Their trip could not have been shorter. The small delegation of AP managing editors, representing 1,700 newspapers in the United States and Canada, arrived from Mexico the day before and left the day after.
For most, if not all, of those executives of the publications that give the Americans their vision of the world, it was a first trip to Cuba. A glimpse to the country they, let’s say it, constantly assail, in one way or another, through their big news machine.
Those cleanly dressed, almost elegant, editors from the US, with their designer glasses on their noses, had several meetings in this short stay in Cuba’s capital. One of them was with to the Chief of the US Interest Section, Mr James Cason. It took place in his big bunker on the Malecon, the seaside avenue. Who knows what this manager of the destabilisation process fed from Washington and Miami against the Cuban revolution told his visitors.
Ricardo Alarcon, President of the Cuban Parliament, was one of the important Cuban public figures who attended the group. He met with them at the Villena Library in Old Havana. It seems that no meeting room of the Hotel Santa Isabel, just beside, was available at this moment.
"Sorry", said Alarcon, a former diplomat at the UN, looking at the large table were he had to sit, in the small auditorium, in front of a large bouquet of pink flowers and a microphone. "I’m not the one who chose the setting. I would have preferred a more intimate reunion".
Stu Wilk, President of the AP Managing Editors, opened what had become a press conference with a question on ‘racist behaviour’ in Cuba, but soon the interest of his colleagues switched to what the AP calls the "dissidents" and the Cuban press the "mercenaries", arrested in Cuba in 2003, precisely because they were participating in operations openly organised and even financed by the US Interests Section headed by James Cason.
A member of the American delegation, referring to the current session of the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, asked Alarcon, if one year later, he doesn’t feel that it would have been better for Cuba’s international image to have handled things differently.
Alarcon, who represented his country for 14 years in the US, speaks good English. And he had a lot to say on the subject. Of course, the following day’s report by the AP, strictly done according to the agencies rules, had a couple of short quotes. But Alarcon is just too inspired when explaining his countries views to put the recorder off. Here is what he said.
"Years ago," Alarcon recalled, "everybody was talking about the Geneva session, at this time of the year, in which Cuba was going to be condemned. And do you remember the person who attended that meeting, who was in the United States delegation? Armando Valladares.
"He was a famous Cuban poet who was in jail, who had written very inspiring poetry in a Cuban jail. He was also an handicapped person who could not move without a wheelchair, according to the media. We couldn’t do anything. You decided he was a poet. So he was a poet. His books were published. Re-published. Translated. Somebody decided that he was in a wheelchair. But he wasn’t in a wheelchair".
"Who remembers what happened?" he asked. He then gave the answer. "In Paris, Mr Régis Debray, representing Mr Mitterrand, and some intellectuals were at the Airport, with an ambulance and a wheelchair to receive Armando Valladares. And the man appeared, almost jumping in the stairs, because he was never paralysed".
"Can you give me the title of a single book or a single poem that he has written in the last ten years, since being freed?" he asked again. "But how could we counter the terrible accusation of having a poet in prison?"
He then compared that situation to the present one.
"We will always have to face a very concrete fact. A very powerful country, a superpower is involved in activities that would put individuals, unfortunately, in the risk of being accused and tried for working for that power because that power promotes aggression against Cuba as an established policy with specific programs that it doesn’t even try to hide".
"We must protect ourselves, defend our sovereignty and, of course, we also have to try to persuade people, journalists and others, that this problem regarding Cuba should be considered with seriousness and objectivity".
Alarcón was even clearer:
"Do you remember when international law was something that existed years ago? The US should put an end to its hostile policy against Cuba, first, because that policy is illegal: it is not justifiable according to international law. You simply cannot do it. It is as simple as that.
"You should be condemned for imposing an economic embargo, for trying to subvert somebody else’s government, interfering in its affairs and so on and so forth, a whole list of violations of international law".
"Remember what was said in a State Department memo in 1959 when the first steps of economic hostility were taken against Cuba. It is written in a published document available to all of you since 1959 from the State Department. The aim was to create suffering and hunger among the Cuban people. But you have no right to do that. That kind of policy was condemned by the UN just after the Second World War. It was defined by the UN as genocide. An attempt to provoke suffering against an entire group of persons, in this case the Cubans living in Cuba".
Alarcon, now in his sixties, is a passionate man. He used to be a student leader. And he still sounds like student leader in the way he gets inspired when he talks, with some kind of a flame in his eyes, the flame that believers in a cause can show.
Asked how the lifting of the embargo could be negotiated, Alarcon answered that the US simply should not expect "to be paid back, to receive anything for eliminating a policy that was never morally, legally or politically justified. The only thing that you will get in exchange of the elimination of that policy is that we will cease denouncing that policy."
What about the way the US recently put aside the talks on migration with Cuba?
"The failure to attend the meeting in Havana and the decision not to convene in New York is a direct violation of the migratory agreement. Because that is not an invention that came after the agreement. It is in the text of the document that we signed in New York. It is the first time that openly the US has gone out with a specific action against not just the meeting to review the agreement but against the spirit of those agreements".
