ANITA SNOW | Associated Press
HAVANA - Cuban parliament speaker Ricardo Alarcon defended last year’s crackdown on 75 activists, telling a group of American newspaper editors Monday that internal security outweighs international image.
“I think you should take into account the problem of image,” Alarcon told the board of directors for The Associated Press Managing Editors. But, he added, “No nation can base its conduct relating to fundamental national security based on how the media might reflect what you do.”
Alarcon’s comments came during a two-hour meeting with the APME board of directors, which represents 1,700 newspapers in the United States and Canada. The board arrived here Sunday for a two-day stay after visiting Mexico, where they met with President Vicente Fox.
Earlier Monday, the group had separate private briefings with Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and James Cason, chief of the U.S. Interests Section - the American mission here. They also met with several dissidents during their visit, which was ending early Tuesday.
Alarcon, president of Cuba’s National Assembly, repeated his government’s charge that the 75 dissidents were mercenaries working for the U.S. government to subvert the island’s socialist system. Both the activists and Washington deny those allegations.
“Are you just supposed to cross your arms and let a big power plot against you?” Alarcon asked. “We have to defend ourselves, we have to protect ourselves.”
Governments and rights groups condemned Cuba a year ago this month when the activists were sentenced to terms of six to 28 years. They all remain behind bars.
Debate over the issue has been renewed with last month’s anniversary of the arrests and a proposed vote on Cuba’s rights record by the U.N. Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva.
Honduras announced last week it would sponsor the resolution, to be taken up by the United Nations body in mid-April.
Fielding questions from the APME board, Alarcon also expressed dismay about U.S. officials’ decision to cancel regular migration talks scheduled for Havana in January. He said it was another sign the two countries were headed toward confrontation.
“I don’t have any hope the talks will resume,” Alarcon said of the meetings, the highest level contact between the two countries that haven’t had diplomatic relations for more than four decades.
Held every six months, the meetings were established to monitor 1994 and 1995 accords designed to promote legal, orderly migration between the two countries - and prevent a mass exodus as in 1994 when tens of thousands of Cubans took to the sea in flimsy homemade rafts and other vessels for Florida.
The United States said it suspended the talks because of Cuba’s repeated refusal to discuss key issues, while Cuba blamed the suspension on U.S. presidential election politics.
“Clearly it is a concession to those (Cuban exiles) in Miami who have been pushing for the elimination of the migration agreements,” Alarcon said. “It’s very serious because it is connected with the plans of those who support attacking Cuba.”
He said that a mass migration of Cubans could be used as a pretext for a U.S. military strike.
Alarcon and other senior Cuban officials have increasingly charged over the past year that some exile groups have been lobbying the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush to launch an attack on Cuba.
American officials have repeatedly denied there are any such plans.