Interview with Ricardo Alarcon, President of the Cuban Parliament

Cuba Meets the Challenges of the 21st Century

 

An interview with Ricardo Alarcon, President of the Cuban Parliament

 

By Salim Lamrani

 

 

President of the Cuban Parliament since 1992, and member of the Political Bureau of the Cuban Communist Party, Ricardo Alarcon de Quesada is, after President Raul Castro and First Vice-President Antonio Machado Ventura, third in line in the Cuban government. Professor of philosophy and a career diplomat, Alarcon spent nearly 12 years in the United States as the Cuban ambassador to the United Nations. Over time, he has become a spokesperson for the Havana government. In this long interview, one that lasted nearly two hours, Alarcon did not seek to evade a single question. He comments on the role of Fidel Castro after his retirement from political life and explains the presence of Raul Castro at the center of power. He also speaks about the reform of the Cuban economic and social model as well as the challenges facing the Cuban nation. Alarcon then discusses the question of emigration and Cuban relations with the United States under the Obama administration. He also takes on the thorny question of human rights and political prisoners and does not hesitate to talk about Alan Gross, the American sub-contractor imprisoned in Cuba, as well as the case of the five Cuban agents detained in the United States. Alarcon then turns to the important question of oil deposits in the Gulf of Mexico and the potential consequences of their exploitation. The interview concludes with a discussion of the relationship of Cuba with the Catholic church and the Vatican, the imminent visit to Cuba of Pope Benedict XVI, Cuban relations with the European Union and the new Latin America and finally the future of Cuba after Fidel and Raul Castro.

 

Fidel and Raul Castro

            Salim Lamrani: Mr. President, Fidel Castro left power in 2006 for health reasons. How is he doing today and how does he spend his time?

Ricardo Alarcon de Quesada: To my knowledge, he is in excellent health, certainly if you take into account his advanced age and the surgical operations that he has had to undergo. He leads a very active life. He spends a great deal of time reading and he regularly writes thoughtful reflections on a range of topics. He has also published several books. He is currently focused on certain specific research topics, which include food and agriculture. He is analyzing possible forms of agricultural production that would address the serious food crisis that has struck the world, in particular, its poorest regions.

Fidel Castro is a man of extremely varied interests. He studies all kinds of themes and issues, and I must say that for all of these reasons his schedule is very busy.

            SL: How do you explain the presence of Raul Castro at the center of power. Is the reason the fact that he is related to Fidel Castro? Is this, in some way, a dynastic secession?

RAQ: The presence of Raul Castro as the head of the Cuban nation is in absolutely no way linked to his family relationship with Fidel Castro, the leader of the Cuban revolution. Let me explain. Raul Castro already occupied the position of First Vice-President while Fidel Castro was in power. He had been elected to this post. Thus it was constitutionally logical that he replace the President, should the latter vacate power, in the same way that it would be constitutionally reasonable for the President of the French Senate to succeed the President of the French Republic should the latter leave power. Furthermore, Raul Castro had been elected Second secretary of the Communist party as early as the First Congress in 1975 and it is for this reason that he now holds the post of First Secretary.

            SL: But does he not hold these positions because he is Fidel Castro’s brother?

RAQ: I believe that the reason is historical rather than familial. Allow me to clarify my thoughts. Quite aside from the fact that he is Fidel’s brother, Raul played a fundamental role from the first moment in the struggle against the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship in 1956. In 1958, he was the organizer and the head of the Rebel Army’s second front in the Sierra Maestra mountains. He has been considered the second leader of the Revolution since the period of armed struggle against the military regime. This is because of his personal merits and his exceptional leadership qualities, not because of his family relationship with Fidel Castro.

Note, moreover, that Raul is the only member of the Castro family to occupy a political position in Cuba. If it were a question of nepotism, all of the family members would hold key positions. But this is not the case. Fidel Castro has several brothers and sisters but, with the exception of Raul, none of them have played a role in Cuban history. For example, Fidel has an older brother named Ramon. But understand that neither Ramon nor any other member of the family has ever occupied a position in the national hierarchy. Ramon works in agriculture, something that is his primary focus of interest. Fidel Castro’s children are not ministers. I repeat, the presence of Raul Castro as the head of state owes more to historical logic than to family connections.

            SL: In 2008, after his election, Raul Castro told Parliament that he would consult with Fidel Castro on all strategic questions. This proposition was accepted by the deputies. Should we not see in this a covert form of governance by the historical leader of the Revolution? Who really makes the decisions in Cuba?

RAQ: In our country, decisions are made collegially. This was the case even when Fidel Castro was in power. Raul Castro has insisted on this aspect of governance, on its institutionalization in the revolutionary process. We are, at the moment, preparing a Party conference that will take place in January 2012. It will include the participation, not only a very large number of militants, but also of ordinary citizens who are not members of the Party.

The government also functions like a management collective. The Council of Ministers meets every week. In this same way, the Political Bureau of the Party Committee, as well as the Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers meet every week to discuss, debate and take important decisions.

Fidel Castro has very strong moral and political authority. This authority does not result from his having had a particular charge or responsibility, or from holding an office that at some point he may have been elected to, but rather because of the role he has played in history. That is the reason why, as Raul explained before the Congress, that his opinion is still welcomed on questions of strategic importance. He doesn’t participate in the meetings that I have mentioned, but when it comes to questions of the first order, he is systematically consulted.

Remember at the same time that we are talking about a country where almost everyone is consulted all of the time on all of the issues. Now, if there is a fact about Cuba that cannot be denied, it is the large number of meetings where people are able to express their points of view. I can tell you that the debates are lively because the differences of opinion are real. Workers, Party militants, neighbors, absolutely everyone participates in them. Thus, logically, Fidel Castro has his say. Clearly, he doesn’t express an opinion on every issue, but he does weigh in on the fundamental issues.

            SL: A kind of moral authority.

RAQ: Fidel does not hold a formal position today, but he nonetheless remains Fidel Castro, the historic leader of the Revolution, the person who led us to victory over Batista. He remains the principal architect of the resistance to the United States for the last half century. Thus, his opinion is, quite logically, of particular importance on all strategic issues.

 

The reform of the Cuban economic model

            SL: In April of 2011, the Communist Party Congress decided to reform the Cuban economic model. What brought about this change? What is it exactly?

