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Cuba Meets the Challenges of the 21st Century, Part V

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An interview with Ricardo Alarcon, President of the Cuban Parliament

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.

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 American.