In an exclusive interview in the firehouse studio, Ricardo Alarcon, President of the Cuban National Assembly, talks about the US government’s handling of the hurricane and talks about Cuba’s effective hurricane response system, saying, "Our Entire National Defense, Our Entire Army, And Our Entire Society Is Prepared To Defend Itself, Not To Attack Others, Not To Occupy Foreign Lands."
For the past week, heads of state and other dignitaries from across the world have descended on New York for the United Nations summit marking the 60th anniversary of the convening of the UN General Assembly. Among those who addressed the world body was Cuba’s number 2, the President of the Cuban National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcon.
On Tuesday morning, he visited our firehouse studios for an exclusive, in-depth interview, and the security was tight. Officers from the US Diplomatic Service accompanied Alarcon. They came in ahead of the interview and inspected our offices. During the interview, they stood guard both in the studio and out in front of the firehouse. We spoke with Ricardo Alarcon at a time when Cuba is facing increased hostilities from the Bush administration, which has recently taken moves to escalate its campaign against Cuban president Fidel Castro. Alarcon also joined us as hurricane Rita was moving toward Cuba and the United States. And that is where we began — with hurricanes.
As we have reported on Democracy Now!, Cuba offered to send some 1,500 doctors to the US equipped with Hurricane response backpacks to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. The Bush administration never responded to the offer.
• Ricardo Alarcon, President of the Cuban National Assembly
AMY GOODMAN: I began by asking Ricardo Alarcon how Cuba deals with hurricanes.
RICARDO ALARCON: Well, it’s a matter of prevention, of organization. The community of civil defense. In the final analysis, it has to do a lot with the concept of a society. I don’t want to join what they call here “the blame game.” In a way, it’s difficult to be fair, because what is to be blamed I think, is a system. It’s more than individuals. Somebody might not have been very concerned or very responsible. If you have a society that is based on the idea of human solidarity, you may find 1,586 doctors that volunteer to go to a bad place to help others, they have done that before, some of them many times. If you are educated in — with different values, it’s very difficult to face even a hurricane.
Our entire national defense, our entire army, and our entire society is prepared to defend itself, not to attack others. Not to occupy foreign lands, but to defend our land. From that conception, of course, we have to prepare ourselves seriously, even to a military invasion. That means that every Cuban, every Cuban knows where he or she would be evacuated. Imagine if there is a bombing or if there is an invasion. Of course, also, if there is a hurricane.
My daughter is in Havana, with my grandson. I heard yesterday morning I heard that she was moving to another place. She is not living in a bad neighborhood in a depressed area, but in an area that’s dangerous because it’s close to the waterfront, and then the sea usually enters. They told the neighbors of that area they would know in advance and make their plans. They can go to a friend’s house, they can go to their – and those who cannot will be transported, will be evacuated.
AMY GOODMAN: This has to deal with hurricane Rita right now?
RICARDO ALARCON: Yes, for Rita. And let me tell you this — Rita is going all along Cuban shores, the Northern coast of Cuba. It has happened also before with the very serious hurricanes like Ivan, and Dennis, who did the same, but on the southern shores. In other words, it is not a matter for us now of one city or when — not even of one province, at this moment there are six of the fourteen provinces of Cuba in state of alert.
The same manner that my daughter moves to her place, I saw on Cuban TV two days ago, people in the Ciego de Avila province moving the cattle, cows and bulls and so on, to higher land, just preventing what may happen. But that means practically half of the territory, because this lady, Rita, is moving all along Cuban — between Cuba and the Bahamas, bringing a lot of water, flooding, maybe all along a country that is very narrow. Cuba is not a wide territory as is the U.S. It means that it may be raining in the northern shore and on the southern shore. Flooding in the North and in the South and you add to that the wind, and if it is the actual hurricane, the damage could be terrible.
The only way — the only way to face that is by prevention and with a concept that it is the — first of all, it’s the responsibility of the authorities, of the army, of the organizations, of the — everybody to be prepared. People should be informed. TV, radio, and so on, well in advance. People should be trained, should be prepared to face such circumstances, and everybody should help each other – to consider that as not your problem, that notion of telling people, “You should evacuate, or you must evacuate. Take your S.U.V. and go out and pray.” To us, it’s unconsiderable.
AMY GOODMAN: How would you assess the government’s response to hurricane Katrina here in this country?
RICARDO ALARCON: I am still astonished to see how it was. First of all, it’s a completely different case, and again, I don’t want to join the blame games because I would blame more than the government. I don’t see how in a society, in a capitalist society, especially with the brand of neo-liberal– extreme neo-liberal philosophy that prevails here. It’s understandable that the individualistic approach of people may lead to a situation where it is possible to see– don’t you remember that image that was around the globe while Katrina was in the Gulf heading towards New Orleans, those images that move around the world of long lines of cars getting out of New Orleans, and practically nobody getting into. Those people were leaving by their own, because they choose to leave and they had a car. They had the possibility to go somewhere else. It should be exactly the opposite. There should be a government responsibility at every level beginning from the head of state.
Fidel Castro, when there is a hurricane, you will see him there, even there at the place where the hurricane is attacking let’s say, or he will be on TV explaining to the people, the details, the direction from where the winds are coming so on and so forth, and counseling people to be prepared. But you need — you cannot create a proper evacuation program after the hurricane is affecting you. You have to have that in the society, but for that, you have to change the priorities. You have to change the values in which the society is based. You have to spend resources, money, on that.
When I say, for example, this discussion with the insurance firms — My God, in my country, you may find people complaining because their house has not yet been rebuilt. They assume that they have that right, and that the state, the government, has an obligation. This is a completely different philosophy. Here, if the insurance company doesn’t cover flooding, you’re out. It’s normal in this kind of society. In ours, it’s — but that leads to very sad things. I am trying to figure out how 2,000 children were missed? How is that possible? I even know where my daughter is, I told you, before Rita approached Havana. Fortunately, it appears that it will not touch Cuba, the center of the hurricane — the winds and the water, yes, certainly. But how can 2,000 children disappear? Was that a war? Was this country attacked — attacked by whom? Attacked by nature? Again, I would blame the system.
Why — how do you explain that hurricanes are stronger now? How do you explain that they gain so much strength at this time the year? Now, we are entering now the real hurricane season. I was born there in the tropics. In September, October, and November — how do you explain that in August we have that number of hurricanes and with that strength? Any meteorologist would tell you that the energy of a storm comes from the water temperature. That’s why there are not many hurricanes in the North Pole. It’s here, in this area, the tropics. If the waters are warmer, the hurricane will develop more strongly. Now, when Rita entered the Gulf of Mexico, you will see how it will develop. It will grow to a hurricane one, two, whatever as the temperature of the sea has risen.
Still, were we discussing global warming? It is still necessary to convince some people here in Washington that there is a problem — a real problem for global warming, at least of water warming. They should not have any doubts. It was proven. The temperature of the Gulf of Mexico is several degrees higher than normal and also in the Caribbean. That means more hurricanes and stronger, and more destruction. And as the problem continues to go unresolved, even unaddressed, the global warming issue, you should expect worse seasons of hurricanes in the future.
AMY GOODMAN: Ricardo Alarcon, the President of Cuba’s National Assembly, in an exclusive interview here on Democracy Now!.