Three years before Hurricane Katrina, this episode of NOW considers what would happen if New Orleans were struck by a massive hurricane. Bill Moyers also interviews author and activist Arundhati Roy. You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived NOW with Bill Moyers website.
WATCH A CLIP
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW.
Sometimes the devil really is in the details. Consider the annual report just out from the E.P.A. on trends in air pollution. For the first time in six years, it leaves out any discussion of global warming. The White House simply doesn’t want anyone to take climate change seriously, or to connect the dots between our addiction to fossil fuels and a hotter planet.
This summer, however, we may have seen a glimpse of what’s in store. Nearly half the U.S. was affected by drought during the hottest, driest season since the 1930s. And Europe had the opposite extreme: the worst floods in more than a century.
Down in Louisiana’s bayou country, the water also rises. A few weeks ago, we showed you how the coastline there is disappearing into the Gulf because of human activity. We return to New Orleans tonight because if this keeps up, the streetcar named Desire could be swept away by the muddy waters of the Delta.
NPR’s Daniel Zwerlding and NOW’S William Brangham have our report.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: When travelers rate their favorite cities around the world, they put New Orleans near the top of the list… Cajun culture… The Mississippi…The French Quarter.
But a scientist named Joe Suhayda sees a more troubling vision of this city.
JOE SUHAYDA: What we have here is a surveying rod and it has the lengths marked along the length of the rod. So what I’m going to do is go ahead and extend this.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Can I help you here?
JOE SUHAYDA: Yes. Go ahead and hold that.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Suhayda studies hurricanes. And he’s brought me to the French Quarter to show what could happen if the most powerful kind of hurricane hits New Orleans.
JOE SUHAYDA: So this indicates the depth of water that would occur above this ground in a category five hurricane.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: It’s hard to comprehend, really.
JOE SUHAYDA: It is really, to think that that much water would occur during this catastrophic storm.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: So basically the part of New Orleans that most people in the United States and around the world think of as New Orleans would disappear under water.
JOE SUHAYDA:: That’s right. During the worst of the storm, most of this area would be covered by 15 to 20 feet of water.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Do you expect this kind of hurricane and this kind of flooding to hit New Orleans in our lifetime?
JOE SUHUYDA: Well, there– I would say the probability is yes. In terms of past experience, we’ve had three storms that were near-misses that could’ve done at least something close to this.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: So emergency management officials are trying to get ready… they’re playing a hurricane version of war games.
WALTER MAESTRI: A couple of days ago we actually had an exercise where we brought a fictitious Category Five hurricane–
DANIEL ZWERDLING: The worst.
WALTER MAESTRI: –the absolute worst, into the metropolitan area
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Walter Maestri is basically the czar of public emergencies in Jefferson Parish. It’s the biggest suburb in the region.
WALTER MAESTRI: Well, when the exercise was completed it was evident that we were going to lose a lot of people we changed the name of the storm from Delaney to K-Y-A-G-B… kiss your ass goodbye… because anybody who was here as that Category Five storm came across… was gone.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: The American Red Cross lists the worst natural disasters that might strike America. They worry about earthquakes in California, and tropical storms in Florida. But they say the biggest catastrophe could be a hurricane hitting New Orleans.
People have known for centuries that they picked a risky spot to build this city. In fact, some of the first French settlers wanted to abandon it.
The biggest river on the continent snakes around it. Most of the land here is below sea level. And every time people tried to expand the city, the Mississippi promptly flooded it.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Why did people stay here? I’m, it became obvious very, very quickly after the French came that this was a really lousy place to live.
OLIVER HOUCK: They made a lot of money. They made a lot of money because they were the transfer point for all the shipping that came out of the belly of the country and went to France and went to South America and went to England and all of the ships coming in, you had to pass by New Orleans.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: So they launched what’s become one of the biggest construction projects in history. To protect their investments. As of today, the us arm has built 2000 miles of levees to stop the mississippi from flooding. And until recently, scientists thought that these walls of soil and concrete and steel had made new orleans safe. They never dreamed that the levees would come back to haunt them.
OLIVER HOUCK: So the irony of history and the evolution of the problem has been that we’ve been like one of those old citadels in an adventure story, defended ourselves against the enemy that we knew, which was the river. But to the rear and to the flank was this other threat that we’re only beginning now to appreciate, and it may be too late to prevent.
WALTER CRONKITE (FROM TAPE): The remnants of killer Hurricane Camille continued to spread death and destruction…
DANIEL ZWERDLING: In 1969, Hurricane Camille rattled the country…it was a rare Category 5. Here’s the problem: when government officials built the levees to protect New Oorleans, they designed them to hold off much smaller kinds of storms. They didn’t expect that a hurricane as big as Camille would show up in our lifetimes…or our grandchildren’s lifetimes.
