbara Lee has reported that we have made based on this trip.
I think, in addition to the fact that the embargo has not served a useful purpose and has not been effective in impeding -- or certainly not strangling Cuba even if it had been effective, I had long ago concluded that it was just not consistent with the way we should be conducting foreign policy. And, in light of the president's avowed statements during his campaign -- this president's statements during the campaign, it certainly reinforces the notion that you can't not talk to people and expect to get a desirable result out of failing or refusing to communicate with them.
So, I'm perfectly comfortable with the bottom line that Representative Lee has just expressed, and we hope to be able to move the Congress, the administration, and the American people -- to the extent that they are not already there, in that direction so that we can change this policy as soon as possible.
REP. LEE: Congresswoman Laura Richardson.
REP. RICHARDSON: Good afternoon everyone. I'm Congresswoman Laura Richardson from California, the 37th Congressional District.
Let me say, first of all, that when I came to Congress I heard the discussion that the Congressional Black Caucus was the "conscience of the Congress." And, through all the many things that we've talked about, I have really experienced that now over the last five days.
The Congressional Black Caucus is not new to going to Cuba. Many of the members have had relationships and have been there since the '70s. Trips began in 1999, 2000, and now we have been able, due to the leadership of our current Chairwoman of the CBC, have been able to reengage that process.
And so the first thing I want to make clear is that there is a role for the CBC today in Congress and with this administration, because our role is to go out, to talk, to embrace, to understand, and to ensure that communities, like ours, that there's an understanding and that we can be productive and move forward in a positive way.
Today was a very interesting day. Yesterday -- well, over the last couple days, we had a chance to meet with foreign ministers, defense, trade. I serve on the Homeland Security committee; I also serve on the Transportation committee, so meeting with the minister of trade to talk about how, when in my district we have a reduction of trade by over 15 percent, being able to reach out to a public of over 11 million people is important.
I want to also say that meeting with President Raul Castro was -- he was very open. We had about a two-hour meeting, and then we had a dinner meeting after that where many discussions were held. But even with all of that, what kind of topped it off for the five days for me, is that while we were sitting there I asked the president, could we meet with Fidel Castro.
And the reason why I asked that question, and I had stressed it on so many meetings that we had had leading up to that, and that was there are many Americans, there are many Cubans who did not live the Revolution.
I'm not old enough -- I wasn't born when the Revolution took place; neither was I born, you know, when we saw the results of that.
And so what I think President Obama has had the ability to do -- as we saw yesterday in his speech with Turkey, is that one of the things I watched on the news is that he said, "it's time to turn the page." And so we now have, not only citizens of America, but we actually have members of Congress who have an opportunity to write legislation, who come to the table not with Cold War ideas but of ideas of really looking at something and seeing, is, in fact, is it working, and what can we do better in the future?
As I close, what I want to say that I got out of that meeting -- with meeting with Fidel Castro and the other ministers who were so kind to us, was, 1) I spoke to Congresswoman Lee -- I believe it was on the plane, and I said to her, I intend upon bringing forward legislation to ensure that we have real history in our history books in America.
You know, I was under completely different impressions. When we got off the plane, it was an authorized U.S. trip, that we had support with the United States Air Force. We had the freedom to travel. We had the freedom to speak. And we also had the freedom of religion -- as was said, that two members actually, in an Episcopal church and a Baptist church, ministered.
So the time for -- what I feel that I got out of this trip, is to really stand with this delegation, and to stand with so many others who've been talking about this for years, and to call on the president of, as we're looking at policies in other countries throughout this world, that we must do the same with Cuba as well, because they were inviting, they were open; and, most of all -- I would close about the conversation with Fidel, he listened.
He said the exact same words that President Obama has said. He sat there, he listened, he heard out what we said, and he also asked a very important thing. He said, how can we -- how can we, as Cuba, help President Obama? How fortunate are we, as Americans, to have an opportunity, 50 years later, of not a fighting, not of carrots and not of fists, but wanting to see what we can do. Thank you.
REP. RUSH: I'm Congressman Bobby Rush of Illinois -- Chicago. And this is the dawning of a new day, and it relates to the new relationships that must be established with the U.S. government, the Cuban government, the American people and the Cuban people. The 50 years of foolishness is over and it's time now for the children to go sit in the corner and for adults to take center stage.
