NBC Hails 'Momentous Day' of Obama Opening U.S. Relations With Cuba

During an NBC News Special Report on Wednesday, Nightly News anchor Brian Williams could barely contain his excitement over President Obama announcing the reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba: "A momentous day, especially for those Americans old enough to remember the Cold War. The curtain came down between Cuba and the United States in January of 1961 and in just a moment diplomatic relations, at least the first steps to which, will be reestablished....It is a day of momentous change, fast-moving change..."

Turning to White House correspondent Chris Jansing, Williams remarked: "Chris, quite a day." Jansing replied: "Unbelievable. Fifty years of change. The first phone call, as you mentioned, between the leaders of these two countries since the revolution. And we're going to hear from the President that this doesn't need to be a relationship that's frozen in time."

As Obama stepped up to the podium, Williams observed: "Sanctions against Cuba will continue for now but there's no doubt about it, this is a rapid period of change."

Immediately following the President's remarks, chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell hailed the move as "extraordinary," gushing: "This is an opening of all of the economic possibilities between the two countries that are permissible other than the formal embargo that came under JFK."

Williams then brought on Council on Foreign Relations Chairman Richard Haas for reaction, proclaiming: "I was two years old when the curtain went up between our two countries. This spans the scope of our adult lives as Americans." Haas declared: "Absolutely. And it's hard to avoid the symbolism of it. This is one of the last vestiges of the Cold War and the taking down, if you will, of the symbolic walls or substantive walls between the United States and Cuba marks yet again the end of that era of history."

Moments later, Haas praised the totalitarian regime: "Cuba met the United States halfway at least in terms of the changes they agreed to with prisoner releases, with opening up to the internet, agreeing to greater international monitoring."

Still pouring over the breaking news, Williams next talked to NBC producer Mary Murray based in Havana, who described the simultaneous address given by Cuban dictator Raul Castro: "...his whole tone was very different. And he urged Cubans to respect and appreciate President Obama's suggestions."

Murray added: "...the fact that...he told Cubans to appreciate Obama's gesture for me indicates there may be actually some hardliners who don't appreciate this opening." Williams asserted: "...we're going to see that in both countries today."

In other words, hardline communists in Cuba are equivalent to Americans who oppose rewarding the totalitarian state by granting diplomatic ties to the U.S.  

Wrapping up the report, Williams reiterated: "This momentous day between these two nations, something tumbled down that has been in place for half a century."

Here is a transcript of the December 17 special report:

12:00 PM ET

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Well, good day from New York. A momentous day, especially for those Americans old enough to remember the Cold War. The curtain came down between Cuba and the United States in January of 1961 and in just a moment diplomatic relations, at least the first steps to which, will be reestablished by the two presidents. Raul Castro is going to speak to the people of Cuba while Barack Obama speaks to the people of the United States. There he [Castro] is. The two leaders have spoken by telephone.

A U.S. prisoner held by Cuba for several years has been released today, Alan Gross, in exchange for three Cuban spies. There is Mr. Gross coming back to Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. It is a day of momentous change, fast-moving change, and in a moment we're going to hear from the President in the Cabinet Room addressing the American people about the opening of embassies between these two countries. Chris Jansing on the White House lawn. Chris, quite a day.

CHRIS JANSING: Unbelievable. Fifty years of change. The first phone call, as you mentioned, between the leaders of these two countries since the revolution. And we're going to hear from the President that this doesn't need to be a relationship that's frozen in time. Brian.

WILLIAMS: Alright, Chris Jansing at the White House waiting and watching along with us. Sanctions against Cuba will continue for now but there's no doubt about it, this is a rapid period of change.

(...)

[PRESIDENT OBAMA ADDRESS]

(...)


WILLIAMS: The President from the Cabinet Room in the White House as Raul Castro simultaneously smoke to the people of Cuba. We welcome those viewers watching Andrea Mitchell Reports on MSNBC as well as the viewers with us on the NBC television network. And let's bring in our chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell, who, for a good deal of her adult life, especially covering the beat of foreign affairs, has covered and dealt with this issue. And, Andrea, sum up what we have just seen take place in the last half hour.

ANDREA MITCHELL: It's extraordinary. We've heard from both presidents, Raul Castro and President Obama. We've learned that the President and Raul Castro spoke for forty-five minutes yesterday. We've learned that they're going to normalize relations for the first time since 1961, almost fifty-four years.

We've learned that they're going to loosen the exchanges of people, of remittances, people in Miami can start sending a lot more money home, travel will be easier, although the embargo cannot be lifted without lifting the Helms-Burton law from 1996. That will be very, very difficult. But there will be a lot more freedom. There'll be a lot more freedom of exchange.

Fifty-three Cuban political prisoners, many of whom I know, who were imprisoned in 2003, are being released from Cuban prisons in Havana. An American spy who has been in a Cuban prison for twenty years is being sent home. Three Cubans, three men who have been imprisoned here in the United States for fifteen years, who the Cubans have argued were unfairly convicted in the Miami court, are also being sent home. They were on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage.