WALTER CRONKITE: Hurricane Camille was by any yardstick the greatest storm of any kind ever to hit the nation…
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Camille missed New Orleans, but not by much. And it suggested that maybe officials had been short sighted.
Then nature shook the nation again in 1992. Remember Hurricane Andrew? That was another Category Five storm — Andrew was the most expensive natural disaster in America’s history. And the center of the storm didn’t even hit a city.
Well after Andrew, officials in Louisiana began to worry more about New Orleans. They came up with elaborate evacuation plans:
PROMOTIONAL VIDEO: “If the warning goes out, by all means, evacuate!”
DANIEL ZWERDLING: And then another storm came that a lot of those plans wouldn’t work:
JOE SUHAYDA: Well, Hurricane Georges was one for which the track was to the East of the City and had the potential of flooding the City.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: At the last minute, Georges faded and veered away from the city… And that was lucky.
JOE SUHAYDA: What happened to the people that did evacuate is that they got into massive traffic jams and many of them spent the worst part of the hurricane either on a– on the highway, stopped, or had pulled off to the side of the road.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: I’m trying to picture tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people trapped in these traffic jams as the hurricane is hitting the City and the water level is starting to rise. What would happen to them?
JOE SUHAYDA: They would be washed away and there would be really no way for the help, there is public help emergency services people to get to them to help them.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: And on top of those worries: scientists say that the threat to New Orleans keeps getting bigger.
New Orleans has always had a huge natural shield that helps protect it from storms: there are miles and miles of wetlands, between the city and the Gulf of Mexico. When a hurricane blows over them, it loses some of its power. But as we reported a couple of weeks ago, this shield is breaking apart.
And here’s the irony: the wetlands are disappearing because of the levees. The very levees that were supposed to protect New Orleans. They stopped the Mississippi River from flooding, but it turns out that they also triggered an environmental chain reaction, which is starving the wetlands to death.
Scientists say if this shield keeps crumbling over the next few decades, then it won’t take a giant storm to cause a disaster. A much weaker, more common kind of hurricane could devastate New Orleans.
WALTER MAESTRI: And here we will have all of the different operations of local government that have responsibility to actually carry out specific function…
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Back at his command center, Walter Maestri is coodinating how government officials would handle the emergency.
WALTER MAESTRI: We’ve got emergency medical here, public works i here, resource management…
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Maestri says consider this troubling fact: more than a million people live in this area, and they’re stuck in a geological trap.
WALTER MAESTRI: New Orleans is, if you think about it, it’s a soup bowl. Think of a soup bowl. And the soup bowl– the high edges of the soup bowl– is the Mississippi River. It’s amazing to say, but the highest elevation in the city of New Orleans is at the Mississippi River.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Maestri says, imagine what happens if a hurricane like Andrew comes raging up from the Gulf:
WALTER MAESTRI: The hurricane is spinning counter-clockwise. It’s been pushing in front of it water from the Gulf of Mexico for days. It’s now got a wall of water in front of it some 30, 40 feet high. As it approaches the levies of the– the– that surround the city, it tops those levees. As the storm continues to pass over. Now Lake Ponchetrain, that water from Lake Ponchartrain is now pushed on to that – those population which has been fleeing from the western side and everybody’s caught in the middle. The bowl now completely fills. And we’ve now got the entire community underwater some 20, 30 feet underwater. Everything is lost.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Remember the levees which the Army built, to hold smaller floods out of the bowl? Maestri says now those levees would doom the city. Because they’d trap the water in.
WALTER MAESTRI: It’s going to look like a massive shipwreck. There’s going to be– there’s going to be, you know– everything that that the water has carried in is going to be there. Alligators, moccasins, you know every kind of rodent that you could think of.
All of your sewage treatment plants are under water. And of course the material is flowing free in the community. Disease becomes a distinct possibility now. The petrochemicals that are produced all up and down the Mississippi River –much of that has floated into this bowl. I mean this has become, you know, the biggest toxic waste dump in the world now. Is the city of New Orleans because of what has happened.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Federal officials say that nobody in America has confronted these conditions before. Not across an entire city. Not after an earthquake. Not after floods. Not even after September 11th:
So they’ve gone to the US Army Corps of Engineers, and they’ve asked them to figure out — How would the city even begin to function? Jay Combe has spent the last few years assembling a doomsday manual.
JAY COMBE: Street signs will be gone. The things that you normally think, “Well, I’m going ’round the corner of Broadway and St. Charles,” and that place won’t be there.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: So Combe’s been mapping crucial structures with longitude and latitude, because he says emergency crews will have to use navigation devices just to find out where they are.
And Combe says, how will they get the water out of the city? For the past hundred years, New Orleans has operated one of the biggest pumping systems in the world. Every time there’s a major rain, colossal turbines suck up the water and pump it out of “The Bowl.” Combe says that won’t work after a big hurricane.
