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Luis Fernandez, first secretary of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. — Cuba’s quasi-embassy in the United States — is used to the limelight of U.S. media attention. As spokesman for Cuba in the U.S., he was one of the central figures in the Elian Gonzalez affair. Now things have calmed down somewhat. But, given the love-hate relationship between the two unequal neighbors, that’s to be taken with a grain of salt. Among the recent points of conflict: Cuba cut direct phone links with the U.S. in December. That’s the result of a long-standing struggle in which U.S. judges and a recent U.S. law have awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in Cuban funds from telephone operations to the families of the victims of exiled activists who died when Cuban MiGs shot down their plane over international waters. Congress passed a watered down law in November, allowing for U.S. sales of food and medicine to Cuba. But in a setback for the growing number of anti-embargo activists and farmers in the U.S., Cuba declines to buy U.S. food under current conditions. Last but not least, President-elect George W. Bush expressed during the presidential campaign his support for a continued embargo against Cuba. But Fernandez is not concerned about Bush, he says. The future of America’s Cuba politics is now almost entirely in the hands of Congress. The Review‘s Johannes Werner talked with Fernandez in Miami on Dec. 15. Q: In November Cuba raised a tax on U.S. phone calls to Cuba and then, in December, cut the phone lines. Why? A: Cuba’s decision was a calculated act. A U.S. law allowed the relatives of Cuban Americans involved in actions violating Cuba’s sovereignty to use funds that belong to Cuba. This law stimulates a repetition of similar acts. What Cuba is trying to do is recover the lost funds. Q: When will Cuba re-establish direct phone links? A: It will last until there’s a reaction in the U.S. — either the phone companies paying their taxes or another law revoking the previous law. What’s not possible is that you continue passing laws in your country that damage the sovereignty of third countries. We see that the U.S. companies can’t pay, by law. But the U.S. government could allow them to pay. Or the U.S. government could pay the Cuban government directly. In either case, immediately the lines would be up again. Q: Last time Cuba cut phone connections between it and the U.S. in 1999 and early 2000, Cuba turned the “on” switch after the U.S. government intervened in the courts. A: Correct. Judge [James Lawrence] King in Miami had ruled that the families could use the telephone funds, but the U.S. government successfully intervened. Q: A recent law partially lifted the 40-year U.S. embargo. But the Cuban government now says it doesn’t want to buy from U.S. farmers. A: Obviously, there isn’t such a thing as flexibilization or a relaxation of the embargo. There’s, in fact, a setback from the progress that was about to happen with projects such as … the original Nethercutt project, which talked about food and medicine sales without restrictions. The maneuvers of Cuban-American representatives, in close cooperation with Republican leadership, produced a result that was totally distant from the original intent of U.S. farmers. Q: So, no business for U.S. farmers in the near future? A: We have excellent relations with U.S. farmers, and we want to do business with them. We recognize the efforts of agribusiness in the search for an environment that’s good for business. Cuba hasn’t given up that effort. What Cuba says is that the onerous conditions in the agricultural appropriations bill, which enforces restrictions on food sales, are not acceptable. First of all, they want us to pay everything cash on hand. They want advance payment. Nobody does that. According to a new law, U.S. exporters, who want to do business with Cuba, are not allowed to get U.S. bank loans. Even transportation isn’t clear. The Torricelli law prohibits any ship that lands at a Cuban port to touch a U.S. port for six months. That’s a series of discriminatory and humiliating restrictions under which Cuba can’t do business. Q: Cuba is particularly upset about the travel issue … A: A project putting travel restrictions on U.S. citizens into law passed. This restricted even more the possibility to come to an agreement where we could get to an environment in which food and medicine sales could be promoted. Q: What would be the right environment? A: The same conditions that exist for all other countries that do business with the U.S. You can’t humiliate one country when you have relations with Vietnam and with China. Or now with North Korea. Cuba wants a situation where U.S. businesses can sell their products to Cuba and where Cuba can sell its products to the U.S. Trade can’t be one-way. Q: The U.S. embargo against Cuba is etched in law and can only be dismantled step by step. But Cuba seems to have an all-or-nothing attitude. Aren’t you working into the hands of the embargo defenders? A: Cuba recognizes that the Nethercutt amendment and the Dorgan proposal were going in the right direction. That would have been an important step. I’m not saying that we won’t do anything as long as the embargo isn’t entirely lifted. But it would have been much easier if the onerous conditions hadn’t been included in the language. Look, this is not only a mathematical question. Obviously, it’s much cheaper for us to buy in a market that’s only 90 miles north of us. But that comes with a whole set of conditions. There’s a question of principle involved