By Madeline Baro Diaz | Sun Sentinel
Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba’s National Assembly, will be the guest speaker at the kickoff for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ convention this month in Fort Lauderdale, organizers said Thursday.
Alarcon, a controversial figure for South Florida’s predominantly anti-Castro, Cuban-American community, will appear via satellite from Havana during the convention’s opening session on June 14 to take questions from journalists. Cuban-born Mirta Ojito, a New York Times contributor and Columbia University journalism professor, will interview him, and audience members will submit written questions.
“In South Florida, anything that has to do with Cuba is going to be controversial, and we know that,” said NAHJ Executive Director Iv�n Rom�n. “As journalists, we don’t shy away from controversy or controversial figures.”
More than 2,000 journalists from the United States and abroad are expected to attend the 24th annual convention, which will be June 14-17 at the Broward County Convention Center. Former Vice President Al Gore, Mexican President Vicente Fox, and U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., have been guest speakers at past conventions. President Bush also attended when he was governor of Texas.
A panel about immigration reform will feature Emilio Gonzalez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, and CNN television personality Lou Dobbs.
The conversation format of the Alarc�n session has been used in past conventions with other notable figures, Romon said.
In Havana, Alarcon adviser Miguel Alvarez said Thursday that officials have not determined what Alarcon would discuss at the conference. He downplayed the significance of a discussion with journalists in the United States. “We don’t have any agenda,” Alvarez said.
Alarcon, one of the most powerful men in Cuba’s communist government, has occasionally given interviews to the U.S. news media. In 2003, on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, he said that Cuban-Americans in Miami and Gov. Jeb Bush were pushing for a U.S. invasion of Cuba.
The decision to invite Alarcon was expected to draw criticism from some in South Florida’s Cuban-American community, but Cuban American National Foundation Executive Director Alfredo Mesa said he welcomed Alarc�n’s participation.
Mesa said he wished Alarcon would attend in person to experience firsthand what it was like to have his views challenged. Mesa said journalists should ask Alarcon questions about the Cuban government’s restrictions on free speech and a free press, and its jailing of journalists.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to ask Ricardo Alarcon why he participates in a forum where everyone else has to play by the rules of free speech and freedom of the press and once the forum is over his government is unwilling to offer the people of Cuba that same opportunity,” he said.
Cuban activist Ninoska Perez Castellan said she hopes journalists challenge Alarc�n when he gives untruthful answers.
“I hope the journalists there have the integrity to ask him the questions that need to be asked,” she said. “Every time we see Alarcon interviewed ... he gives a ridiculous answer and they just sit there and take it.”
Romon said NAHJ is not taking a position on any Cuban issues by inviting Alarc�n. He said the interview format means the journalists will be directing the session to a large degree.
NAHJ was founded in 1984 to encourage Hispanic journalists to pursue opportunities in the news media and to foster fair coverage of Hispanic communities. It is one of four minority journalism associations in the United States. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is among the convention’s major sponsors.
Staff Writer Ian Katz contributed to this report from Havana.