JAY COMBE: The problem is that the city’s been under water, the pumps are flooded. They don’t operate now. We have to get the pumps back in operation and in order to get the pumps back in operation, we have to get the water out of the city.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Catch-22
JAY COMBE: That’s correct.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: And here’s perhaps the most troubling question of all: if a huge hurricane does hit New Orleans, how many people will die?
JAY COMBE: I think of a terrible disaster. I think of 100,000, and that’s just my guess. I think that there’s a terrible lack of perception. The last serious hurricane we had here was in 1965. That’s close to 40 years ago.
So, we’ve dodged bullets three times since Betsy and I’m not sure we can keep counting on the hurricane changing its mind and going someplace else.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Stories about disasters in America usually end on an optimistic note. People rebound. The nation rebuilds. Life gradually gets back to normal. But officials in louisiana are facing another possibility: If a monster storm strikes New Orleans, this city might never come back.
DANIEL ZWERDLING (ADDRESSING SUHAYDA): Are you seriously suggesting that the nation might have to abandon the city of New Orleans?
JOE SUHAYDA: I think there would be some concern perhaps of rather than trying to rebuild the city would be then to just demolish those areas that couldn’t be refurbished, reclaimed and basically start from some kind of scratch or blank slate, so to speak.
WALTER MAESTRI: And if I’m the Senator from South Dakota or North Dakota or wherever, you know, am I going to want to vote the kind of massive funding that it’s going to take to rebuild it, given the fact that nobody can promise me that it’s not gonna happen again two weeks later.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Officials are stunned by this scenario: They say there’s got to be something they can do to save New Orleans and save people’s lives. So they’re thinking about building more levees and building them higher. They’re thinking about building new highways, so people can evacuate faster. And they’re calling for a massive project to rebuild some of the vanishing wetlands.
But scientists like Joe Suhayda say these projects would take decades. He says America can’t wait that long. New Orleans is going to drown and it needs a liferaft, now.
JOE SUHAYDA:: What we have here is an example of the kind of structure that would be part of the community haven wall.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Suhayda wants to build a massive wall around the historic heart of New Orleans. It’d be like the walls that protected medieval cities. He says that way, at least the core of New Orleans might survive.
This particular wall we’re on is just a tiny example but Suhayda’s version would be three stories high and miles around.
JOE SUHAYDA: It’d take about 12 miles to protect a critical part of the City where we have the central business district, where we have several hospitals-the governmental buildings the schools and other areas that could be used for shelters.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Suhayda pictures the scene unfolding like a disaster movie: the hurricane’s approaching…government officials sound the alarm: get to the haven, if you can.
JOE SUHAYDA: And so through gates like this people would come in buses, walking or automobiles and get behind the wall.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: This is amazing to think about. I’m envisioning those last few minutes when the government knows it’s going to have to close this gate and all the other gates and the wall, and people are either going to be in and protected or out and in danger of dying, I mean is there a siren that says, you know, “Everybody get inside the gate. Two minutes left. One minute left”?
JOE SUHAYDA: Well it would come down, of course, to a decision to actually close the gates. I can imagine people trying to carry their dogs, and their-their prized possessions, and fighting– winds that at this point would be very very strong– which would make, you know, walking– over the ground very very difficult. Some people probably falling down and– and– and-needing help and maybe they’ll be crews and people available that would actually go out and try to assist these people by picking them up or putting them in wheelchairs or some such things to expedite teh whole movement…
But there’d come a time when– the decision would have to be made to– stop-any entrance to the haven.
DANIEL ZWERDLIG: We’ve tried to find scientists who’d say that these predictions of doom could never really come true and we haven’t been able to find them. The main debate seems to be, when the country is facing different kinds of threats, which ones should get the most attention? The federal government has been cutting money from hurricane protection projects. Partly to pay for the war against terrorists.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Do you think that the President of the United States and Congress understand that people like you and the scientists studying this think the city of New Orleans could very possibly disappear?
WALTER MAESTRI: I think they know that, I think that they’ve been told that. I don’t know that anybody, though, psychologically, you know has come to grips with that as– as a– a potential real situation. Just like none of us could possibly come to grips with the loss of the World Trade Center. And it’s still hard for me to envision that it’s gone. You know and it’s impossible for someone like me to think that the French Quarter of New Orleans could be gone.
MOYERS: She writes like a dream, and gives politicians nightmares.
Her name is Arundhati Roy, and her first novel, THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS, brought the lives and passions of a rural village in India to millions of readers the world over, winning for Arundhati Roy the prestigious Booker Prize, and comparisons to Faulkner and Dickens.
Her latest book, however, is not the novel her public expected. It’s Roy’s defiant poke in the eye to the Enrons of capitalism, American foreign policy, and the corruption of Indian democracy. She was arrested there; accused of contempt of court.
And now, she has angered the government again, by taking to the streets with protesters trying to stop the construction of dams that would displace millions of people in India’s Narmada Valley. She has become the movement’s most familiar face and eloquent voice.
