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American Morning

Castro Health Mystery; Heavy Fighting in Baalbeck, Lebanon; Border Gaps

Aired August 02, 2006 - 06:30   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome back, everybody.
I'm Soledad O'Brien in New York.

Good morning to you, Rick.

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Rick Sanchez. I'm going to be following this story, filling in for Miles O'Brien on this day, reporting from Miami, where there is heightened expectation, to say the very least, from what could be hundreds of thousands of people who seem to have a sense that the end is near for Fidel Castro, something that they have, well, in many cases been preparing for half a century now.

Thousands of them have been pouring into the streets here in Little Havana. In fact, many of them leaving just hours ago, and we're already starting to see many of them return now.

The reports out of Havana somewhat confusing, somewhat mysterious as to what Fidel Castro's condition really is. We're hearing from people speaking for the Cuban president. Still, no pictures of the Cuban president himself. Still, no pictures of his brother Raul.

And what they're saying is that he is in stable condition and said to be in good spirits. But more than that, they won't say. In fact, they're saying the rest of it is what they consider a state secret.

Morgan Neill is following the story for us out of our Havana bureau. And he's joining us now to bring us up to date on what he's gleaned as he's been following the story throughout the course of the last 48 hours.

Morgan, to you.

We seem to be having a problem trying to reach Morgan. We certainly apologize for that. And what we'll do is, we'll try to see if we can hook up with him in a little bit.

In fact, what we're going to be doing in just a little bit is try to get reaction here to try and understand why the passion. Fifty years later, many people would think that by now it would have been somewhat more subdued, but what you see in the streets here are people who are as obsessed as they ever have been with Fidel Castro himself.

I'm being told now that Morgan might be free to go.

Morgan Neill joining us now. Let's give that a shot one more time.

Morgan Neill, in Havana, can you hear me, my friend?


As you were mentioning earlier, that statement Tuesday afternoon said that the president's condition was stable and that he's in good spirits. Nevertheless, the statement admitted that his condition was serious, but that because of the -- what it called the imperial plans of the United States, the details of his condition had to be guarded as a state secret.

Now, while the initial announcement on Monday that Fidel Castro was handing over power temporarily to his 75-year-old brother, Raul, was really stunning news here in Cuba, since then what we've seen is more of a wait-and-see attitude. People saying they still have to go to work regardless, and while this certainly was stunning, there's no real sense of panic.

Now, on the streets, what do you see? There's been speculation about police presence, et cetera. Well, what we can see from here is there has not been a noticeable change in police presence, at least in Havana. Keeping in mind, however, that this is a place where you are constantly noting the presence of police on the streets -- Rick.

SANCHEZ: As a matter of fact, on every block there is something called the CDR, Comites de Defensa de la Revolucion, which means a committee in defense of the revolution, which means there are people literally who are paid by the government, by the communist party, to watch you. So, it tends to make people a little more careful.

A lot of people wonder, Morgan, I'm sure, why aren't people taking to the streets, why aren't people commenting? That has a lot to do with it in a totalitarian state, does it not?

NEILL: Absolutely, Rick. There's certainly always that element.

What's more, what you see a lot, particularly with the young generation, is people that are often not political. They will tell you even in their unguarded moments that they are not pulling for one side or the other.

What they're looking for is a chance to take care of their family, to have a future to look forward to. But they often simply will not venture into political questions of that sort -- Rick.

SANCHEZ: Morgan Neill following the story for us there in Havana.

We certainly will be checking back with you throughout the morning. We do expect more developments on the story throughout the course of AMERICAN MORNING. Standing to my right, a gentleman who's going to be talking to us in just a little bit. It's sort of a tease. You'll be hearing from him in a bit.

He's a young Cuban-American, writes for "The Miami Herald," certainly one of the most well-known papers in the entire country, a blog about some of the exiles themselves and their unique relationship with Fidel Castro. We'll be talking to him in just a little bit.

Meanwhile, Soledad, back over to you.

O'BRIEN: All right, Rick. Thanks.

We're also following that situation in the Middle East, heavy fighting in the ancient city of Baalbeck in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

Michael Ware is following developments there. He is stationed outside the hospital.

Here's his report.


MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is the northeastern city of Baalbeck, close to the Syrian border, where less than 12 hours ago airborne Israeli troops assaulted this hospital behind me, the Darohekna (ph). Locals here say that the Israeli troops either landed on the roof of the hospital or dropped troops on to the hospital, as many as 10 helicopters swirled in the air.