As we approach this Resurrection weekend -- the Easter weekend, one of the passages in the Bible talks about the veil being torn, and that the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross at Calvary was for the redemption of mankind, the reconciliation. So, I think that it was very appropriate for us to go and spend this time in Cuba in order to reconcile the perceived differences and to reestablish the human relationships that existed prior to this blockade that has not worked.
I believe that it's time now for our nation to remove Cuba from the list of terrorist nations. If Iran, Iraq, North Korea and other nations are not on the list of terrorist nations, then why should Cuba remain on the list? Indeed, why was it on the list at all?
I was a member of an organization that in the early '60s -- mid- '60s (that) was termed, was labeled by the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, as the "number one threat" to national security, so I know asinine labels and foolhardy approaches when I see them. J. Edgar Hoover was wrong and our policies over the last 50 years have been wrong.
Helms-Burton must be repealed, in my opinion. The families must be allowed to (meet ?) families. I think that the restrictions against the families of the Cuban Five should be eliminated and they should be allowed to visit their families. Some of them -- mothers haven't seen sons, and daughters haven't received -- haven't seen fathers, and wives haven't seen husbands in over 10 years, in some instances. That should be eliminated and we should restore the family relationships because we certainly stand for higher principles than are represented and reflected by these principles.
American business must be allowed to do business with Cuba, and vice versa. I am the chair of the Commerce -- on the subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, on the Committee on Energy and Commerce, which has the jurisdiction and some authority to review trade policies and to promote trade and tourism here in this nation and abroad. And we certainly will be entertaining the idea of conducting some hearings on this particular matter.
Cuban cargo must be allowed to be carried on Cuban ships and free -- Americans must be allowed to freely travel. In our meeting with Raul Castro, as was indicated, it was a total of four hours, and he was a very engaging individual. But, what I remember, other than his mind, and how sharp his mind is, is his human -- sense of humor. He laughed at himself, and was also a person who had a certain comity that was ingratiating. And he was a down-to-earth, kind man who I thought resembled someone who I would say is as close as a neighbor.
In our meeting with President (sic) Castro, we were invited into his home. And we're going to some magnificent estate. He had a very modest home. And we were met at the front door by his lovely wife. And she was a very warm person. So, it was almost like visiting an old friend when we visited with him.
Our conversation -- the give-and-take of our conversation was very worthwhile and very engaging. He asked us some questions, and he wanted the thoughts, and one of the things that he asked us a lot about was Dr. Martin Luther King. He wanted to know more about Dr. King. He wanted us to recommend some books, and so we promised to send him some of the books in Spanish about Dr. Martin Luther King.
The Cuban people are very warm people and they deserve -- they don't deserve the treatment that our nation has been engaged in over the last 50 years. They're a strong people, and they can withstand it, and they withstand it. I told President Castro that in my household he is known as the ultimate survivor. But, the Cuban people, they want to have the kind of relationship that they had with the U.S. prior to the blockade, and they deserve that.
They're a modest people, fun-loving people, and they want to trade with American companies, and they want to invest -- American investment. Raul Castro said that he wanted to have manufacturers not just to come in with (a part ?), but to come in with entire manufacturing plants. These were just some of his requests and some of his ideas.
So, again, it's the dawning of a new day. We have to make sure that we do all we can in the Congress to turn back this 50-year, half- century epoch of emnity and exaggeration. The American people have to be told the truth, and they've been lied to for too long regarding Cuba and the so-called threat of Cuba.
REP. LEE: Congresswoman Marcia Fudge from Cleveland, Ohio.
REP. FUDGE: Good afternoon. I'm Representative Fudge from Cleveland.
And I just want to say very briefly that, first, much of what we were able to do when we were in Cuba is really, because of the relationships that have been set up by our chair -- and I again want to thank her for making sure that we could meet with all the people we needed to meet with, because it's my understanding that we are one of the very few delegations that has ever met with some of the ministers that we met with, and the only delegation from America that has ever met with President Castro, so I do want to thank her.
As well, I want to say that while we were there, every day, I believe, we were front page. We were on television every day, because they got it. They understood the significance of us being there. They understood more than we understand here how important it is for a neighbor that's 90 miles off our shores to want to be friends with the people next door to them.
