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George McGovern fights for more rational Cuba policy
CubaNews / November 2007

By Larry Luxner

In March 1963 — four months after narrowly winning election as a junior senator from South Dakota — George McGovern stood up on the Senate floor and gave a speech entitled “Our Castro Fixation Versus the Alliance for Progress.”

In that address, the 40-year-old Democrat warned President Kennedy and his fellow lawmakers that they were so absored in their fears of Fidel Castro that the United States was overlooking the real threat in Latin America — “a smoldering blockbuster on our doorstep ... a continent cursed by a social system that concentrates enormous wealth in the hands of a few and consigns the many to lives of desperate poverty.”

Forty-four years later, McGovern hasn’t changed his views one bit.

Now 85, the liberal senator who lost the 1972 presidential election to Richard Nixon continues to speak out in opposition to the U.S. embargo against Cuba, as well as to George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.

“Why are we so fearful of permitting our people to visit this little country of 11 million — even if they were all active communists?” he asked. “The next president of the United States can’t find a communist country as big as Russia or China to go to. But even opening the door to Cuba deserves a high mark for courage and common sense, for doing what should have been done a long time ago.”

McGovern, speaking at an Oct. 16 conference in Washington entitled “Imperatives for a New Cuba Policy,” later gave CubaNews an exclusive interview. The decorated World War II veteran, longtime lawmaker and anti-war hero to a entire generation of Americans has lately become a crusading activist for more U.S. travel to Cuba and agricultural trade with the island.

“I’d like to see the travel restrictions lifted, even if just on the grounds of family values that we hear so much about,” he said. “It’s long been recognized as an American right to travel anywhere you wish.”

McGovern has visited Cuba seven times. His first trip there was in April 1975, when he was accompanied by his wife Eleanor, who died earlier this year, and 30 members of the national press corps.

“That was my introduction to Castro,” he re-called. “Eleanor and I finally met him, and the only time I’d ever seen her more impressed was when she met Luciano Pavarotti.” “After a 14-hour conversation, I was thinking I was glad that guy wasn’t running against me in the Senate,” McGovern joked. “I left, convinced this is a person we could do business with. It was the beginning of a long interest in this little country south of us.”

During that marathon schmooze with Cuba’s leader, McGovern asked Fidel if there was anything he as a U.S. senator could do that would lead to an improvement in ties between their two countries.

“Without batting an eye, he said, ‘Yes. Get the New York Yankees down here.’”

“The next day,” said McGovern, “I called up [baseball commissioner] Bowie Kuhn and told him about Castro’s idea. He said he wouldn’t rule it out, but that he’d have to talk to the owners first. A few days later, he called me back to say they’d only approve the idea if each team in both the American League and the National League got to send one player.

“So we called the Cuban Interests Section, and they told us they’d rather have just the Yankees. Two days later, Kuhn called to say they wouldn’t go unless the team could recruit Cuban athletes. I told him the Cubans would never agree to that, we’d steal their whole team. I was sure they’d turn it down, and they did.

“We then got another idea. We took the University of South Dakota and South Da-kota State basketball teams to Cuba, and the Cubans beat the tar out of ‘em. They then came up here, played 10 games and won half of them.”

So in the end, he said, “we had basketball diplomacy, if not baseball diplomacy.”

The former senator’s most recent trip to Cuba was last month; his mission this time was to look at prospects for increased U.S. agricultural exports to the island under existing law. “I’m pleased to report that from everything we could see, the conditions for expanding American agricultural trade with Cuba is excellent,” he said.

“For one thing, the Cuban economy is growing impressively. Nickel is now Cuba’s leading export, with the price of nickel at an all-time high,” he said. “Cuba used to produce only 6% of the oil and gas it needed, but now produces 45%. They’re better off in almost every way than they were five years ago. But the weak spot in the Cuban economy is agricultural production. Cuba will continue importing foodstuffs, and the U.S. is the closest major producer of food, which gives us a marked advantage in terms of freight costs.”

Under the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, Cuban food purchasing agency Alimport has bought over $1 billion worth of U.S. farm commodities over the past six years.

“The Cubans say they could have gone much higher had not the Bush administration imposed barriers on negotiating trade ar-rangements with the United States,” McGovern said. “The White House realized it didn’t have the votes to repeal TSRA, so they knocked out credits, and payments must now be made through an incredibly complex process that I can scarcely follow. [Alimport chairman] Pedro Alvarez told us he’d rather buy from U.S. suppliers, but that if this current complicated payment system continues, sales will decline further.”

Yet a bill sponsored by Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) earlier this year to ease U.S. food exports to Cuba was soundly defeated.

