Indiana State University Newsroom

Students hear view from Cuba

February 6, 2012

Carlos Alzugaray, who spent 40 years representing the Cuban government around the world, wishes NBC newsman Brian Williams had asked a different question during the recent Republican presidential debate in Jacksonville, Fla.

Williams asked the GOP hopefuls what they would do if they received a 3 a.m. phone call telling them that Fidel Castro had died and half a million Cubans were making their way to the United States aboard rickety boats.

Among the major candidates, only Ron Paul's response drew applause. Paul said he would immediately work to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba and resume trade with the island nation, ending a U.S. embargo that has existed for more than 60 years.

Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum each vowed to continue the hard line against Cuba that has been in place with only slight, temporary let ups since 1961.

During a visit to Indiana State University last week (Jan. 29-31), Alzugaray suggested what he called "a more realistic question" about what the men would do if told Cuba had made a major oil and gas discovery and was offering to sell petroleum to the United States at a good price.

"That is actually a more likely scenario. The day Fidel Castro passes away, most Cubans will be very sad and we will have a funeral ... but it will not create a major problem."

Alzugaray - a professor at the University of Havana's Center for Hemispheric and United States Studies and a former Cuban Foreign Ministry official - provided students a rare opportunity to hear the Cuban perspective of an international dispute that has persisted through 10 U.S. presidential administrations. He visited political science, history and Spanish classes and met with faculty, who are interested in exploring opportunities for educational exchanges, and delivered a public lecture at Cunningham Memorial Library.

He began the lecture by noting the U.S. and Israel are the only countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Cuba and the U.S. and Cuba share a maritime border. It is within territorial waters that extend to within 45 miles of Key West, Fla., that Cuba will soon be drilling for oil, he noted, thanks to a platform constructed in Singapore because of U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba.

He called the current relationship between the two counties a relic of the Cold War and while it is not normal, he said neither was the relationship that existed prior to Castro coming to power in 1959.

"The U.S. exercised most of the hegemonic power over Cuba and it was very difficult for Cuba to think about anything without taking into account what would be the reaction of the United States," he said. "One of the last ambassadors of the United States in Cuba, Earl Smith, declared in Congress that the U.S. ambassador was, if not the most important, at least the second most important person in Cuba."

While acknowledging the American stance toward Cuba has softened somewhat under President Obama, as it did under previous Democratic presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, Alzugaray dismissed Obama's call for "a new beginning" in the relationship as "the same rhetoric."

It is disingenuous, he said, for the U.S. to cite democracy and human rights as the excuse not to talk to Cuba while it continues to maintain normal relations with nations that are "family monarchies" or otherwise have no aspect of democracy, he said.

While the U.S. State Department has placed Cuba on a list of countries which sponsor terrorism, there is no justification for such action, Alzugaray said.

"Terrorism is the elephant in the room," he said. "There is not a shred of evidence, even in the publication of the State Department. Nothing there requires that Cuba be on the terrorist list."

Alzugaray said Cuba suffered the world's first terrorism attack against a passenger plane with the bombing of a Cubana Airlines flight in Barbados in 1976. The admitted mastermind in the attack continues to live in Miami, he said.

Following an attack on Cuban soil in 1996 and an attempt on Castro's life in Panama in 1999, Cuba sent men to infiltrate terrorist networks based in the U.S., leading to the arrest by American authorities of the so-called "Cuban Five," one of whom is housed in the Terre
Haute Federal Prison, Alzugaray said.

He said the Cuban government has suggested a humanitarian prisoner exchange - the release of the "Cuban Five" in exchange for the release of American social worker Alan Gross, who was arrested in 2009 for seeking to bring satellite phones and computer equipment to members of Cuba's Jewish community without the required permits.

"The issues of terrorism and security require, from both sides, extraordinary steps of cooperation and confidence building," he added. "The distrust between both sides is too much."

Still, there are areas of cooperation, including the status of the Guantanamo naval base and on drug trafficking and immigration, with an agreement in force since 1995, he said.

Alzugaray said the main obstacles to normal relations between the U.S. and Cuba are the "dense mesh" of regulations that tie the hands of U.S. administrations and the impact of domestic politics, which opens the way for, what he termed, a small minority that opposes change to stop change.

"There is a process of gradual change in Cuba," he said, and that change will continue regardless of U.S. reaction.

That change, he said, includes the de-centralization of government and "more pragmatism in economic policy" with private ownership of property.

Aurora Dreyling, a senior political science major from Danville, called the veteran diplomat's presentation "a rare and interesting perspective into the mind of someone from a different culture and on the opposite side of the Cuban-American relations."

Dreyling said she was surprised at how openly critical Alzugaray was of American policy regarding Cuba, but it is criticism that needs to be heard.

"Too often we get caught up in American exceptionalism and assume that our view of the world is better or more correct than anyone else's," she said. "One point I found particularly intriguing as a political scientist was his response to a question regarding the idea of personal property in Cuba. The idea of collectively owned services is quite foreign to the American viewpoint, and yet he didn't advocate for complete social ownership of property."

Angel Vega, a junior political science major from Portage, called the visit eye-opening.

"So often in my classes we've heard the American side of it without hearing the other party's side," he said. "We're going to have to open up relations with Cuba. It's not as if they're half a hemisphere away from us; they're at our back door. It would be good to see better relations with them."

Michael Erisman, professor emeritus of political science at Indiana State who has made about 20 trips to Cuba and has known Alzugaray for about 20 years, said he hopes the visit will have a lasting impact on other students as well.

"Carlos knows how to talk to Americans. He did not deal with a lot of ideology. That's not how you talk to Americans," Erisman said. "You present it in terms of facts and fairness. Obviously, not everyone will agree with everything Carlos said, but he presents it more in the sense of what is the basic fairness in terms of the relations between two countries and has this relationship been fair and, if not, why not?"

Photo: - Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat who is now a professor at the University of Havana, spoke at Indiana State University Jan. 31, 2012 about U.S.-Cuban relations. (ISU/Rachel Keyes)

Photo: - Students listen and take notes on Jan. 31, 2012 as Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat who now teaches at the University of Havana, spoke during a three-day visit to the campus of Indiana State University. (ISU/Rachel Keyes)

Contact: H. Michael Erisman, professor emeritus, political science, Indiana State University, 812-237-2429 or

Writer: Dave Taylor, media relations director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3743 or