CubaNews / February 2012
Cuban diplomat-turned-academic Carlos Alzugaray Treto has a love-hate relationship with the U.S. State Department.
On one hand, the folks at State consider Cuba — along with Iran, Syria and Sudan — a government sponsor of terrorism, a position Alzugaray clearly despises. “On the other hand, I have to thank the State Department because they gave me a visa,” he told us with a grin. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.”
Alzugaray, 68, is a retired career diplomat whose last posting was Brussels, where he was Cuba’s envoy to the European Union. He spent two years there, then switched careers and became a scholar at Havana’s Instituto Superior de Relaciones Internacionales.
Back in the 1990s, traveling from Cuba to the United States was no big deal, even despite the lack of full diplomatic relations.
“Up until 2002, I used to come to the States once or twice a year,” he told us. “Then the Bush administration cut off almost all academic exchanges, and for some reason or another, I was denied visas to come to the United States in 2003, 2004 and 2005. It was only in 2011 that I got a visa again for the first time.”
Alzugaray returned to Havana this month after a lengthy stint as a visiting professor at New York’s Queens College. Before leaving, he spoke to CubaNews at Washington’s Union Station, following a Center for International Policy seminar on how to get Cuba removed from the State Department blacklist.
“That will depend to a great extent on the Obama administration,” he said, responding to a question on whether such a move is likely to happen anytime soon.
“They’re the ones who have to take this step,” he said. “I don’t think politically that it’s a major problem, though there’s going to be resistance from the Cuban-American right-wing Republicans.”
The bottom line, says Alzugaray, is that “no serious scholar believes Cuba is in any way linked to terrorism.” Even so, taking Cuba off the hated blacklist could go a long way toward improving the current dismal relations between Washington and Havana.
“Some people think Obama could do much more in the framework of the Helms-Burton and Torricelli laws, but the fact is, he hasn’t. Or maybe he can’t. That’s a question for legal specialists. But regarding the terrorist list, it would simply be a question of signaling to Congress that he wants to do that,” he said. “That would facilitate many things, and would be interpreted as a positive gesture.”
One of the things such a move might facilitate, the former diplomat suggests, is the release of Alan Gross.
Bilateral relations clearly took a turn for the worse the moment Gross, a 62-year-old Maryland subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, was arrested in December 2009 as he was trying to board a flight out of Cuba.
Charged with “crimes against the state” for having smuggled satellite phones and computer equipment into the island in violation of Cuban law, Gross was sentenced to 15 years in jail and has lost some 100 pounds behind bars. Alzugaray said there is absolutely no truth to the State Department’s insistence that the USAID operative was merely trying to connect Cuba’s Jews to the Internet.
“That’s bullshit, and the Jewish community has come out very openly and said they were satisfied with the level of communications they had. That’s not what he was doing,” Alzugaray told CubaNews.
“He was under contract by a company that had a deal with USAID to promote democracy. You might say 15 years is too much, but there’s no doubt he broke Cuban law.”
What about a prisoner swap with the Cuban Five?
It’s a possibility, though Alzugaray doesn’t see it happening anytime soon. “These guys have been in prison for a long time already. It’s not like they haven’t paid sufficiently for whatever violation of American law they committed,” he said. “They were agents of the Cuban government working in the U.S. That, I give, but two life sentences? It was hardly proven that Gerardo [Hernández] had anything to do with the decision to bring down the planes.”
Nevertheless, he added, “obviously, the Jewish lobby is interested in getting Gross out. But to get Gross out, you have to make some kind of deal with the Cuban government. Our foreign minister expressed this position during his recent visit to the UN.”
“He said the only thing Cuba asks for is a humanitarian gesture from the U.S. government, saying ‘we might liberate Gross if you do something similar for us.’ I don’t think that’s going to happen, but I’d like to leave the door open.”
Alzugaray comes from a well-to-do family.
His grandfather was the prominent attorney Carlos Martín Alzugaray Lavaggi. And in the 1940s, his father Mario Alzugaray Ramos Izquierdo co-founded, along with Eduardo Chibás, the revolutionary Partido del Pueblo Cubano, also known as the Orthodox Party.
In 1959, Fidel Castro named him ambassador to Japan, during which time he got the Japanese to sign a contract guaranteeing the purchase of 500,000 tons a year of Cuban sugar.
The younger Alzugaray studied at both Tokyo’s Sophia University and the University of Havana, earning bachelor’s degrees in diplomacy (1965) and the history of Cuba (1989), as well as a master’s in contemporary history (1999). His doctorate dissertation was on the Eisenhower administration’s policy toward Cuba from 1958 to 1961.
Alzugaray’s diplomatic career began at the Cuban Embassy in Tokyo and included postings in Bulgaria, Argentina, Canada, Ethiopia and Belgium. He’ snow a lecturer on international affairs at universities from Mexico City to Madrid, and his columns appear in newspapers throughout Europe and Latin America.
“My number-one priority is explaining Cuban foreign policy to future Cuban diplomats and foreign audiences, including American students at U.S. universities,” he said. “I’m also trying to build bridges between Cuba and the United States. That implies two things: explaining Cuba to Americans devoid of stereotypes, and trying to explain the United States to Cubans, also without using stereotypes.”
One bright spot, he says, is President Raúl Castro’s insistence on taking responsibility for the country’s economic problems.
“Up until now, many people in Cuba have blamed everything on the United States, but Raúl has signaled that blaming the U.S. for our inefficiencies won’t do anymore,” he said.
Given Alzugaray’s past as a Cuban diplomat and top government official, we asked if he’s as free to criticize his own government as he is to criticize the U.S. government.
“I have absolute, complete freedom to say what I want,” the academic responded, but he added that he has to be careful around Cuban exiles — especially when in South Florida.
“I’m sure they hate me. These guys have the idea there shouldn’t be any contact, and that any Cuban who comes here is an agent of the Cuban government — except, of course, the ones they like.”
Alzugaray argues that by not having better relations with Cuba, U.S. officials have effectively isolated themselves from the most important actors in Cuba.
“They’re out of the loop,” he told us. “When the interests sections were opened [in 1977], U.S. diplomats had a lot of access to Cuban society. But as they started to focus only on the dissidents, they were cut off from the rest.
“Some people in the U.S. government establishment think this is crazy. They have no way of influencing or having a say — and Cuba is very happy with that. I think the Cuban government has evolved from a position in which it denounced American policy completely, to an ‘I don’t care’ kind of policy.”
Alzugaray, who has every intention of coming back to this country, said he enjoys the diversity of American society, and that despite the “very strong conservative forces” that oppose better U.S.-Cuba relations, very strong progressive forces are also present.
“We’re not searching for a fight with the United States, except on issues that really matter.”