Friday, August 04, 2006

Carrying the torch

The man tipped to fill the void left by Fidel Castro's decision to stand down as president of Cuba speaks to Duncan Campbell about the challenges ahead

Thursday August 3, 2006
Guardian Unlimited

In the wake of Fidel Castro's decision to stand down, at least temporarily, as the president of Cuba, Ricardo Alarcón, the president of the Cuban national assembly, is likely to have an even greater role than the one he currently occupies. It has been his voice that has been most heard since the surprise announcement was made this week.

While Raul Castro is the temporary head of state, Alarcón will have a vital part to play in the immediate future of the country. Jailed as a student leader in the 1950s before the revolution, Mr Alarcón, now 69, is currently regarded by foreign diplomats as a major player within the government. Attention has focused on him and two other government ministers, vice-president Carlos Lage and foreign minister Felipe Perez Roque, as the men who hold the key to the country's political future.

The US has just raised the stakes in its policy towards Cuba by publishing a report from their Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which provides for an initial $80m with a view to removing the current government. It refers to a "secret annexe" attached to the report which Mr Alarcón, in an interview with the Guardian, said he considered significant.

"The most important part is the very first paragraph, and the reference to a secret annexe, classified for national security reasons," he said. "You may assume that what is there - or they want you to assume is there - has to do with military ntervention.

"The American government has said that they do not accept the Cuban laws about succession. Now, the only way you can substitute yourself as the sovereign of another country is by war. When they first drafted the plan, in 2003, they were happily promenading in Iraq. Even although that has changed, they keep insisting that they will not accept the succession strategy here. That proposition in itself is a threat. The only way any government can oppose the evolution of another country is by war.

"At this moment, I'm sure many people would laugh at the idea that the US would get involved in another foreign military adventure. At the same time, they haven't changed their plans one iota, so if you apply logic to that classic question - what will happen in Cuba after Castro dies? - my answer would be that US troops will land because they said they will not accept Castro being substituted.

"The direct logical consequence is that when the president of Cuba dies, there will be a foreign military intervention. It is like going back to the middle ages, when you had wars that lasted centuries."

He believes that although the US had considered earlier this year that Mr Castro could still be in power in four or five years, they are not prepared to wait.

"President Bush has said 'We are not waiting, we are acting to hasten the end of the Castro regime'. This document is to hasten the end of this government, it has nothing to do with what happens after."

Mr Alarcón said that the report, with its recommendations for tightening of the embargo and enforcement of stricter punishments for breaches of it, was an acknowledgement that it was not working in the way the US would like.

He described the $80m assigned to changing Cuba as "80m arguments in favour of the Cuban government" and claimed US-funded moles were working against the regime. "There are people here being organised, trained and directed by the US government," he said. "As long as a foreign power has such a programme regarding another country, you should expect some success for their part in finding some person who agrees to be trained in exchange for those dollars. They will find some people, very few. They haven't found millions of Cubans. If that happened in any other country, the concept would be exactly the same.

"People were sent to the electric chair in the US [for these kind of activities] and expelled from their jobs and sentenced to longer periods than Cubans. Since the very beginning, the substance of US policy was the creation of such groups. You have to be crazy to think that the Labour party or the Tory party was created by somebody from outside, they sprung from British life. These groups [of opposition] are the creation of the US."

Of jailings of those opposed to the government, he said: "I know we are criticised for that. I can say we are the only country regarding which a foreign power has established such a policy [of intervention]. Those right-wing [exile] Cubans believe that Cuba does not have the right to determine who is in charge of Cuba."

Even strong opponents of Mr Castro have acknowledged that he would have won elections, as Hugo Chávez has done in Venezuela. In which case, why not have such elections?

Mr Alarcón said that when the US policy towards Cuba was first formed in the wake of the revolution, there was little interest in promoting democracy in Latin America, where many countries were run by military dictatorships.

"They did say, as early as 1959, that Mr Castro had the support of the vast majority of people, and they had to undermine that support by denying money and exports to cause hunger and unemployment and massive suffering," he said.

"At some moment, US rhetoric changed to talk of democracy. With due respect to Europeans, the problem is that their perspective is Eurocentrist, they believe that the world should be interpreted through a European lens, a colonial mentality that the world should fit into that pattern, as if the rest of the world was living in Switzerland or Scandinavia. Bush pretends to transform Afghanistan into Kansas.

"For me, the starting-point is the recognition that democracy should begin with Pericles's definition - that society is for the benefit of the majority - and should not be imposed from outside. I love Pericles's definition - he was a Greek, a European, an Athenian. When he was speaking at one of the famous battles, he defended the system - according to Thucydides [that is], I wasn't there!

"We are a democracy. The kind of organisation that works for the interests of the majority. Two thousand five hundred years later I can say that works pretty well, except in our case there are no slaves and no barbarians excluded from the system. How can we accept [what the US has] as a dogma that has to be introduced everywhere?"

Why are people wary about talking to the foreign media? "You are probably right that people here are more suspicious about foreign journalists," he admitted.

"Unfortunately, they have not had a very good experience, but the so-called dissidents are not shy in talking to the press. I lived in New York for 14-and-a-half years - I love New York - but there, if you try to stop anyone on the street, ask them what the time is the answer was 'Go to hell, don't bother me' because they were very pressed."

One of the long-festering grievances between Cuba and the US is the status of Guantánamo, and its use for holding suspects without charge or trial. "Cuba has been denouncing the military occupation of that bay for years but millions of people now know that in Cuba there is this place, because of the torture," he said. "I believe that this should move towards the real solution, the end of the illegal occupation of a foreign land.

"The first demand should be to put an end to the torture and close down the facility, and when we reach that moment we should not say, 'Oh, fine, the torture chambers are closed down', because at any other moment they could decide to put some people there."

He said that he remained optimistic about the future, that commercial pressure would be generated inside American society for an end to the embargo which has now been in existence since 1961, and that what had happened in Iraq would mean that the US approach would be "less unilateralist, less crusaders".

"Bush said that when he was young the enemy was clear, it was the Soviet Union," he said. "Now he says we cannot identify the enemy. So you end up fighting everybody and you end up fighting yourself - like a scorpion."

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