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Landau: George Bush has made freedom, democracy and human rights his issues. Simultaneously, we read of reports of torture in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. In light of this, how do you see the US criticism of Cuba for being a human rights violator, because it locked up 75 "dissidents?" How does Cuba’s view of human rights coincide with the arrest of those 75?
ALARCON: US Interest Section chief Vicky Huddlestone sat where you are when the US decided to send prisoners to Guantanamo. As a courtesy, they informed me they would treat those prisoners in accord with the Geneva conventions. They recognized Cuba’s sovereignty over Guantanamo and its right to demand that they not use our territory to violate human rights. They didn’t have to tell us by the way, because we can’t do anything about Guantanamo. Yet, people who acknowledged atrocities at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo criticized Cuba for having detained and tried individuals [the 75 "dissidents" in March 2003] accused under a pre-existing law. Cuban defense lawyers had contact with their families while, simultaneously, the US denied thousands of people their most fundamental rights. The "dissidents" were tried in a court of law.
That was March 2003. In Bush’s State of the Union address, he had referred to thousands of individuals accused of involvement in terrorism, detained by the US and its allies. And he added: "Others had suffered a different fate." In other words, the "others" are no longer a problem. Big applause from both houses! I read in The New Yorker that since Hitler, no Western leader had publicly suggested extrajudicial execution. Those in Guantanamo-at least someone knows they are there. The "others"-nobody knew where they were captured or taken.
Non-accountability is now in fashion. The principle of habeas corpus dates from the Magna Carta, not the Human Rights Declaration. Habeas corpus has now disappeared. In this context, Cuba was criticized for having detained 75 "dissidents."
Some facts: March 1996, Clinton signed Helms Burton [designed to punish foreign companies trading with or investing in Cuba]. December 1996, Cuba’s National Assembly countered that law. We used legal examples from Canada, Argentina, and Britain, who had also adopted laws countering Helms Burton. Our law said that Helms Burton is unlawful and we may prosecute those in Cuba who act to implement it. Nothing more! In February 1998, we adopted another law establishing sanctions for those Cubans who try to implement Helms-Burton [receiving US funds, goods and services to publicly support the law]. But there’s a principle in the law that lawyers refer to as the principle of opportunity. There are two ways to implement a law. If you don’t stop at a red light, police fine you. You ran the light. That’s the automatic application of the law. But the opportunity principle means that the prosecutor doesn’t automatically prosecute violators of the law. Rather, he requires political instructions.
So, although we passed the law in February 1998, nobody was arrested. It was a message: don’t work with a foreign power against your country. We waited five years February ’98 to March 2003 — to arrest those individuals. I don’t think it’s fair to criticize Cuba by taking the arrests out of context, as if they happened on another planet.
In March 2003, the US established a new doctrine: war without UN authorization; unilateral war; disproportionate war– in Iraq. At the time, Cuba sentenced three individuals to death [boat-jackers]. Like most leaders of the Cuban Revolution, I disagree with the death penalty. We haven’t used it often. It goes against our morality. In this case, however, hijackers seized a boat to move people to the States. But a few days before,
US Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega said, following other cases of planes and boats hijacked to the US, that the US would consider repetitions of such actions as acts against its national security! Code words for bombing! Recall, Iraq was accused of threatening US national security by having WMDs.
The boat hijacking occurred because the US promoted it by welcoming Cuban hijackers, establishing hijacking as a way to enter your society. At the same time, US officials suggested that such incidents could serve as an excuse for war. Also, John Bolton, another undersecretary of State, claimed that Cuba actually had WMDs, had developed a bio-weapons producing program and shared it with other rogue states. My god, you never found WMD’s in Iraq, but there you are in Iraq! The US accused us of planning an attack and having the capability of attacking — just 90 miles from your shore.
LANDAU: The "dissidents?"
ALARCON: We waited five years. We couldn’t afford to be patient anymore, if the US planned to attack, and their threats were real. In late February 2003, millions demonstrated around the world against the impending war. The biggest demonstrations ever in Spanish history occurred in Madrid and European and US cities. In Miami, Florida, however, a pro-war demonstration occurred with a four word, big banner: "Iraq now, Cuba later!"