RAQ: As Cubans, we realized that we had to introduce important changes in the social and economic functioning of our nation in order to save socialism, to improve it, to make it better. In doing so, we took an objective look at our society. Cuban socialism had, for a very long time, been closely linked to that of the Soviet Union. Clearly, it can no longer continue like this. It was also necessary to take into account certain global factors present on the international scene. Furthermore, we need to rectify aspects of the social and economic model that undoubtedly made sense at the time they were adopted, but can no longer be justified. Certain policies elaborated in the past can be explained by conditions that existed then, but today they have no reason for being.

What are we seeking exactly? We are attempting to obtain a higher level of economic efficiency, a more rational use of our limited natural, material and financial resources. In so doing, we take into account the primary external factors that impinge upon Cuba, certainly the economic sanctions that the United States imposes upon us, sanctions that have been tightened over the past number of years. But, it is also important to take into account certain positive changes, for example, those occurring in Latin America and the Caribbean. After having analyzed the problems faced by the Cuban society, after reflecting collectively upon them, we arrived at the conclusion that it would be necessary to introduce certain changes not only in order to cope with the objective realities we face, but also because we are convinced that there is a better way to go about constructing a more just society.

            SL: That is to say?

RAQ: The state is not giving up its role, and it is not putting our society’s social gains in jeopardy. But, in order to maintain access to free universal health care, free universal education, and to guarantee everyone the right to these services, the right to retirement benefits, to social assistance, it is essential that we reach the highest level of efficiency possible in their implementation. We have worked hard to provide higher quality services at a lower cost, not by reducing the salary of the teacher, but rather by eliminating the unnecessary costs that are inherent in a bureaucracy. This is the general approach we took for the rest of the economy as well.

            SL: One goal therefore is to put an end to bureaucratic obstacles, and a withdrawal of the state from non-strategic sectors, hairdressing salons, for example.

RAQ: Raul Castro has often cited the case of hairdressing salons. When was it that Karl Marx suggested that socialism consisted of collectivizing hairdressing salons? When was it that he said that this activity, like many others, ought to be administered and controlled by the state? The idea of socialism has always been the collectivization of the fundamental means of production. It is clear that the term “fundamental” may be interpreted more or less broadly. As far as we are concerned, we are convinced that it is impossible to renounce certain things. Nevertheless, it is essential that we reduce the role of the state in certain tasks and activities that people can so better, both by themselves and cooperatively.  This would allow the state to cut costs enormously and still guarantee what we consider to be basic human rights. To do this, we need to unleash new productive forces and enable personal initiatives, in the city as well as in the countryside. In this way, we will establish a Cuban socialism that, ultimately, does not simply respond to established dogma, follow another’s example, or copy a predetermined template.

            SL: A socialism that would therefore be uniquely Cuban.

RAQ: What characterizes Latin America at the present moment is the fact that a number of countries, each in its own way, are constructing their own versions of socialism. For a long while now, one of the fundamental errors of socialist and revolutionary movements has been the belief that a socialist model exists. In reality, we should not be talking about socialism, but rather about socialisms in the plural. There is no socialism that is similar to another. As Mariategui said, socialism is a “heroic creation”. If socialism is to be created, it must respond to realities, motivations, cultures, situations, contexts, all of which are objectives that are different from each other, not identical.

            SL: How was the reform of the economic model decided upon?

RAQ: We are in an experimental phase using a methodology that is very Cuban and, I think, very socialist, that is to say, a process of broad, continual and authentic public consultation. The Party proposed a plan to reform the economic system. This plan has been debated throughout the country, not only among Party militants, but also among all citizens who chose to participate. Furthermore, the plan has been significantly modified following these discussions. Certain items have been changed, new items have been proposed, and yet others have been rejected. Over 70 percent of the original document was modified following discussions with citizen groups and only then was it presented to the Communist Party Congress. Several commissions were created to work and reflect upon the final document and to analyze the proposals that emerged from this great national debate. In the long run, a new document that contains 311 proposals for change was presented to and approved by Parliament. Certain measures have already been implemented, others are in the process of being implemented and others are still under discussion, not on their content, that has already been approved, but on how best to implement them.

I am not sure that there are many governments around the world that would take the trouble of consulting the public before adopting a policy aimed at transforming their economic system. Neither am I certain that governments that have implemented drastic austerity measures, that have reduced their health and education budgets, that have raised the retirement age, all because of the systemic neoliberal crisis that now envelops many nations, might have sought out the advice of their citizens before making profound changes that promise to affect their daily lives.

Out of all of this experimentation a new socialism will emerge, different from that we have now, but it will still be socialism and it will be without a doubt more authentic.

            SL: Is this not a return to capitalism?

RAQ: I don’t think so, even if it is true that there will be a greater presence of market mechanisms in Cuban society, mechanisms that characterize the market economy, or capitalism if you prefer.

            SL: Since November 2011, Cubans can buy and sell housing and automobiles. Why was something that is the norm in the rest of the world banned or highly regulated in Cuba?

RAQ: Allow me to give you a historical explanation. In the 1960s, when these measures were taken, the objective was to prevent capitalist restoration through the accumulation of goods. Take, for example, the Mexican revolution. It implemented a great agrarian reform, but a short time later the latifundio reappeared. The Cuban Revolution did not wish to commit the same error. If a farmer who, through the agrarian reform program, came to possess even a small piece of land and then decided to sell it to the richest landowner, he would undermine the very foundation of the agrarian reform, because he was once again contributing to the accumulation of property and to the resurgence of the latifundio.

As for housing, the urban reform gave all Cubans the right to housing by limiting the concentration of ownership. Walk around Havana and you will never find a person living in the street or sleeping under a bridge, something that is not the case in numerous western capitals. There may be a problem of overcrowding, with several generations living under the same roof, but no one is abandoned to his fate. We did not wish to once again find ourselves with owners of multiple properties and this is the reasons that restrictions–not a total ban–were imposed.

            SL: And what about automobiles?

RAQ: In the case of automobiles, the question is more complex because it concerns an imported product upon which the nation is dependent. Never in the history of the country has Cuba had an automobile industry. Cuba has produced some means of collective transportation, but automobiles have never been produced here. There is also another key element at play, gasoline, the fuel that has always been the Achilles heel of the Cuban economy. It was necessary, therefore, to establish controls and certain restrictions.