They understood that we might indeed be the people who could talk with those who are in decision-making positions to open a dialogue. So we went there not knowing truly what to expect, but certainly we came back carrying their expectations that we would do what we believed was right by talking to the people who can, in fact, make change.
So I do want to thank them for the confidence they placed in us, because they want very much for us to extend a hand of friendship. And I certainly hope that we will do that. As well, they want for us to understand and respect that they run a nation the way they believe is best and that there is no one way to run a country. There's no one way that people should live.
So I certainly hope that we would think about that as we think about our policy. And they're encouraged by the fact that we are now in what we have called or our administration has called as a new way of being more diplomatic with people around the world. And I certainly hope that people will be included in that number. And again, Madame Chair, I thank you for the invitation to participate in this most important trip.
REP. LEE: Congressman Emanuel Cleaver from Kansas City, Missouri.
REP. CLEAVER: For the past 50 years, the United States has been swimming in the Caribbean sea of delusion. We have deluded ourselves into believing that if we isolated Cuba, that the government of Fidel Castro would collapse.
Fifty years since we made that declaration, we are the only nation that is isolated. Every nation in the Western Hemisphere has a diplomatic relationship with Cuba. The nations of the EU are on a diplomatic level with Cuba. The United States is the nation still swimming in delusions. And that must change.
REP. LEE: Okay, we'll open now for a few questions. Could you give us your name and the news outlet that you're with? We'll start with the first row and then go to the second row.
Q Thank you, Ms. Lee. Chad Pergram with Fox News.
Can one of you please confirm whether or not one of you describes certain sectors of the United States, according to a report from the Castro government, that parts of the United States are still racist? And secondarily, was there anything about the United States being called upon -- you thought the United States should apologize?
REP. LEE: I don't have any comment with regard to that. I am not privy to anyone saying that in any meeting, unless --
REP. CLEAVER: That did not happen.
REP. LEE: That did not happen.
REP. CLEAVER: That did not happen.
REP. LEE: No, I don't remember that.
Q And what about the apology? Anybody -- did they offer that, that the United States should apologize for -- (inaudible)?
REP. LEE: No. No.
Q Donna Smith with Reuters.
Can you just give us an idea of how Mr. Fidel Castro appeared in his health during your conversations, and how -- (inaudible) -- compared to previous meetings?
REP. LEE: Sure. I have been part of delegations to Cuba since the mid '70s and have seen and met with Fidel Castro on several occasions in a variety of capacities. He has always been engaging, very specific, very clear, very talkative, very energetic, has a lot of bold ideas, but has always said that the Cuban people were friends of the American people and wanted to see normal relations take place. That's been consistent over the years that I have been in meetings with him.
And his health -- of course, he has been ill. But I think we will agree that he was very healthy, very energetic, and very clear- thinking. And he was very engaging. And his wife was very, I would say, congenial, hospitable. And as Congressman Rush said, they live in very modest means and it was quite, you know, a moment to behold.
REP. RUSH: I just wanted to also add this. At the conclusion of the meeting, there was a photographer who came in to take pictures of everybody. And after those pictures were taken and we were on our way back to our transportation to the airport, one of the fellows that was with us said, "Well, that was Castro's son." And so his son was, you know, taking photographs. His wife was there, being the most charming hostess that you ever wanted to meet. And here President Castro was just being very engaging, very warm, very friendly and very open with us.
REP. LEE: Right here. What is your name?
Q Jim Abrams with AP.
REP. LEE: AP.
Q You said that Fidel Castro said the exact same words that President Obama has said. He said, "How can we as Cubans help President Obama?" Can you elaborate on that, on what he was referring to there?
REP. RICHARDSON: Actually, that's not quite what I said. What I said was is that when President Obama gave his speech just yesterday in Turkey, he talked about the need for the United States -- we as a country, we needed to turn the page. And he was referencing relations, foreign relations, and how we need to look past, as I said, the Cold War kind of mentality and move past that.
Yes, we have history. We have good history and we have not so good history. But the point is, it's history. And we need to move forward. And so what I said was Fidel Castro -- he, after, you know, brief discussions -- he's known Ms. Lee for quite some time -- you know, he leaned in and he said, "I understand from the meetings one of the things that you've said is we're going to have to work together." And he leaned forward.
