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

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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.

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.