for us. You won’t buy a jacket in a store when the manager says you can only use it from 8 to 9 p.m. Q: Does Cuba need the United States? A: We have access to other markets as well — to Europe. France gives us long-term loans at good interest rates. Who’s losing in this? The Americans. They could do business in an emerging market with a series of particular characteristics unique in Latin America. There’s stability, there’s a highly skilled work force. If you want to bring technology, you won’t need to bring engineers. There are plenty. Businesspeople can have tranquility of mind. OK, there are hurricanes, but then there’s good health care and the streets are safe. Q: One of the obstacles for a normalization are claims by U.S. companies. Three years ago, Italian phone company STET and ITT Corp. negotiated a deal, provisionally settling ITT’s claims against Cuba. Will we see more of that? A: That was a deal between the two companies. The Cuban government doesn’t get into this. I think there are possibilities. Everything was complicated by the Helms-Burton law. Cuba has settled claims with other countries without any problem. The problem is, if this is used as a political tool, things get complicated. Helms-Burton was created for there to be no relations between the U.S. and Cuba. That U.S. law not only affects third countries and the Cuban people, but it includes claims by Cuban citizens (against the Cuban government). This affects the interests of American companies who actually need that treatment. It hasn’t been Cuba that hasn’t wanted some type of settlement. It’s U.S. policies that haven’t permitted U.S. companies to follow their interests. Q: In other words, Cuba wouldn’t resist talks between U.S. investors and other foreign investors? A: This is a very technical question. In the case of the phone company, it was a deal between two companies. It’s very complex. What Cuba has said is that it wants to negotiate. It would take into consideration the value, but also the damage caused by the embargo. There are things to negotiate. Q: There’s a new U.S. president. Castro said he didn’t care about either candidate and went to the beach. A: Indeed, the U.S. president has very little say when it comes to Cuba. The last thing in executive hands was the flexibilization of travel restrictions. But that’s codified in a law now. Basically, all things Cuban must pass through Congress now. All is in law. Nothing’s left. Even if the president vetoes a law, Congress can revert the veto. Q: Congress members have announced another, more successful, run against the embargo in the 2001 session. The Foreign Relations Council is recommending Congress take specific steps to ease the embargo. What do you think about the recommendations? A: I think there are some interesting ideas, specifically the lifting of travel restrictions. A lot of Americans have violated the embargo. If they could all go to Cuba freely, they would buy a lot of U.S. products there. Q: There are a lot of business people in South Florida who would like to trade with Cuba. How do you see South Florida’s potential for Cuba? A: The potential is interesting for Cuba and vice versa. There would be tourism both ways and construction. There are many possibilities. South Florida is a part of the big North American market. It would be very advantageous, not only for Cuba, but for entrepreneurs in South Florida. Q: Many Cuban business people here don’t like Fidel Castro. Would the Cuban government let them do business in Cuba if the embargo were lifted? A: The Cuban-American business people are included in Cuba’s foreign investment law. It’s up to everybody to decide what they want to do or don’t want to do. If somebody doesn’t, they’ll know why. Anybody with an interesting proposal can participate in the Cuban market. Q: When I was in Havana in July, I tried to imagine what it would be like if there weren’t any restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba. I came to the conclusion that this would be an entirely different place. Does the Cuban government really want no-holds-barred relations? A: There are so many U.S. visitors already. Cuba has turned into a cultural center of the [Americas]. There’s the jazz festival; there’s the Biennale of Havana; there’s the Latin American Film Festival. There were Americans everywhere, including Hollywood stars. Q: But beyond Hollywood stars and concert goers, does the Cuban government want millions of U.S. tourists and thousands of business people to stream to the island? A: The defenders of the embargo usually claim that it’s the Cuban government that’s setting restrictions. But that’s not true. Cuba wants normal relations with the U.S. because it thinks it will be good for the country and its people. Q: Let’s put it in other words. During the first half of the century, Cuba was on the fringe of becoming another Puerto Rico. Wouldn’t that possibility come back with no-restrictions relations with the U.S.? A: We fought very much for our independence. Cuba is a civilized country with its own culture that doesn’t fear anything. We wouldn’t have let in 1.7 million tourists if we had fear. Q: Could Havana challenge Miami’s position as Latin America’s leading trading place in the future? A: That would be a great honor. Convert it into Latin America’s Switzerland, right? There are many possibilities. Cuba has been well integrated into Caribbean tourism, not as a competitor but as a complement. Cuba has shown it can be efficient. The exchange with foreign companies has helped a lot in Cuba’s take-off in tourism.

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