Cigar Aficionado

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

Ricardo Alarcon is president of Cuba's National Assembly of the People's Power. The 70-year-old is one of the most public and outspoken individuals in the Cuban government and a close confidant of the Castro brothers. He also served as Cuba's ambassador to the United Nations for 12 years, and he was minister of foreign affairs in the early 1990s.

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.

CA: But there has not been much contact with the American government in recent years.

Alarcon: Nothing. It has been like that since [George W.] Bush became president.

CA: Do you think that might change with the forthcoming presidential election?

Alarcon: Nobody can say at this moment who can win. But whoever wins, changes would have to come from the U.S. The administration is even recognizing that themselves now. Why is it that Mr. Bush is making this trip to Latin America? When was the last time the president of the U.S. visited Latin America?

CA: Well, he did go to Mexico, if I remember correctly.

Alarcon: Going to Mexico is like going to Canada. It's not the same thing. He is going to five countries in five days...Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico. Why is everybody stressing this point in Washington now? It's because you see countries changing everywhere in Latin America. And then you see an astonishingly stagnant U.S. policy and attitude. I can't tell you how I enjoy reading and listening to the official American discourse on Latin America. How Latin America is fine and how democracy is everywhere. And that Cuba needs to join that trend and that it is the only issue for them and so on.

But this is being said when in Latin America everywhere, you are having new governments, which are criticizing their relationship with the current U.S. government and developing relationships with Cuba.

CA: And, of course, Venezuela.

Alarcon: You would have to be in a madhouse to say that Cuba is the isolated one and the U.S. isn't. You would have to be in a madhouse not to see that it is the other way around. Just a few years ago, Washington's will was practically law in this hemisphere. But it is not like that anymore. That is a big change, but the U.S. government is still speaking like it is the 1950s in the height of the Cold War.

CA: Cuba seems to be very active in building these relations with other Latin American countries.

Alarcon: Well, Felipe Perez Roque was just in Honduras strengthening our diplomatic relations. He is now in Panama. These are examples of this.

CA: So you are saying that America not only has little or no relationship with Cuba but you are saying that it is something much larger? America has a bad relationship with Latin America in general?

Alarcon: Exactly.... I hesitate to say this. I have more than a hope. I have a conviction that the United States will have to do something to readdress its situation in Latin America. And we are very much part of Latin America. We are very much part of what is going on in the real world there. They are still talking as if we are in the Cold War, and it has nothing to do with reality. They are still criticizing us because we do not change. They say that we are not changing in the direction of the rest of Latin America. But they are crazy. Latin America is changing in our direction and we are all changing together. They have to realize that one way or another. Cuba is not the most important problem for them. They have a much larger problem now. They cannot ignore Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and others, not to mention the Caribbean. It is a new world altogether.

CA: You are saying, then, that a new policy with Cuba will come from a new policy with Latin America?

Alarcon: Yes. This will only come from a major change in U.S. attitude, especially with the immigration [of Latin Americans] to the United States. We are neighbors. The U.S. needs to develop a special relationship with Latin America. This is not one of domination. America in a way is part of Latin America and the Caribbean. The highest concentration of Spanish speakers is in Mexico and the United States. Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Miami...these places are where the highest increases in the Spanish-speaking population is happening.

What is going on is not a Cuban invention, but Cuba is part of it. It is not a diabolical Chavez invention, but it has had the support of Chavez. And you have had practically everybody in Latin America working together. It is not just the radicals, the extreme left-wingers. But you have very accepted progressives. This is reality and you cannot ignore it. Or even defeat it. The Cold War techniques don't work. You already have too many problems with terrorism and the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East. What's a little country in the Caribbean?

CA: Do you see any changes in the embargo in the future? You don't even have any discourse with the U.S. government.

Alarcon: You will see the dismantling or the suspension of certain aspects of the embargo in the future. You see every day more discussion of this. For example, the travel ban, I see movement against this day by day.

CA: Do you support free travel between the U.S. and Cuba?

Alarcon: It would be very good. You feel sorry when you see a country that is trying to teach everyone in the world about freedom and then they are afraid of other ideas and perspectives. You really are the most important beacon of freedom in the world, but how do you not permit these small people of an island to come to America and see the light, and you do not permit your own people to bring that light to that island? I can't understand it. I would abandon the travel ban immediately. Of course. Americans can travel around the world and not Cuba? That's not the way.

CA: More Cubans should be allowed to visit America as well?

Alarcon: More Cubans to America and more Americans to on and so forth. That would be consistent with the humanistic approach of America. The U.S. government's position is unsustainable. It contradicts its own foundations. And the purpose of that ban is to damage Cuba's economy and to hurt its tourism. But honestly, who cares? We receive millions of tourists from other lands. We are doing business with other countries. You are just shooting yourselves in the foot without any advantage.

CA: What do you see for the future of Cuba? What will tomorrow bring Cuba?

Alarcon: I really don't think that anybody should foresee the future. I don't think that it is a good idea to have a notion of where everybody is going.... The future has to be built by humankind. We have to invent the future. And the first thing is to save life and save the right to a future. I might disagree with Al Gore on many things, but I think he made a very important contribution with his movie [An Inconvenient Truth].

For example, it is very important that people are aware of social issues such as the environment, population growth and other things. And when you look at these things, then you can think of the future. It is not a question of how I imagine my little country in the future. The future is we being part of that grand total. There are many questions. Big questions. But I ask, Are we going to survive as a species? If not, then who cares about Cuba?

Rep. Charles Rangel is a Democrat from New York.