CubaNews / January 2004
By Larry Luxner
Miguel Alvarez is an adviser on international and political affairs to Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba’s National Assembly. From 1977 to 1983, Alvarez served at Cuba’s mission to the United Nations in New York; since then, he’s held various posts within the Foreign Ministry.
Alvarez, 56, is often called Alarcón’s “right-hand man” because of his encyclopedic knowledge of U.S. affairs. On Nov. 28, he granted a one-hour interview to CubaNews at his office in Havana. Here are excerpts from that meeting:
Q: How would you characterize the current state of relations between the United States and Cuba ?
A: “In 1977, Jimmy Carter opened the interests section to have better relations between the Cuban and American peoples, but those relations are at their lowest point ever. The U.S. policy is to openly promote subversion in Cuba, and to look for a confrontation between the two governments.”
Q: Is this because of Jim Cason [chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana]?
A: “He changed the rules of the game with his attitude toward Cuban domestic affairs. But I think he’s doing his job. He’s following the instructions of the State Department, so Cason is not the problem.”
Q: U.S. diplomats in Havana complain they don’t have access to any Cuban officials including your boss, Mr. Alarcón, and that their calls are routinely ignored. Why is that?
A: “Here in Cuba, Cason is not an ambassador, he’s the chief of the U.S. Interests Section — the same as Dagoberto Rodríguez, who’s also an ambassador, though in Washington he doesn’t have the rank of ambassador.
“Dagoberto and our other compañeros in Washington have never, either now or before, been able to have a meeting with a government functionary on the level of Alarcón. The maximum level they’ve been able to access is Kevin Whitaker [chief of the State Department’s Office of Cuban Affairs].”
Q: How do you explain the Bush admi-nistration's increasing hostility toward Cuba? Is it only a matter of currying favor with Cuban-American exiles in Miami, or is it much deeper than that?
A: “The policy of the U.S. toward Cuba has always been to create opposition in Cuba, and to finance that opposition. Now there’s a law that says that what before was done covertly, can now be done openly. USAID has given dissident groups more than $30 million since Helms-Burton was passed in 1996.
“Before coming to USAID, Adolfo Franco [assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean] worked for Ileana [Ros-Lehtinen]. This is the only administration where over 20 people of Cuban origin have positions of power that have to do with U.S.-Cuba relations, including Mel Martínez, Otto Reich, Adolfo Franco, Emilio González [chief of the Cuba portfolio at the National Security Council] and Mauricio Tamargo [chairman of the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission].”
Q: More than 40 years have passed since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Has anything fundamentally changed in Washing-ton’s approach to Havana since then?
A: “In 1962, we were living in a different world. It was the Cold War, and Cuba formed part of the socialist camp, and we could understand why the U.S. had a hostile approach to Cuba. But now, there’s no Cold War, Cuba is not a threat to the U.S. or anyone else, and we have still very hostile relations.
“In the Bush administration are people who have a very extremist view of international relations. These are people like Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and Cheney for whom the victory of the Cold War isn’t total without Cuba.”
Q: Do you really think the U.S. wants to launch a military invasion of Cuba?
A: “Since the beginning of the revolution, the U.S. has pushed for regime change. For Cuba, this is nothing new. But after 9/11, Bush said the U.S. could attack more than 60 countries around the world where there are terrorists. Of these 60, seven are on the terrorist list. But of these seven, the only one that’s 90 miles from the United States is Cuba.”
Q: Why has Cuba become so hostile towards the European Union?
A: “The Europeans assumed the position of the United States regarding Cuba. To invite dissidents to their national holidays was a real provocative action. We cannot accept it. But at the same time, we have excellent trade with European businessmen, and a lot of Europeans are coming to Cuba as tourists.”
Q: What was the point of specifically targeting Spain and Italy with demonstrations against their embassies in Havana?
A: “The position of the Spanish government has been very close to the U.S. from the very beginning. The Aznar government has a clear anti-Cuban position. Aznar’s a very right-wing person. And Italy, which had the presidency of the EU, is not a left-leaning democracy.”
Q: But did Fidel have to personally insult the leaders of those countries?
A: “Aren’t they insulting the Cuban people by inviting dissidents and supporting the U.S. policy against Cuba?”
Q: Do you think the U.S. travel ban against Cuba will be lifted anytime soon?
A: “I hope so. Remember that Cuba is not an Eastern European country. Cuba receives almost 2 million tourists a year. If U.S. tourists came, the atmosphere between the two countries would change, even if a hostile administration is still in power [in Washington].”
Q. Cuban-American exile groups have long argued that presence of U.S. tourists and their dollars will do little to influence ordinary Cubans to overthrow their government.
A: “In a way, they are right. These groups have a lot of information about the Cuban people, and they know very well that most Cubans support the present government. So they realize that it doesn’t matter how many tourists travel to Cuba.”
Q: What, then, do you think motivates members of Congress to push for an end to the travel ban?
A: “Most of them want to have a better understanding between our two countries. This is important for regional stability. And they have to answer to their constituencies.”
Q: What do you say about lawmakers like Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who hate your government but support an end to the travel ban because he thinks it’ll hasten the end of communist rule in Cuba?
A: “He’s defending the right of American citizens to travel anywhere in the world. We assume that challenge. But I think it is important for Cuba to receive American people.
“The mood in the United States is changing. Remember that Miami-Dade is not all of Florida. This year at FIHAV [the Havana International Fair], Florida was the best-represented state. Last October, 26 newspaper editorials across the U.S. supported the travel amendment. Now you have people reading about Cuba in Kentucky, Arkansas, Montana and Missouri for the first time.”
Q: What do you think will happen after November 2004?
A: “It depends on who’ll be the next president. Assuming Bush is re-elected, he will have the same position against the Senate and House year after year. But he cannot stop the movement in Congress, because this is not a Democrat issue, it’s a bipartisan issue.”