Part II - Interview with Ricardo Alarcon, President of the Cuban Parliament
Interviewed by Salim Lamrani
French academic and journalist Salim Lamrani, concludes his interview with Ricardo Alarcon de Quesada, President of the Cuban Parliament, by discussing Cuba’s relationship with Latin America, the European Union, the catholic church and the Vatican, the freeing of prisoners and Cuba’s future after Fidel and Raul.
FIEDEL AND RAUL CASTRO
SL: Mr. President, Fidel Castro left power in 2006 for health reasons. How is he doing today and how does he spend his time?
RAQ: 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 analysing 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 centre 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 organiser 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 institutionalisation 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, neighbours, 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.
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 normalisation 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.
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.
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 organisations; 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