It is also well to recall that certain of these controls predate the idea of Cuban socialism. I often refer to an extremely interesting document dated February 1959, the point at which in Cuba we established control over foreign exchange and imports. Up until February of 1959, the Cuban bourgeoisie would go to a bank to buy dollars in order to import cars, perfume or other luxury goods. With the triumph of the Revolution, a part of the elite that had been linked to the old regime took the path of exile and, among them, was the president of the Cuban national bank.

The provisional government, directed by Manuel Urrutia, then named Dr. Felipe Pazos as head of this bank. Pazos had been the founder and first president of this national financial institution when it was established in 1950 under the government of Carlos Prio Socarras. He directed the bank from 1950 until March of 1952, the date that marked the coup d’état of Fulgencio Batista. When he once again took over the bank, he wrote a report that he submitted to President Urrutia–Fidel Castro was only chief of the Armed forces at the time–in which he described the state of Cuban finances and revealed the extent of the pillaging of the reserves by the leaders of the old order before they had fled the country.

It was Pazos, not Che Guevara, Raul Castro or any other radical of the 26th of July Movement, an emblematic representative of the leisured classes and highly respected by the bourgeoisie of the period, who decided to establish exchange controls, stop the sale of dollars, and impose strict control over imports. As president of the National bank, he had informed Urrutia that it was imperative that measures be taken, given the financial disaster that had befallen the nation. Cuba’ economic situation was dramatic and it was important to recognize that certain elements of tension that existed in the Cuban economy had not yet disappeared.

Also, beginning in the 1960s, strong restrictions were placed upon the importation of products including automobiles and, for economic reasons, this policy continues today. This decision, I would remind you, was made by a renowned economist, Felipe Pazos, who was neither a radical nor a communist, but was in fact a conservative.

Two types of situations existed. First, those who owned an automobile before the triumph of the Revolution could use it as they wished, sell it, etc. But, given that the state held a monopoly on imports, imported automobiles were to be sold only to government workers, or to deserving parties, at subsidized prices, often at little more than 10 percent of their real value. It was therefore no longer possible to sell automobiles simply in order to make a profit.

So clearly, limits were placed upon owning automobiles as personal property unless they were to serve a social function. Had unregulated sale of cars been legalized, ownership would not go to those for whom cars served a social function, or to those who by their own merits had acquired them, but rather to those with the most money. In any case, that was the justification at the time. It was important to avoid speculation in automobiles, because it was evident that the country did not have sufficient resources to massively import them, nor to furnish the fuel necessary to their functioning. So, there again, the state imposed certain restrictions.

SL: So what about now?

RAQ: We now see this from a different perspective. If you are a homeowner–and some 85 percent of Cubans are–it is possible to sell. Why? Take the case of a growing family that needs to acquire a larger place, and the case of a household that is shrinking and needs a smaller place because the children have grown up and married. From here on out, it will be possible to exchange or to sell. It is now also possible to leave property to someone, loan it, rent it, etc. Before, only the exchange of property and the renting of rooms was authorized. Now, this type of transaction is facilitated by the elimination of these bureaucratic obstacles.

            SL: What were the obstacles?

RAQ: In the past, in order to buy, sell, or exchange properties, it was necessary to obtain an administrative decision from the National Housing Institute. To get them to make a decision, an agreement from the Municipal Department of Housing was required. One then needed to obtain authorization at both the provincial and national levels. There was an enormous bureaucracy involved and given that administrative decisions were required, it was the source of corruption and bribes.

Now, since the first of December 2011, two parties who wish to exchange their homes have only to present the titles to their properties to a public notary. All of the bureaucratic hurtles have been eliminated. Of course, public notaries have always been involved, but one saw them only after both the buyer and seller had received all of the necessary administrative authorizations.

            SL: What happens if there is a dispute?

RAQ: In the case of litigation, if one party claims certain rights after a transaction has been completed either through sale or exchange, the courts will decide the case and have the last word. The bureaucracies will no longer have a voice in the matter. You can see, therefore, that in this one area alone, we have managed to reduce drastically administrative and bureaucratic involvement by eliminating unnecessary steps. These reforms have resolved a number of problems linked to housing by simplifying sales and exchanges.

As far as automobiles are concerned, this has been even easier because vehicle registration has existed for a long time. We are working to eliminate bureaucracy in our society. The biggest remaining limitation resides in the fact that individuals cannot import vehicles and, at the risk of repeating myself, this was a decision taken fifty years ago, not by Fidel Castro but rather by Felipe Pazos, long before the United States imposed a commercial embargo on our nation, long before the Torricelli Act of 1992, the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 and the two reports of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba of 2004 and 2006, which strengthened these economic sanctions. As you can imagine, these sanctions have exacerbated our national economic problems and led to the imposition of strict controls on personal imports.

In the same way, a candidate for emigration will now be able to sell his home before leaving the country or leave it to his family up through the fourth degree of consanguinity. Before, the state took possession of abandoned housing and gave it to other families. This will no longer be the case.

Migration issues

            SL: Let’s talk about the question of emigration. Why are there still restrictions on emigration? Why is it that a Cuban who leaves the country for more than eleven months is considered an emigrant and loses most of the rights reserved to permanent residents?

RAQ: One of the questions that we are currently discussing at the highest level of the government is the question of emigration. We are working towards a profound radical reform of emigration that in the months to come will eliminate these kinds of restrictions. As an introduction to this topic, we should recall that emigration has been one of the themes most manipulated by the United States. Since 1959, it has been used as a weapon of destabilization against Cuba and as a means of distorting Cuban reality. I would remind you that the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 is still in force. It stipulates that any Cuban that leaves the country, either legally or illegally, peacefully or violently will be, after one year in the United States, automatically eligible for permanent residency status. You must admit that the Cuban Adjustment Act is a great motivating factor that incites legal, but especially illegal, emigration. At the same time, the United States imposes a limit of 30,000 on the number of Cubans who are allowed to emigrate each year. Logic would suggest that the United States diplomatic representation in Havana, because of the Cuban Adjustment Act, would grant a visa to each applicant who applies. But this is not the case.

            SL: For what purpose would you think?