Cuban American Congresspeople and state officials held that banner. A committee headed by well-known terrorist Orlando Bosch called the demonstration. Bosch promoted it on local radio and published an ad in a Miami paper. So that’s the context. Noriega saying hijacking would be tantamount to Cuba attacking the US, others referring to Cuba as being like Saddam Hussein with WMD’s.
Landau: So you’re connecting the Iraq situation with the "dissidents?"
Alarcon: A paid agent of another government trying to overthrow your government receives a severe sentence in many countries. But only in Cuba does the US have an open policy of promoting that behavior, — paying, organizing, supporting groups inside our country for the interest of the most powerful country — also our neighbor.
Cuba faced a national security threat from the US, as it has since the 19th century. The US’ Cuba program [Plan for Assistance to a Free Cuba], includes secret ops of the CIA, going on for years, and the new policy of promoting and fabricating an opposition inside Cuba working openly through AID. Do you expect to have all that without a legal reaction from Cuba?
We acted legally and we did not precipitate these arrests. We waited patiently, like Job, the biblical figure. And we had to act at a very serious moment for us and the world. Nobody was tortured or had their rights violated, although the press has claimed it. Raul Rivera, the most famous of the so-called "dissidents" recently came out of prison. Many people, including his wife, had accused us of torturing him. He said as he left prison: "I was never tortured, nor ill treated physically or psychologically."
Nor did any of the 75 suffer torture. I suspect that we were a scapegoat to distract attention away from the real violations still going on in Guantanamo. Nobody in Congress asked Bush about the fact that torture and disappearing people had become a normal practice; nor did European parliaments question it. Instead, people discussed Cuba’s jailing of poets, journalists, intellectuals. They exaggerated. Only Rivera was a poet. Some of the others are poorly educated. We took criticism for doing what was our right, our obligation. Any country does what’s necessary according to law to protect yourself. We did that when you were torturing hundreds in Guantanamo; without lawyers, without charges — still without defense lawyers, incommunicado.
Landau: While the 75 dissidents received wide support, did the five Cubans in US prisons also get much support from Europe? How do you see the case of five convicted of espionage?
Alarcon: There has been some support. The US detained 5 Cubans, 2 of them US citizens, in September, 1998. They were tried, convicted and sentenced essentially for the crime of having penetrated terrorist groups of Cuban origin openly operating from Miami. These groups carried out bombings and killings in Cuba and in the US. That’s what happened. In the original indictments you’ll see they were also accused, as additional minor accusations, of being undocumented, having forged documents. If they’d said that their mission was to fight US-backed terrorism against Cuba they’d have to be crazy.
The US Attorney Generals office of Southern Florida insisted that it didn’t want to discuss the five’s motivations. Read the indictment. It’s in the court documents. "We know their motivations," the prosecutors said. "They came here to penetrate terrorist groups and we don’t want that to be the substance of the trial. We want to focus on the violations of US law that they committed in order to perform their goals. They didn’t register as foreign agents and changed their identity. Those were the big crimes."
The defense lawyers called that the "necessity principle." Under certain circumstances an individual may violate a law to stop a greater threat or danger — the lesser evil philosophy. To save a life, a defendant may allege in court that he had to ignore some law because he had a more important purpose. That was the issue here. To protect lives from terrorists, the five had to violate laws.
You can’t do that openly. Ironically, those five Cubans were condemned for doing what the FBI was supposed to do and didn’t. Instead of investigating terrorism, the FBI investigated them.
Miami is a special place where terrorists have links to local business people and politicians. It’s mafia style. So, to protect itself, save lives and reduce damages, Cuba had no option but to send individuals, real heroes, to perform that infiltration duty in that area. That was the issue.
Before doing that we informed the US government about the terrorists’ activities. I remember speaking privately with US officials, asking them to please try and stop this. They knew we had our own sources inside those groups. We never denied that. And no one complained. They knew that we were gathering information to defend ourselves.
Once in court, however, the context of Cuba-US relations was ignored. Indeed, most importantly, in written and verbal form during the trial, the US even admitted to condemning these people precisely because they were trying to act against the terrorists. You’ll find it written in Rene Gonazalez’ sentencing, December 14, 2001, three months after the twin towers attack. The government asked the judge to do something special in that Rene’s case because he was born in Chicago, he’s a US citizen.
