Few topics are more controversial in Florida than Cuba, a nation that has held fast to communism despite lying 90 miles from the shores of a capitalist superpower. It's a place where startling poverty results from either a longtime U.S. trade embargo or a half-century of communism, depending on one's point of view. While visiting recently, Times staff writer Marlene Sokol met with Carlos Alzugaray Treto, a scholar who served as a Cuban diplomat in a half-dozen countries and was ambassador to the European Union in the 1990s. Outside Cuba, he has taught at institutions including Harvard and Johns Hopkins University. Today Alzugaray lives in Havana and is a consultant in the public and private sectors. Alzugaray's views, especially those about Cuba's human rights record, would likely be contradicted by Cuban immigrants in the United States. His comments are edited for space and clarity.
Dr. Alzugaray, I'm going to start with some very broad questions because my generation was raised to accept certain beliefs about your country …
… a certain narrative.
… and Cubans were instructed in their own narrative. I see the billboards about Castro and the revolution everywhere. There's one about the blockade, on the way from the airport, with a picture of a noose, and the phrase "worst genocide in history." To what extent do Cuban people embrace concepts such as socialism and the revolution?
Socialism is very popular in Cuba. Socialism is associated with our winning independence. Whatever the merits of the United States, it's a big power and Cuba was treated horribly by the United States. The United States intervened in the war against Spain, but not as an ally. They turned what was supposed to be an alliance into an occupation.
We were very much imbued with the spirit of (late 19th century writer) José Martí, who saw the Cuban republic independent from both Spain and the United States, based on the well-being of every Cuban. An equitable society. He saw Cuba with an economy that would not be dependent on only one partner, an honest government and a democratic government. None of those things were realized in the period between 1902 and 1959.
(With the rise of Fidel Castro), the United States only understood a deal with Cuba on the basis of unconditional surrender. Cuba would not accept that. So Cuba opted for two different policies. One, resist any encroachment by the United States. But we also said resistance is not enough. These guys, let's challenge them. Let's go against them everywhere in the world.
It was a conflict that for many Americans of your generation was interpreted as a Cold War conflict. It is not a Cold War conflict. It is a conflict that goes back to the time when the United States didn't want Cuban independence and got accustomed to controlling Cuba, which was in part because some Cuban upper-class people and politicians got a lot of benefits from relationships with the United States and they didn't care about the country.
But getting back to the narrative, and I like that word because my generation was raised to think of Cuba as …
Yes. Part of the whole communist threat. But to what extent have Cuban people internalized or really truly believe in the revolution? Because part of the narrative that we've been taught to believe is that this has been imposed by the Castro regime.
How could the Cuban government have survived against the United States if it didn't have the support of the Cuban people? It's true that in the process of resistance, the Cuban government radicalized itself. It is true that the Cuban government made egregious economic mistakes. But the Cuban government could always say, it's because of the American embargo.
In human rights and democracy, I have lived in so many dictatorships. I lived under the Argentine dictatorship. Your child would be disappeared. Come on. That doesn't happen in Cuba. No matter what propaganda is done about Cuba, there is not one proven case of disappearance in a continent where military dictatorships disappear people. Chile, Argentina, Brazil, you name it. In a continent where you have what happened in Mexico (where a government operation) killed 43 kids and nobody knows where they are. That doesn't happen in Cuba. Colombia, where there is this war, but where journalists are killed just like in Mexico. There are no journalists killed in Cuba.
It's true that in the clash with the United States, individual liberties were curtailed. Some laws were very strong and it is true that the minority opinion was not respected. But one of the problems is that the United States, by assuming the leadership of any opposition to the Cuban government, made a position illegitimate. It's the enemy. You are an agent of the enemy.
You are not an oppositionist, you're not criticizing the government because you have a fair criticism of the government, you're criticizing the government because you are getting paid by Washington. And there is enough evidence of that.
One of the ideals of the revolution was that Cuba would not be dependent on multinational corporations or tourism. Is there a basis here for a viable economy?
Let me be very frank: The economic situation of Cuba is bad. The reason is not only the blockade or the embargo, although it has played a very significant role. It makes life difficult for us. For example, no country can develop its infrastructure without access to international sources of credit. We cannot get it, to a great extent, because of the American embargo.
(But) we shouldn't have eliminated totally the private sector in 1968. That was not provoked by the United States. It was our own mistake. It was an unprovoked error.
We are in the process of changing our economy, which was extremely centralized, into a mixed economy. This is a difficult process. Many people want change, but they are afraid of the change.
So you would consider it a mixed economy at this point?