RAQ: In order to encourage illegal immigration and then to exploit this phenomenon by mounting media campaigns featuring poor Cubans trying to leave their country at all costs. The only country in the world that benefits from a law of adjustment on the part of the United States is Cuba. It is the reason why there is not a single Cuban in an illegal situation on American soil because they have all been regularized. On the one hand, the United States criminalizes immigrants from every country in the world, but on the other, they welcome Cubans with open arms.

            SL: What are the other reasons that might explain migratory control?

RAQ: Things have actually changed a great deal. Now, the Cuban community abroad constitutes the second largest group of people who travel to Cuba each year. Nearly a half-million Cubans living overseas visit us annually. The immense majority of Cubans living abroad maintain a normal relationship with their country of origin.

Fifty years ago this was not the case. Then the majority was comprised of exiles and among them were those who had looted the public treasury, those who had participated in the Bay of Pigs invasion and those who had entered the country clandestinely in order to plant bombs and assassinate young teachers during the Literacy Campaign. As you can imagine things were quite different then.

Since then, other Cubans have emigrated to the United States, emigrants who do not share the same profile as the earlier exiles. It is now an economic migration and the fundamental interest of those who migrate is to maintain a peaceful relationship with their country of origin. They have family, friends and above all they want stability.

This new reality has brought us to consider a substantial reform of our migratory policy. Certain regulations are to be changed and others are to be eliminated entirely.

There is yet another explanation for these restrictions: the need to protect our human capital. The training of doctors, technicians, teachers, etc. is extremely costly for Cuba and the United States is doing its best to deprive us of these human resources. In 1959, 50 percent of all Cuban doctors, 3,000 in total, became exiles in the United States where they were offered better living conditions. Since 2006, a policy adopted by the Bush administration entitled The Cuban Medical Program, is designed to deprive the Cuban nation of its doctors by inciting them to move to the United States. This program is still in place, even now under the Obama administration. We have the right to protect our human capital.

 

Relations with the United States

            SL: Let’s turn to relations with the United States. From the Cuban perspective, what are the differences between the Obama administration and the previous Bush administration?

RAQ: The most notable difference is that of style, of language. Obama is a more sophisticated man, more cultivated than Bush. Of course, this is not particularly flattering on my part since one could say the same of almost anyone. It is not especially difficult to be more intelligent than George W. Bush. But if we were to concede a certain formal change from the previous administration, it would not be one of substance. I always think of this famous song, “Killing me softly with your words”. Because their objective remains the same: to destroy the Cuban revolution, subvert the established order, dominate Cuba as they did in the past, all remains the same, but with somewhat less aggressive rhetoric, with a gentler approach.

           SL: Apart from style, have there not been a few changes?

RAQ: The Obama administration has fundamentally distinguished itself from its predecessor on one issue that relates to the Cuban-American community. During the electoral campaign Obama travelled to Miami and promised to eliminate the drastic restrictions on travel by Cubans living in the United States that had been imposed by the Bush administration. Between 2004 and 2009, Cubans from the United States, under the best of conditions, could travel to the island for no more than 14 days every three years. To qualify even for this, it was necessary to have a member of the family to whom you are related by the first degree of consanguinity, that is to say, grandparents, parents, brother or sister, spouse and children. The Cuban who had only an aunt on the island, for example, was not authorized to travel, even once every three years. The transfer of money was also limited to 1200 dollars a year. Obama kept his promise and rescinded these restrictions. This was something important for overseas Cubans as well as for Cubans on the island, because it preserved family relationships.

            SL: So on this point Obama has distinguished himself from his predecessor.

RAQ: Indeed. Up until this point, the custom for all presidential candidates, when they visited Miami, was to promise ever stronger, ever more robust, sanctions against the “Castro regime” in order to satisfy the demands of the great potentates who control the anti-Castro industry. Obama, on the other hand, went there to obtain the support of the Cuban emigrants, and he had the good sense to talk about what it was that interested the great majority of Cubans in Florida: the possibility of traveling freely to Cuba. Obama was right, of course, and he won the Democratic nomination, received a majority of the votes in Miami and Florida and emerged as the winner of the presidential election.

            SL: Does not Obama’s victory in Florida, the traditional bastion of the Republican right, mean that there has been a notable change in the composition of the Cuban community?

RAQ: This is the case, of course, because the new Cuban community, composed of the vast majority of all Cubans in Florida, has a different attitude than that of the older generation that was nostalgic for the old order, for the extremist exile, as it is commonly called. This extremist fringe, for the most part, holds American citizenship and participates in political life by voting, while the new generation of immigrants, or at least a large part of it, are not American citizens and in no way play an active role in the political life of the nation. But in spite of this, Obama’s position was the majority position among Cubans who have the right to vote. Nonetheless, Cubans who cannot vote have influence. They can exert pressure. In brief, they too must be taken into account. Obama, once elected, put an end to the restrictions.

            SL: What is your assessment of Obama’s first term vis-à-vis Cuba?

RAQ: I think it is an assessment that is shared by a majority of American citizens. The most accurate term for describing this generally shared feeling is “frustration”, because he has not satisfied the expectations that were raised by his rhetoric of change. But we are willing to concede that, and I repeat, he has a more stylish approach, more elegant.

On the other hand, I am compelled to tell you that the Obama administration has been considerably more consistent in the imposition of fines and sanctions against foreign companies who violate the framework of sanctions against Cuba, that engage in business transactions with us.

            SL: Thus, the sanctions the United States imposes on Cuba apply equally to foreign enterprises.

RAQ: We should not forget that these economic sanctions have an extraterritorial impact, that is to say they apply equally to other countries in clear violation of international law which prohibits any kind of extraterritorial application of laws. For example, French law does not apply in Spain, because French law respects international law. However, the United States law that imposes economic sanctions on Cuba applies everywhere in the world.

A number of banks have been fined several millions of dollars, more than 100 million in one case, for conducting dollar-based business transactions and for having opened dollars accounts with Cuban companies.

            SL: Thus, on the one hand, certain restrictions have been relaxed while on the other, sanctions against those who contravene the rules of the embargo are applied more systematically.

RAQ: Exactly. It’s worth noting that the bilateral relations under Obama have not risen to the level that existed during the Carter administration. Rather, they are similar to what existed under Clinton.

            SL: What were they like under Carter?