ARUNDHATI ROY: When I first went to the valley, I used to say that, “I’m not here because my house is being submerged or my fields are going under water, but my world view is being submerged, that’s why I’m here.”
But it’s not just that anymore. They’re knocking at my door. They’re coming for me. Therefore I know I have to fight with all the skill I have, with my ability to communicate, with my words, with my ideas.
I believe that the only hope and the only thing worth globalizing is dissent, and I think that when the supreme court comes for us, for the artists, for the writers, for the filmmakers, for the musicians, we have to show them our terrifying strength, we have to fight back with our art.
MOYERS: Thank you for joining us.
Those of us who have been waiting for your second novel, because we loved the first one, have mixed feelings about what art has sacrificed for politics. You can’t be out in the streets and participating in demonstration and write another novel.
ROY: I don’t… I don’t quite agree that you can’t do both. I think you can, and some of us ought to, you know, because fiction is about the stuff of life, it’s about trying to understand what goes on in the world you live in.
And I keep saying that, you know, for me, fiction and non-fiction are just different techniques of storytelling. The fiction dances out of me, but the non-fiction is wrenched out of me by this world that I wake up to every morning. What I write about always is power and powerlessness, not about ideology, not about nations, however much it might appear to be otherwise. I’m very interested in the physics of power, what happens when there is.
MOYERS: The physics of power?
ROY: Yes, the sort of physics of unfettered power. What happens when a state or an institution or an individual has unfettered power? What kind of excesses does it commit?
MOYERS: You have been widely criticized in this country for being, “anti-American.” But as I read what’s written about you in India, you’re accused of being anti-India.
ROY: Exactly. All the time.
Everything that one has ever written or said either about the American government or about the Indian government, which I criticize mercilessly and which is why i’m always called anti-Indian, is about demanding democracy, demanding accountability, demanding justice.
MOYERS: You’re saying dissent is the key to democracy. It is what saves us. It’s what enables us to get up on the bridge of the ship, grab the captain by the arm and say, “That’s an iceberg out there.”
ROY: Yeah, it’s… it’s, you know, something which I know, you know, on the one hand, in India. Well, coming back to this whole supreme court thing.
MOYERS: I’ve got to let you explain that whole contempt of court thing.
ROY: Here, you have a system in India where the supreme court is probably the most powerful institution in the country. And because the politicians have become so corrupt, you know, the court has taken over a lot of the decision making.
So the court is deciding whether dams should be built or not, whether a slum should be cleared or not, whether privatization should be legitimized or not. The courts are deciding. And then they say that because of the contempt of court, you can’t discuss it, you can’t comment on it.
MOYERS: You can’t criticize the court?
ROY: You can’t criticize it. If today I had proof, let’s say on a video camera or a photograph or a document, incontrovertible proof that a judge was corrupt, I cannot produce it. It’s criminal contempt of court.
The newspapers won’t write about it, you know. So that’s the situation that one… That was what one was up against. These kinds of public conversations are what makes a democracy more sophisticated.
MOYERS: What, except fame, gives an artist the authority to speak to politics?
ROY: Nothing. I mean, I don’t speak as a famous person. I don’t speak as an artist either. I keep speaking, I keep saying as I speak, as a citizen. For instance, today people in developing countries, their lives are being completely changed and turned around tumultuously by this process of corporate globalization.
But people don’t quite understand what it is, what is the story, you know, what is… How do you translate those economists’ graphs and market charts and world bank policies into real stories about real lives and real people?
How do you connect the dots? That’s what a writer can do. And that’s what I try and do.
What I’m saying is that this whole project of corporate globalization is creating a sort of barbaric dispossession. People are being pushed off their land. Huge lands are being acquired by governments for development projects, corporate agriculture is killing off the small farmers.
How are we to fight these wars except on our own?
MOYERS: What do you mean, fight the wars?
ROY: I mean the wars for democracy, the wars for freedom, the wars for women’s rights. You know, these big real fights, which you see happening in India in a wonderful way.
You know, the people’s resistance movements, the movement against uranium mining, or the movement for the right to information, or the single malyali professor who’s every day outside the collector’s office protesting the rewriting of history books. We fight inch by inch, stone by stone for our freedom. You know, and that’s the only way it can happen.
MOYERS: Do you think there’s a possibility of a nuclear conflagration, a nuclear holocaust between India and pakistan?
ROY: Well, look, as long as there are nuclear bombs it’s possible. I really… I mean, I think just now the governments of India and Pakistan are… especially the government of India’s in a bit of a sulk saying, sort of, “Why did you believe our rhetoric?” “We were just,” you know, “pretending that we were going to go to war.”
