In October of 2013 I had a conversation with Roberta Jacobson, via a Google hangout (videodebate), on democracy, technology and the role of women in activism. On that occasion, we interacted through a screen in the company of internauts interested in our chat. Now, we talked with a few inches between us, in a visit of the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs made to our independent daily, 14ymedio, in Havana.
Proximity has allowed me to confirm what I had already felt in our previous conversation, that this loquacious woman with an attentive gaze has a profound knowledge of the Cuban reality. It is no wonder that she has led the first round of conversations between Cuba and the United States after the December 17th announcement about the reestablishment of relations between both countries.
Several members of our editorial board along with some collaborators met with Jacobson on the 14 th floor of the Yugoslav-style building where our headquarters are located. Following is a transcript of a conversation, where we tried to address a wide spectrum of topics.
Yoani Sánchez: Do we have reason to worry that pragmatism and the politics of rapprochement prevail above all else, and that the issue of human rights and civil liberties will be relegated to the background?
Jacobson: The goals of our policy are exactly the same as before. It focuses on achieving a free country, where Cubans have the right to decide their future. The most important thing is how to get to that point, and we are aware that we have not been successful with the previous strategy. So we’re trying to use a new policy of having diplomatic relations because we – and especially President Obama and Secretary Kerry – feel that it is important to have direct contact with the government.
"The goals of our policy are exactly the same as before. It focuses on achieving a free country, where Cubans have the right to decide their future."
The most important thing is how we can empower the Cuban people in a more effective way and offer you more telecommunications opportunities to modernize your computer systems, to have access to information and to be part of the connected “global village.” It is a complex process, that is going to take time, but we are not going to set aside the issue of human rights and of democracy because they are in the center of this new policy as well.
Reinaldo Escobar: The Cuban government has so far only put on the negotiating scale the release of 53 people – and I emphasis “release” because they are not liberations, because the majority have only been placed on parole. Can we expect new releases derived from these conversations?
Jacobson: That was part of the conversation where we showed an interest in several people in Cuba. What was agreed in this process was the exchange between intelligence agents, one who has traveled to the United States and three who have returned to Cuba. The rest have been policies of each side, gestures, of self interest. We are going to continue implementing policies according to these interests, which we believe support the Cuban people.
Reinaldo Escobar: We have learned that in Cuban prisons some of the prisoners who are on the list of political prisoners but who haven’t yet been released are promoting a hunger strike. Should they have any hope?
Jacobson: I want to say something more: In the discussions of recent days, we have agreed to hold dialogs of many kinds. About cooperation, about the environment, anti-narcotics, etcetera, including the issue of human rights which was proposed by Cuba last year and which has now been accepted by us.
We have different conceptions of this dialog and participating for us will be the experts on those issues, but we have said several times that we have never thought that after more than fifty years of this problem, it would be resolved overnight. We know that there are more people in the prisons and there are more elsewhere fighting for their rights.
"How can we talk of a hemisphere that is prosperous, but does not have freedom? Or that has freedom but has nothing to eat?"
Eliécer Ávila: Some media have shown that in these conversations the formula is human rights versus economics. However, I understand politics as the mechanism for people to live more freely and to live well, so I see no conflict between one subject and another. Do you share that view?
Jacobson: We totally agree that they are, not only complementary, but are essentially linked. We have talked, and we have heard the president, Secretary of State Kerry and Vice President Biden talk, about reaching a democratic, free, secure and prosperous hemisphere.
Those are things that are all linked. How can we talk of a hemisphere that is prosperous, but does not have freedom? Or that has freedom but has nothing to eat? Or where there is plenty to eat and freedom but you can’t walk the streets because of insecurity and other dangers? These are things that are linked, but some are the responsibility of the governments to protect their citizens and to guarantee their fundamental rights, and others have to be met by the citizens themselves, but in a civilized society we have to talk about all these things.
Eliécer Ávila: Hence also the importance of access to telecommunications and information…
Jacobson: Yes, citizens must have access to information not only on issues of freedom and rights, they need access to information for their economic life. It is very important and this is one way in which they can have greater prosperity. So we are in total agreement that the economy and human rights are closely linked. There is no contradiction between them, none at all.
Dagoberto Valdés: From January 21-25, 1998 we had the historic visit of Pope John Paul II to Cuba. For Cubans it was a visit of expectations and yours now is also. What do you think is the role of the Catholic Church as a mediator in the dialogue not only between the governments of Cuba and the United States, but the important dialogue that must take place between civil society and government of Cuba?
Jacobson: First I want to say that the role of Pope Francis and the Vatican was instrumental in our process with the Cuban Government. We know that the Vatican is always important in a process like this, but I would add that this pope is special to this region… “We are all Argentines at this moment…” So we appreciate the role of the Church.
In the future, I think the role of the Church in Rome as well as the Church in Cuba will be very important. I had a conversation with the Cardinal and there are several initiatives by the Cuban Church in several areas, aimed at changes in economic, educational and other areas. In the Church, as in the field and the media, it is for Cubans to decide, not Americans.
Yoani Sánchez: Thank you for your visit to our editorial offices. We deliver a printed version of 14ymedio with a weekly selection, which we do to circumvent censorship. We hope that one day our newspaper will be on newsstands nationwide.
Roberta Jacobson: Thank you, I have felt very comfortable here, like with family.