An interview with Ricardo Alarcon, President of the Cuban Parliament by Salim Lamrani
Originally published in the Huffington Post
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 over a decade in the United States as the Cuban ambassador to the United Nations. Over time, he has become a spokesperson for the Havana government.
In this long interview, one that lasted nearly two hours, Alarcon did not seek to evade a single question. He comments on the role of Fidel Castro after his retirement from political life and explains the presence of Raul Castro at the center of power. He also speaks about the reform of the Cuban economic and social model as well as the challenges facing the Cuban nation. Alarcon then discusses the question of emigration and Cuban relations with the United States under the Obama administration. He also takes on the thorny question of human rights and political prisoners and does not hesitate to talk about Alan Gross, the American sub-contractor imprisoned in Cuba, as well as the case of the five Cuban agents detained in the United States. Alarcon then turns to the important question of oil deposits in the Gulf of Mexico and the potential consequences of their exploitation. The interview concludes with a discussion of the relationship of Cuba with the Catholic church and the Vatican, the imminent visit to Cuba of Pope Benedict XVI, Cuban relations with the European Union and the new Latin America and finally the future of Cuba after Fidel and Raul Castro.
The Case of the Cuban Five
SL: Now let’s talk about the Cuban Five. Four of them are still held and the fifth is out on probation. They have been imprisoned since 1998 for “conspiracy to commit espionage” and were sentenced to heavy prison terms, from 15 years to life. What are their future prospects?
RAQ: In the case of René Gonzalez, who is out on parole, his lawyer will try to persuade the judge to let him purge the remaining three years of his sentence in Cuba. In the same way, we are also trying to obtain authorization for a family visit. His wife has not seen him for more than a decade because Washington has systematically denied all requests for visas.
Everyone, I believe, can appreciate the difference in treatment between Cuba and the United States in terms of family visits for prisoners. Cuba has systematically accepted all visa requests from Gross’ wife. Washington has systematically refused all requests for visas from Olga Salanueva, the wife of René Gonzalez, and from Adriana Pérez, the wife of Gerardo Hernandez.
René Gonzalez may also make a request to visit Cuba to see his family, because conditional release allows for this possibility. It also permits him to serve his sentence outside of United States territory.
For the other four, the habeas corpus process is still ongoing. Three administrative procedures, a motion by the defense, one by the prosecution, and the response of the defense, are almost complete for Antonio Guerrero and Gerardo Hernandez. As for Ramon Labanino and Fernando Gonzalez, we are awaiting the response of the prosecutor, that is to say, the government of the United States, in early 2012. Then, the defense will in turn address the government’s response. These decisions came down at two different times and that is why the cases are being considered separately.
SL: For what reason are the cases being considered separately?
RAQ: In fact, this extraordinary habeas corpus procedure is possible only once a trial has ended, which in the case of Gerardo Hernandez and René Gonzalez became possible when the Supreme
Court declined to review their cases. As for Antonio, Ramon and Fernando, the trial ended when the court imposed new sentences while their cases were under appeal. These decisions were taken at two different times and that, once again, is why these cases are being considered separately.
SL: The outcome of these cases, however, seems more political than legal.
RAQ: This is certainly true and it underscores the need to convince President Obama to free them. In my opinion, he has a moral obligation to do so, and it is something that he can do with a simple executive order, something that the United States constitution allows him. This is a decision that can be made at any time, regardless of the evolution of the trial.
SL: What are the reasons that Obama ought to make such a decision?
RAQ: Simply because these men are innocent. I would remind you that they were in the United States to prevent terrorist attacks against Cuba. They were not there to infiltrate government agencies, something that would have justified the charge of espionage, but rather to infiltrate small violent right-wing groups of Cuban exiles that were implicated in acts of terrorism against Cuba.
Their mission was necessary because these groups have always been allowed to operate with total impunity. Remember that Luis Posada Carriles, a former CIA operative and the brains behind more than one hundred murders — it’s not me saying it, it’s what he himself is quoted as having said in an interview published in the New York Times of July 12, 1998. It is also something that CIA and FBI reports, declassified in 2004 and 2005, affirm. And he is still a free man in Miami, someone who has never been judged for his crimes.
Let me remind you that in 1998 we invited two important FBI directors to Cuba and presented them with a voluminous report, prepared by our own agents, on the activities of terrorist groups in Miami. They promised to neutralize these groups, but on their return, rather than doing what they promised, they proceeded to arrest the Cuban Five.
The reality of terrorism against Cuba became quite clear upon the release of René Gonzalez from prison.
SL: Please explain.
RAQ: The public prosecutor categorically refused René Gonzalez the right to serve out his parole in Cuba. The judge in the case accepted the prosecutor’s request and ruled that, for the moment at least, he should serve his parole in the United States. In her written declaration, the judge, at three different points, cites the “additional special condition” that had been imposed upon him when he was convicted in 2001, something by which he is bound to abide.
