Ex-CNN Journalist Defends Obama’s 'Complicated' Comments on Castro's Cuba

The latest concerning the end of Cuba’s Castro era was debated by none other than Cuban-Americans on the set of Monday’s Morning Joe. Co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski invited on three Cuban-Americans: FOX News contributor and author Humberto Fontova along with GOP strategist Alex Castellanos to discuss former CNN host Soledad O’Brien’s defense of President Obama’s controversial comments about Castro’s “complicated” legacy.

Evidently, the death of the Communist dictator who played a central role in sparking the Cuban Missile Crisis at the height of the Cold War remains subject to ideological interpretation within the mainstream media.

The segment started with statements by former Republican presidential candidates and prominent Cuban-American Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas criticizing President Obama’s friendly relations with America's deadliest neighbor. Castro’s Communist regime was, however, actually praised by Canada’s liberal Prime Minister Trudeau while President Obama diplomatically stated that: "history will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him."

O’Brien, after acknowledging the some facts of history, began to advance a liberal sympathetic perspective of Communists like Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, who are considered by leftists worldwide as courageous in challenging the Monroe Doctrine of US hegemony in the Western hemisphere.  O’Brien concluded that their legacies are “complicated,” while Castellanos responded by saying “evil is not complicated.”

O’Brien explained:

“No, sir, because if you’re actually trying to understand why there are Cubans who do like Fidel Castro, right they like that he gave the finger to the United States, so there are Cubans inside of Cuba, many of my family members, who actually like Fidel Castro. They look at the things he brought — Cuba today is more Afro-Cuban than it was before a lot of the wealthier, educated Cubans fled. So there are complicated emotions. I don’t think that is completely unfair…with Fidel Castro there is, yes, absolutely a brutal dictator but you cannot remove from his history the things that made Cubans like him in the first place...Remember the Cubans — when Fidel Castro first came in and overthrew Batista he was welcomed by all Cubans. They loved him, and very quickly it went south.”

“No, no, no, no, no,” Fontova then interjected:

“He was not welcomed. Under Batista — who jumped on rafts to escape Batista? Can you answer that for me? During Batista, more Americans lived in Cuba, than Cubans lived in the U.S., and that was at a time when Cubans could escape, could get visas. Under Batista, Cuba had a higher standard of living than most of Europe.”

Frequent co-host Mark Barnicle later joined the convseration and asked Castellanos:

“Alex, am I wrong in being struck by the fact that all of these decades of Castro's power over Cuba and Cubans, 90 miles offshore, is this an indictment of the fact that we don't teach history well in this country to our own people about what is happening -- happened, only 90 miles off our shore?” 

Castellanos responded:

"It's a huge indictment, Mike. I think you're right about that. For example, I think it's important to understand now that there are no soft liners in Cuba. Raul Castro may have opened up the economy a little bit, but it's not to provide an alternative to tyranny and Communism, it's to rescue tyranny and Communism. They have no money and they need hard dollars to sustain this regime. Who runs the Cuban economy? There's a conglomerate called Gaesa that 80% of Cuban economic activity goes through this conglomerate. Who owns that? The Cuban military…The Revolutionary Armed Forces. Who runs it? Raul Castro's son-in-law. So this is an economy, an island that is completely run by the military. Even if Raul Castro were to die today, who would be in charge? The Cuban military. This would be Egypt, but less friendly."

O’Brien finally concurred with the common consensus condemning Castro’s Cuba:

“He's right about that. My cousin before he was able to flee Cuba used to tell me about Voting Day and he would say, starting in the morning, your neighbors would knock on your door: ‘So, comrade, have you gone to vote yet?’ At 2:00, by then, your family is hysterical because you have refused to vote. They say, please, go vote, so the neighbors stop reporting on us. I mean that is horrible, absolutely evil. To only look at Castro, if you're really interested in trying to understand how people feel about him, sort of with the top line, fails to genuinely try to understand him and the Cubans who supported him.”

Here is the excerpt from the November 28th discussion on Morning Joe:

MSNBC’s Morning Joe

11/28/2016

8:33:01 – 8:44:28 AM

MARCO RUBIO: Barack Obama is the President of the most powerful country in the world. What I call pathetic is not mentioning whatsoever in the statement the reality that there are thousands upon thousands of people who suffered in the Castro regime, he executed people, jailed people for years. In the Florida straits, there are thousands of people who lost their lives fleeing his dictatorship and not to acknowledge this in his statement – I felt was pathetic, absolutely. 

