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Cuba Today: An Interview with Ricardo Alarcon

The president of Cuba's National Assembly outlines the country's policies and goals in the face of Bush administration hostility

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Alarcon is a devoted cigar smoker. He began smoking cigars in the 1950s while he was a student at the University of Havana, where he was president of the student union. Ever since, he has enjoyed a fine cigar almost every day. "I light my cigar the first thing in the morning, and I spend the rest of the day with one," says Alarcon, whose favorite smoke is the Cohiba Lanceros. "My wife says I have a sixth finger."
James Suckling, European editor of Cigar Aficionado, met with Alarcon twice at the beginning of the year. The interview below is from his second meeting with the politician in the offices of Cuba's National Assembly in Havana. Alarcon's personal assistant, Miguel Alvarez Sanchez, and friend Miguel Barnet, the esteemed Cuban writer, were also present.
Cigar Aficionado: How is Fidel Castro at the moment? In our last meeting, you said that he would be a much less public figure than in the past.
Ricardo Alarcon: He is doing fine, and I would never want to forecast what will happen with him, or when he will appear, or anything else. I don't like to do this for one simple reason: everybody should be accustomed to be surprised by him. That won't happen again to me. Fidel Castro is older than me, but he is one of the strongest men I have ever known. I remember many long nights working with him. And we would be very tired. But he would be moving around like the youngest guy in the room. There would be Carlos Lage, Felipe Perez Roque and others, and we felt like the old guys in the room.
Cubans hate to be ridiculed. It is very risky to say how Fidel Castro will be. But he is doing very well. He is improving.
CA: The problem was something with his intestines. It was never cancer, right?
Alarcon: No. No. No. It was not cancer. But the operation that he had by definition takes a lot of time to recover from. And this is especially so when you are 80 years old. It wasn't done at the best time, but it had to be done. So now he has to recover.
CA: Do you see him very often?
Alarcon: No, but I have been in contact with him very often.
CA: How would you compare Raúl Castro to his brother Fidel? Doesn't he come from more of a military background?
Alarcon: First of all, he doesn't really come from a military background. He and others had to go to the Sierra Maestra to fight. But Fidel Castro's background was law. It was not in the military, and Raúl was also a student. Life made them become otherwise.... Raúl was in charge of the national defense, the armed forces and so on. And, of course, he did go to various military academies himself to organize an army. In this sense, he has been in the military, but not really.
CA: What sort of man is he?
Alarcon: Every profession has its characteristics. One thing is to be a writer, an artist or something. You accept certain qualities with your job.'s discipline and organization. The problem is that when you speak of military, many people just think of war. It's because we watch the news, or something else.... It is the same for any military person—an American, a Cuban or whomever. They need to be individuals who get up and they are ready to mobilize rapidly. A writer or an artist doesn't have to be ready to stand up and go. A military has to be ready to stand up and go.
CA: I see many people in the media describing him as pragmatic.
Alarcon: Of course, he has to be pragmatic. Fortunately. Imagine having a military chief who is not pragmatic? That is what you expect to have. You don't want a person to lead by his imagination and fantasies in that position.
CA: How would you describe Raúl then? What sort of man is he? People don't know a lot about him.
Alarcon: The answer isn't very easy. He loves his life and his family. He is very attached to his family, especially his wife. He has been very active in raising his family, all of his children. They are all very well educated. This is why he has almost fought to spend time with his family and continues what he has been doing with them as always.
CA: So you are saying he is a very private person and a man who values time with his family?
Alarcon: This may explain why this aspect of Raúl is not very well known because it is not supposed to be known. It is something that you have to protect.
CA: Raúl is more private than Fidel?
Alarcon: No. Raúl is as much private as Fidel is.
CA: What is his management style then? How is it different than Fidel? Have you seen a change in government?
Alarcon: Raúl was already part of that government when Fidel Castro asked him to take over in July last year. He was second in command. What happened was a provisional handover of the responsibility from Fidel to Raúl. And frankly speaking, why should anybody assume that there has been any change whatsoever? It was not appointing somebody who was not supposed to be the person to take over those responsibilities. It was simply his role that was conceived for him. He was already second in command to take care of any substitution necessity.
CA: Is his position still considered provisional then?
Alarcon: It is a provisional position. Raúl has said that several times.
CA: But there has been so much talk about a transition in the Cuban government since Fidel's illness. So are you saying that nothing has really changed in the government? There is no transition?
Alarcon: There is no transition. The only thing is that you don't see Fidel in the way that you may have been seeing him last year. For example, there was a ceremony yesterday that Raúl decided to go to. The minister of economic development was there and Raúl was presiding over the ceremony. Maybe if Fidel had been there he would have made a speech. Maybe. Or maybe he would have been harassed by the media to say something.... But Raúl went there, sat down, listened, applauded and then got up and left.
CA: So it really is a different style?
Alarcon: Yes. It is a different style. Of course.
CA: But people make much more out of it than simply style.
Alarcon: That is it. Style.
CA: Raúl is not a young man. Neither is his brother. What about the new generation coming up in the political system? Are you excited about that?
Alarcon: I think that in a way my generation can say that that reality is the confirmation of our victory. I see people taking responsibilities and doing things as part of the new wave of individuals that believe in our society. It's not just the top echelon of the government but it is the society in general. They are our children, or even grandchildren. It is a completely different feeling than anybody thought we would have. And for us it is a great source of joy.
CA: Do you think with this new generation we will see a new attitude, or even relationship, with the United States?
Alarcon: Raúl himself has said more than once that the best thing for the U.S. would be to solve this confrontation with Cuba when Fidel Castro and his generation are in charge. Raúl has said this many times. He said that it would be much more difficult after than it would be to do it now.
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