And what I'd like to share of my experience -- I think you asked about his health -- when I walked in, he knew my name. He knew my district. He was aware of the iceberg situation. And he said, "I'd better watch out. My port might, you know, go into the ocean." I mean, he was very well aware of what was going on.
But what really was amazing to me is he leaned in, he looked directly into our eyes, quite aware of what was happening, and said to us, "How can we help? How can we help President Obama?" He talked about the fact that he had watched the campaign. You know, for people who seem to think that in Cuba people don't have shoes, they don't have jobs, they don't have ice cream -- I mean, these people are living and working and participating as many -- in fact, some were even in a better situation than in some portions of my district.
And so when he talked about -- when he said he watched the election, he listened to the speeches, you know, he read the information, and I got a sense -- this is my own personal opinion -- I got a sense that he really wants President Obama to succeed. He sincerely wants an opportunity to -- I think in his lifetime to see a change in America. And that's what the trip was all about.
REP. LEE: Right here.
Q Fernando Vizaro (sp), Univision.
As the administration has said that they will make some changes in maybe easing the travel restrictions, and possibly maybe having unlimited visits by Cuban-Americans and possibly if the Senate and the House push lifting the restrictions for Americans, what would be their reaction? Did you talk about that with the Castros? And how would they react to that?
REP. LEE: Well, let me first say I applaud President Obama for lifting up -- living up to many of his campaign pledges with regard to Cuba. And I think this is a necessary first step. I believe there are over 100 co-sponsors on the legislation now that would lift the travel ban. Americans have a right to travel to Cuba. Why deny Americans that opportunity to travel 90 miles away to determine what they think about Cuba and to go on vacation or travel for whatever reason?
And so I hope that this delegation will be able to talk to our leadership and the president actually before the Summit of the Americas, which is coming up in Trinidad, I believe, April 17th, to talk about why we believe that a full lifting of all travel restrictions, as well as lifting the embargo, makes a heck of a lot of sense. And the moment is now to do that. And I believe that the Cubans -- I'm convinced that the Cubans want this also. First of all, the tourist trade would -- I believe it was the IMF or some international agency determined the tourist trade would double if the embargo were lifted and if Americans could travel to Cuba.
Secondly, the Cuban people want to meet American people, engaging in cultural and educational exchanges. American people are our best ambassadors. Trade relations; the Chamber of Commerce wants us to do business in Cuba. They want to buy products from the United States. Cuba opens a whole new market for U.S. businesses. Cuba wants to sell to the United States. The United States farmers and others should be able to sell to Cuba. And so we found an openness and a willingness to engage in all forms of normal relations between countries that any country would naturally engage in.
We'll come back.
Q Can you address -- I'm Jill Jackson, CBS News.
I know that you said on the trip and you're saying now that Cuba is a wonderful place and that we should normalize relations. But are you saying that there are not human rights abuses in Cuba, that their government does protect the people and there shouldn't be any conditions at all --
REP. LEE: We're not -- yeah.
Q -- (inaudible)?
REP. LEE: Thanks for that question. We're not saying anything. All we're saying is that two sovereign nations should be able to sit down and talk about their differences and what they have in common. And we discussed how -- and we're not -- and Congressman Cleaver reminds us, we're not there to negotiate anything.
We're there to, you know, look at what is taking place, talk to people, come back and make some recommendations to our administration.
But we're convinced that the Cuban government -- and they said -- President Raul Castro said this also -- that everything is on the table; discussions, dialogue, no preconditions. We'll talk about all of the issues that need to be addressed, as long as there's mutual respect and a recognition of the sovereignty of both countries. I mean, this is a nation; Cuba is a nation. And I think that if we would move in that direction based on those principles, we'd see some great things happen.
REP. RUSH: Madame Chair, if I could just say one thing in regard to that. Let us end this double standard. You know, we don't -- the question of human rights -- and I've been a fighter for human rights all my life, and put my life on the line for human rights -- but the question of human rights don't come up when we are talking about North Korea. The question of human rights don't -- is not a part of the issues when we're talking about other nations; China. You know, even if they are, they're not -- they don't stop trade and stop conversations between the two sovereign governments. They may be a part of the discussions, but they don't stop anything.