The government asked for the maximum sentence for all five. For Rene that meant 15 years. But read the transcript of the court session. The Miami Assistant Attorney General called him a man with such strong convictions and motivations that he would emerge from prison still young and attempt to again penetrate the terrorists to learn their plans and inform the Cuban government. "You have to do something to put him out of action, judge." Page 46 of the transcript. The judge added: "As a further special condition of supervised release the defendant is prohibited from associating with or visiting specific places where individuals or groups such as terrorists, members of organizations advocating violence, and organized crime figures are know to be or frequent".
When this man gains his freedom, he will be barred from visiting places where individual or terrorist groups are known to frequent. What does it mean? That the US government knows the identity of Miami crime figures and terrorists and which places they frequent.
The sentencing took place in December 2001, 3 months after the terrible attacks against New York. The government didn’t arrest organized crime figures, violent people or terrorists. Rather, they punished a US citizen and prohibited him from "bothering our terrorists, our organized crime figures."
Antonio Guerrero was about to be sentenced on December 27, 2001 to a maximum of life plus ten years. But that didn’t satisfy the Attorney General. He asked for more. If Guerrero has two lives he will not be allowed to visit places that terrorists frequent. Americans should know about this. They have the right to know. It’s an insult to those who died on Sept 11 to have a government so connected, so engaged, with terrorists, that they protect them. That’s the substance of the case against the five Cubans.
Landau: How have the Five been treated in prison?
Alarcon: Serious violation of the people’s most fundamental rights occurred. The US did not allow the wives of two of the five to visit. Rene’s six year old daughter was born in the US, a citizen, hasn’t been able to see her father. She saw him twice when she was four months old. Rene’s a poster father; she’s seen his poster after she was deprived of paternal protection.
The US Government did that because the American people didn’t know about it. If the people knew I’m sure they’d ask questions like: "how come the government is so friendly with well known terrorists? Why does the government treat so harshly those who fight against terrorism? Is the US government for or against the terrorists? Mr. Bush."
Landau: What is Bush’s Cuba policy?
Alarcon: In May 2004, President Bush presented the Program for Assistance for a free Cuba to "accelerate the end of the Castro regime," to force regime change. First, increase "our support to our people inside Cuba." That was not exactly the wording, but its aim was to augment support to US-backed groups inside Cuba. At the White House website you’ll find his words. They increased support from $7 to $59 million. Those who receive funds are part of a foreign design to bring regime change. That means overthrowing our government and imposing another one. But not just another one! They want to end the Revolution quickly, to do what? Establish a new regime in Cuba, based on two principles: restitution of property to former owners and complete privatization. The US government will guarantee the expeditious restitution of property and establish a US, not a Cuban, Commission on Restitution of Property rights. And that’s the end of Cuba. Restitution and privatization, controlled by a foreign government! The new plan lists even minor details on transportation, environment, agriculture, with advisors sent by Washington to supervise.
Of course, by privatizing education and health care, retired persons will no longer get pensions. When the Cuban Revolution ends, retirees will no longer be paid. Washington will organize them into an old people’s corps and put to work as long as their health permits. Americans should read that. It’s on the US government website. We’re quoting from it. The US has two experiences in remaking regimes, Afghanistan and Iraq. It will be difficult to implement such plans here. That’s why in the institutional reforms section, their first priority is creating a new police force, trained and equipped by the US and under the control and leadership of guess who?
And what would remain of Cuba? After property has been privatized and returned to its former owners, after older Cubans have died laboring in public works, without health care or education, the US holds elections for the new authorities. After the Revolutionary regime is dismantled, the US will substantially expand the Cuban budget to promote new political parties be based on current "dissident" groups in Cuba.
This shows the "dissidents’ are instruments of a foreign government. Can we be accused of being harsh in dealing with them? Or have we been patient Jobians waiting for them to rethink? Cuba is the only country facing such a plan. How would another country react if a big power dared to do that against them? Imposing the will of a foreign power over the legitimate wills of the people themselves. That’s a democracy?
Ricardo Alarcon is Vice President of Cuba and President of its National Assembly.
SAUL LANDAU has made several films in Cuba, FIDEL and THE UNCOMPROMISING REVOLUTION are available through The Cinema Guild in New York City.