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.
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 11 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 principle 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 principle 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 15 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.