But the thing is, you see, Bill, you have to understand that what is happening is that this is a huge process of disillusionment and impoverishment that’s setting in in the developing world. And as these nations sink into this kind of morass of despair, religious bigotry, and cultural nationalism and fascism, it’s just the ideal breeding ground for what’s going on.
So you know, it’s not a coincidence that the very same people, like Mr. Advani, the home minister, the prime minister, the dis-investment minister, these are all people in India who are very, you know, busy signing the enron contract, and busy dis-investing huge public sector units, and so on.
And they’re the same people who are talking about Indian nationalism, and nuclear bombs, and Hindu fascism, and “kill the Muslims.” You know, so it’s these two things go hand in hand.
MOYERS: We have seen in this country, the world has seen, the ugliest side of Islam this year, “the fascist Muslims,” as they’ve been called. And you’ve written about Hindu fascism. What do you mean Hindu fascism, and how serious is this bigotry, this hatred in India?
ROY: It’s very, very serious. And you know, I mean, what I’m trying to say is that fascism is a byproduct of a kind of disillusionment. And while I’m not saying that it’s entirely created by American imperialism, this pushing people to the wall has a great part in it, you know?
What I feel very sad about, since I’ve been here on the 11 of September, is that I… Because I also come from a world where every day one sees the anger against America, and I know that in America people don’t understand it.
MOYERS: Why is that?
ROY: People don’t understand it, I think, because the people of America have really been shielded from the information of what their governments have… Successive governments have been up to outside America, you know?
ROY: Well, beginning from, I mean, 11th of September, 1973, was the day when General Pinochet, in a C.I.A.-backed coup, overthrew Allende. And Henry Kissinger said that, “Why should Chile be allowed to fall to Marxism just because of the foolishness of its people?” You know, this was a democratically elected government.
And for 17 years, Pinochet murdered thousands of people in Chile. And the people of Chile had to live with that. You know, September 11, 1922, was the date on which Britain mapped out the mandate of Palestine and gave it to European Zionists, you know? So these dates have significance.
And then what is happening in Iraq. Do you know what is happening in Iraq? Half a million Iraqi children have died directly as a result of the sanctions.
MOYERS: Are you suggesting…
ROY: And Madeline Albright said, “It’s a hard price, it’s hard but we think the price is worth it.” And, you see, it’s a very terrible thing to hold civilians responsible for the actions of their governments.
It’s a terrible thing for anybody to do, you know? And that’s why as citizens– and again I say, I speak to you not as an Indian speaking to an American, because I don’t talk like that.
I talk to you as a human being talking to another human being about what all our governments are up to and how you and I are being held hostage for the actions of our states, and we need to know what they are up to.
MOYERS: You’re not suggesting, are you, that bin Laden and the Muslim hijackers were justified in what they did?
ROY: Of course not. I mean, please, please don’t ever make the mistake that I’m doing that. I’m just saying quite the opposite thing. I mean, I am saying that all of us… Okay, let me say something very clearly.
I have spent all the writing that I do writing about non-violent resistance, about the beauty of reasoned non-violent resistance. Okay?
I believe that any government who really wants to condemn terrorism ought to show itself to be open to reasoned non-violent dissent.
We should really privilege that on our tv shows, in our media, everywhere. We should, you know, think of it another way. Okay, I’m not talking about bin Laden, but what’s happening in Kashmir in India.
You see, there are… Kashmir is now the playground for state terrorism on the one hand by Indian forces and this cross border terrorism of people who are being sent in from Pakistan.
And when there’s a terrorist attack, when there was a terrorist attack on the parliament, India moved all its army to the border. Okay? And Pakistan’s army stand now, today as we speak, there are one million men facing each other. Both countries have nuclear weapons.
America is telling India and Pakistan, “War is not the way to deal with this. Please don’t go to war.” And America is right.
But then why not about your own thing? You know?
And what I worry about is that if you think of war as being the actually opposite way of dealing with terrorism. You know what you’re doing, you’re putting such power in the hands of terrorists. Now in India terrorists have… It’s like having the nuclear button. You know, they can actually provoke a war.
MOYERS: I agree with you, I think…
ROY: And they don’t care. They don’t care. You know, I mean, you think bin Laden cares about what happens to people in Afghanistan?
MOYERS: I think if we do a first strike against hussein, we have a very hard time saying to Pakistan, run by a dictator, “you shouldn’t do a preemptive strike against India.” Or vice versa.
ROY: Against India, or India against Pakistan…
MOYERS: Is there anything you like about America?
ROY: Oh, lovely things. I think there are lovely things about America. I admire the fact that a million people marched in washington against the nuclear bomb so many years ago. How much I admire what, how the people of America forced their government eventually to pull out of vietnam. I really admire that. I want to see that happening in India, you know.
MOYERS: Is this what you meant when you said what really needs to be globalized is dissent?
