My Late Night Visit With Ricardo Alarcon, Fidel Loyalist
Ricardo Alarcon’s death on April 30, 2022, at age 84, brought back memories of my first visit to Cuba in the winter of 2000. The world was different. It was before 9/11 and before Covid just to name a couple later news milestones that altered our lives.
At the time we heard so much about the politics of Cuba: the embargo, Elian Gonzalez, accused spy Jose Imperatorie and, of course, Fidel. We had fantasies about the forbidden island just 90 miles off the southern tip of Florida that seemed worlds away. We thought of salsa and sounds of jazz, watched images drawn from the tales of refugee ballplayers, Buena Vista Social Club, snapshots of vintage cars and even “I Love Lucy.” Banned from visiting for 40 years, we knew little about the Cuban people. Today, that’s changed and continues to do so.
One year after the Pope’s historical Cuban visit, President Clinton announced new measures geared toward helping Cuban people prepare for the future. This included People-to-People exchanges among athletes, journalists, scientists, doctors, religious groups, academics, artists and students.
At the time Alarcon, a confident of Fidel Castro and point man for Cuban-U.S. relations was President of the National Assembly, a position he held for 20 years until 2013. In many ways it was similar to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s powerful role in the Congress. Just as she is third in line to the Presidency, at the time he hoped —and popular opinion swayed in the direction that he was the likely successor to Castro, that is if he could get past one roadblock— Raoul, Fidel’s younger brother. As history now shows, he did not and Raoul assumed power as his brother’s successor in 2006.
While I was on the island, the Elian Gonzalez custody case made headlines. He was the the 6-year-old Cuban boy who became a pawn in U.S.-Cuban relations. I was the first to interview Elian’s father at his home in Cardenas and at the restaurant where he worked in the kitchen for a meager $8 a month salary. I also was the first to interview Elian’s maternal grandfather— whose daughter lost her life while seeking a new life in America with her son, Elian. I visited him at his upstairs bare shelved pharmacy. That was before the government assigned “public relations” gatekeepers. I conversed with locals on the streets in the small town that banned cars. I sniffed around and knocked on doors using my limited Spanish to take notes phonetically and later translate. I took pictures with a throwaway Kodak camera. I went to Elian’s school and gingerly tapped on the door of a gaudy pink house across the street. After promising the madam I’d send over all the American men I knew and gifting her with perfume samples she invited me in and shared her stories.
But back in Havana I found myself sandwiched among flag-waving Castro supporters in front of the American Interest Section demonstrating for six-year-old Elian’s return to the Communist country. But those weren’t my only adventures on that trip.
I was sleeping soundly one night at the legendary Hotel National in Havana—the same hotel where a half dozen years ago several American and Canadian diplomats contracted a mysterious neurological illness—when I was awakened by a loud banging on the door. A couple male government officials ordered me to dress immediately. to interview a high level Cuban official. My intense curiosity far surpassed any fear. thoughts of being kidnapped and held hostage fleeting ran through my head. I knew from my good friend, and my late colleague, columnist GiGi Geyer, that Castro liked to schedule spur of the moment interviews with attractive female journalists including Geyer and Barbara Walters in the very late/early morning hours. I hoped and wondered whether my interview request was being granted. After hurriedly throwing on clothes, the men led me to a van, and while blind-folded, took me on a tense bumpy ride over rough terrain to what apparently was “a protocol house” or “safe house” somewhere outside Havana. Directed to take a seat at a conference table in an otherwise bare room and offered a cup of strong Cuban coffee, I anxiously waited while trying to block my fleeting thought that I was being poisoned by java.
Finally a pleasant looking but overweight man was escorted in and sat across the table from me. He was wearing a typical white guayabera, his beer belly hanging out over the edge of the lowish table. To my surprise, the man was introduced as Ricardo Alarcon. Although disappointed that I didn’t make Castro’s favorite female reporter list. He was articulate and charming. We talked for what seemed like hours while he puffed on a cigar and sipped coffee.
We discussed their upcoming mid-term elections. There the Members of the General Assembly continue their regular work—”they are not professional parlimentarians.” Alarcon was the exception since he was thought to be Castro’s successor. When asked about his future, the savvy political leader quipped, “I’m younger but Fidel is healthier.”
The conversation moved to tourism. “There’s one Havana for tourists with dollars and one for Cubans with pesos.” But more tourists had access to dollars because of the expansion of tourism in the Clinton administration. “We work toward the elimination of the double circulation of money,” says Alarcon. “We work toward just one currency—the peso.”
“I know people in the U.S who would like to have a different Cuba and I can say the same for Cubans who would like to have a different U.S.,” said Alarcon, who added: “There is absolutely nothing Cuba should do to have normal relations with the U.S.” “We are prepared to have normalization of relations with the U.S. only with full equality of rights on both sides.”
We spent much of the time discussing Elian, “Those who rescued the little boy were not kidnappers,” Alarcon insisted. “They saved him.” He compared the situation to a father taking his son from Florida across the state border to Georgia.
At the suggestion that both Elian and the embargo are being used as “red herrings,” he said: “The business community is in favor of change. . . We are prepared to have normalization of relations with the U.S. only with full equality of rights on both sides. . . My greatest expectation is to reach that moment when we don’t have that embargo. I don’t say everything here is perfect but when you remove the embargo factor it would be easier to see our own problems. I have proposed to lift the embargo for one year and take away our excuse and see what happens.”
And finally, on Fidel Castro: “Fidel has some authority but he cannot push a button and we have a nuclear war. That is a problem for you—for Americans.”
Before leaving, his aides asked if I’d like to use the rest room. I accepted the invitation hoping for a few minute reprieve to jot down some quick notes. After being led to a hole in the floor with a flimsy curtain around it, I opted to wait until we returned to the hotel to relieve myself.
That was a night to remember with Alarcon.
Footnote to history: My radio broadcast back to the States the next day was jammed.