“Sixty-six Democrats crossed party lines and voted against the Rangel amendment,” said McGovern, launching into a tirade against the newly formed US-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee (PAC).

“This new PAC’s express purpose is to turn back any effort to open up relations between our two countries; 58 of the 66 Democrats who voted against the Rangel amendment got money from this new PAC, around $10,000 apiece. I have no hesitance in saying that’s probably why the amendment was defeated.”

He added: “It’s clearly in the interest of the American farmer to increase sales to Cuba, so it’s difficult to understand congressmen in farm states voting against something that would enhance sales of our agricultural products. I think it’s time to nail these people in Congress who are voting against the interests of their own constitutents.”

Money indeed has become a big factor in Congress, lamented McGovern.

“I’m told the average senator spends two out of every seven days of the week raising money. It begins the day after he’s elected. So if somebody comes along and says you don’t have to do anything but pick up a $10,000 check — and you’re not all that excited about the vote anyway — then you may not see it as a bribe, but rather helping out with expenses. I think people are more vulnerable today than they have ever been, because of the enormous costs of running for office.”

For example, he said, South Dakota’s most recent Senate race — in which fellow Democrat Tom Daschle lost to Republican rival John Thune — cost over $50 million. On a per-capita basis (South Dakota has only 775,000 inhabitants), that ranked as one of the most expensive Senate races in U.S. history.

“The first time I ran for Congress, in 1956, I spent $12,000 and incurred a $5,000 debt. I finished my first term about the time I paid off the debt,” said McGovern, who stepped down from the Senate in 1981. “But that was a different time.”

Looking back on the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, McGovern said Fidel Castro “performed a great service in overthrowing Batista and breaking the grip of the Mafia in Cuba,” though he added that he’s “not sympathetic to dictatorships” and that he “wishes there were more civil rights and freedom in Cuba.”

McGovern pointed to the island’s “greatly improved” health-care and education systems, suggesting that “Cuba may have the best school system in Latin America.”

Asked about limits on free speech, McGovern said “I didn’t see concrete examples of that, but you have the feeling people don’t feel oppressed. There seems to be a high degree of morale. You don’t run into large numbers of people who appear to be oppressed, but we didn’t get out into the rural areas. That’s probably where life is the most difficult.”

He added: “Castro may have used the embargo to explain Cuba’s economic difficulties, or used us as a whipping boy. But by and large — as far as dictators go — I think he’s better than the rest of his class,” he said. “One gets the sense that the transition to a new era has already taken place. I don’t think there’ll be much of a ripple when he goes away.”

McGovern disappointed some of his more liberal supporters last month when he officially endorsed the hawkish Hillary Clinton for president in 2008.

He told CubaNews he hasn’t had a chance to discuss Cuba with the former first lady.

“It didn’t come up yet, but it will,” he assured us. “She knows my views on Cuba. I think that as she moves along and continues to gain strength — where it appears that she’s got a lead that’s not going to be overcome — then that would be the time to talk with her on some more imaginative positions on Cuba.

“The place to begin with Hillary is on lifting travel restrictions, since that seems to be something desired not only by most Americans but by a growing percentage of Cuban-Americans. You could almost sell that as a family value.”

CubaNews asked McGovern how the world would be different in 2007 if — by some miracle — he had defeated Nixon in the 1972 elections instead of losing by the second-largest margin in presidential election history.

“We’d be much better off today. We would not have gotten involved in this extreme militancy and interventionist approach to foreign policy that resulted first in Vietnam, and now in Iraq. Those were two wars that were totally unnecessary and ill-advised.

“We’ve already spent $500 billion on this Iraq war and lost almost 4,000 young men. That thing has continued longer than World War II. It has taken a terrible toll on our resources and on our young people.”

He continued: “I would have set a different kind of foreign policy, and I think the American people would have approved. I’m just sorry that I didn’t get the chance. I don’t think the American people had a very clear picture of me, and I don’t think they had a very clear picture of Nixon either.”

Nevertheless, McGovern says he doesn’t brood about the ‘72 elections, and that the few times he spoke to Nixon in the years after Watergate and Nixon’s resignation in 1974, their conversations were friendly.

“Historians looking at the Nixon administration would pretty much agree that his greatest achievement was his opening to China. He had the wit and the imagination, and the courage, to open relations with the most populous communist country on Earth.”

McGovern said that another famous Republican, President Ronald Reagan, “had the imagination to see that it was in our interests to put an end to the Cold War.”

We asked him what George W. Bush will be remembered for.

“Probably for being the most disappointing president in American history,” he responded. “I think this fellow is really bad news."

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