This is an opening of all of the economic possibilities between the two countries that are permissible other than the formal embargo that came under JFK. So President Obama is doing something.

John Kerry flew into Andrews coming back from Europe, embraced Alan Gross I'm told, got popcorn and a corn beef sandwich on rye with mustard on that plane. He and his family have said it's significant that today is the first day of Chanukah, a holiday very, very important to them, they are very committed and observant Jews. And he is coming home after five years, he was accompanied home by Pat Leahy, Dick Durban, Chris Van Hollen, senators and a congressman who have been very involved in this very detailed exchange.

I should point out that we were aware of these negotiations and had been asked not to report them because of fear that that prison door would not open today when that plane landed from the United States at 8:00 a.m. in Havana. That the the prison door would not open until they were cleared of the Cuban airspace.

WILLIAMS: Andrea Mitchell, who we now return to her own broadcast. Andrea, we will see you later tonight on our broadcast NBC Nightly News. Andrea Mitchell from Washington.

Here in our studio, the chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haas. Thank you very much for coming across town. Same question, what's going through your mind? I was – I won't call the question on your age, I was two years old when the curtain went up between our two countries. This spans the scope of our adult lives as Americans.

RICHARD HAAS: Absolutely. And it's hard to avoid the symbolism of it. This is one of the last vestiges of the Cold War and the taking down, if you will, of the symbolic walls or substantive walls between the United States and Cuba marks yet again the end of that era of history.

It's also substantively important. What you have is in some ways with this administration now what you might call the winning out of the Trojan Horse argument. The idea that the best way to bring about change in these closed societies is not simply by isolation and pressure, but various forms of involvement: get internet in, get travelers in, get a little bit more money in, find ways to cooperate. Plant the seeds of change and over time that will bring you big change. And that's what we're seeing essentially being put into place today and this reflects frustration with a century – half a century of isolation and what it wrought.

WILLIAMS: So viewing, exporting the American ideal via Hyatt Regency, via iPhone, via NBC television, and on and on and on?

HAAS: Exactly. That plants seeds, it empower individuals. Over the last few years we've seen the multiplication of cell phones in Cuba and every person with a cell phone has an ability to communicate, can reach some information, can exchange information. That's big. That's something that limits the powers of government to control what goes on within a society.

Economic activity – that again, you now have a private sector that's probably responsible for roughly maybe a fifth of the Cuban economy. If you allow people to be free enough to do things economically, sooner or later they're going to want to do things politically. So what I think again we're seeing here is the beginning of the end of the old regime in Cuba.

And this is not simply an American initiative. I think, Brian, this also recognizes the sense of the aging Castro generation, and now the new generation of Cubans, that Cuba also has to join the 21st century. That the socialism and communism that marked and defined Cuba for half a century is obsolete. The Soviet era, if you will, of Cuban foreign policy is obsolete. They, too, needed a change.

So what's coming through here is that Cuba met the United States halfway at least in terms of the changes they agreed to with prisoner releases, with opening up to the internet, agreeing to greater international monitoring. We'll hear, probably, focus on the things we did, but I think it's just as important to look at some of the things they did and what it tells us about Cuba.

WILLIAMS: Mary Murray is also on the telephone with us, our veteran producer in Havana who has lived on and off in Cuba since 1994 thereabouts. Mary, so many questions. I'm thinking about all the Americans who – or their parents – came here came over here with all their belongings and money sewn in the hemlines of dresses, who now may have claims, family plots, family pieces of land back in Cuba, just one question of many flying through our heads.

MARY MURRAY: Well, he did say – Raul Castro, by the way, was having an address here in Cuba at the same time President Obama spoke in the U.S. and he did say that while there are core issues that still must be resolved between the two countries, like the trade embargo and differing views, he called them, on human rights, he did say everything was on the table. So it's a matter of time we'll see whether or not they're going to negotiate issues that are close to the Cuban American heart. But he did say he was willing to talk about everything.

What was very interesting, Brian, is that his whole tone was very different. And he urged Cubans to respect and appreciate President Obama's suggestions. The headlines for Cubans here is that the three remaining agents who have been in prison in New York for the past sixteen years, as Castro said, they're back on Cuban soil. And then the fact that right after he said that he told Cubans to appreciate Obama's gesture for me indicates there may be actually some hardliners who don't appreciate this opening.

WILLIAMS: Yup, Mary, that's – we're going to see that in both countries today. Mary Murray, who will be part of our coverage tonight. This momentous day between these two nations, something tumbled down that has been in place for half a century.

For Mary Murray, for Andrea Mitchell, for chairman of – Council Foreign on Relations Chairman Richard Haas here with us in the studio, much more tonight on NBC Nightly News as we sum up what we have just witnessed today. I'm Brian Williams, NBC News, New York.

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