And what we're saying now is let's just -- let's major in majors and stop majoring in minors, because the American people deserve it and they want it and they need it. We need to have access to the Cuban market, and the Cubans need to have access to the American market. It's about good business sense.
REP. LEE: Right here.
Q Deirdre Walsh with CNN.
Just to follow up on the question about the meeting with Fidel and Raul, were there any specific messages that either leader wanted you to relay to President Obama or Secretary Clinton other than the need to talk? Was there any request for direct dialogue regarding U.S. leaders?
REP. LEE: No, there were no specific messages. But I think the message to us is very clear, and that is, they are communicating their willingness and their desire to sit down and have dialogue and discussions, leading to hopefully normal diplomatic relations.
Q As a follow-up, why do you think it is that the leaders that you met with have sort of a special relationships with members of the Black Caucus? Is there -- can you explain a little bit of the history of why they decided to meet with you?
REP. LEE: Well, we asked for a meeting. I and other members have been trying to end this embargo since the '70s. And so we have visited Cuba on many occasions. In the late '90s we visited as members of the Congressional Black Caucus. And there have been subsequent visits. And so we continue to do our work to try to end this embargo, and I believe other members of Congress also are engaged in this -- Congressman Mike Honda; Congressman Nydia Velazquez was going with us to Cuba. And so there are many members of Congress who have been engaged in a variety of capacities to try to normalize relations.
We just decided the time was now, and we decided to put together this visit, to do this immediately, because we think that we have this window of opportunity now with a president who is seeking a new way in the world, a new direction. And we are in the process of reshaping our image and our role in the world, and where better to do that than 90 miles off the shores of America?
REP. RICHARDSON: Can I --
REP. LEE: Right here, sure.
REP. RICHARDSON: I took some notes in the various ministers' meetings. However, I think, out of respect to the president, President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, I think we owe it, as the chairwoman had said, to present directly to them first what those comments and questions in further more detailed discussions.
What I will say, though, is it wasn't just about -- and I'm going to say this again -- it wasn't about just what they wanted. It was about how we can work together. For example, I represent the area of Long Beach. And so, being on Homeland Security, there was a discussion about migration and there was a discussion about drug trafficking. There was, you know, discussions of things that we as border communities that are issues currently in the United States with other countries, their awareness and their willingness to work with us. The Coast Guard -- they commented they have a very good relationship, you know, and they've established the process and how that works.
But there was an openness, not just "These are the things we've thought about or we've talked about over the last 50 years." It was also "Here are some of the things that we know we have a common concern and should be of common discussions."
REP. LEE: We visited the biotech center, for example, and talked about vaccines and the development of pharmaceuticals which could possibly benefit the American public tremendously. In Cuba, as a result of their development of a vaccine for Hepatitis-B, the rates of Hepatitis-B have significantly been lowered, if not fully extinguished.
And so I saw -- and I represent Emeryville, California, the Center for Biotechnology, and I saw many, many opportunities that, should we have normal relations, for my biotech companies and the city and the Center for Biotechnology and Cuba to engage in that would benefit tremendously both of our populations and also the world. And so it just doesn't make sense not to have normal relations with Cuba.
We'll take one more question.
Q Lesley Clark with the Miami Herald.
You mentioned that you met with a number of ministers and government officials. Did you meet with any of the dissident groups or any NGOs or any civil society folks, other than the -- I think you said you met with a family from the Cuban Five.
REP. WATT: Yes, we did meet with the families of the Cuban Five. The Congressional Black Caucus has had delegations there before, and we've consistently had a dialogue with a number of the Afro-Cuban leaders in Cuba. But on this trip we did not have a direct conversation with them. I had -- in fact, I still have on my BlackBerry some exchanges that we had leading up there to this trip, and we're continuing to dialogue with them, but not on this particular trip did we meet with them directly.
REP. LEE: Let me thank our staff, Patrice Willoughby, all of our staffs who stayed in Washington, D.C. and supported our efforts, and once again to the delegation, who is a phenomenal delegation. When you look at their committee assignments, when you look at their districts, when you look at their passion and their intellect, we are convinced that we will be able to move this ball forward and continue to work with our administration, our leadership, Speaker Pelosi, and the secretary of State, to try to ensure that -- 68 percent of the American people believe that there should be normal relations with Cuba. We want to make sure that the will of the American people prevails.
Thank you very much.