RAQ: Carter put an end the existing regulations and began a process of normalizing relations. Diplomatic representation was established and sections of interest were opened in Havana and Washington. Then it was not only Cubans who could travel without restriction, but Americans as well. This was, in fact, the only period since 1959 when American tourists could travel to Cuba without restriction. Today they can travel anywhere in the world, China, Vietnam, North Korea, but not to Cuba.

Obama did not restore the Carter level of relations even though numerous sectors in the United States, the business world, public opinion and more than 100 members of Congress were insisting upon it, however their efforts were in vain.

            SL:  Is Cuba willing to normalize relations with the United States?

RAQ: Certainly. But the real question is what do we mean by normalizing relations. If we’re talking about abiding by international law, Cuba is quite willing to normalize relations, but with the stipulation that the United States must recognize us and treat us as an equal from a legal standpoint, as is the case with all other countries of the world. I would remind you that sovereign equality has been the norm since the Congress of Westphalia in 1648. The question is therefore one of respect for sovereignty and independence. Under these conditions, Cuba of course aspires to the normalization of relations with the United States. In fact, this is one of the historic goals of the Cuban nation.

But in order for this to come about, the United States must accept this concrete reality: Cuba is a sovereign entity, independent and free, and does not belong to them. I would point out that on the entire American continent, the United States is the only country that does not maintain relations with us.

            SL: According to the Obama administration, relations with Cuba are not possible because of its lack of democracy and its human rights abuses.

RAQ: This is actually part of the hypocritical rhetoric that comes from the government of the United States. If the United States applied these same criteria across the board, they would not maintain relations with quite a number of other countries.

They also suffer from a serious psychological problem. Were they to apply to themselves the same standards they apply to Cuba, they would find it impossible to maintain good relations internally. They would, for example, need to break off relations with New York City where the police brutally represses peaceful demonstrations. They would need to put an end to their relations with the California authorities guilty of unprecedented violence against protestors from the “occupy movement”, as it is called.

It is as though Cuba had decided to break off relations with all countries that do not offer free and universal access to health care, education, culture, sports, or leisure activities. At the same time, we are not asking the United States to change its system as a precondition to normalizing relations. Obviously, we would like it very much if all American citizens had access to free universal health care, free universal education and for minorities not be victims of racial or social segregation. In any case, we would hardly impose this as a precondition to the normalization of bilateral relations because we respect the principal of sovereignty. The United States does not belong to Cuba, therefore we do not express our opinion or impose our point of view on their form of government.

Thus, all of Obama’s rhetoric and that of his predecessors is a reflection of a historic tendency dating back to the beginning of the 19th century and even back to Thomas Jefferson, someone who considered Cuba to be a natural addition to the American union. Clearly, the United States feels as though it is invested with a divine mission that permits it to dictate its law to other nations. But you understand that we do not accept this principal nor will we ever accept it.

 

The Case of Alan Gross

            SL: Now let’s turn to the Alan Gross affair, something that constitutes an obstacle, according to the United States, to opening a dialogue with Cuba. How do you justify the sentencing of Alan Gross to fifteen years in prison when he was, according to Washington, in Cuba merely to help the Jewish community gain access to the Internet ?

RAQ: This is patently incorrect. The Cuban Jewish community, for which we have great respect, has already spoken on this subject and has firmly rejected any connection to Gross’ activities. The Jewish community did not need Gross’ services because they have no problem accessing new technologies. What is more, relations between the Jewish community and the Cuban government are excellent and, because of this, the community would never associate themselves with the subversive maneuvering of the United States. The Cuban Jewish community also has close links to Jewish communities throughout the world and, in particular, to those in the United States. These communities furnish them with what they need and members travel frequently to Cuba. All of this occurs with the full cooperation of the Cuban government. Consequently, Washington’s assertions are clearly without foundation.

            SL: What has he been accused of?

RAQ: Gross himself has complained of being a victim of the policies of the United States. He came to Cuba to implement a program of internal subversion developed by the United States that involved the distribution of highly sophisticated equipment, satellite telephones for example, to groups linked with the government of the United States, of which the ultimate goal, a goal publicly proclaimed by Washington, is regime change. His presence in Cuba had an ultimately subversive goal, This is not only a serious crime in Cuba, but in the United States and France as well.

            SL: Ultimately, he was judged on this basis?

RAQ: He was brought to trial during which he benefited from all possible legal guarantees. He himself has acknowledged that the process was equitable and that the trial was fair. His American lawyer also acknowledged that the trial was conducted in a fair manner. Further, the conditions under which he is held allow him to have contact with American diplomats in Cuba every time he so wishes. Also, every time his wife has applied for a visa to visit him, it has been granted. Gross has also met regularly with prominent Americans visiting Cuba, including religious leaders. The last was David Shneyer, the rabbi of Gross’ community, who has described the conditions of his visit. They did not meet in a high security prison as the United States press reported, but rather in the military hospital where Gross lives because of his health problems. He is treated humanely, with full respect for his integrity, as Cuban law provides.

 

The Case of the Cuban Five

            SL: Now let’s talk about the Cuban Five. Four of them are still held and the fifth is out on probation. They have been imprisoned since 1998 for “conspiracy to commit espionage” and were sentenced to heavy prison terms, from 15 years to life. What are their future prospects?

RAQ: In the case of René Gonzalez, who is out on parole, his lawyer will try to persuade the judge to let him purge the remaining three years of his sentence in Cuba. In the same way, we are also trying to obtain authorization for a family visit. His wife has not seen him for more than a decade because Washington has systematically denied all requests for visas.

Everyone, I believe, can appreciate the difference in treatment between Cuba and the United States in terms of family visits for prisoners. Cuba has systematically accepted all visa requests from Gross’ wife. Washington has systematically refused all requests for visas from Olga Salanueva, the wife of René Gonzalez, and from Adriana Pérez, the wife of Gerardo Hernandez.

René Gonzalez may also make a request to visit Cuba to see his family, because conditional release allows for this possibility. It also permits him to serve his sentence outside of United States territory.

For the other four, the habeas corpus process is still ongoing. Three administrative procedures, a motion by the defense, one by the prosecution, and the response of the defense, are almost complete for Antonio Guerrero and Gerardo Hernandez. As for Ramon Labanino and Fernando Gonzalez, we are awaiting the response of the prosecutor, that is to say, the government of the United States, in early 2012. Then, the defense will in turn address the government’s response. These decisions came down at two different times and that is why the cases are being considered separately.