They say that there was then a firefight. There's clearly signs here of fire going into the hospital. There is pock marks from bullets and fire coming out of the hospital by the gouges the bullets have left on surrounding buildings.

The story is still unclear. The locals on the ground here say that one person was killed here at the hospital and at least three people were taken prisoner by the Israeli troops and whisked away. They say that 500 meters north of this position on the road another eight civilians, they call them, were killed on the roadway in their cars and walking beside the road.

This is Michael Ware, for CNN, in Baalbeck, Lebanon.


O'BRIEN: An update on what's happening there from Michael Ware this morning.

Happening "In America," police in Madison, Wisconsin, may be on the verge of cracking a cold case that's more than 45 years old. A recreational diver spotted a car in a lake last month. Police believe the bodies of two young men who disappeared back in 1961 could be inside. It could take several days, though, for the divers to clear away the debris and bring that vehicle up. Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney is suing the "Atlanta Journal-Constitution" for libel. McKinney reportedly filed charges against the paper's editor and publisher for an editorial column that ran on Sunday.

Her attorney says the column included false statements about McKinney's alleged altercation with the Capitol Hill Police. The congresswoman is demanding an immediate retraction.

Singer Alice Cooper showing his softer side. He has a softer side. Look at that.

The shock rocker has announced plans to build a teen center in Phoenix at Grand University Canyon. The center is designed to help at-risk teens who need a place to go after school. Construction is scheduled to begin next month.

Good for him.

El Paso, Texas, bracing for the possibility of more rain today. And with that, of course, the threat of mudslides. Massive downpours have caused widespread flooding, led to hundreds of evacuations. Nobody, fortunately, has been seriously hurt.

Take a look at this. This is just the cutest little kid. You know, generally I don't like showing the water skiing squirrel, but the water skiing toddler is a whole different thing.

Look how cute. He's not even 2 years old. He actually can't quite talk yet, not even in complete sentences.

He is turning heads with his water skiing ability, though. There's mom. His name is Cole Marsileck (ph). Just shy of his second birthday.

His mother says he took up water skiing last Wednesday. Just last Wednesday. Since then, though, he has hit the lake every day. He's only fallen once. He knows how to give the command "Go" when mom says, "Are you ready?"

He's so cute.

My kids are the same age, Chad. I just feel like -- one bites his brother. That's all they do. I don't have a water skiing almost 2-year-old.


O'BRIEN: What am I doing wrong as a parent?

MYERS: I don't know. He can say a couple of things. My guy knows green and red and purple. That's about it.

O'BRIEN: My kids don't even know green and red and purple. Oh, my gosh. I've got to get back to work on them.

MYERS: All right. Well, you can go now.

Good morning. Boy. It's going to be hot again today.


MYERS: Back to you, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: All right, Chad. Thanks.

MYERS: You're welcome.

O'BRIEN: Still to come this morning, U.S. Border Patrol agents fail a major security test. We'll tell you how government investigators faked them out. And, of course, in the bigger picture, what it means for our security.

First, though, a closer look at the intense reaction to news of Fidel Castro's medical condition and transfer of power. Ahead, we'll speak to a Miami reporter who's got a very personal connection to the story.

Stay with us.


SANCHEZ: I'm Rick Sanchez.

We're in Little Havana. We're following the situation and all the reaction that has been coming in thus far regarding Fidel Castro's health condition.

Exiled leaders here in Miami calling on dissidents inside Cuba to incite some type of civil disobedience. It hasn't happened thus far, though here in Little Havana and in other parts of south Florida, no one has needed to be inside there, but thousands of people have been taking to the street. That, while hopeful celebrations, in fact, have been taking place in other parts of south Florida.

Why the passion after so many years? And is there a reason for hope?

Joining us now is someone who follows this story on a daily basis. He works for "The Miami Herald," one of the most distinguished papers in the country. He is reporter Oscar Corral.

Oscar, thanks so much for joining us.

People watch these pictures from all over the country and say, "How can you be so passionate about something that has been going on for so long? Wouldn't you think by now it would be at least somewhat subdued?"

How do you answer that?

OSCAR CORRAL, "THE MIAMI HERALD": I think what people have to keep in mind is that this is not an ordinary immigration group. These are mostly political exiles, at least the first wave that came over from Cuba. These are people who not only left their country, they lost their property, they lost their businesses, they lost their freedom.

SANCHEZ: And they don't feel like they lost it, but that it was taken away from them. Is that correct?

CORRAL: Exactly. They feel that Fidel Castro and his revolution stripped them and took away from them their property, their liberty, their businesses, their cars, everything they owned.

