“We have no way of knowing what the U.S. government will do,” Sandra Ramírez, director of the North American department of the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP), added. “But we know what we will do. We will continue to defend our sovereignty and our socialist revolution. That is not open to negotiations.”
Rodríguez and Ramírez were speaking to the opening session of a March 25-26 conference here of more than 200 people from 17 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the United Kingdom, and three provinces of Canada.
The conference, held at the Fordham University Law School, was organized to advance the fight to demand that the U.S. government end its 55-year-old economic war against Cuba; get out of Guantánamo, Cuban territory that Washington has occupied since 1898; and end all efforts aimed at “regime change” in Cuba.
In addition to North American participants, a sizable delegation from Cuba, headed by Anayansi Rodríguez, Cuba’s ambassador to the United Nations, joined the two days of deliberations. This included Miguel Barnet, president of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC) and a member of Cuba’s Council of State; UNEAC Vice President Luis Morlote; Ramírez and Yanela González, also from ICAP; and five leaders of the Federation of Cuban Women and of the National Union of Jurists, who had just taken part in the 61st session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.
Rafael Cancel Miranda, a Puerto Rican independence leader imprisoned for more than a quarter century by the island’s U.S. colonial rulers, was welcomed by a standing ovation, as was Andrés Gómez, coordinator of the Antonio Maceo Brigade, a Cuban-American organization based in Miami that this year is marking its 40th anniversary of activity in support of the Cuban Revolution.
Workshops’ range of topicsThe gathering was opened Saturday morning by Ike Nahem on behalf of the host Cuba Sí coalition in New York City. In addition to the two plenary sessions that morning, there were some 20 workshops Saturday afternoon covering a wide variety of topics.
A workshop on how the United States occupied Guantánamo Bay featured remarks by Myrna Méndez López of Cuba’s National Union of Jurists, and a showing of the documentary “All Guantánamo Is Ours.”
There was a workshop on “Race in Cuba: an Introduction,” and another on “The Cuban Revolution and the African-American Community.” Several took up health care in Cuba and Cuba’s medical missions around the world. The latter heard a presentation by Rolando Vergara, first secretary at Cuba’s U.N. mission, who helped organize the 2014-15 Cuban medical mission to combat the Ebola epidemic in Liberia.
The workshop on “Cuba’s Socialist Revolution and Women’s Equality” featured leaders of the Federation of Cuban Women, including Yanira Kúper, FMC international relations secretary; Yamila González Ferrer, vice president of the National Union of Jurists; Alicia Campos, Latin America and Caribbean Coordinator of the Women’s International Democratic Federation; Maritzel González, from the FMC International Relations Department; and Myrna Méndez López from the University of Santiago Law School.
Together with “Race in Cuba,” the FMC workshop, chaired by Nalda Vigezzi, co-chair of the National Network on Cuba, and Mary-Alice Waters, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party and president of Pathfinder Press, was one of the largest of the afternoon events. More than 30 people attended.
Joshua Colón, a leader of Universal Justice, a student organization at Fordham University Law School, led a workshop reporting back from a trip the group had recently taken to Cuba. Universal Justice helped secure facilities for the weekend conference.
A workshop on “The Police in Cuba” included presentations by Sharonne Salaam and Juanita Young. Salaam is the mother of Yusef Salaam, one of five teenagers convicted in 1989 on frame-up rape charges and exonerated in 2002. Young’s son Malcolm Ferguson was killed by New York police in 2000. She and other relatives of victims of police killings visited Cuba in May 2016 at the invitation of the FMC and ICAP.
Other workshops took up Cuba’s internationalist support to African freedom struggles; work around passage of legislation before the U.S. Congress, and resolutions by city councils, and state legislatures; “Technology and Digital Media Support”; “Rhythms, Resistance and Revolution”; and “Democracy in Cuba.”
The Saturday conference session was capped by a well-attended public meeting at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Center in Harlem. In addition to two excellent musical performances, speakers included Ambassador Anayansi Rodríguez, Sandra Ramírez, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Andrés Gómez and Juanita Young. (See last week’s issue of the Militant.)