            SL: For what reason are the cases being considered separately?

RAQ: In fact, this extraordinary habeas corpus procedure is possible only once a trial has ended, which in the case of Gerardo Hernandez and René Gonzalez became possible when the Supreme Court declined to review their cases. As for Antonio, Ramon and Fernando, the trial ended when the court imposed new sentences while their cases were under appeal. These decisions were taken at two different times and that, once again, is why these cases are being considered separately.

            SL: The outcome of these cases, however, seems more political than legal.

RAQ: This is certainly true and it underscores the need to convince President Obama to free them. In my opinion, he has a moral obligation to do so, and it is something that he can do with a simple executive order, something that the United States constitution allows him. This is a decision that can be made at any time, regardless of the evolution of the trial.

            SL: What are the reasons that Obama ought to make such a decision?

RAQ: Simply because these men are innocent. I would remind you that they were in the United States to prevent terrorist attacks against Cuba. They were not there to infiltrate government agencies, something that would have justified the charge of espionage, but rather to infiltrate small violent right-wing groups of Cuban exiles that were implicated in acts of terrorism against Cuba.

Their mission was necessary because these groups have always been allowed to operate with total impunity. Remember that Luis Posada Carriles, a former CIA operative and the brains behind more than one hundred murders–it’s not me saying it, it’s what he himself is quoted as having said in an interview published in the New York Times of July 12, 1998. It is also something that CIA and FBI reports, declassified in 2004 and 2005, affirm. And he is still a free man in Miami, someone who has never been judged for his crimes.

Let me remind you that in 1998 we invited two important FBI directors to Cuba and presented them with a voluminous report, prepared by our own agents, on the activities of terrorist groups in Miami. They promised to neutralize these groups, but on their return, rather than doing what they promised, they proceeded to arrest the Cuban Five.

The reality of terrorism against Cuba became quite clear upon the release of René Gonzalez from prison.

            SL: Please explain.

RAQ: The public prosecutor categorically refused René Gonzalez the right to serve out his parole in Cuba. The judge in the case accepted the prosecutor’s request and ruled that, for the moment at least, he should serve his parole in the United States. In her written declaration, the judge, at three different points, cites the “additional special condition” that had been imposed upon him when he was convicted in 2001, something by which he is bound to abide.

            SL: What did this “additional special condition” consist of?

RAQ: This peculiar additional special condition to his parole prohibits him from “associating with or visiting specific places where individuals or groups such as terrorists, members of organizations advocating violence, or organized crime figures are known to be or frequent…” This is a textually accurate citation that can be found in the transcript of the Sentencing Hearing before the honorable Joan A. Lenard, dated December 12, 2001, pages 45-46.

This constitutes an explicit recognition that United States authorities have identified groups or individuals they consider to be terrorists, organized criminals or individuals promoting violence. They know who they are and where they can be found, but do nothing that would put these groups in harm’s way. At the same time, they prohibit an American citizen–René Gonzalez was born in the United States–to go there and work against these groups.

            SL: All of this is quite surprising and the statement is troubling.

RAQ: You can find this declaration in the transcript of the trial and in the recent declaration of the prosecutor  and the judge, when René Gonzalez requested permission to serve out his sentence in Cuba. It is obvious that the reason this condition has been imposed is to protect these three categories of despicable individuals. If you have a better explanation, I would be interested in hearing it.

This presumes that René Gonzalez must be monitored constantly by the United States authorities, authorities who know exactly where to find these individuals, in order to ensure that he does not violate his parole. If unfortunately René Gonzalez should attempt to return to where these groups are located with the intention of thwarting their plans, he would be sent back to prison immediately.

            SL: All of this seems a little surreal.

RAQ: Still it’s the truth, even if it is unusual. You will find, I’ll say again, this statement used throughout the trial. The prosecutor always insisted on this fact. The judge dictated the sentences, the sentences in the memorandum, but it was the government that proposed the penalties and, needless to say, the government proposed the maximum penalty for each count. The prosecution made serious mistakes that led to the Court of Appeals imposing new sentences on Antonio Guerrero, Fernando Gonzalez and Ramon Labanino.

This same prosecutor, in the same sentencing memorandum and also orally in front of the court, stressed that from the perspective of the United States government, it was important to hand down maximum penalties, penalties that would ensure that the accused would be unable to undertake once again the activities for which he had been condemned–that is to say, infiltrating terrorist groups in a peaceful manner, unarmed and nonviolently, in order to inform Cuba of their activities–hence the importance of imposing this “additional special condition”. And indeed it was imposed upon all five, including Gerardo Hernandez who had already received two life sentences plus 15 years. All of them, when they have served out their sentences–for Gerardo, this would be in his third lifetime–must stay well away from these terrorist groups and it will be the government’s job to assure that this condition is enforced, to ensure that they will not resume the same activities that led them to prison in the first place.

For Gerardo, Ramon and Fernando, the prosecution underscored that this will be the case because it is intended that they be expelled from American territory–all of this is written in black and white in the sentencing memorandum. For René and Antonio, both American citizens, they cannot be expelled and it is for that reason that this “additional special condition” was imposed on them. René must conform to it, even after he has finished his parole, and Antonio as well, should he be granted parole.

In other words, the United States authorities recognize that terrorists groups, violent and mafia-linked, exist in the city of Miami. They know who they are and where they are, but nonetheless grant them total immunity. In this way, they are also preventing any free American citizen from doing anything to neutralize them.

            SL: What do you think this demonstrates?

RAQ: This demonstrates clearly the innocence of the Five, because what they did in the United States is not a crime. Stopping an act of terrorism is not a crime. Struggling against violence, against crime and terrorism, is not a crime anywhere. Unhappily, this affair has continued because of media dictatorship. If this affair had been covered by the media as it should have been, it would have caused such outrage amongst the American public that the government’s position would have been untenable. What would American public opinion say if it became clear that the government was protecting terrorists and incarcerating those who struggle against terrorism?

Imagine that if tomorrow the government decided to arrest René Gonzalez because he had been approached by a terrorist group? How can the American government get away with behaving in this manner? Quite simply because public opinion has not been informed of media complicity in this affair. Had this been known, the Five would have been back in Cuba a long time ago.

