I spent my first morning in Cuba listening to Cuban diplomat Ricardo Alarcon talk about the new thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations. Alarcon served for nearly 30 years as Cuba’s permanent representative to the United Nations and was president of the parliament, the National Assembly of the People’s Power, from 1993 to 2013. As such, he was one of the most powerful men in Cuba. Though clearly pleased with the diplomatic breakthrough, Alarcon voiced criticisms of statements coming from the United States that restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba represents a change in U.S. strategy vis-à-vis the island but not a change in aims, and outlined the Cuban government’s chief demands of the United States—a lifting of the embargo that has crippled the Cuban economy for 50 years, removal of Cuba from the United States’ list of nations it terms state sponsors of terrorism and the return of the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay.
“The new U.S. embassy in Cuba must have the same mission as in other countries,” Alarcon said. He and other Cuban speakers insisted that Cuba has a right to decide its own destiny. He pointed out that Cuba does not have a list of nations it considers state sponsors of terrorism, though it has been a victim of such terrorism from the United States, nor does it demand that other countries adhere to its policies in order to have diplomatic relations with them.
“In Cuba, health care is a human right,” Alarcon said. “But Cuba does not demand that the United States recognize and establish that right before dealing with the United States. We do not pretend to impose a social revolution on the United States.” For the United States to contend changes must be made to Cuba’s political system while maintaining excellent relations with countries that don’t recognize the rights of women, are governed by a king or are in other ways non-democratic shows the frivolity of U.S. criticisms of Cuba, he said.
In response to a question about U.S. claims for compensation, Alarcon said the Cuban government has never denied the right to compensation of those whose property was expropriated during the revolution. However, the United States has never accepted the Cuban law that legislates this. He said such claims can be negotiated and noted Cubans have much larger claims against the United Sates than do the U.S. owners of expropriated property in Cuba.
Alarcon’s talk was held in the Institute for the Friendship with the Peoples, a non-governmental organization housed in a gracious colonial-style mansion. The 150-strong delegation I was with sat outside on a large veranda listening to Alarcon and the other speakers. After a time, I went inside the building. In the foyer, a dozen photographs showed some happy families. I looked at a photo of two men on either side of an elderly woman, their mother, I assume, kissing her cheek and another of a man with his hand on the belly of his very pregnant wife. It wasn’t until I saw a photo of five middle-aged men standing together dressed informally in T-shirts and sneakers— men who might easily have passed as Americans—that I realized I was looking at photos of the Cuban Five.
The pictures of the men and their families brought home the human cost of the 50-plus years of U.S. hostility to Cuba. Intelligence officers who infiltrated Miami’s exiled Cuban community after a series of terrorist bombings in Havana, which the Cuban government attributed to militant groups within the Cuban-American community in Florida, the Cuban Five were apprehended by the United States in 1998 and sentenced to prison. Their release as part of a prisoner exchange that included American Alan Gross was part of the Dec. 17 rapprochement announced by President Obama. Cuba is celebrating their release with billboards posted around the island showing the five men. This and the new thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations have produced a clear feeling of victory here. “We won,” one Cuban said simply.
Walking the dilapidated streets of Havana looking at the magnificent, crumbling buildings—every third day a building collapses in the city—one might wonder if it was a pyrrhic victory. But that judgment is for the Cuban people to decide, not an outsider. Independence does not have a price. And, clearly, something close to a political miracle has taken place. The liberation of the Cuban Five from prison and their return to their home and families after so many years seem Lazarus-like. President Obama deserves credit for breaking a 50-year-old logjam. But there is only so much he can do as chief executive. Will the U.S. Congress repeal the blockade and terminate its long economic war against Cuba? Many Cuban-Americans will lobby against this, but it seems past time to end a policy that has been cruel, futile and vindictive.