ROY: Yes, I think so. I think that is… Well, it’s a very interesting thing about globalization, because people like me are called… Just like I’m called anti American, I’m also called anti globalization. And I want to say really because what are we talking about globalizing? Because the I.M.F. And the world bank and the W.T.O., they are…
MOYERS: All of these international financial organizations.
ROY: Yes. They want to globalize capital, they want to globalize goods, but they don’t want to globalize the free movement of people. They don’t want to globalize any international treaties about nuclear weapons or chemical weapons or climate change. They don’t want to globalize justice, you know?
Actually, I’m for the globalization of a lot of things, it’s just that we’re… we disagree about what exactly ought to be globalized, you know?
And talking of democracy, the I.M.F., the World Bank, and the W.T.O. run the world today. How are the people who run those organizations appointed? Secretly, behind closed doors. Nobody elected them. Nobody… I didn’t say that I’d vote for them, you know? So we’re actually… this whole process of privatization and globalization undermines democracy.
MOYERS: I sense you’re very perturbed that the dominant narrative in the world today is the American narrative. We are the ones who are dominating how the story is being told, how it’s being written.
ROY: Yes. Yes. Well, it’s like this. I was talking to some friends yesterday in new york, and they’re not sort of patriotic, jingoistic, Americans at all.
Just how sad they were about September 11. If I had lost a friend that day, I would have felt as if all this war talk, you know, sort of usurped my grief and cheapened it and used it for things I didn’t want it to be used for.
MOYERS: Being so precise about language, you surely don’t want to confuse patriotism and jingoism. They’re two different things. I’m a patriot. I don’t think I’m a jingoist.
I’m a patriot in the same way G.K. Chesterton, the British writer, was when he said, “To say my country right or wrong is something no patriot would say except in a dire circumstance.” It’s like saying, my mother, drunk or sober. I mean, I want my mother sober and I want my country right.
ROY: Right. Yes, well, I don’t… I mean, I don’t think they are the same thing at all.
I think patriotism, which is why you say “and not– comma.” You know, I’m, to be honest, not a patriot. I’m not a patriot in India at all, because I want to think in terms of civilizations. I don’t want to patrol a territory, I want to love a civilization.
And I feel I think Indians especially, Indians and Pakistani people, I just was in Pakistan recently, and people weep, you know, weep because that partition between India and Pakistan partitions the civilization. You know, and now we are pointing nuclear weapons at each other.
And you think, how false is this? You know, how false is this, that I can… You know, I’ve never been to Pakistan in my life because Indians and Pakistanis are not given visas and so on. I mean, this time I managed to get a visa, and I went.
And I’d never been to this country, but I’m sitting in Lahore and I could have been in Delhi — the same jokes, the same, you know, the same everything. And here we are, we could nuke each other. You know?
And, you know, I can’t bring myself to say that India is this and Pakistan is that, because when I spoke there, I said, “I do not speak to you as an Indian. I do not agree with what my government says. I do not associate you with everything your dictator wants to say or do. I don’t.”
You know, I think we just need to say “open the borders. You know, let us just exchange our stories, let us just be like the rivers and the birds and the insects and the trees that don’t acknowledge this artificial border.”
MOYERS: Ah, a world without politics.
ROY: It’s not a world without politics. National borders are not the only kind of politics at all. You know, I mean, think of it. The earth is 4,600 million years old, you know. Human beings appeared on the earth only just a few seconds ago. And look at what we’ve done to it. That’s why I believe that literature is the opposite of a nuclear bomb. It just rolls over cultures and languages, and it joins us where these bombs and borders separate us.
And I don’t mind being called a dreamer or a romantic, because what would we be without romance and dreams? You know, what would we be if we just spoke the language of bankers and politicians and businessmen and generals?
MOYERS: Thank you very much for joining us tonight.
ROY: You’re welcome.
MOYERS: Next Thursday, the U.S. will invade Cuba, sort of.
I’m not compromising national security. It’s a trade show, where hundreds of American food and agricultural producers will hawk their goods in Havana. It’s one of the very first efforts of its kind. But it’s not really about building goodwill, it’s more about building brand loyalty.
Right now, U.S. food companies are doing $100 million of business in Cuba, thanks to recent changes in American law dealing with the trade embargo. Changes that are transforming Cuba. It seems the American dollar is proving far more potent than four decades of American hostility.
Correspondent Joe Contreras from NEWSWEEK magazine and producer Bill Gentile have our report.
JOE CONTRERAS: This is Varadero, the premier beach resort of Cuba and a mecca for the roughly one million foreign tourists who visit the Caribbean island every year. The money they spend is one of the major reasons why Fidel Castro shows no signs of giving up power as long as he lives. A growing number of those tourists are American citizens, an estimated 22,000 traveled here without the required approval of the U.S. government last year. They are the most visible sign of a profound and historic change: the beginning of the end of the U.S. trade embargo against Castro’s Communist regime.