And why has the US acted in such a manner?
"It was clearly a concession to those in Miami–not only in Miami but mostly in Miami–that have been advocating precisely for the elimination of the migratory agreement. Very recently, an official document of the Cuban American National Foundation showed several points in connection with this commission created around a so-called ‘transition’ in Cuba. One goal that they had was the elimination of the migratory agreements–and that is very serious".
"In the same speech of Mr Roger Noriega (the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs) in Miami, at a meeting of the ‘Cuban Liberty Council’ -the ‘dissidents’ of the Cuban American National Foundation, said that a migratory crisis would be an equivalent to an act of aggression by Cuba".
"To accuse somebody of attacking the united States is tantamount to war. And this same guy in this same speech was undermining and trying to destroy the very agreement that precisely was negotiated and established between the two parties to avoid illegal, disorderly, risky migratory. And he was saying that in front of those people who are openly advocating for the elimination of those agreements and also for war!"
"The same people that marched in the street of Miami with a banner saying ‘Iraq now, Cuba next’. It is perhaps one of the best examples of the risks we are facing at this moment: you have this guy using that language in this place and on the other hand you have Mr Bolton, repeating the slanderous charges about the Cuban Weapons of Massive Destruction".
"You went to war and you are still having some inconveniences in your effort to find these WMDs. Imagine how we should take the allegation that we have them in Cuba!"
"For us it is a very clear danger".
Alarcon paused for a few seconds, lighted a cigarette–you can still do this in Cuba without shocking anybody–and took a sip from a cup of strong coffee that had just been brought.
He then spoke of this ‘transition’ commission created by the Bush Administration.
"Transition in the modern American language regarding Cuba is equal to the death of President Fidel Castro", he plainly stated.
"What else can they mean then by ‘accelerating a transition’ in Cuba?" he asked. "Please help me! What is on their minds when they are talking about working towards ‘accelerating the transition’?"
"You have a fascist congressman, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who went on TV in Miami and said explicitly: ‘I am for the assassination of Fidel Castro’. That is a way to accelerate the transition, isn’t it?"
"Mr Noriega and others have also clearly expressed that when that moment comes, the US should not wait and see. They should act immediately to make it impossible for Cuba to have a normal transition process. To keep ‘Castro’s cronies’ from retaining power"
"And I am one of them", he joked, to softened the atmosphere. But he then retook the very serious subject.
"According to an expressed US policy, when Fidel Castro dies the US will invade Cuba".
"It is as simple as that: the US will intervene militarily. According to the individual who is in charge of the Western hemisphere matters in the Bush administration. Not only him. Mr Otto Reich has said similar things and others have been more discreet but also have emphasized the importance of a transition and working toward that.
Speaking precisely about the so-called ‘transition commission’, he stressed: "I don’t know exactly what they are going to do but who cares? Who cares if they are ready to go that far! Suggesting the anticipation of the death of Fidel Castro stating that they will not simply wait to know what is the name of the person who would be the new president no, the say ‘we are going to act immediately, swiftly. Otto Reich even spoke of a ‘very speedy and violent transition’. He said that in a public statement in Washington".
"That’ why we have to be concerned and prepared".
Do you think it’s rhetoric or do you think they would actually do that? Somebody asked.
"We are not Americans. We only live in a small island, 90 miles from a big continental power going from the Atlantic to the Pacific, a nuclear power, and so on. That’s perhaps what makes the big difference between our perpectives. You do not come from the small island but from the big country. If you are from the small island, you have to take all those signals seriously. Without, of course, ignoring the possibility of demagogy. But we cannot play games with that. We can be destroyed in a matter of minutes. We don’t have the paraphernalia that the US has. And we are living in a world where that may happen".
"In the old days, somebody could ask the Security Council to do something. Not any more. You simply push a button and begin attacking somebody else. There cannot be any doubt whatsoever that there are people who are working to achieve that, working for many years: the extremists from the Cuban exiled community. The terrorists, the most violent people that have been for years demonizing President Kennedy because he didn’t send the American troops at the Bay of Pigs. Just yesterday, in the Nuevo Herald from Miami, an article by Mr Agustin Tamargo, compared Cuba with Iraq. His conclusion is that Cuba is by far worst than Iraq! That the US should have acted before Iraq, not after. He said that in very explicit terms".
The meeting ended a little later. The US editors – is this the usual way they act? – applauded Mr Alarcon.
And Mr Wilk thanked him with all his courtesy. They even went out of the room together and stopped for a photo in front of Jose Marti’s bust in the lobby and then stopped again for another one on the sunny Plaza de Armas, with some members of the group and AP’s correspondent Anita Snow. Everybody was in a great mood. The threat of war was over. At least on this Plaza, with the pigeons walking around, suddenly looking like doves.
Mr Alarcon then sat down in his blue Lada. Just beside the driver. The Lada sped away. Forget the motorcade. We are in Havana after all.
JEAN-GUY ALLARD is a writer living in Havana.