The closing plenary on Sunday morning focused on action proposals representing the spectrum of activities those present are engaged in.
Lively debateFrom the opening of the conference, debate and discussion helped bring clarity to counterposed political perspectives for the work of the solidarity movement.
Organizing to extend knowledge of and solidarity with the Cuban Revolution among broader and broader layers of the population increasingly open to learning the truth about Cuba, versus focusing on Democratic and Republican politicians and U.S. companies seeking profitable trade and investment deals in Cuba.
Placing demands squarely on the U.S. government to immediately and unconditionally end its policies aimed at undermining Cuba’s socialist revolution and its government, versus promoting a negotiations “process,” in which Washington is pressing for concessions by the Cuban government in exchange for “full” normalization.
The importance of civil debate and discussion of different viewpoints among solidarity forces, versus race-baiting and innuendos that some Caucasian participants, especially males, “aren’t really who they say they are,” thus preventing one or another person from getting a hearing because of their skin color or sex.
After remarks by Ramírez to the opening plenary session — chaired by August Nimtz, a University of Minnesota professor and leader of the Minnesota Cuba Committee, and Erin Feeley-Nahem, a leader of the Cuba Sí coalition in New York and one of the principal conference organizers — the floor opened for questions and discussion on perspectives for work. Ramírez and the two U.N. ambassadors joined in with answers and comments along the way.
Isaac Saney, co-chair of the Canadian Network on Cuba, spoke about the dangers of recent remarks by Canada’s foreign minister about stepped-up pressure on Cuba “to transform its political system.”
John Waller, national coordinator of the IFCO/Pastors for Peace annual caravan to Cuba, said that opponents of Washington’s policies need to recognize that “we need to be reaching out to many places in the U.S., including so-called Red States, to Little Rock, to Kansas City, to Des Moines.” The first contingents of this year’s caravan will visit 30 states in April, he said.
Andrés Gómez denounced Washington’s “policy of constant aggression against the Cuban people since 1959,” which he said has resulted in more than 3,900 deaths in Cuba and 2,000 physically incapacitated people. The “terrorists who carried out these actions live mainly in Miami and Puerto Rico today,” he said, “and they have had immunity by U.S. authorities.”
Gómez pointed to the April 1979 assassination in Puerto Rico of Antonio Maceo Brigade member Carlos Muñiz Varela. “No one has been arrested for this crime,” Gómez said, “and the U.S. government and FBI know full well who carried it out and who paid for it.”
Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Charters and a founder of the new travel association RESPECT, discussed the work being done to promote trips to Cuba “that respect its sovereignty and the will of the Cuban people to determine their own destiny.”
Questions were raised from the floor about how to respond to propaganda about the “Ladies in White” and other so-called dissidents in Cuba, and why the Cuban national baseball team agreed to play against Israel in the World Baseball Classic earlier in March instead of boycotting events in which Israeli athletes compete.
Out Now! or negotiationsMary-Alice Waters, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party and president of Pathfinder Press, noted that “what Washington is out to achieve with what it calls ‘normalization’ is the overthrow of Cuba’s socialist revolution.”
She pointed to the words of President Barack Obama in December 2014 when he announced the decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba: that the policies pursued by the U.S. government for decades had failed to achieve that objective, so “it’s time to try something different.” The course has shifted, she said, but the U.S. rulers’ objective remains the same.
“We need to focus our demands on the U.S. government,” Waters emphasized, “to end the economic war against Cuba now, get out of Guantánamo now, and end all subversive programs now.
“That’s the basis,” she said, “on which we can and must educate and broaden support for the Cuban Revolution among working people and other layers of U.S. society.”
John McAuliff, executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, countered that activists in the U.S. need to orient to elected officials and companies who are interested in doing business with Cuba. Such efforts to advance normalization of relations would be helped, he said, if the Cuban government moved toward multiparty elections and greater sway for market relations.
