President Carter Sends a Message to the Cuban People

This is a partial transcript of Special Report with Brit Hume, May 15, that has been edited for clarity. Click here to order the complete transcript.

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Other guests and topics for
May 14 included:
• Jim Angle: During his speech to Cubans, former President Jimmy Carter calls on Congress to ease sanctions against Cuba
• Trace Gallagher: Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat addresses his parliament, admitting mistakes and promising to atone for them by restructuring his government and holding elections
• James Rosen: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is set to appear on Capitol Hill and he's likely to face sharp questioning from some lawmakers about his decisions to cancel a Pentagon weapons system
• Brian Wilson: The FBI may have had more advance warning of potential terrorist acts before Sept. 11 than previously thought
• Carl Cameron: As lawmakers on Capitol Hill gear up for the congressional elections this year, Democrats are trying to find ways to punch holes in the popularity of President Bush
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BRIT HUME, HOST: Some analytical observations from Fred Barnes, executive editor of The Weekly Standard, Mort Kondracke, executive editor of Roll Call and, last but not least, Mara Liasson, national political correspondent for National Public Radio. FOX News contributors, all.

On this broadcast at this very time last night, Jimmy Carter was still talking. And when we analyzed what he had said, we had not heard all of what he said. So we take a moment here to revisit his speech last night in Cuba, in which, among other things, former President Carter spoke about the so-called Varela project, and was actually speaking about it to the Cuban people at large, letting them hear about it probably for the first time.

This is something that is constitutional in Cuba, which allows a petition with 11,000 signatures or so to be brought to the government, and requires the government, it seems, to hold a referendum on the regime, that is, Mr. Castro's regime. Here is part of what Mr. Carter had to say about that process.


JIMMY CARTER, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let there be a vote, either by the national assembly or the people at large. This would be a true demonstration, not of my definition of democracy, but in my opinion, as honoring the basic premises of your own constitution — a decision made by Cuban people.


HUME: Well, that doesn't sound like a particularly radical idea. But when you get old Fidel Castro sitting there, looking at you while you're saying it, that puts a different cast on it. So, what do we make of all this? Did Carter do what human rights experts in Cuba, freedom advocates, wanted?

MARA LIASSON, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: Yes, I think he did a heck of a lot more than it sounded like he was doing when we heard him start his speech yesterday. He talked about basic human rights, every citizen is born with the right to choose their own leaders, to find their own destiny, freedom of speech, organized parties.

The Varela project, as you said, is something that very few Cubans know about. Ten- or 11,000 people have signed it. I think an important thing for Jimmy Carter to do now when he goes home to the Carter Center in Atlanta is to make sure that none of the people who signed it get harassed, or at least call attention to them if they do.

HUME: If he knows.

LIASSON: If he knows. He might. He met with some of the leaders of the petition project. Yes, I think he did a good job.

MORT KONDRACKE, ROLL CALL: I agree. I think this is a day for eating crow. I mean, we spent two days pummeling Jimmy Carter for what he didn't do. Well, he finally did it. And I think he did it, and I think he did it in sort of characteristically Carteresque terms. He was not bombastic.

He did it in a very soft, low-key manner, using the Cuban constitution and — but, nonetheless, saying that every human being, under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has the right to pick its own government, et cetera. And I think he did the right thing.

Now, he also said we should lift the U.S. economic embargo.

HUME: First.

KONDRACKE: First. But, you know, I think the two things should be linked. But, look, he went there and he did what most of us thought he might not do, so I think I owe him an apology.

FRED BARNES, WEEKLY STANDARD: I don't. I'm not eating any crow at all. One of the problems with his speech was — and his answers afterwards, which is what that bite came from. It wasn't in his prepared speech. It was an answer to a question.


HUME: But he did mention it in his speech.

BARNES: Oh, he mentioned the Varela project in the speech, and had some backwards kind of way of endorsing it. He was more explicit in this bite, which was in answer to a question.

So his whole speech was filled with moral equivalents. Like the United States is morally the same as Cuba, and we'll get rid of our trade embargo and they'll get rid of communism, as if those things are equally bad. I don't think the trade embargo is bad at all.

Communism clearly is bad. It's made, for more than 40 years, Cuba an economic basket case. It's been a totalitarian country. And to link those as being somewhat equal, I think is totally wrong and Carter shouldn't have done it.

But when he did get to the Varela project, which is the test that both Mara and I, and I think Mort, too, said was the one thing he had to do — he did do it, and I give him credit for that. And he did it explicitly.


HUME: A modest serving of crow?

BARNES: No. No crow.

LIASSON: I don't think he said the American system and the Cuban system were morally equivalent.

BARNES: That was the thrust of it. He kept saying how bad we are...


HUME: Go ahead.

BARNES: No, he kept saying how bad we are, we're hardly perfect in human rights. We have the death penalty and all these other things. Those are not — those are democratically chosen institutions...

LIASSON: And that's the point he made in his speech.

BARNES: ... that pale in comparison to a totalitarian, communist country that has crushed every liberty. 

LIASSON: OK, you didn't like the style in which he delivered that message. But on the embargo, there are many who believe that that is a route to democracy and human rights in Cuba.

Now, you can disagree with that, but everyone agrees that human rights are needed there.

KONDRACKE: I think it helps his credibility in Cuba a lot, to come out against the embargo and to use Cuban terms for doing it. This is your decision.

And the thing is, this is regime change. If they ever went through with the Varela project, Fidel Castro would be out on his ear. Now, that is not — you know, you're destroying this dictatorship that way by this channel. It's not morally equivalent.

HUME: So what effect, if any, on the Bush administration and the policies that the president has adopted? He's clearly not going to — he may even toughen the embargo now. So what's the political consequence of this?

KONDRACKE: Well, I think Bush needs to explain why this embargo is going to work any better than it's worked over the last 40 years. And make a case for it.

The fact — and make a case why we should continue to have an embargo with Cuba, when we don't have one with China.

LIASSON: He doesn't have to make that case. He only has to say something that will be welcomed by the Cuban-American community in Florida, where his brother is running for reelection. Later he might have to make that case, not now.

BARNES: Look, I think there's a case that could easily be made. Now that the Soviets are not subsidizing Cuba, now the embargo is having some effect. I think it's having some effect in forcing Castro to even allow this Varela project to go ahead.

HUME: All right, that's it for that subject, but we've got more to come.

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