Be aware, René was released from prison in October 2011. This requirement was imposed, not in order to protect him, but rather to protect terrorist groups. Is this not unbelievable?

I would like to repeat that it is the clear duty of President Obama to liberate the Five. Their liberation is also in the best interests of the United States. This case clearly underscores the profoundly hypocritical character of the United States’ antiterrorist policy. This is a country that on the one hand pretends to lead a global struggle against this scourge and on the other hand protects criminals on their own soil by incarcerating those who try to foil their plans. The federal government is at this very moment spending public funds in order to monitor René Gonzalez. In so doing they are only protecting the terrorists. René has purged a thirteen year prison sentence for trying to prevent terrorist acts against Cuba. It is the same for the other four. Here we have the first case in the history of “espionage” in the United States in which not a single secret document has been violated. It is for this reason that the Court of Appeals in Atlanta recognized that this case has nothing to do with espionage.

 

Oil

            SL: Let’s turn to another subject. Cuba has large underseas oil deposits that will soon be exploited. Do you think that oil will be a key element in any normalization of relations with the United States?

RAQ: We are, of course, quite hopeful that the explorations that are to be conducted in coastal waters that fall within the exclusive economic zone of Cuba will be successful. All of the analyses indicate that this will be the case, including studies done by the United States. These oil reserves are relatively large and will contribute substantially to the economic development of Cuba.

On the other hand, I believe that history and geography, even more so than oil, will be what leads to a normalization of our relations. What those who decide in Washington should understand, once and for all, is that Cuba is an entity separate from the United States, one that has never belonged to them. Consequently, they ought to seek to establish normal diplomatic relations based on respect for sovereignty and independence.

It is clear that oil will get things moving as extraction expands. Business interests in the United States wish to have relations with Cuba.

 

Political prisoners

            SL: In 2010, after a dialog with the Catholic church and Spain, Cuba decided to free all so-called political prisoners. How do you explain their presence in prison?

RAQ: All of the persons you are talking about have been judged guilty by our courts of law for their association with a foreign power, namely the United States. They had agreed to be funded by Washington to promote regime change in Cuba. This is a grave violation of the Cuban penal code. I would remind you that all penal codes around the world classify this kind of activity as an offense. For example, it is strictly forbidden in France to be financed by a foreign power with the goal of harming the fundamental interests of the nation. It’s the same in the United States.

            SL: So this is the Cuban version.

RAQ: Allow me to point out that there is a relatively simple way to confirm our version. One need only to consult official United States documents that are publicly available, and in which it is acknowledged that one of the pillars of Washington’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Cuba consists of funding an internal opposition. The United States government does not deny our version. On the contrary, they proclaim it in their official reports and legislation. You will also notice that the persons who are designated as political prisoners have never denied the fact that they were in the pay of the United States’ government. They were sentenced to terms established by our penal code for having been an integral part of a plan designed to subvert the established order, and not for their opinions.

            SL: Why have they been liberated?

RAQ: The Catholic Church and the Spanish authorities involved have shown that a solution could be arrived at with the Cuban authorities if the relationship were to be based on mutual respect and dialogue. This is a humanitarian issue and we have demonstrated Cuba to be magnanimous and generous. At the same time, I would remind you that the ultimate goal sought by the United States is to put an end to the independence of Cuba. If the subversive plans that had been put in place by these individuals, plans that had they been carried out, Cuba, I repeat, would have ceased being a sovereign and independent state. Serious crimes had been committed and this should not be forgotten.

Recall that a number of these individuals had been liberated in the past for health reasons, long before the dialogue with Cardinal Jaime Ortega. These negotiations ultimately benefited everyone and we should recognize that the cooperation of the government of José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was important.

 

Relations with the Catholic church and the Vatican

            SL: What is the reason for this rapprochement with these religious authorities? What is the relationship with the Vatican?

RAQ: Relations with the Cuban church are good. Catholics are an integral part of Cuban society. They have their space, which they occupy well. The most important thing for Cuba is the unity of the nation in all its diversity.

At the beginning of the Revolution, there was tension and disagreement with certain sectors of the Church, including foreign sectors that were closely aligned with the Spanish Phalange and the Franco regime of the period, sectors that were opposed the revolutionary process. Remember that these sectors of the church were responsible for organizing Operation Peter Pan, an operation that sent some 14 000 children out of the country, thus separating them irremediably from their parents.

Things are different now. The Catholic church is Cuban and patriotic. Cardinal Jaime Ortega has delivered a pastoral sermon urging believers to join the debate to update the economic and social model, and to express their views.

As for relations with the Vatican, they are cordial because there has never been a problem between the two states, Cuba and the Vatican.

            SL: What does the upcoming visit of Pope Benedict XVI in March 2012 represent for Cuba?

RAQ: We accord considerable importance to this visit because it will permit us to further develop our relations with the Vatican. We are also convinced that it will have a positive impact on Cuban society and contribute to reinforcing national unity, as did the visit of his Holiness Jean-Paul II in January of 1998.

In 2012, we will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the apparition of the Virgin in Nipe bay. This is an extremely important event. We have already witnessed a large number of religious processions across the island in 2011. For Cuban Catholicism, this is a fundamental symbol. But it goes well beyond that because, regardless of one’s religious beliefs, it is also a national symbol. It is part of our national value system and contributes to the cohesion of the country. Many Cubans, even those who are not catholic, worship the Virgin of Charity. This anniversary is so important to us that it will be commemorated with massive events across the country, with the Virgin, church authorities, civic power, the Communist Party, trade unions, believers, atheists, even if this reality is ignored abroad.

 

The European Union

            SL: A word on relations with the European Union. Is the lifting of the EU Common Position, something that has been in force since 1996, a necessary precondition to the restoration of normal diplomatic relations?

RAQ: The EU Common Position remains the principal obstacle to full normalization of bilateral relations with Brussels. We have nonetheless maintained good relations with several European countries that have not abided by the recommendations of the Common Position.

This Common Position, which limits political, diplomatic and cultural relations, clearly demonstrates the alignment of European foreign policy with that of Washington, with its usual rhetoric about democracy and human rights. Brussels has accepted United States policy toward Cuba but, it should be underscored, this is a policy that is at its core anti-European.

            SL: What do you mean?