AMERICAN TOURIST: I came to Cuba I wanted to come here actually before- while Castro was still in rule – before he dies because I don’t really know what’s gonna happen afterwards. I wanted to come before the flood of tourism, I guess if it evers opens up. And I feel like it’s one of the last countries to be relatively untouched by the American influence.
JOE CONTRERAS: The relationship between the United States and Cuba is tangled and full of contradiction. Consider this: one of the Havana-based entrepreneurs who targets the American tourist market is this man, Philip Agee. He is a former CIA spy who is now trying to make a buck by breaking the embargo. Agee wrote a book exposing covert U.S. operations in Latin America during the 1970s, incensing the US Government which cancelled his American passport. But now the secret agent has turned travel agent.
PHILIP AGEE: I felt like I was an agent for change even when I was in the CIA until I began to realize that the people who we were supporting didn’t want to see any change at all. And that was one of the things that led to my resignation. But in terms of being an agent of change right now, yes, I hope to help change U.S. attitudes towards Cuba officially, if I can, if I had any influence at all, but mostly the ordinary people who come here to see the Cuban Revolution.
JOE CONTRERAS: That agenda is not surprising coming from an unabashed supporter of the Castro regime.
What is surprising is that, for reasons of their own, a number of corporate executives, American congressmen and state governors also believe it’s time for a change. Namely the removal of all existing restrictions on trade and travel to Cuba. There was a time when there were no restrictions.
In the fifties, Cuba was a playground for hordes of Americans with a taste for casinos and cathouses.
But the door to Cuba began to close in January 1959. That’s when leftist revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro rolled into the capital and seized power.
By 1962, America’s relationship with Cuba had soured so badly that the United States severed all economic ties with the Communist regime.
The embargo made it illegal for U.S. companies to trade with Cuba, or for American citizens to spend dollars there. The United States and Cuba became distant neighbors.
Castro turned to the Soviet Union, and for 30 years he could count on a billion annual foreign aid package from Moscow to help him feed his people. But the collapse of the Soviet Union cut that lifeline in 1991, and food shortages became a fact of life here. And the door to the United States remained firmly closed.
But this began to change in the waning months of the Clinton Administration. In October 2000 Congress passed legislation allowing Cuba to buy U.S. food and medicine – provided the regime pay up front in hard cash.
No way, said Castro. He vowed never to buy a single grain of rice under the stringent conditions imposed by the U.S. government. But in November of last year Hurricane Michelle ripped through central Cuba, killing five people and devastating vast swaths of the countryside. In a major policy reversal, Havana decided to purchase $35 million dollars worth of U.S. food to alleviate the plight of hurricane victims.
This ship, for example, brought 500 tons of chickens from a Mississippi port to eager Cuban consumers. For those under the age of 40, it was the first time they’d ever seen American goods steaming into Havana harbor. And what began as a one-off emergency relief measure has since evolved into a thriving trade relationship.
At the Cuban Foreign Trade Ministry I spoke with the official in charge of imports to Cuba. Pedro Alvarez, a man who understands the power of profit over politics.
PEDRO ALVAREZ: When the immense majority of American farmers and American people realize that the blockade is absurd and that it hurts them as much as it hurts us, then the embargo will end.
JOE CONTRERAS: The embargo is still officially in place. But the new American laws permit companies that obtain special licenses from the U.S. Commerce Department to sell goods to Cuba for cash. As a result, purchases from the United States now stand at $110 million dollars. Officials in Havana say that figure could double next year, and dozens of U.S. companies want to get in on the action. Many will come to this convention center in Havana next week for an event that would have seemed inconceivable a few years ago: the first-ever U.S. food trade fair in Cuba. The fair is sponsored by ADM, Archer Daniels Midland, one of the largest agri-business corporations in the United States. And there will be other industry heavyweights including Hormel, Cargill and Tyson Foods.
PEDRO ALVAREZ: It’s the first opportunity for U.S. producers to compete in the Cuban market.
JOE CONTRERAS: This Communist bureaucrat, who calls corporate capitalists his good friends, is living proof that economics can make strange bedfellows. I saw that a day later during my visit to ADM’s corporate headquarters in Decatur, Illinois.
A pioneer in opening commercial links to former U.S. enemies like the Soviet Union and China, ADM has thus far sold 40 million dollars worth of soy beans, corn, wheat and rice to Cuba.
JOE CONTRERAS: Y teniamos una entrevista con este ejecutivo de Archer, Daniels, Midland.
At ADM, I was told that ideology should not get in the way of good business. This from the company’s vice president for marketing, Tony DeLio.
TONY DELIO, VP, MARKETING, ADM: I think we’re doing this primarily because it makes business sense, and because we do have an abundance of food.
It’s not really around the politics. It’s about improving the quality of life of the Cuban people.
I think the cubans get a fair price. This is truly a win-win business situation. The real winners on this are the American farmers that now have a new market for their crops and 90 miles from our shores.