Definitely. This hotel (the Melia Cohiba) is owned by the Cuban government, or by a state-owned company. But the management is Melia, which is a foreign company (Spanish).
The problem is, in 1968 everything was nationalized including the hot dog stands. The shoe repair shops. The barber shops. The beauty parlors. Things that the government should not have. So we have a long way to go.
The other problem is, people are not accustomed to working in a market economy, neither the guys who work in the government nor the guys who are trying to create new enterprises. Some of them are very smart. Some of them are too smart. There is a guy who owns three or four restaurants around here. Well, recently he was investigated. He was money laundering for a drug cartel.
Like Russia after the fall of communism.
Of course. Of course.
The Obama opening was very popular. It was probably very well-intentioned. But he said, I'm changing the policy but not the purpose of the policy. So everybody wondered, what is the United States up to? What do they want in Cuba? Are they going to continue to interfere as they do in many other countries?
You know, I like it when you have this problem with the Russian interference. It's your own medicine. (He then catches himself.) I absolutely condemn any interference in internal politics of anyone including the United States. But I like it that it happens now.
So Cubans are wondering, what is the agenda?
I like a metaphor that was introduced to me by the (former) president of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, many years ago in the 1980s. I was describing the relationship between Cuba and the United States. He said, "Carlos, that's the relationship that exists between the grass and elephant. The grass always suspects that it doesn't matter if the elephant is making love, making war, drinking water or horsing around. He's going to trample on the grass and not care about it."
It is not something that the United States is the only one who does that. The Russians do it. The Chinese do it. Big powers do what they want. Small powers offer what they must.
What is advantageous about living in Cuba as opposed to leaving Cuba? What is here?
I think education and health, pride. Pride in what Cuba has achieved. Small Cuba, the little David that confronted the big Goliath. The fact that Cuba has helped many countries. Nelson Mandela would say that the end of apartheid was much more important to Cuba than to many big powers who claimed to have put pressure on the apartheid South African government.
So, the values?
So Cuba, it's proud. (But) it's difficult to live in Cuba. We are a country with no energy resources so we depend on the outside world for energy resources. Now we are going to depend on tourism and of course our natural tourist market is the United States.
Has Cuba come full circle in that regard? Because back in the days of (former dictator Fulgencio) Batista, Cuba was where Americans came to do the things they wouldn't do at home.
At the beginning, when we started developing tourism (about 20 years ago), it was a hard choice and we didn't know how to do it. We had a moment in the end of the 1990s when things started to get out of control. Not in terms of drugs and crime, but in terms of prostitution. We did two or three things … it was not repression. We were trying to get those things under control.
Does too much tourism take away some of the dignity of this place?
I don't think so. I remember a couple of Canadians, left-wingers both of them, and they told me something we find at the hotel, the pride of the people who work in the hotel. They don't feel that they are doing something menial. They are very proud of what they do.
Tourism is complicated, especially if you let the casinos in. The government wants to get involved in golf. I am not very good with that because it's another manifestation of an enclave. But look at what is happening in cities like Havana. First is the expansion of the casas particulares, these small private (guest) homes. You have the restaurants, taxi drivers. There is a spillover effect. So it has benefits.
We have been able to deal with three issues that came out immediately when we started developing tourism. One we discussed, sex tourism. Then the construction boom. Fortunately the union of architects was very strong in telling the government to build hotels that blend, which is not difficult because Havana is very eclectic in terms of architecture.
And the environmental impact. We have developed tourism in a way that we feel certain that we are complying with the regulation that the government itself has established for protecting the environment.
I find it startling that you have the CUC (a special currency for tourists). That while I'm using one currency, people who live here use another. It creates a complete separation.
Well, it's strange. It's the result of a policy that was established in 1993. But you know, it happens in every country in the sense that there are places where only upper-class people, only people with a lot of money can go. There are places in New York where you have upscale restaurants where you have to spend maybe $100 per person or more. So it's not that different.
And I will tell you, if you go to a Cuban hotel this time of the year, when foreign tourism drops, you will find it full of Cubans.
So your mixed economy is working.
We should have only one currency. But the Cuban government has always had to work under very difficult conditions. Cuba is small. We are too close to the United States. We have 2 million Cubans living in the United States. And we cannot have a normal relationship with the United States.
If we had a normal relationship, imagine. Just look at Canada. We see 1.5 million, or 3.5 percent of the Canadian population. Isn't that incredible? Now suppose that with the United States it's not 3.5 percent. Let's suppose it's 1.5 percent. That's between 4 (million) and 5 million visitors.
And you're just a one-hour plane ride away.
A one-hour plane ride.
Contact Marlene Sokol at [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.