In an exclusive interview from Havana, Ricardo Alarcon tells Democracy Now!: "I met with [Castro] personally before the announcement was issued, and yesterday, I was in communication with him also. He is perfectly conscious, very good speech as always. We talked for over a half an hour on many things going on in the world, the impact that the announcement has had."[includes rush transcript]
On Monday night, 79-year-old Cuban President Fidel Castro temporarily handed over power to his brother, Raul. This marks the first time since he became president in 1959 that Castro has ceded power. The Cuban President was forced to undergo surgery to repair an ailment that has caused intestinal bleeding. In a speech read by an aide on Cuban television Monday night, Castro said that his ill health was caused by overexerting himself during his travels last month. Raul Castro, who is 75, is Cuba"s defense minister and first vice president. Under Cuba"s constitution, he is first in line to take over from the president in case of incapacitating illness or death. Three weeks before Monday’s announcement, a U.S. presidential commission called for an $80 million program to support opponents of Castro. The funding has been billed as "democracy promotion." Critics say it will work to undermine Cuba"s government the same way that US democracy funding has destabilized regimes in other countries such as Haiti and Venezuela. We are joined by Ricardo Alarcon — the President of the Cuban National Assembly.
- Ricardo Alarcon. President of the Cuban National Assembly who has often been refered to as Castro’s heir apparent
AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Havana, Cuba, where we’re joined on the line by the President of the Cuban National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcon. We welcome you to Democracy Now!
RICARDO ALARCON: Good morning, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. First, how is President Fidel Castro’s health? When did you last speak to him? And what is he talking about?
RICARDO ALARCON: Well, I was with him, I met with him personally on Monday afternoon, before the announcement was issued. And yesterday, on Tuesday, I was in conversation with him also. I must say that he’s perfectly conscious. He’s in very good spirits, as always. We talked for over half an hour on many things: what’s going on in the world and [inaudible] yesterday about the impact that the announcement has had.
Of course, he is forced to have a period of rest. He underwent a complicated surgery. And he’s in, I would say, a normal period of recovery after an important surgery — that’s essentially what I would say — but very alive and very alert, as always, very interested in what’s going on around him and around the world.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the surgery he underwent, and what is wrong with Fidel Castro?
RICARDO ALARCON: Well, what is wrong with Fidel Castro is that he really works a lot. He has been working his entire life. He’s not a head of state that is available only for a few photo opportunities and some ceremonies, and so he really takes his responsibilities and his duties as a mission. That’s why he, apart from being substituted provisionally according to the constitution as the head of state, as the head of the power and so on, he also had to designate certain comrades for specific programs, on healthcare area, on education, on energy and so on, programs that he was conducting personally. He is a very rare head of state. He’s a head of state that works and works very, very much.
And, of course, if you travel, you go to the eastern Cuba and make two speeches in the same day and have many meetings and so on — notwithstanding his very healthy reality — things happen, and at some point he suffered a sort of crisis that probably was most created by the stress and the excessive effort that his body was making. And that’s it.
But notwithstanding all of that, I will say that he is doing fairly well. It is a serious matter, of course. I do not want to diminish the complexity of the situation, because always surgery, intestinal surgery, as any doctor can tell you, it’s a serious matter. And the recovery process is also some period of care, and he needs a lot of attention and care. And that is why he cannot be at the same time holding certain responsibilities, because, I repeat, for him that is not a photo op. It’s a matter of hours and hours dedicated to healthcare programs, to education, to energy-saving programs, and so on and so forth.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Ricardo Alarcon, as you say, President Castro is legendary for the long hours that he keeps. The two opportunities over the years that I’ve had to interview him, both of the interviews didn’t start until about 1:00 in the morning and went on for several hours. But here in the United States the commercial press and in Washington, they’re trying to make much over the fact that he has not been seen or that he had not made the announcement himself. Your reaction to some of the speculation here that he is even much sicker than the government is letting out?
RICARDO ALARCON: I think that the letter or the announcement that he wrote himself with his hands, the decisions that are in that document reflect a person that is very much aware of what is going on and capable of taking decisions immediately after having been obliged to undergo a complicated surgery recovery. Of course, he’s not a young fellow. He is 79 years old.