JOE CONTRERAS: The real winners, perhaps, will be companies like ADM, which stand to reap hefty profits from open trade with Cuba. But what may be good business for some is a very personal matter for others.
The State Department’s Otto Reich fled Cuba as a teenager soon after Castro seized power. His family lost everything, and he’s never been back. In the 1980s he was put in charge of the Reagan Administration’s propaganda campaign against the Castro-backed Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. Today, as the Bush Administration’s point man on Latin America, Reich says U.S. companies should think twice about doing business with Castro’s Cuba.
OTTO REICH, STATE DEPARTMENT: I’m very pro-business. I came from the private sector into government. I believe in private enterprise. But I also believe that companies have to be very careful when they get involved in trying to change a foreign policy for strictly profit reasons. Companies are in business to make a profit. But I think that they also have certain moral standards that they should abide by.
JOE CONTRERAS: Reich warns that Castro is using Cuba’s newfound relations with major U.S. companies to support Havana’s efforts to undermine the entire embargo. But there are those in President Bush’s party who think that lifting the embargo isn’t a bad idea. In fact, the first state governor to set foot on Cuban soil in 40 years was a Republican, George Ryan of Illinois.
GOVERNOR GEORGE RYAN, (R-IL): I think we ought to treat Cuba like we do any other country in the world that we do business with, whether they’re communist countries or whether they’re dictatorships, or whatever- our biggest commodity is democracy, and we ought to be spreading that any place we can. And what made this country great is free trade.
JOE CONTRERAS: The State Department’s Otto Reich disagrees.
OTTO REICH: The embargo was intended to send a signal that the United States was not going to recognize the government of Castro or prop him up. And I think one thing that we should not fool ourselves into is to think that totalitarian regimes can be changed by trade and tourism.
GOVERNOR GEORGE RYAN, (R-IL): I have yet to see any evidence that the embargo that we put on Cuba has had any impact. If we continue to hold the embargo, we’re really hurting the Cuban people, probably more than we’re hurting ourselves.
JOE CONTRERAS: And there’s no doubt that the Cuban people are hurting. In the post-Soviet era. Most Cubans have put their dreams on hold. The average wage is $10 a month. Many foods are rationed.
Sections of the once-glamorous capital city are crumbling after years of neglect and decay. Infrastructure is antiquated. Power blackouts are frequent. And, an inadequate public transport system forces white-collar workers to try to hitch rides. Some get lucky.
The influx of American dollars has provided much needed hard currency to Cuba. But it has also deepened the divide between the haves and the have-nots.
Skilled professionals have abandoned their careers because they make more money in tips than they do working in the field they were trained for. This man, who asked not to be identified, gave up his career in architecture to drive a cab for tourists.
So as the Cuban economy becomes increasingly dollar-ized, some Cubans are left out of the economic loop.
LYDIA HERNANDEZ DELGADO: There’s nothing. There’s nothing of nothing. Everything is in crisis. There’s food but there’s no money to buy it.
I visited Havana food markets to gauge the reaction of ordinary Cubans to the prospect of closer ties to the United States. Not one of them voiced any second thoughts about an American presence on the island.
SANTIAGO IZQUEIRDO: The logical thing is for the embargo to disappear. It would be beneficial for both peoples, the Cuban people have a lot in common with the American people because we have a lot of relatives over there and vice versa.
JOE CONTRERAS: The only people I met who had misgivings about a warming of relations between Cuba and the United States were young American tourists.
AMERICAN TOURIST: I’m hoping that the Cuban people and the Cuban government will be smart enough to retain some kind of identity. And hopefully things will, will still have a Cuban element and there won’t be a McDonald’s and there won’t be a Starbucks. There’ll be some kind of a Cuban chain.
JOE CONTRERAS: Philip Agee doesn’t worry about creeping Americanization.
PHILIP AGEE: Americans could come here by the millions and they would be far more changed than any of the Cubans they came into contact with. The Cubans are going to change Americans, profoundly. They changed me.
JOE CONTRERAS: American tourists say they come to Cuba because they’re curious. But whatever their intentions, the greenbacks they spend may only help Castro cling to power according to the State Department’s Otto Reich.
OTTO REICH: They probably don’t know what they’re doing. A lot of people aren’t aware of the nature of the regime in Cuba. I would say that they’re putting money into the hands of a Communist dictator.
JOE CONTRERAS: Veterans of the Cold War can rehash the tired debate over dollars and dogma all they want. But they are missing the point: for better or worse, events on the ground are already pushing these two distant neighbors closer towards each other. Cuba will never again be the same.
MOYERS: That’s it for tonight. Next week, we’ll look at the business scandals that have seen corporate moguls led away in handcuffs and have cashed out the dreams of many Americans in the stock market.
Until then, I hope you’ll join us on pbs.org. For NOW, I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on August 21, 2015.