TED CRUZ: I very much hope that we don't see any U.S. Government officials going to Fidel Castro's funeral. If you wouldn't go to Pol Pot's funeral or Stalin's funeral because they were murdering Communist dictators. Then you shouldn't do what Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau are doing, which is celebrating Fidel Castro, a murderous, Communist dictator. 

MIKA BRZEZINSKI: Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who are both Cuban-American, referencing these responses to Fidel Castro's death by president Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. President Obama said in part this, ‘we know that this moment fills Cubans with powerful emotions. History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him. Today, we offer condolences to Fidel Castro's family and our thoughts and prayers are with the Cuban people.’ Prime Minister Trudeau's office issued this statement: ‘It is with deep sorrow that I learned today of the death of Cuba's longest serving president.’ 

JOE SCARBOROUGH: Really is unbelievable. That is really -- come on. Trudeau had the -- yeah, why is he the longest serving president? 

BRZEZINSKI: He's a dictator. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Dictator. Firing squads. 

BRZEZINSKI:  ‘Fidel Castro was a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century.’ 

SCARBOROUGH: ‘Served his people’, define that as how? 

BRZEZINSKI: Joining us now, the CEO of Starfish Media, Soledad O’Brien, a film maker and journalist and in Washington, Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, and in Washington, Humberto Fontova, he wrote: The Longest Romance, the mainstream media and Fidel Castro. 

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: I thought Barack Obama's statement was sort of a completely milquetoast said nothing out loud. It said literally nothing except about the Cuban people, complicated emotions, which I think is actually very true. Justin Trudeau, ‘longest serving president?’ Yeah, because you forced people to vote for you. 

BRZEZINSKI: He must be 28 and not very adept at this. 

O’BRIEN: The problem whenever we have discussions about Cuba is everyone thinks about it in is binary way, Castro was this or Castro was this - but it’s actually very complicated, it depends on where you sit and really what your circumstances were under Batista, will also influence how you feel. 

SCARBOROUGH: Absolutely!

O’BRIEN: My mom is Afro-Cuban. Under Batista, her family did horrible. My mom used to always say, ‘under Batista, Batista would only kill you. Castro would kill you and make sure your parents never had a job again and make sure your children never had housing.’ Both terrible, right? but terrible in different ways. I think a lot of the nuance in Fidel Castro is really lost because people like to believe like to believe ‘he's evil’, or ‘oh, my goodness, literacy and health care.’ It's a much more complicated than that. 

SCARBOROUGH: So Alex, talk about your experiences. Your family's experiences and also your feelings this morning. 

ALEX CASTELLANOS: Well, I'm -- the death of a tyrant, a little bit of hope for the Cuban people. I'm trying celebrate by liberating as many cigars from Communism as I can. My parents got me out of Cuba in 1961 because I was 6 years old, in preschool, and you know, when Castro came in to power, the teachers were indoctrinating the kids. I was bringing home pictures to color in of the brave Cuban soldier bayonetting the cowardly American soldier. At school one day, the teachers asked the kids, us, ‘hey, kids, close your eyes and pray to God for ice cream.’ We did, no ice cream. ‘Kids, let's ask Fidel for ice cream.’ Yay, we got ice cream. My folks wanted us to have the freedom of the Cuban people still don't enjoy today. There are families in Cuba who have turned over their kitchen tables and tried to float across 90 miles of open water in stormy seas to get out of that place and that milk toast statement, this is a president who says he draws red lines and they turn out to be pink and fuzzy, and that weakness, I think, in Obama, he's all carrot and no stick, that one reason Donald Trump got elected. 

MARK HALPERIN: What's your best hope for Cuba, most realistic scenario? 

HUMBERTO FONTOVA: Nothing is going to change but here we're hearing about complicated emotions. ‘We're hearing about strong emotions.’ Folks, Castro regime jailed and tortured political prisoners at a higher rate than Stalin's regime during the Great Terror. They murdered, murdered mostly by firing squad, more political prisoners in their first three years in power than Hitler's regime murdered in his first six. They drove 20 times as many people to die trying to escape from Cuba as died trying to escape East Germany…’and we're hearing about complicated emotions?’ Please give me a break. 

O’BRIEN:  No, sir, because if you're actually trying to understand why there are Cubans who do like Fidel Castro, they like that he gave the finger to the United States, so there are Cubans inside of Cuba, many of my family members who actually like Fidel Castro. They look at the things he brought, Cuba today is more Afro-Cuban than it was before a lot of the wealthier, educated Cubans fled. So, there are complicated emotions. I don't think that is completely unfair. 

SCARBOROUGH: You agree with what he's saying about the atrocities? 