SANCHEZ: And it's the old model of communism that seemed to do it, so it's rooted in something that is extremely personal.

CORRAL: Exactly. I think that most of the early wave of exiles feel that the only way that they could live and thrive in a democracy was to leave Cuba. There are no basic civil liberties in Cuba, there's no democracy. It's been ruled by Fidel Castro for 47 years.

SANCHEZ: That makes sense, when you say the older generation.

CORRAL: Right.

SANCHEZ: But why do we see such young faces out here joining the crowd and being seemingly as passionate?

CORRAL: I think one of the great successes of that older generation of exiles is that they have been able to pass down to their children and grandchildren that passion that they feel for their country. And even -- even the Cuban-Americans who were born in Miami carry with them a sense of identity with a Cuba that was once democratic, that was once free. And they want to see that.

SANCHEZ: So, is it -- is it almost a respect for granddad, for dad, for mom? They say he's a bad guy and I've got to get out there and help them and do it?

CORRAL: It is. It's a certain amount of respect, but also a certain amount of understanding that there's wisdom there. These are -- this is -- they're getting this information from a generation that lived through these turbulent times, that lived through these property confiscation.

SANCHEZ: Interesting perspective.

Let's talk a little bit about the situation in Cuba right now. Why haven't we seen Fidel Castro? Why haven't we seen Raul Castro? Do you have a sense of that?

CORRAL: This is a government that has been shrouded in secrecy for 47 years, perhaps surpassed only by North Korea and the amount of closed nature that it has. It is one of these governments where -- where it thrives on mystery, it thrives on depriving their people and the world of information. And so, this is his nature with the way they have functioned for 47 years. SANCHEZ: We're interested, in particular, on why we haven't seen Raul Castro. After all, there seems to be nothing wrong with his health. Why hasn't he come forward?

CORRAL: That's a good question. And perhaps it could be that Fidel Castro is still alive and he doesn't wantb the Cuban people to perceive Raul Castro as the man just yet. He perhaps wants to see how his recovery goes and perhaps wait a little while before he actually presents the new leader.

SANCHEZ: Because that first statement from Raul Castro is the first impression he'll make, not only on the Cuban people, but the world, it has to be just right?

CORRAL: Exactly. Raul Castro is going to be in the spotlight the moment he takes those microphones. He is going to be the man, he's going to be the new leader.

Remember, 47 years...

SANCHEZ: Interesting.

CORRAL: ... without a new leader. This is -- this is a moment where the Cuban people are waiting for a message from their new leader. And they haven't gotten it yet.

SANCHEZ: Interesting perspective. Thank you so much.

Oscar Corral, we thank you for that.

CORRAL: Thank you.

SANCHEZ: And good luck to you.

We'll certainly continue to follow the stories here in Little Havana. Expecting more developments throughout the day, as well. And we certainly will be bringing them to you.

Soledad, back over to you.

O'BRIEN: And more horn-honking in celebration, I would imagine, is what you're hearing behind you.

Rick, thanks. We'll see you in just a little bit.

Still to come on AMERICAN MORNING, we're following the very latest developments in the Middle East, as well. Israeli ground forces for the first time strike deep into Lebanon. We're on the scene. We'll bring that to you.

And also, a failing grade for U.S. border security. Some officials skipped even the basic procedures. We'll tell you what they did and what they didn't do.

CNN "Security Watch" when AMERICAN MORNING returns.


O'BRIEN: Happening this morning, intense fighting in the Middle East. Israel has resumed airstrikes, may send bombs deep into Lebanon. Meanwhile, Hezbollah has unleashed an unusually heavy rocket barrage on northern Israel.

All this while ground troops prepare battle for turf ahead of any possible cease-fire.

Questions about the real condition of Fidel Castro this morning. The Cuban government treating information about his health and his whereabouts as a state secret. Opponents in America and elsewhere are wondering if he's gravely ill or even if he's dead.

A dangerous heat wave is blanketing the Northeast today. New York's mayor calls the weather "life-threatening." He is asking everybody at the same time, though, to cut back on their power usage.

CNN "Security Watch" this morning.

A new federal report is suggesting that lax security at U.S. borders exist. A group of undercover investigators using fake IDs and phony names say they were able to slip past security agents. Now they're taking their findings to Washington.

Details now from Homeland Security Correspondent Jeanne Meserve.


JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: A congressional committee will hear today that government investigators easily entered the U.S. from Canada and Mexico at nine border crossings using fake licenses and other documents. In three instances, their IDs weren't even checked. In all the others, border agents failed to catch the fake documents.

