Home > Archives > 06 - 2003 > «We are a democracy under siege»
from issue no. 06 - 2003

DEBATE. An interview with the Cuban ambassador to the Holy See

«We are a democracy under siege»

Isidro Gómez Santos defends the action of the Cuban government strongly criticized by the international community because of the recent death sentences

by Gianni Cardinale

Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro

In Cuba on 11 April, after a summary trial, three death sentences were carried out on the three leaders of the attempted hijacking of a ferry nine days earlier. Again in Cuba, at the end of March, seventy-eight dissidents were tried and convicted of being engaged, with the help of the United States, in anti-Cuban activities. The sentences were harshly stigmatized by a good part of the international community, including the European Union. The Cuban bishops made themselves heard on the question with a note printed in L’Osservatore romano of 16 April in which they stressed their «firm condemnation of the death sentence» and expressed «concern» for «the repeated episodes of violence in our country» and for the sentences «imposed on many political opponents». On 13 April, then, the Cardinal Secretary of State Angelo Sodano wrote a letter to Fidel Castro in which he expressed the profound regret of John Paul II for the death sentences and the «deep pain» of the Pope for the «punishments inflicted on many Cuban citizens», asking the líder maximo for a «significant gesture of clemency for the convicted». The letter was made known by the Vatican on 26 April and printed with much emphasis by L’Osservatore romano.
To find out more 30Days has interviewed Ambassador Isidro Gómez Santos, Havana representative to the Holy See since December 1999. Before his present posting the 65 year-old Cuban diplomat was First Secretary of the Embassy to the Holy See (1972-74) and Embassy Councilor to the Presidency of the Italian Republic (1987-90). From 1975 to 1987 and from 1991 to 1999 he worked as an official in the Office for Religious Affairs of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party.

