Cuba's Rising Star: Roberto Robaina

Roberto Robaina is the rising star of a new generation of political leadership in a country where more than half the population is under 30, yet the country's political life is still dominated by the same old guard of sixty-something contemporaries of Fidel and Raul Castro and the late Che Guevara that ousted Fulgencio Batista's corrupt government in 1959. Named to his post two and a half years ago, the 39-year-old foreign minister has become something of a celebrity on the world circuit. "Is he as cute as his pictures?" a friend in Palo Alto demanded to know after she'd heard that I'd interviewed him. "And how tall is he?" In Spain last month to meet with King Juan Carlos and Spanish business and political leaders, Robaina dismissed speculation that he was Fidel's heir apparent, even though Castro, 68, shows no signs of tiring of his job. "It's Raul," Robaina told journalists, echoing the announcement of five years ago that the younger Castro brother, now 63, would succeed the comandante jefe. Nonetheless, young Cubans and Cuba-watchers on the outside hold hope that Robaina at least will be a force for modernizing the country's lagging political and economic development. In his dealings with the rest of the world, the former head of the country's Young Communist League carefully toes the government line and lays much of the blame for Cuba's problems squarely at the United States' doorstep, rejecting calls from outsiders for free elections and free speech guarantees. While making no promises, he suggests in the interview below that easing the country's economic isolation will lead to a freer society. Robaina also downplayed the impact of potential legislation sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) that would punish foreign firms that trade with the Caribbean nation. The interview followed Robaina's Sept. 27 speech to a luncheon sponsored by the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, held at New York City's Rockefeller Center. Wearing a patterned black and white tie and a black peak collar suit with the sleeves pushed up his wrists to expose a gold bracelet but no shirt sleeves, Robaina looked something like a younger, slightly disco version of playwright Luis Valdez. Declaring, "Cuba is open for business," in a booming, self-assured voice, he spoke about his country's improved economic performance, new laws designed to encourage foreign investment and how the United States embargo is hurting American businesses more than it hurts Cuba, which is successfully attracting foreign investment from Canada, Mexico and Europe. The circumstances of our private conversation were a bit unusual. To accommodate both of our schedules, I asked to interview him on his way over to the United Nations. To the surprise of his own security staff, he agreed, and the interview began in a hallway and proceeded as he and his entourage rode 64 floors down a freight elevator. Only when the doors opened onto Rockefeller Plaza did I realize what I had gotten myself into. The street was sealed off and crowds tried to get his attention from behind barricades. We were hustled into a bulletproof limousine surrounded by New York City police and State Department security vehicles. With lights flashing and sirens screaming, the motorcade tore through the streets of Manhattan until we were deposited at the doorstep of the Hungarian mission to the United Nations. He disappeared inside, and I hailed a cab.First off, what's your prediction on the Helms-Burton bill? We do not speak about a bill. The bill is going to the House of Representatives. Cuba knows that the bill still has a way to go. We expect wisdom to prevail either in the Senate or the executive branch. But Cuba is ready for the worst. Even with the bill, the way in which Cuba has decided to take on its own projects cannot be reversed.So you don't think that the law will work? I don't. ... In the first place, I think that it can't work. It will make it more difficult to carry out [the investment programs] that I have described. I think that it inhibits, but the law has great defects in that it interferes with the sovereignty of other countries. I don't think that the international community will accept such conditions. I believe that the U.S. businessmen also have to help, in the sense that with this law, you are not just condemning Cubans, but the rest of the world that continues to invest in Cuba. I also believe that the law goes against the interests of the Americans themselves.And the embargo, to date, has not worked? It has not worked politically as a policy to dominate Cuba. I don't think that the embargo will lead to civilized solutions. We believe that in spite of the blockade, Cuba exists, Cuba lives and Cuba is here! And Cuba has, in spite of the disappearance of the Socialist bloc, experienced a 2 percent growth rate this semester. I also believe that it has deprived the United States of economic investment in its closest neighboring country. It is hard to believe that in the land of the free, Americans cannot invest in Cuba -- or even go there as tourists.Do you think that the embargo is being used by some members of the Cuban government as an excuse for the country's poor economic performance? If it were an excuse, let's see whether the excuse has validity or not. If it were an excuse, we would not be asking for the embargo to be lifted. But let them try. Let them lift it, to prove whether it is or is not one of the most important causes of our problems. I do