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 the this first extract of a two part interview he speaks with French academic and journalist Salim Lamrani about the reform of the Cuban economic and social model and relations with the United States under the Obama administration.
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. 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 travelling freely to Cuba.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
It was also necessary to take into account certain global factors present on the international scene. 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 analysed 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 collectivising 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 collectivisation 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 per cent 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 analyse 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.
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.
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 authorised. 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 authorisations.
[This interview concludes in the next issue of CubaSí which looks at 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.]