But listen, I have seen some, not only the speculation, but some very shameful manifestations of people, like some people appear to enjoy a human being’s physical sufferings or risks, and that reminds me when beginning almost a few weeks ago was the anniversary of the commencement of the Spanish Civil War. There was a general, notorious Franco general who became famous for an infamous phrase. Remember what he said: "Long live death!" You see some groups in Miami, some federal congress people, some spokesmen from the U.S. government like enjoying the idea of this man being ill or even a longing of his death and even invented it. And they have spent years speculating, afflicting to him diseases, [inaudible].
The facts are reflected, announced publicly by him, himself. And he said the truth. And unfortunately for those people, I can tell you, I will repeat, I met with him personally. We spent half an hour, not just talking about the document, talking about Lebanon, talking about the U.S., talking about the situation in the world. And he was very alert, as always. We even exchanged some jokes. And yesterday, again, we communicated. And those are the facts, of course. I communicated. I saw him. But he is resting, physically resting. He has to do that.
AMY GOODMAN: Ricardo Alarcon, we’re going to break for 60 seconds with music, and then we’re going to come back to you. We’d like to play for you the response of the White House, the White House spokesperson, Tony Snow, what he had to say. We would also like to ask you about what President Fidel Castro had to say about Lebanon and the United States, as he recoveries from his surgery. We’re speaking with Ricardo Alarcon, President of the Cuban National Assembly. We’ll be back with him in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking with the President of the Cuban National Assembly. We’re talking to Ricardo Alarcon. He is in Havana right now, has already met with the Cuban President Fidel Castro after surgery and has spoken him yesterday, as well. I wanted to get your response, Ricardo Alarcon, to White House spokesperson, Tony Snow, who yesterday dismissed Raul Castro’s leadership and said the U.S. government will not be reaching out to him.
TONY SNOW: The one thing that this president has talked about from the very beginning is his hope for the Cuban people finally to enjoy the fruits of freedom and democracy, and for the dictator Fidel Castro to hand off power to his brother, who has been prison keeper, is not a change in that status. So Raul Castro’s attempt impose himself on the Cuban people is just much the same as what his brother did. So, no, there are no plans to reach out. The one thing we want to do is to continue to assure the people of Cuba that we stand ready to help.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Tony Snow, White House spokesperson. Your response, Ricardo Alarcon?
RICARDO ALARCON: Well, let me tell you that this appearance — all change of personalities in the Cuban government, which is a matter exclusively that belongs to us — we are an independent country — has become a very serious security issue for us. Remember that the U.S. government in the year 2004 adopted, approved a program that President Bush said that was going to be seriously implemented to not to permit, precisely — in fact, in Cuba, is the moment would appear.
A few weeks ago, on July the 10th, President Bush approved the last report of a so-called "Commission to Assist a Free Cuba." That means a clear plan of intervention in another country, and this program, this last report, begins with a chapter with the title, "Hastening the End of the Castro Regime." It’s not something waiting for to "help," quote/unquote, the Cuban people in the future. It’s a plan to hasten the end of our government and begins with a phrase that should concern Americans a lot, saying that that report is just the unclassified part of something else. They said that they have additional measures that remain classified, in other words, secret.
What means that? Are they going to announce or are they announcing new military adventures abroad? Are Americans really prepared to, after having gone to war in Iraq out of lies and distortion by all those same folks, people like Mr. Snow, are they prepared now to go to another war just because Mr. Snow and Mr. Bush do not like the kind of government that we have down here in Cuba? I don’t like the U.S. government, to be very frank, but that doesn’t give me any right to have plans, secret or otherwise, to change the way the American system operates. I think that’s a very dangerous approach.
That’s why we said that, in our communiqué — Fidel repeated that yesterday, by the way, the second letter that was made public here in Cuba, that this issue, this matter that should be very, in a way, legally speaking, technically speaking, a rather simple matter, the substitution of the president by the vice president and so on and so forth, according to the constitution and the laws of a particular country. And it’s an impeding approach that I think is a little bit outdated.
