transition to democracy inspiration to Cuban
opposition, says anti-Castro politician
By Ian Willoughby. Radio
Prague, August 28, 2007.
Albio Sires is a Democratic
Party member of the United States House
of Representatives. Mr Sires represents
New Jersey, though a lot of his time is
devoted to fighting for democracy in the
country where he was born, Cuba. In fact
he is currently in Prague to meet Czech
politicians and NGOs who share his opposition
to the Castro regime. I spoke to Albio Sires
during his visit, and began by asking him
not about the Cuban opposition but his own
early years on the island.
"I came to the US at the age of 11.
I left Cuba in 1962, on January 12, and
I turned 11 on January 26. I basically went
straight to New Jersey after two weeks,
and I've been in New Jersey for about 45
You were in Cuba for the first three years
I guess of the Castro regime - what are
your strongest memories of that time?
"I remember the military collecting
all the books in town, in the schools, and
changing the history books. I remember them
collecting the books and the magazines in
English and burning them in front of the
entrance of the town - I lived in small
"And I remember that a group of kids
of about 15 would teach you how to march,
and they would march you under a tree -
because it's hot in the Caribbean.
"They were other military men there,
oddly enough with a Czechoslovakian machine
gun. They would teach you how to take apart
and put together that Czechoslovakian machine
gun. The reason I remember that it was Czechoslovakian
is because they used to call it in Cuba
a 'Checa', and obviously it came from here."
Why do you campaign against the Castro
"People call it communist - I call
it totalitarian. It's an island prison.
People can't move around, people have no
freedom of expression, dissidents are put
in jail, there is no democracy. It's very
typical of a communist state - something
that you experienced here."
The International Committee for Democracy
in Cuba is based here in Prague. What does
it mean to the opposition in Cuba to have
a group like the ICDC here in the Czech
Republic, a long way from Cuba but campaigning
for democracy there?
"Listen, the Czech Republic has become
an example throughout the world of how you
can transition from communism into a democracy.
You have certainly become an example of
how you can do it peacefully, and how your
economy can thrive and how your country
can thrive under a democracy.
"I think it's only appropriate that
you have that committee here. As a matter
of fact, that's why we're here - we're here
to thank the Czech people."
Are there some groups or some mechanisms
under which Cuban dissidents are currently
learning from Czechs, from their experience?
"Not just the dissidents in Cuba,
I think the rest of the world can learn
from the Czech experience. My God, when
you think that the tanks were rolling in
here 39 years ago and now you look at this
country...As I look around, as I drive around,
I can see the people's faces, I can see
the satisfaction that you have your country
back, that you have a democracy, that you
can express yourself."
I know on this trip to Europe you are also
going to Hungary and Poland. Do you if in
those other post-communist states there's
a similar anti-Castro feeling?
"I think it's anti-totalitarian, anti-communism,
anti anything that is against democracy.
I think those are the feelings. People want
In recent years the EU seems to have softened
a bit in its attitude to Cuba - what's your
attitude to that? Some people might say
that's reasonable, given that many democratic
states and groupings deal with what you
could call dodgy states.
"I worry about that, because you these
countries have investments in Cuba, but
they don't know that they're not helping
Cuba, they're actually hurting the Cuban
people. Because the Cuban people cannot
take advantage of anything that [foreign
investors] do on the island. Just for a
monetary purpose...I think it's wrong on
It's often said that sanctions don't work
against dictatorships, because it's the
people who suffer. People, as you say, don't
benefit [from investments] - on the other
hand it's people who suffer from restrictions
and sanctions. Do you think the United States
embargo should remain in place?
"Look, the embargo is something that
could go away very easily. There are three
things that Cuba can do: release the dissidents,
call for elections and allow freedom of
expression. I don't think those things are
very difficult, in order for the embargo
to go away."
Fidel Castro is still alive but his brother
Raul seems to really be in charge these
days. Recently he said that the standard
wage in Cuba was clearly insufficient, he's
been taking about more foreign investment...Is
there a chance, do you think, that he could
bring about a kind of Chinese-style move
towards not democracy but economic freedom
which could satisfy the people?
"We don't want the China experiment
in Cuba. We want a society that can express
themselves, a society that has the ability
to vote. The China experiment may be good
for China, but you look at that society
and there is no freedom of expression. We
don't want that in Cuba, we want a Cuba
that is free, to have a democracy where
people can choose their leaders through
Looking to the future, how do you see things
going in Cuba, given that Fidel won't be
around much longer?
"I'm hopeful that once he's gone -
because he is the central figure, he's larger
than life in that sense - that Cuba can
start moving towards democracy..."
Do you think in ten, 15 years we will have
"I'm hoping that in ten, 15 years
we're like the Czechs, we're where the Czechs
Would you consider, if that happens, retiring
there, or going back? Would that ever cross
"I'm 56 years old. I've spent a lot
of time in the US... I'd certainly visit,
I have relatives and friends I grew up with
there. We'll have to see. My mission right
now is to do everything possible to make
sure that Cuba becomes a democracy, and
not continue with another 50 years of repression,
like we have had."