In the early morning hours of April 30, the usual quiet of NW 16th Street in Washington DC, home to several embassies and just two miles from the White House, was interrupted by a shooting. The attack was directed at the headquarters of the Cuban embassy in the United States.
The incident lasted a few minutes, the now detained Alexander Alazo shot 32 times with an AK-47 semi-automatic rifle and a few minutes later he was arrested by officers of the Metropolitan Police Department without offering resistance. Cuban Ambassador José Ramón Cabañas gave OnCuba an interview on the subject.
Ambassador, are there usually police posts guarding the Cuban embassy in Washington?
No. In this case, the Metropolitan Police Department evaluates the need for the presence of one or more police vehicles in embassy areas, which are not there all the time. It depends on what they call “threat appreciation,” they determine it for each embassy. So far, they have determined that a presence of one of their vehicles, or officers, is not required permanently. It’s not similar to what happens in Havana, where there is protection for the American embassy all the time.
Some reports indicate that there were around ten people at the embassy at the time, is this usually the case? What security measures did you take?
In this place we have the embassy building and an adjoining house that is within the same property. People linked to security, and other workers with administrative tasks remain here. This is an amount that fluctuates depending on whether we have more or less visiting personnel. At that time that was the amount. We permanently have security officials inside the embassy. That is, we have eyes and ears at night, and during the day too. Those on guard were the first to notice what was happening. It was a very serious event, but it lasted a relatively short time, barely four or five minutes. It was the time they had to get an idea of what was happening, whether it was an isolated event or not, whether it was outside or within the perimeter. Whenever it is an incident outside the perimeter, it is up to the local authorities to act and warn the people they have to warn at that time, and internally alert those they have to alert.
What is the protocol? Should you notify the FBI, the White House, the State Department?
Yes. In other words, with a serious incident like this one, which involves shooting that is registered by a system that the Metropolitan Police have installed in the city, they have a way of becoming aware on their own and don’t need an alert. In other situations, which have been incidents with other characteristics, it has required that we call the secret service, who are the first ones to approach. Depending on the situations, the Secret Service or the Metropolitan Police are in charge. In this case, we alerted the State Department and the Diplomatic Security Service, although they also notify each other, through their own channels. A communication protocol with our superiors in Havana, with the Ministry of Foreign Relations, also comes into play.
Why do you think the State Department has not made a statement on these incidents?
I couldn’t answer the question on behalf of the State Department. What I can say is that it is not common in international practice. That an event of this magnitude happens and there is no immediate, or almost immediate, communication from the ministry or the department that deals with foreign relations, with the diplomatic community residing in its capital, is unusual. This is a practice, assistance is immediately offered, concern is immediately shown. That is beyond political creed, or beliefs of another kind, and is done based on the embassy that has received the attack in this case, and out of concern for the rest of the diplomatic missions. Those familiar with our location on 16th Street know that three embassies are located next to each other. In other words, we are right between the Polish and Lithuanian embassies, we have the Mexican Cultural Center and the Spanish Cultural Center almost in front of us, and on the same street, relatively close, there are other missions and other ambassadorial residences. We are just two miles from the White House, and surrounded by residential apartment buildings, where families live. There are more than enough reasons, starting with the fact that it is an exceptional incident, for there to have been a statement that, until the moment you and I are talking, has not been officially made by the State Department.
Has it not occurred with Havana either?
No, our minister, a few hours after the incident, summoned the charge d’affaires of the USA in Havana, asking for explanations, speaking of the gravity of the incident, rejecting this situation; but there hasn’t been an official response on the incident, direct to Cuba or a public statement by the State Department.
The report presented by the prosecution to the judges in the case against Alexander Alazo, accused of these events, is public. Do you consider that it is complete or is something missing from the report that was presented?