The U.S. at this moment is not prepared really seriously to entertain more wars and more wars and so on and so forth. That’s why they have issued on July the 10th this last report, but the most important part of it remains secret. For our part, of course, we will do our best to defeat all of those plans, those announced and those that remain secret. We have a long experience in fighting and resisting U.S. attempts to undermine our independence and to defeat our sovereignty.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Ricardo Alarcon, you mentioned that in your discussions with President Castro after his surgery that you discussed to some extent the situation in Lebanon. Could you share with us some of his thoughts about that and also how the Cuban government is viewing the situation, the escalating battles going on in the Middle East right now?
RICARDO ALARCON: Well, we are really very, very concerned about this situation. We have condemned the violation of Lebanese sovereignty and the attacks on Lebanon, the attacks on Gaza, and we are concerned that the situation, as it appears, is leading towards an enlargement, an extension of the war. The last news that I saw, the Israeli troops may be approaching the Syrian border. It’s something that should provoke some international action to stop that. We believe strongly that the very first issue — we agree on that with the Lebanese government — is to stop the fighting immediately. Many people are dying on both sides, mostly civilians, and that’s really sort of a senseless policy of violence and aggression that must be ended right away.
AMY GOODMAN: Does Cuba, does the President, does Fidel Castro have a relationship with either the Iranian leadership or the Syrian leadership? And before his illness, was he communicating with them, if he does?
RICARDO ALARCON: Well, we have — it’s not a secret — we have very friendly relations with both Syria and Iran, also with the Lebanese Republic. As a matter of fact, part of our population comes from that background, Lebanese Christians, Lebanese that immigrated to this part of the world. That’s why it’s an issue that touches us very directly, I would say, and we understand that they are also concerned and they are, as many people around the world. Remember that if we don’t have yet a ceasefire, it’s only because of the U.S. and Israeli position. Even Europe, practically everybody, has been demanding for that, but you have again the UN Security Council paralyzed due to the successful efforts of Mr. Bolton and the U.S. delegation.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you, in terms of the current situation in Latin America, obviously a lot has changed over the years, as U.S. administrations have continued to support the embargo or to lead their sole embargo against Cuba in Latin America, and do you think that in the current climate of the more popular governments that have come to power in many countries in Latin America that the United States would dare to try to intervene directly in Cuba?
RICARDO ALARCON: I think that at this moment in the current administration that you’re enjoying in Washington, there are people that are thinking if they could, they would even intervene militarily. That’s why they went that far in the 2004 program adopted by Mr. Bush and in the last report. The problem is that I do not see how could anybody rationally in the U.S. consider the possibility of promoting or provoking another war. I don’t think that that idea would be very popular among Americans at this particular moment. They are not really enjoying a very easy situation in Iraq, as they thought was the case when they had begun that intervention. That’s why the previous report was more openly aggressive. Now, they have to reserve those areas to these secret plans.
But let me tell you that in this last report they recognized how Cuba has advanced and, at the same time, it reflects a desperate effort to reinforce that embargo, notwithstanding the reality that nobody else is supporting it. For example, now, according to what Mr. Bush decided on July the 10th, no humanitarian items could come from U.S. churches to the Cuban National Council of Churches. That includes the Jewish community. They had been receiving, traditionally, support for their rights and their activities, the Evangelicals, the Protestants, the Anglican Church and the Jewish community, from their U.S. counterparts. Now they cannot anymore.
They are threatening to criminalize violations of the travel ban to Cuba. They are, in this last report, trying or threatening to undermine what they refer to as large-scale healthcare programs for foreigners in Cuba and elsewhere. What means that? That they have to recognize that at this moment millions, millions of people, Gonzalez, had received free healthcare here in Cuba or in Venezuela, or are receiving it in Bolivia, in Ecuador, in Indonesia, in Pakistan, in Guatemala, all over the world, that there are 30,000 Cuban doctors abroad helping people to recover vision, to fight illness and so on. They recognize that, and they say that they will not permit exports of equipment that may help those programs. All of that is in that report. That, unfortunately, has not been noticed in some U.S. media that keeps talking about a so-called "aid program" for Cuba after the Castro regime doesn’t exist anymore, and blah, blah, blah, blah.
