President of the Cuban Parliament, Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada, was interviewed last week by Dr. Salim Lamrani, lecturer at Paris Sorbonne Paris IV University and expert on U.S.-Cuba relations, for publication in The Huffington Post. The interviewer and the interviewee produced an absorbing conversation on the state of U.S.-Cuba relations, particularly how the countries can cooperate to move forward—a step that Alarcón claims would benefit both sides of the Florida Straits. He should know. Prior to his position as President of the Parliament, Alarcón spent twelve years in the United States as Cuban ambassador to the United Nations. Throughout the conversation, the two men did not hesitate to discuss some of the touchier topics plaguing U.S.-Cuba relations: including migration, the current administration, normalized relations, and even Alan Gross. Read below for excerpts of the more compelling questions and responses:
Dr. Lamrani: Why are there still restrictions on emigration? Why is it that a Cuban who leaves the country for more than 11 months is considered an emigrant and loses most of the rights reserved to permanent residents?
Alarcón: We are working towards a profound radical reform of emigration that in the months to come will eliminate these kinds of restrictions. As an introduction to this topic, we should recall that emigration has been one of the themes most manipulated by the United States. Since 1959, it has been used as a weapon of destabilization against Cuba and as a means of distorting Cuban reality. I would remind you that the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 is still in force. It stipulates that any Cuban that leaves the country, either legally or illegally, peacefully or violently will be, after one year in the United States, automatically eligible for permanent residency status…At the same time, the United States imposes a limit of 30,000 on the number of Cubans who are allowed to emigrate legally each year. Logic would suggest that the United States diplomatic representation in Havana, because of the Cuban Adjustment Act, would grant a visa to each applicant who applies. But this is not the case.
Dr. Lamrani: For what purpose would you think?
Alarcón: In order to encourage illegal immigration and then to exploit this phenomenon by mounting media campaigns featuring poor Cubans trying to leave their country at all costs. The only country in the world that benefits from a law of adjustment on the part of the United States is Cuba (see footnote 1 below). It is the reason why there is not a single Cuban in an illegal situation on American soil because they have all been regularized.
Mr. Alarcón goes on to detail the ways in which policy has been liberalized in Cuba–measures that the leaders of the United States have for so long urged the Cuban government to take on.
Dr. Lamrani: What are the other reasons that might explain migratory control?
Alarcón: Things have actually changed a great deal. Now, the Cuban community abroad constitutes the second largest group of people who travel to Cuba each year. Nearly a half-million Cubans living overseas visit us annually. The immense majority of Cubans living abroad maintain a normal relationship with their country of origin.
It is now an economic migration and the fundamental interest of those who migrate is to maintain a peaceful relationship with their country of origin. They have family, friends and above all they want stability. This new reality has brought us to consider a substantial reform of our migratory policy. Certain regulations are to be changed and others are to be eliminated entirely.
In reference to the Obama Administration’s policy towards Cuba, Mr. Alarcón was quick to highlight that there has been progress:
Up until this point, the custom for all presidential candidates, when they visited Miami, was to promise ever stronger, ever more robust sanctions against the “Castro regime” in order to satisfy the demands of the “great potentates” who control the anti-Castro industry. Obama, on the other hand, went there to obtain the support of the Cuban emigrants, and he had the good sense to talk about what it was that interested the great majority of Cubans in Florida: the possibility of traveling freely to Cuba.
This point highlights the importance of the liberalization of travel restrictions for Cuban Americans under the current administration. The imposition of strict travel restrictions hurt Cuban families, and Alarcón’s praise suggests that allowing Cuban Americans to travel back to their country of origin satisfies their greatest interest: seeing their families.
When asked about normalizing relations with the United States, Alarcón was very clear: the Cuban Government is more than willing to normalize relations with the United States:
Dr. Lamrani: Is Cuba willing to normalize relations with the United States?
Alarcón: Certainly. But the real question is what do we mean by normalizing relations. If we’re talking about abiding by international law, Cuba is quite willing to normalize relations, but with the stipulation that the United States must recognize us and treat us as an equal from a legal standpoint, as is the case with all other countries of the world…The question is therefore one of respect for sovereignty and independence. Under these conditions, Cuba of course aspires to the normalization of relations with the United States. In fact, this is one of the historic goals of the Cuban nation.
Alarcón clarifies that there is willingness on the Cuban side to normalize the relationship with the United States. However, the biggest obstacle is deciding what “normalization” means for both parties.
While on this side of the Florida straits, it may appear that our Caribbean neighbor has little interest in engaging with the United States, this interview with Mr. Alarcón provides insight into the minimally covered, Cuban perspective. From Mr. Alarcón’s remarks, it’s apparent that, if given the opportunity, Cuba is open and willing to engage in negotiations that would lead to improved relations with the United States. But since no real normalization talks have begun, the Cuban government is making significant changes that our government has been longing to see—economic and migratory reforms, incorporation of the diaspora community, and an opening of religious freedoms. Whether or not our government will seriously tune into these changes is now the weighty question.
(1) This law of adjustment does not directly benefit the country of Cuba, it benefits and incentivizes Cuban émigrés.