SL: What did this “additional special condition” consist of?
RAQ: This peculiar additional special condition to his parole prohibits him from “associating with or visiting specific places where individuals or groups such as terrorists, members of organizations advocating violence, or organized crime figures are known to be or frequent…” This is a textually accurate citation that can be found in the transcript of the Sentencing Hearing before the honorable Joan A. Lenard, dated December 12, 2001, pages 45-46.
This constitutes an explicit recognition that United States authorities have identified groups or individuals they consider to be terrorists, organized criminals or individuals promoting violence. They know who they are and where they can be found, but do nothing that would put these groups in harm’s way. At the same time, they prohibit an American citizen — René Gonzalez was born in the United States — to go there and work against these groups.
SL: All of this is quite surprising and the statement is troubling.
RAQ: You can find this declaration in the transcript of the trial and in the recent declaration of the prosecutor and the judge, when René Gonzalez requested permission to serve out his sentence in Cuba. It is obvious that the reason this condition has been imposed is to protect these three categories of despicable individuals. If you have a better explanation, I would be interested in hearing it.
This presumes that René Gonzalez must be monitored constantly by the United States authorities, authorities who know exactly where to find these individuals, in order to ensure that he does not violate his parole. If unfortunately René Gonzalez should attempt to return to where these groups are located with the intention of thwarting their plans, he would be sent back to prison immediately.
SL: All of this seems a little surreal.
RAQ: Still it’s the truth, even if it is unusual. You will find, I’ll say again, this statement used throughout the trial. The prosecutor always insisted on this fact. The judge dictated the sentences, the sentences in the memorandum, but it was the government that proposed the penalties and, needless to say, the government proposed the maximum penalty for each count. The prosecution made serious mistakes that led to the Court of Appeals imposing new sentences on Antonio Guerrero, Fernando Gonzalez and Ramon Labanino.
This same prosecutor, in the same sentencing memorandum and also orally in front of the court, stressed that from the perspective of the United States government, it was important to hand down maximum penalties, penalties that would ensure that the accused would be unable to undertake once again the activities for which he had been condemned — that is to say, infiltrating terrorist groups in a peaceful manner, unarmed and nonviolently, in order to inform Cuba of their activities — hence the importance of imposing this “additional special condition.” And indeed it was imposed upon all five, including Gerardo Hernandez who had already received two life sentences plus 15 years. All of them, when they have served out their sentences — for Gerardo, this would be in his third lifetime — must stay well away from these terrorist groups and it will be the government’s job to assure that this condition is enforced, to ensure that they will not resume the same activities that led them to prison in the first place.
For Gerardo, Ramon and Fernando, the prosecution underscored that this will be the case because it is intended that they be expelled from American territory — all of this is written in black and white in the sentencing memorandum. For René and Antonio, both American citizens, they cannot be expelled and it is for that reason that this “additional special condition” was imposed on them. René must conform to it, even after he has finished his parole, and Antonio as well, should he be granted parole.
In other words, the United States authorities recognize that terrorists groups, violent and mafia-linked, exist in the city of Miami. They know who they are and where they are, but nonetheless grant them total immunity. In this way, they are also preventing any free American citizen from doing anything to neutralize them.
SL: What do you think this demonstrates?
RAQ: This demonstrates clearly the innocence of the Five, because what they did in the United States is not a crime. Stopping an act of terrorism is not a crime. Struggling against violence, against crime and terrorism, is not a crime anywhere. Unhappily, this affair has continued because of media dictatorship. If this affair had been covered by the media as it should have been, it would have caused such outrage amongst the American public that the government’s position would have been untenable. What would American public opinion say if it became clear that the government was protecting terrorists and incarcerating those who struggle against terrorism?
Imagine that if tomorrow the government decided to arrest René Gonzalez because he had been approached by a terrorist group? How can the American government get away with behaving in this manner? Quite simply because public opinion has not been informed of media complicity in this affair. Had this been known, the Five would have been back in Cuba a long time ago.
Be aware, René was released from prison in October 2011. This requirement was imposed, not in order to protect him, but rather to protect terrorist groups. Is this not unbelievable?
I would like to repeat that it is the clear duty of President Obama to liberate the Five. Their liberation is also in the best interests of the United States. This case clearly underscores the profoundly hypocritical character of the United States’ antiterrorist policy. This is a country that on the one hand pretends to lead a global struggle against this scourge and on the other hand protects criminals on their own soil by incarcerating those who try to foil their plans. The federal government is at this very moment spending public funds in order to monitor René Gonzalez. In so doing they are only protecting the terrorists. René has purged a thirteen year prison sentence for trying to prevent terrorist acts against Cuba. It is the same for the other four. Here we have the first case in the history of “espionage” in the United States in which not a single secret document has been violated. It is for this reason that the Court of Appeals in Atlanta recognized that this case has nothing to do with espionage.