O’BRIEN:  Absolutely, but with Fidel Castro, yes, absolutely, a brutal dictator, but you cannot remove from his history the things that made Cubans like him, in the first place. When he first came in and overthrew Batista, he was welcomed by all Cubans, they loved him and very quickly, it went south. 

FONTOVA: No, no, no. Under Batista -- who jumped on rafts to escape Batista? Can you answer that for me? During Batista, more Americans lived in Cuba than Cubans lived in the U.S. 

O’BRIEN:  Exactly the problem, sir, because of Batista, as you well know – Cuba had a higher standard of living.

FONTOVA: Cubans could get visas…under Batista – Cuba had a higher standard of living than most of Europe!

O’BRIEN:  For white Cubans. Yes, sir, correct. Cubans who were not Afro-Cuban,  he's 100% right. 

SCARBOROUGH: Alex let’s bring you into the conversation, go ahead. 

CASTELLANOS:  Evil is not complicated. You know, prisons can be run very efficiently, this is an island prison. Fidel Castro is the Stalin of the Caribbean and as far as supporting Castro, sure. You know, Stalin and Hitler had supporters, too. But there is a reason people risk their lives, moms risk babies on an open sea to get them out of that place. So there's not much -- I would disagree with Soledad. There's not as much complicated. 

O’BRIEN: Including my relatives, they all got in boats which they made themselves and left Cuba and came to the United States. So I understand that. I guess what I'm saying is you're trying to give some context to people, right? To understand why they feel the way they do about Fidel Castro and saying -- 

BRZEZINSKI: Aren't those things that these gentlemen are bringing to life so passionately here the lead lines? 

O’BRIEN: 100% true, for a person who ran Cuba as a dictator for so many years. 

BRZEZINSKI: Right, dictator. 

O’BRIEN: Absolutely. 

BRZEZINSKI: Atrocities. 

O’BRIEN:  100%. Then why did people support and like Fidel Castro? Some of those people were forced into it, clearly also, people enjoyed the fact that he basically gave the middle finger to the United States. There's no question about that. People felt that -- 

FONTOVA:  More bogus stuff. 

CASTELLANOS:  Going forward here -- 

FONTOVA:  Utterly bogus. 

O’BRIEN:  It's not, sir. If you ask Afro-Cubans -- 

FONTOVA:  Castro into power, people. This is fully documented. There is a -- a quote from the former Cuban ambassador to Cuba, without U.S. help, Castro would have never taken power… Everyone in the CIA and everyone in the State department was pro-Castro…

SCARBOROUGH:  We have a traffic jam here. Mike Barnicle. 

MIKE BARNICLE: Alex, am I wrong in being struck by the fact that all of these decades of Castro's power over Cuba and Cubans, 90 miles offshore, is this an indictment of the fact that we don't teach history well in this country to our own people about what is happening -- happened, only 90 miles off our shore? 

CASTELLANOS:  It's a huge indictment, Mike. I think you're right about that. For example, I think it's important to understand now that there are no soft liners in Cuba. Raul Castro may have opened up the economy a little bit, but it's not to provide an alternative to tyranny and Communism, it's to rescue tyranny and Communism. They have no money and they need hard dollars to sustain this regime. Who runs the Cuban economy? There's a conglomerate called Gaesa that 80% of Cuban economic activity goes through this conglomerate. Who owns that? The Cuban military…The Revolutionary Armed Forces. Who runs it? Raul Castro's son-in-law. So this is an economy, an island that is completely run by the military. Even if Raul Castro were to die today, who would be in charge? The Cuban military. This would be Egypt but less friendly. 

O’BRIEN:  He's right about that. My cousin before he was able to flee Cuba used to tell me about Voting day and he would say, starting in the morning, your neighbors would knock on your door: ‘So, comrade, have you GOP to vote yet?’ At 2:00, by then, your family is hysterical because you have refused to vote. They say, please, go vote, so the neighbors stop reporting on us. I mean that is horrible, absolutely evil. To only look at Castro, if you're really interested in trying to understand how people feel about him, sort of with the top line, fails to genuinely try to understand him and the Cubans who supported him. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Everybody who is watching, I want to be clear, Soledad said the lead to this story is the fact that he was a dictator for 50 years. Brutal, her own parents left Cuba. I think -- 

O’BRIEN: Batista, bad. Castro bad. It's not really complicated, but if you try to understand that. 

BRZEZINSKI: A milquetoast statement is probably not appropriate. 

O’BRIEN: I thought he said nothing in that statement. 

BRZEZINSKI: Soledad, Alex, Humberto, thank you very much.

Kristian Kafozoff
Media Research Center's News Analysis Division.