The featured speaker at the second plenary session Saturday morning was Ras Baraka, the Democratic Party mayor of Newark, New Jersey, who announced he was leaving for Cuba the next day at the head of a trade delegation. The panel, which included Afro Latin Jazz Alliance Executive Director Marietta Ulacia, was organized by Rosemari Mealy, a member of the New York Cuba Sí coalition and board member of IFCO/Pastors for Peace.
In her remarks, Mealy said there had been an “ideological struggle” among those planning the conference, and only the panel she had initiated was truly aimed at “strategies to broaden the ‘left agenda’ into other political and economic arenas.”
To exemplify what she meant by “broadening,” Mealy noted that organizers of the panel had invited Congresswoman Yvette Clarke from New York, the office of Sen. Patrick Leahy from Vermont, the internet monopoly Google, and representatives of Stonegate Bank in Florida, the first U.S. bank issuing credit cards for use in Cuba. All sent regrets. Mealy added that the business group Engage Cuba, which she said calls for “gradual normalization,” had also declined. Engage Cuba includes the National Association of Manufacturers and international corporations such as Honeywell, Procter & Gamble, Starwood hotels and others.
“We’re not naïve,” Mealy told the conference. “We know some of these forces are trying to overturn the revolution. But others just want to end the embargo. If the Cubans can deal with them, then why can’t we?”
“We may not like working with these forces,” she added, “but we have to pull up our pants and do it,” since “incremental normalization” can lead to “full normalization.”
Baraka argued for those present to be “pragmatic” and get involved in “practical politics,” that is, Democratic Party politics, as the way to bring change.
“We have the second largest port in the United States in Newark,” Baraka said, “and we’re looking forward to increasing trade with Cuba.” He said he would try to pick up some “best practices” in Cuba to improve health care and education in Newark.
Race-baitingBroad and educational discussion in the workshops allowed many conference participants an opportunity to raise questions and exchange views. But discussion in several was cut short by incidents of race-baiting that were never answered by conference organizers.
Some 35 people attended the “Race in Cuba” workshop, chaired by August Nimtz. The featured speakers were Cuban leader Miguel Barnet and Yanela González of ICAP. Barnet, author of the world-renowned novel Biography of a Runaway Slave, has long been a leading voice in Cuba promoting consciousness that, despite the revolution’s unprecedented gains over more than half a century in eradicating the legacy of racist discrimination against Cubans who are Black and mestizo, more needs to be done.
During the discussion, while Barnet was answering a question, he was interrupted by a New York Haitian rights activist and union official, who shouted from the floor, “Sir, I think you should sit down, so we can hear this Black woman speak.” It’s one thing to tell a story, he went on, “but part of the story is what people who have experienced it themselves have to say.”
Later in the workshop, this individual apologized to Barnet for his conduct. But the incident marred the rest of the gathering, as word of what had happened spread, and the insult to the Cuban delegation was never brought before the conference as a whole and repudiated.
Above all, this default in not responding to the attempt to silence someone because of the color of their skin (and it wasn’t the only such incident during the conference) dealt a blow to reaching out as broadly as possible to all layers of the population in the U.S. and Canada with education about Cuba’s socialist revolution and activity to defend it.
Actions discussed at closing plenaryThe final plenary session Sunday morning, chaired by Isaac Saney and by Gail Walker, executive director of IFCO/Pastors for Peace, opened with recorded video greetings to the conference from Gerardo Hernández, thanking all those present for the work they had done to win freedom from U.S. prisons for the Cuban Five and to defend the Cuban Revolution.
Miguel Barnet was introduced to a standing ovation to bring a message to the gathering. Welcoming the words by Hernández, Barnet said the return of the remaining three imprisoned heroes to Cuba in December 2014 was a victory “that belongs to you also, because you worked very hard for that occasion.”
“On behalf of Cuban writers and artists and of the Cuban people,” Barnet thanked participants “for your sincere solidarity.” Cuban leader Fidel Castro had taught him and many others, he said, “that solidarity is the banner of socialism and humanism.” Addressing the purpose of the conference, Barnet added, “How can we normalize relations if the embargo is not lifted right away? That is our biggest aim, and I am sure it is also yours.”