My answer, for the benefit of the people who take immediate action, that is, of the human beings, of the officers, of the Metropolitan Police, and of the Secret Service who went to the scene, is to say that when taking those impressions, and writing these documents, there are always inaccuracies, because it is the result of the first thing that is seen, the first thing that is heard and the first thing that is recorded. There are inaccuracies, which I repeat are logical. One as simple as, for example, that it is said that when they arrived they saw this individual carrying a Cuban flag; the individual was covered with an American flag, which is clearly seen in the video we handed them. And there are other inaccuracies, I think it would not be my function to start saying what we saw differently, or what happened differently. What we do insist on is that the way to eliminate these inaccuracies is precisely by talking. That our specialists sit down with their specialists and be able to reach a common vision. We provide the cooperation and information that we have from the beginning, I’m talking about a video that was handed over to the U.S. authorities; I think the video even appears as part of the documents that have been registered with the court. They also had physical access to the garden, to the lobby. To speak of inaccuracies, I would prefer that it be based on an official dialogue between both governments’ agencies that are in charge of these issues.
After that day, has there been no other communication with the Metropolitan Police or with someone from the government?
No, the expert work ended at noon, precisely at noon on the 30th. That is, since the incident occurred at 2 in the morning, we are talking about practically ten hours of intense work by these officers. They worked outside the embassy’s perimeter, around and in the embassy lobby, seeking all possible evidence. After that, what information we’ve had has been from leaks in the press or from public documents, but in none of the cases has the information been officially addressed to us.
In an event of this type, can the Cuban state be a plaintiff or only the United States district attorney’s office?
In cases of this type, or even common crimes, when there has been an intention to investigate, both governments cooperate in the investigation. The state where the incidents haven’t occurred doesn’t participate as a party, but providing information about the process, appointing investigators, etc. In the United States, to be part of a trial, as a condition you would have to waive diplomatic immunity, something that we in practice don’t do. Our minister reported since his first press conference that we are most willing to cooperate with U.S. agencies, as has been the case in countless previous cases. I must recall that even we have signed the memorandum of understanding on law enforcement, which provides for any of these cases, from terrorism to other types of crimes. The U.S. agencies have enough accumulated experience of cooperation with Cuban institutions and we simply don’t understand why these mechanisms have not been used to cooperate in this case.
Is it the first time that the Cuban embassy, formerly the Interests Section, has suffered an attack of this type? How did they proceed at other times?
Perhaps of this magnitude it had not occurred before. The event that could be classified as similar occurred a few years ago, in the late 1970s or early 1980s, when an explosive-incendiary object was thrown at one of the facades. It affected part of the embassy, when one of the neighboring buildings was empty, which is not the case today. There have been other types of actions on the perimeter of the embassy that are linked to other types of crimes, but nothing similar to this in recent years. The Cuban mission to the UN in New York, however, has been the victim of repeated attacks, the most violent being the murder of Félix García, a Cuban diplomat, on September 11, 1980, which did not properly take place at the headquarters, but in the street, but it cost him his life. Recent information from one of the Institutes that studies these cases in Cuba revealed that it has evidence of 86 attacks against Cuban diplomatic missions in the world, 29 against our officials. Most of them, even those outside the United States, have been organized by people residing in this country.
To your knowledge, has something similar happened at the U.S. Embassy in Havana?
No, not at all. We have always guaranteed the physical integrity of the building. As you asked me, we have always maintained the building with protection and nothing, nothing similar, has ever happened against what is today the United States Embassy, which was previously the Interests Section.
According to your sources of information, did you have any indication that would allow you to anticipate what happened, or do you think it is an isolated incident?
Well, one of the things we’ve precisely been requesting from the State Department is to be able to have evidence that it is an isolated incident. Even one of the aspects of the trial is whether it is an isolated event or not, whether this individual is linked to other people or not. At the same time, we have expressed our general concern regarding the repeated hate language used against Cuba in recent years, especially in recent months. This generates, or can generate, this type of situation in people who have a certain inclination to violence or people who, for some reason, this language and rhetoric drives them to take extreme positions. The court documents reflect what was written on a Cuban flag, what this individual shouted. The worst attacks against Cuba or against Cuban targets have occurred at times when there has been strong rhetoric by the U.S. government against Cuba. Currently, almost every day there is a statement by high-level U.S. government officials against Cuba, frequently in very disrespectful terms, in very arrogant terms; this encourages certain individuals, without a doubt.
Did the Cuban embassy or consulate have any relationship prior to the events with the person accused of them?
We are looking at the data of this individual who, according to what they say, first migrated to Mexico. We are still in a phase of gathering information to share if and when the U.S. authorities are ready to cooperate.