The conclusion drawn by the Government Accountability Office, terrorists or criminals can pass freely into the United States with little or no chance of being detected. The Department of Homeland Security says it has trained border agents to spot fake documents and more than 75,000 were intercepted last year, but the test shows that is not enough.

Jeanne Meserve, CNN, Washington.


O'BRIEN: That's a disturbing report.

You'll want to stay with CNN day and night for the most reliable news about your security.

Talking about business coming up next. Andy's got that.

What have you got for us?


Vonage customers feeling like they got stiffed and taking it out on the company.

Plus, a CEO loses his options but still may make out like a bandit. What a surprise there.

O'BRIEN: Yes. You know what? I'm not surprised at all.

SERWER: You've heard this story before?

O'BRIEN: Yes, I have. I've seen that movie.

Thanks, Andy. We'll look forward to that in just a moment.

O'BRIEN: Also ahead this morning, the East Coast stifling heat wave. We saw 100-degree temperatures on Tuesday, it's going to be even hotter today. Chad has got the forecast in just a few minutes.

That's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.

We're back after this short break.


O'BRIEN: Vonage is back in the news and, ooh, it's not a good thing again today.

Andy Serwer is "Minding Your Business."

Good morning.

SERWER: Good morning, Soledad.

You remember this. It seemed like a good idea at the time. The Internet phone company was going to go public and it was going to let its customers in on the action.

This happened back in May. Customers bought 4.2 million shares during the IPO, but the IPO tanked. And guess what? Now, a lot of these customers are looking to stiff Vonage.

In other words, they put down they were going to buy the shares, but they didn't pay for them yet. One million of the 4.2 million shares not spoken for. People saying, "We're just not going to pay for it."

O'BRIEN: Can you do that?

SERWER: You know, you can't do that. No, the company is going to go after these people and try to get their money.

I mean, you sign on the dotted line, and right there, not in fine print, right there it says, we don't know whether the stock is going to go up or not. I mean, you go in with your eyes open here and, unfortunately, a lot of people lost money. They say... O'BRIEN: But they are mad. I mean, that's really an indication.


SERWER: They're mad. They're mad as heck. And the company says it's going to cost them $17.9 million they're out. That's what they're going to try to recoup from these customers.

Now, let's move on to the continuing stock option backdating scandal.

O'BRIEN: Du jour.

SERWER: Yes, du jour.

This one, come the settlement. Mercury Interactive, a software company, they were one of the first ones caught up in this improperly backdating brouhaha. Now it turns out that their CEO won't be allowed to exercise nearly half a million shares. That makes sense, considering that...

O'BRIEN: Half a million or half a billion?

SERWER: Half a million, 437,000 shares.


SERWER: So, that makes sense, because it seems like it wasn't done properly.

O'BRIEN: Right. Right.

O'BRIEN: But, if you read on, it appears that this gentleman named Amnon Landan will still make out pretty well.

They always do, Soledad. And it looks like he is going to get either $2.8 million or maybe a sum somewhat less than that, but be sure that he will do just fine.

O'BRIEN: It will work out just fine for Mr. Landan.

SERWER: It usually does. And someone's got to start paying the price...

O'BRIEN: And yet the Vonage customers are still trying to figure out how to get their money back.

SERWER: Yes. And then the little guy, is it one of those? I think it is a little bit here.

O'BRIEN: Oh, it sure sounds that way.


O'BRIEN: Thank you for that depressing business news this morning, Andy. SERWER: Oh, well, we'll try harder next time, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Maybe our next installment.

Thank you.

SERWER: You're welcome.

O'BRIEN: Going to check on the forecast now. Chad's at the CNN Center.

Good morning.

MYERS: Good morning, Soledad.


MYERS: The next hour of AMERICAN MORNING starts right now.

O'BRIEN: Thanks, Chad.

Israel's offensive is pushing much deeper into Lebanon this morning. Hezbollah hitting back with more than hundred new rocket attacks.

Cuba as a crossroads. Word from Fidel Castro allegedly that he's doing fine. Exiles in Florida, though, are hoping an end is near.

And oppressive heat is making people feel, well, just bad. And the worst may not be over. We've got your forecast coming up this hour.

And Mel Gibson says it was a moment of insanity. He's apologizing again for those hateful words. Is that apology going to fly?

A look at that ahead on this AMERICAN MORNING.

Welcome back, everybody. I'm Soledad O'Brien.

We've got Rick Sanchez in for Miles. Rick this morning is reporting from Little Havana in Miami.