In other words, you have a very peculiar administration in your country, people that do not accept reality and imagine that they can ignore reality and change it. The reality is that Fidel Castro was down there in Cordoba, in Argentina. Why? Because we were invited. Because Cuba has joined, has established an association with Mercosur. But he was together with a number, a large number of heads of governments in South America, of the whole Mercosur group and Michelle Bachelet, the President of Chile, who was attending. And they condemned, of course, the embargo, again, and not just in words, but in actions that are reflected in the strengthening of our economic and other links with them.
By the way, since Monday we have received messages from practically every government in Latin America, expressing their concern and their solidarity with President Castro in his current situation, including one very beautiful message by President Lula that Cubans know, because it was published here yesterday — I don’t know if you know about it in New York. But I think that one has to be absolutely out of his mind to believe that that policy functions, that that policy works. The world and the reality around the U.S. is showing that it is not the case. But even in America, even in the U.S., you have people that would like very much to expand trade with Cuba, to have more normal relations, or to — just to travel, just to travel to exercise that right that now may be even leading some people to court to be accused, indicted of that serious crime. By the way, I hope you are aware, Juan, that they arrested a number of Puerto Ricans when they arrived in Mayaguez a few days ago. The crime? Having come to Cuba. Now, it’s a more serious crime, according to Mr. Bush.
JUAN GONZALEZ: No, I was not aware of those latest arrests, and thank you for informing me about them.
RICARDO ALARCON: They had traveled to Cuba via the Dominican Republic, and apparently they went by boat from eastern Dominican to Mayaguez in the west part of Puerto Rico, and upon arrival there, they were — it’s not exact — they don’t say that they are detained in a formal way, but they were detained. Upon arrival, they are being interviewed and so on, because — and they were notified that they did violate American law, and now, since July the 10th, they may be indicted and incarcerated, which is something that is crazy. It’s easier to move out of Mayaguez because of all the [inaudible] fishing and so on, they hope.
AMY GOODMAN: Ricardo Alarcon, we only have 30 seconds, and we’re going to be going to Beirut in a moment, but I wanted to ask about your comments, quoted in Prensa Latina, calling the President, President Bush, a terrorist for what’s happening in Lebanon right now. It was part of your condemnation of what you call the Israeli massacre in Qana.
RICARDO ALARCON: Not only because that time — I visited Qana, in fact — very movable to see that again the same story was repeated. But President Bush is a terrorist. His policy is terrorism. He was meeting last Monday in Miami with some very well known terrorists, this Monday, 48 hours ago. He keeps five young Cubans in detention, incarcerated. Next week, on August the 9th, will be one year after the Court of Appeals revoked the convictions of those people, but they remain in prison. And at the same time, you can watch on Miami TV or read in the Miami press how terrorist activities continue to be prepared, announced openly, very openly.
AMY GOODMAN: Who did President Bush meet with in Miami?
RICARDO ALARCON: Who is by — sorry?
AMY GOODMAN: You said that President Bush met with terrorists in Miami when he was just there this week.
RICARDO ALARCON: Ninoska Perez Castellon, Armando Perez Roura. They had breakfast on Monday, and he was on the air interviewing some of the most radical pro-terrorist programs in Miami.
AMY GOODMAN: And why do you call them terrorists?
RICARDO ALARCON: Because they are terrorists. Because these people belong to groups that openly, openly proclaim, proclaim that they have —- have you heard about Mr. Llama? He was on Miami TV claiming that he had spent $1.4 million to buy weapons, including small light planes that can be tele-directed for terrorist purposes. He said that in Miami the same day that in Miami half a dozen Black people were arrested on the accusation that they were going to blow up the Sears Tower. This very same day a guy, of course, white, a white billionaire, appeared on TV saying that, and then you have your president going down there to have a meeting. It was a funding operation that he had, a fundraising operation on Sunday and Monday, and I know, because that was published, that he had breakfast with some of them. Ninoska Perez Castellon, the former leader of the Cuban American National Foundation, leader now of the so-called Cuban Liberty Council that advocates openly military actions against Cuba. Armando Perez Roura -—
AMY GOODMAN: Ricardo Alarcon —
RICARDO ALARCON: —-who was a daily [inaudible] -—
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there.
RICARDO ALARCON: Yeah, sorry.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much for being with us.