RAQ: Let’s look back on the origin of the EU Common Position. In 1996, the United States Congress adopted the Helms-Burton Act, legislation that tightened its economic sanctions against Cuba. This vote provoked a confrontation with the European Union because of the extraterritorial nature of the legislation. In a word, European enterprises investing in Cuba risked seeing their assets confiscated in the United States. The dispute was brought before the World Trade Organization where an agreement was reached between the United States and the European Union in a document entitled “memorandum of understanding” if I remember correctly. In it, Washington agreed to suspend Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, which was detrimental to European interests and, in return, Brussels pledged to align its foreign policy with that of the United States and to support the strategic objectives of the United States in Cuba, namely regime change.

The European Union rigorously respected its part of the contract by imposing the Common Position in 1996, a document we consider to be out-of-date, discriminatory, illegal and contradictory. This Common Position has been maintained despite the fact that all American administrations, those of Clinton, Bush and Obama, have royally mocked this signed agreement by repeatedly violating it.

            SL: In what way?

RAQ: None of these administrations have consented to modify the Helms-Burton Act, despite the suspension of Title III. There are no written documents, from neither Clinton, Bush, nor Obama, calling on Congress to adjust the law to agree with the agreement signed in Brussels. This is something that could be done simply by removing the extraterritorial aspects, such as the suspension of visas for European investors with interests in Cuba or the possibility of lawsuits in the United States.

Since 1996, the United States has imposed fines of several millions of dollars on European banks and businesses, the highest having been reached when some 100 million was levied against a Swiss bank. Europe has accepted these penalties without raising an eyebrow. Despite the memorandum of agreement and the scrupulous respect the European Union has accorded it, Washington has consistently punished these countries, and these countries have not deigned to protest. It has now been some fifteen years that Washington has been laughing in the face of Brussels.

In order for Cuba to have normal relations with the European Union, it is essential that Brussels assert its sovereignty and begin to act as an independent entity, not one that is subject to Washington’s politics vis-à-vis Havana. At the same time, certain European states, I repeat, have been wise enough to understand that this situation is both untenable and unacceptable and have decided to adopt an independent policy toward Cuba.

The EU Common Position, for all that it represents, constitutes a fundamental obstacle to establishing healthy bilateral relations. We believe that it is in the interest of the European Union to develop an independent policy towards Cuba. In the meanwhile, it is truly embarrassing to see the way in which the United States has used the European Union, and the way in which they have heaped scorn upon these countries by demonstrating utter contempt for the signed accord.

 

Latin America

            SL: Since the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998, Venezuela has become a strategic partner of Cuba. How did Cuba experience the serious illness of President Chavez, a victim of cancer? How is his health now?

RAQ: According to our information, Chavez has been able to overcome his serious illness. Cancer is indeed a serious illness, but with adequate attention it can be treated.

We have the best possible relations with Venezuela within the context of a new and emancipated Latin America. We have excellent relations with numerous other Latin American states such as Brazil, and in the entire world with such countries as Russia, China, Algeria and Angola, among others. As you can see, we are not isolated.

Chavez has undergone something of a physical transformation because of his illness. Cancer, as you know, leads to the loss of hair. He has also gained a few kilos, but happily, the danger is behind him.

Lula, the former president of Brazil, had a similar problem, but he too appears to be out of danger, something we are very happy about.

 

The future of Cuba

            SL: Last question. What will be the destiny of Cuba after Fidel Castro and Raul Castro?

RAQ: I’m not very good at making predictions. We believe that Fidel and Raul Castro have the merit of having dedicated their lives to ensure that Cuba might continue to be an independent nation, free and socialist, beyond the historic generation who made the Revolution, beyond their own existence. Nonetheless, it is true that their disappearance will inevitably leave an enormous void, something that is to be expected given the role that they have played in history.

Rather than speculating about the future, why not cast an eye on the present? We believe that Cuba will continue to advance and develop by enhancing its social system. Take a look at the succession from one generation to another. Current Cuban authorities, from the central to the municipal levels of government; the Cuban Communist Party, from the Central Committee to the core base; the social organizations; the leadership and the militants; everywhere you look you see that the vast majority of directors and key leaders are persons who were born after the triumph of the Revolution in 1959.

The Cuban nation has moved beyond being directed by the Moncada generation (1953). For evident biological reasons, the veterans of the Revolution have long since been replaced by younger leaders. At the same time, the fact that a part of the historic generation is still alive and active is not a defect, quite the contrary. Cuba is lucky to still be able to count on these historic leaders. What kind of a world would we have if Lenin had lived longer, if he had reached the age of Fidel or Raul? If he had been able to direct the Soviet Union rather than Stalin and those who followed? Would he have been bad for the Soviet Union? I am convinced that he would not have been. If his generation had survived, the world would be different. Yet, this is precisely the case with the Cuban Revolution, a revolution that has been able to count on its historic leaders for several decades.

Fidel and Raul have not led Cuba in a top-down manner as some might think. You cannot imagine how much they have done to promote the rise of young cadre who now occupy important positions at all levels of the government. Here is a concrete example: the Party secretary for the Province of Havana, the most important province in the country, is a black woman not yet 50 years old. This is precisely what explains the Cuba of today. I would tell you that decisions are taken collectively, not in back room meetings of old veterans, quite the contrary. The majority of our senior leaders could be the children or the grand children of the historic generation. They range from 25 to 55 years of age and constitute a guarantee that even after Fidel and Raul Castro and their historic generation, Cuba will continue to be an independent, free and sovereign nation, with a reinvigorated form of socialism. We are convinced that there will be no return to the past because this is the historical trend of all of Latin America.

 

Translated from the French by Larry R. Oberg, Québec City.

 

Docteur és Études Ibériques et Latino-Américaines from the Univerity of Paris Sorbonne-Paris IV, Salim Lamrani is associate professor at the University of Paris-Sorbonne-Paris IV, and at the University of Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée and a journalist who specializes in U. S.-Cuban relations.

 

Salim Lamrani’s latest book is État de siège, Les sanctions économiques des États-Unis contra Cuba. Paris, Éditions Estrella, 2011 (prologue by Wayne S. Smith and preface by Paul Estrade).

 

Contact: Salim.Lamrani@univ-mly.fr ; lamranisalim@yahoo.fr