- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2001

Second in a series

HAVANA. —"You have a problem with immigration; but that is your problem. It is not our problem."
That was how Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's National Assembly, outlined the situation recently in a two-hour interview with a group of of visiting American opinion writers.
He said that, despite the 1979 Mariel boatlift and rafters, the number of Cubans migrating to the U.S. is not as great as those from elsewhere in the region "not to mention Mexican border crossings."
"Negotiated agreements have provided some order for immigration but Cuba by far is not as great a problem as others in the Hemisphere," Mr. Alarcon said. He noted that in recent years Coast Guard intercepts, aimed at turning back Cubans on the high seas, that "add to the risks of both migrants and smuggling."
He suggested that if the United States "fully and conscientiously implemented the spirit of the [Cuban] agreements, you would have a normal immigration situation with Cuba. And the U.S. could use this as an argument in talks with other countries." At present, the preferential treatment accorded Cuban migrants is a grievance among nationals of other states.
Mr. Alarcon asked, "Without the social revolution in Cuba, how many Cubans would you have in the U.S.? Probably more." He noted that in recent decades much migration from Cuba and other Caribbean areas has been driven more by economic than political factors, unlike the 1959 Cuban exiles, whom he termed "rafters on yachts."
On normalization and trade, Mr. Alarcon was equally blunt: "The whole problem is the inability of the U.S. to admit Cuba as an independent nation. They think the United States gets authority from where? God perhaps to decide how Cuba should be."
He cited the long American suzerainty over Cuba that began with the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and terminated formally with the 1934 withdrawal of the Platt Amendment, which had entitled the U.S. to directly intervene in internal Cuban political affairs. There followed a long period of strong U.S. influence ended by the 1959 Castro revolution. "The role the U.S. played in Cuba, as though Cuba were part of the U.S., broke down, as it had to, like in the Colonies under King George."
As far as Fidel Castro is concerned, Mr. Alarcon said: "I don't know. You can cross your arms and do nothing and just wait for someone to die. And when that happens, you can cross your arms again and wait for someone else to die. In the meantime, nothing will change between us." Concerning possible successors to Mr. Castro (some observers think of Mr. Alarcon as one), Mr. Alarcon said it would not necessarily be a duplicate of Mr. Castro. "Every human being is different," he said. "Every individual is a world in himself." (Western diplomats in Havana tend to agree, however, that the successor will be found among the leadership presently in Cuba.)
Mr. Alarcon said Americans tend to think of relations with Cuba in terms more suited to 1959. "Forty years later, Cuba is different; it's no longer the case of a single person around which everything moves. There is a new generation in Cuba now. Fidel Castro is still there because he was quite young in 1959, and he is a very healthy and intelligent person who leads a very active life. But the population has changed. The vast majority of the National Assembly members are 43 years old. Most current leaders were not even born in 1959." But this new generation of Communist Party leaders, he seemed to warn, will not fold their tents and totally discard the 1959 Revolution.
He said: "Cuba is not near collapse but is moving toward recovery. Economic growth last year at 5.6 percent was above the Latin American average. Internationally, no other country has been willing to join the U.S. embargo."
He said that, despite modifications and joint ventures with foreign enterprises, Cuba is "not privatizing its economy. If you lift the embargo, an American company can come down and do business with Cuba act like everyone else, like France, and Canada, and so forth… . Investment is regulated by law… . Lifting the embargo would enhance Cuba's position. The blockade puts Cuba at a disadvantage. We must pay more, and get paid less."
He suggested it should be in American interests, in terms of trade, for the U.S. "to become a more important partner for Cuba not as 50 years ago, but incrementally." He noted that Cuba could buy rice from the producers in the American South, instead of more distant sources. (A sticking point, even in embargo modifications, has been the unavailability of U.S. credits to Cuba.) Other Cuban officials also saw fertilizer as a possible U.S. import.
Mr. Alarcon said U.S. authorities should review the policy of curtailed contact, as one that is not producing the desired results. He said, "If an adversary has a wrong perception of reality, it would be better, if they want normal relations, for them to understand what is going on."
Regarding Cuban dissidents, he claimed the Castro regime is "not intensely repressive… . Some of them we jail; others we do not. Mostly we try to fight them politically." Western diplomatic sources estimate there are 400 political prisoners in Cuba. Mr. Alarcon contrasted this to "other countries, where thousands are in jail or are extralegally killed," and he claimed most Cuban dissident groups are U.S.-funded.
As far as post-Cold War American triumphalism, Mr. Alarcon warned that glory may be fleeting. "Take care. Go back to the CIA report that projects a dangerous world in the midzone of Latin America. I don't want to project a catastrophic future," he continued, "but I don't think we can predict the end of social upheavals. Does America think the whole area is a garden, outside Cuba? People [in the larger region] are escaping, essentially, poverty and backwardness. And poverty is not being reduced."
On near-term U.S. relations, Cuban officials take a wait-and-see posture. They suggest President Bush may owe a considerable political debt to Florida's anti-Castro Cuban exile community. Mr. Alarcon said, "I don't think for most Americans Cuba is very important." As for as any tempering of U.S. positions under Mr. Bush, Mr. Alarcon quipped: "You might ask Saddam Hussein. He might have an opinion."
Next: Economics and tragedy.

Benjamin P. Tyree is deputy editor of the Commentary section of The Washington Times and recently visited Cuba under the aegis of the American Journalism Foundation.

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