not think it is the only one. For example, the demise of the socialist bloc is another blockade. Whether it is imposed or not, it is another blockade.Is Cuba committed to further economic reforms beyond that which has been done ... and what type of political reforms are you considering? For example, it is important in a market economy to have a press which is able to comment on the performance of institutions such as government and business. Are you committed to allowing a free press to emerge? First of all, before this press freedom we are talking about, what we need first is the freedom to live. ... We want the press not to attack but to try to work on economic problems. ... Freedom of the press is something we have been seeking. We have also been seeking the freedom to live. This is included in an analysis of what we need to do nowadays. We are not pretending that it is going to be easy. The real circumstances are that things are difficult. But it cannot be imposed from the outside. Cuba keeps on being threatened and attacked by the U.S. My country has to first think how to survive. And luxuries that another country can give, my country cannot give. No progress is excluded from the process which is under way at present. ... Cuba is ready to resume normal relations with the rest of the world, as well as with the United States. But what we cannot tolerate is to be told what to do.So you are not committed to making any guarantees of freedom of expression? We don't have to establish any code of guarantees for anyone. The first commitment we have is to our people, who are at present threatened, and to whom no guarantees have been given ... to live. However, in a civilized relationship, it seems to me that to lift the blockade would be to reestablish relations with the United States not only in an economic way but also in terms of the exchange of ideas and values. That is a risk we are ready to take.Have you read the Amnesty International report that came out in November 1994? Yes, I don't read that much but I am almost up to date with all declarations relative to Amnesty International because they have specialized in manipulating the Cuban issue. It's on a political mission that has nothing to do with Cuban reality.So you dispute the notion that there are 600 political prisoners in Cuba? Yes, of course. It has nothing to do with reality. I think that the concept of political prisoners is a campaign that has been manipulated and orchestrated, and has nothing to do with the things that are taking place in Cuba. Absolutely nothing. Many groups of witnesses have visited us. ... There are three issues that are used in talking about Cuba. One of them is political prisoners. Another one is human rights. And another one is democracy. I frankly think that there are many atrocities being committed in this world in the name of democracy and in the name of human rights.Do you also dispute the part of the report that charges that your country engages in the harassment of political opponents? I don't think that anyone could make the case that we are harassing the opposition when, with those who declare themselves in opposition, we have wonderful relations with them. I can assure you that when a person breaks the law, they will be sentenced for their violation of the law. However, no one persecutes the Cuban who thinks differently. ... And unfortunately there has been a fierce campaign telling the whole world that the Cuban who thinks differently is jailed. I invite you to visit us, walk the streets, talk to the people, see how they think differently and that they are free to do whatever they want.Would you allow visits to these so-called "political prisoners?" I am not the one who allows or disallows visits, but there have been delegations such as France Libertad that have been interested in specific [inmates] who are thought to be political prisoners with whom they met, and who are not 600 in number, and they had meetings with them.Will there be expanded freedoms for the Cuban people at any point? For example, I noticed when I was down there that a Cuban citizen cannot drive a rental car or enter many hotels. What progress is being made toward a freer society, beyond the movement toward greater religious and economic freedoms that have been made recently? Those are things which are the result of the situation of our country. Prior to those so-called freedoms, we need the most important freedom, which is to be owners of our own country ... and have access to markets. ... At the same time that we are seeing political change, the country needs access to markets. ... It is very interesting that people say that the hotels are not for Cubans, but one doesn't say that for 33 years the hotels were run by and for Cubans because we didn't have any foreign tourism. Now, the country needs tourism. Cuban resources are only for the tourist. I am being very honest. It is not very pleasant, it is not funny. And we don't want to be like that, and I don't think it will always be like it is. One day it won't be like that.Are you moving toward a free market economy? As I understand the new law permits foreign ownership, but you still have to apply to the government. So, in a sense, you still have a government-controlled central economy. The first thing for us is that we have to consolidate the results. The future must be thought of as we build the present. We have to grasp privatization. We do not believe in private ownership in all sectors.

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