The Sunday session focused on discussion and adoption of a number of action proposals. These include a coordinated day of local protest actions in October to coincide with the annual vote in the U.N. General Assembly against the U.S. economic, commercial and financial embargo. A motion to support the Sept. 11-16 National Days of Action Against the Blockade in Washington, D.C., was also adopted. The conference supported efforts by Vancouver Communities in Solidarity with Cuba to organize activities against the blockade on the 17th of each month.
Participants heard reports on upcoming trips to Cuba that enable people from North America to learn about the revolution first hand, and voted to support these efforts. In addition to the annual IFCO caravan and Venceremos Brigade this year, for the first time, a delegation of workers and youth from the U.S. will participate in the annual International May Day Brigade to Cuba sponsored by ICAP. Following a May 2 solidarity gathering in Havana organized by ICAP and the CTC, the Cuban trade union federation, people from the U.S., Canada, Latin America, Europe and elsewhere will participate in the “Fifth Seminar for Peace and for the Abolition of Foreign Military Bases” protesting the continued occupation of Guantánamo. (See article on page 6.)
A last-minute motion proposed from the floor urging support for two congressional bills, one aimed at lifting restrictions on U.S. residents traveling to Cuba and another proposing to end some measures that are part of Washington’s prohibitions on trade with Cuba, was adopted as part of the package but never debated.
It was also agreed to organize another national Cuba conference in North America two years from now, if circumstances warranted.
During the discussion of these actions, there was further debate on the political focus and demands of work in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution.
Mark Ginsburg from Washington, D.C., proposed adding an explicit call on the U.S. to get out of Guantánamo to one of the action proposals that had not included it. His suggestion was agreed to by consensus.
Mary-Alice Waters made a proposal to stop using the term “full normalization” as one of the demands on the U.S. government included in various action proposals because it “feeds the misconception, broadly held in the U.S. today, that relations have already been normalized and all that’s needed is to expand something.” Normalization means end the economic war against Cuba, get out of Guantánamo, and end the subversion programs, “Now!” she added.
That proposal sparked opposition.
“Normalization is a process,” said Rosemari Mealy. “If we take out the word ‘full,’ you’re denying that a process is already underway.”
“How can you have normalization of relations when you still have a blockade?” Andrés Gómez responded to Mealy. “How can you have normalization of relations, when the terrorists who have caused so much death and harm to the Cuban people are still free and have not been brought to justice?
“There is no normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba at this time,” Gómez said. “There is a resumption of diplomatic relations. That’s all there is. … Relations have not even begun to be normalized.”
Waters’ motion was adopted by a vote of 29 to 25.
Another debate centered on a proposal supported by Ike Nahem, Isaac Saney and Steve Eckardt of the Chicago Cuba Coalition that a national speakers bureau be established to organize tours by Cubans and others in North America.
“We’re all for speaking tours on the Cuban Revolution, but the NNOC is already a national organization with affiliates across the country,” said Cheryl LaBash, a National Network on Cuba co-chair.
“There is nothing to be gained by this conference establishing another national structure” as opposed to broadening the one that exists, said Steve Clark of the Socialist Workers Party, urging participants to vote against such a proposal.
“To organize national tours is excellent,” added Sandra Ramírez. “But it’s not necessary for this conference to create a steering committee in order to do that. There is already a national structure, the NNOC, which has functioned for many years.”
The motion to encourage speaking tours was agreed to, but the proposal to establish a new national body was withdrawn.
‘We will continue to defend our principles’The conference closed with remarks by U.N. Ambassador Anayansi Rodríguez. She pointed to the example of the Cuban Revolution’s historic central leader Fidel Castro, “because we learned from him that a socialist revolution, to be true to itself, must maintain firmness in principles.”
“There should be no doubt,” Rodríguez said, “that we will continue to defend these principles today and in the future, whatever the situation may be.
“And we are deeply convinced that in this battle, which is not over, we will continue to count on your firm support.”
Sara Lobman, Willie Cotton and Paul Mailhot contributed to this article.
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