Czech transition to democracy inspiration to Cuban opposition, says anti-Castro politician Albio Sires

Albio Sires

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.

Albio Sires
"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 years now."

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 town.

"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 regime?

"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 democracy."

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 their part."

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 the vote."

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 that?

"I'm hoping that in ten, 15 years we're like the Czechs, we're where the Czechs are today."

Would you consider, if that happens, retiring there, or going back? Would that ever cross your mind?

"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."