Mr. Ambassador, how do you justify the three death sentences carried out in your country in early April?
ISIDRO GÓMEZ SANTOS: They were carried out on three terrorists, three pirates, all with serious criminal records, who hijacked a boat with innocent persons aboard, threatening women and children with guns and knives. It should also be added that before this particular hijacking, there have been seven hijackings of Cuban planes and boats over the last seven months. Practically one a month. Obviously this is planned provocation meant to provide justification for an attack on Cuba by the United States.
Doesn’t that seem exaggerated?
GÓMEZ SANTOS: I don’t think so. Meanwhile it’s as well to remember that already in the past United States governments have attacked Cuba, and then that the current US administration has already invaded and occupied Iraq, in the face of public opinion worldwide and with total disregard for the UN. But there are also other elements. Since September 1994 there has been a migration agreement between Cuba and the United States according to which Washington should grant at least, I repeat, at least, 20,000 visas each year to Cubans who want to emigrate legally to the US. Well, in the last seven months, only seven hundred visas have been granted! The obvious intention is to create a situation of instability and then accuse the Cuban government of encouraging illegal mass immigration. Furthermore, what treatment does the US government reserve for hijackers and pirates? Does it put them in jail? Does it send them back to Cuba? Absolutely not, it leaves them in total freedom under a modest bond paid for by counter-revolutionary organizations in Florida, the same ones that stir up and organize illegal immigration. Then on 26 April last, Kevin Whitaker, head of the Cuba Office at the State Department informed the head of our Section of interest in Washington that the Office for Internal Security, part of the National Security Council, considers the continual hijacking in Cuba a serious threat to the national security of the United States and asked that the Cuban government take the necessary measures.
Let’s get back to the executions. Wasn’t there a moratorium?
GÓMEZ SANTOS: In effect there was a unilateral moratorium on our part. But we have been forced to take a painful decision that nobody likes. Unfortunately we are under siege. We are, as the great Catholic and revolutionary intellectual Cintio Vitier says, a democracy in a trench. Forty-eight years of aggression, of economic boycott, and now all this obvious preparation to justify an attack. Our freedom, our independence, are at stake and the extraordinary advances, social and human, that our people have made, despite the lasting hostility, by their sacrifices throughout these years.
The death sentences provoked negative comments even from such friends of Cuba as Nobel prize winner José Saramago. Did you not foresee reactions of that kind when making such a momentous decision?
GÓMEZ SANTOS: We knew that there would be difficulty in Europe in understanding our decision. But, I repeat, we had no other choice. The media, however, hasn’t found space for the thousands of intellectuals and artists, included Americans, who have signed a letter of support in favor of the revolution. Among them Pérez Esquivel, Rigoberta Menchú, Nadine Gordimer, all Nobel prize winners; the great architect Oscar Niemeyer, designer of Brasilia, and then Danny Glover, Harry Belafonte, Eduardo Galeano. Saramago, however, has stressed his continuing wish to be a friend to Cuba. Whereas García Márquez’s comments have been manipulated to look anti-Cuban. I’d then like to remind you that in the United States, Texas at the top of the list, a good number of death sentences are carried out, not excluding women, and they wait until minors who have been condemned to death reach voting age (that’s never happened in Cuba). Without any of this provoking reactions of the sort that occurred for our three executions.
In Italy there have been words of condemnation from left-wing figures and parties traditionally close to your government...
SANTOS GÓMEZ: Perhaps in Italy, and also in other countries, these stances reflect the wish of those who’ll say anything to get themselves forgiven for criticizing the government of the United States for the unjust attack on Iraq.
Does Cuba feel more isolated in the international sphere after the sentences?
GÓMEZ SANTOS: Not a great deal. Our enemies didn’t manage to obtain condemnation from the Organization of the American States, a body of which, among other things, we are not even members. Recently then we have again been elected, by acclamation, as members of the UU Commission for Human Rights, while the United States has become a member again only because Spain and Italy renounced their right to a seat (in secret voting, in fact, the United States were turned down).
Do you think that there’ll be more death sentences in Cuba in the future?
GÓMEZ SANTOS: It’s difficult to know whether we’ll be forced into it. Much, almost everything to be exact, depends of the US government, on its attitude. Mr. Whitaker’s words are very significant. I can assure you that sentences will always be few, exceptional, when we unfortunately have no other choice than carry them out for our own defense. In Cuba everybody wants to see the day we can abolish this punishment definitely, as our president declared in his 1 May speech.
Let’s move on to the wave of arrests and sentences involving sixty-eight dissidents, sentences going from 6 to 28 years jail. There has been much negative reaction to that as well.
GÓMEZ SANTOS: The sentences fit crimes set down in our penal code. And they were handed out at twenty-nine public trials, in which almost three thousand people took part. The trials had all the guarantees provided for by our system. The judges established that the accused were collaborators paid by the US government, that openly allots funds for the creation of instability in our country.
Many of those arrested worked for the Varela project, a movement that has collected more than eleven thousand signature in favor of establishing a referendum in the country…
GÓMEZ SANTOS: It’s difficult to make out who really belonged to the Varela project. It looks as if these “opponents” belong simultaneously to various micro groups and declare themselves as belonging to one or another lot according to their convenience and often not in very coherent fashion. The fact remains that the Varela project is part of the strategy of subversion against Cuba. It’s a project conceived, financed and directed from abroad, with the active participation of the US Bureau in Havana.
The media have remarked that Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, the leader of the Varela project, awarded the Sacharov prize by the European Parliament in December, and who greeted the Pope at the end of the general audience on Wednesday, 8 January last, has been “spared” from these trials.
GÓMEZ SANTOS: It’s public knowledge that Senor Payá, after visiting Strasbourg and a few days before coming to Rome, was received in Washington by no one less than Secretary of State Colin Powell. This special treatment is very significant, compared to the usual selective and elitist attitude of the US executive. Just think that they sent a simple Under Secretary, and one not even from the Secretariat of State, to the inauguration of the new president of Argentina. Perhaps for the US Payá is more important than Kirchner…
How was the letter from Cardinal Sodano to Castro judged?
GÓMEZ SANTOS: I believe it was a respectful letter, in which the Holy See expressed, as it usually does in cases of the kind, a humanitarian attitude.
Will there be an answer from Castro to Sodano’s letter?
GÓMEZ SANTOS: For the moment, the President declared in his already mentioned 1 May speech: «For His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, I feel a sincere and deep respect. I understand and admire his noble fight for life and for peace. Nobody opposed the war against Iraq so tenaciously. I am absolutely sure that he would never have advised the Shiites and the Sunnites to let themselves be killed without defending themselves, and nor would he advise anything of the kind to the Cubans. He knows perfectly that this is not a problem among Cubans. It is about a problem between the people of Cuba and the government of the United States».
On 29 April the Fides Agency of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples published a vitriolic editorial over the initials of Luca de Mata, its editor, that ended: «The closed fist of Fidel, full of the flies of the rhetorical populism whose buzz has filled the gulags with corpses, continues to come down on harmless people». On 19 May, in the course of his introduction to the general meeting of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Camillo Ruini described as «alarming» the «very harsh repression» taking place in Cuba. Have you noticed greater coolness from leaders of the Catholic Church towards Cuba?
GÓMEZ SANTOS: I don’t think so. The Fides editorial is a comment on itself. I believe what Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Secretary of State himself, stated on 30 April is very significant. Among other things he said that John Paul II does not regret his trust in Fidel Castro. It was a positive and timely declaration. I consider it representative of existing relationships between the Holy See and Cuba.

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português