BY ARGIRIS MALAPANIS AND JACK WILLEY
NEW YORK - "Cuba sí, blockade no," resounded through the streets of midtown Manhattan October 21 as 3,000 people ignored whirling sheets of rain and marched to oppose Washington's economic war against Cuba. Armed with colorful banners, flags, umbrellas, and raincoats, the protesters did not let their spirits be dampened by the downpour, which started with a fury as they were assembling near the United Nations and continued as steady rain through the day.
The action was part of regional protests against U.S. policy initiated by the National Network on Cuba (NNOC). They were called in response to an appeal by an international conference in Havana in November 1994 for worldwide protests in October to oppose Washington's embargo.
Marches and rallies with the same demands - "End the U.S. economic blockade," "Lift the travel ban," "Normalize relations," and "Respect Cuba's right to self- determination" - took place the previous weekend in Chicago and San Francisco.
Hundreds of young people newly active in defending Cuba took part on October 21. They made sure the march was vocal all the way from the UN building to the final rally site at Columbus Circle.
About half the participants came from New York City. Most of the rest traveled from cities on the East Coast and the South. Dozens also joined from as far away as Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota. A few flew in from the West Coast. Many of these activists had participated in the October 14 actions. Nearly 200 came from Canada, mostly from Montreal and Toronto.
The march coincided with, and was marked by, the arrival of Cuban president Fidel Castro, who came here for his third time in 35 years to take part in the commemoration of the United Nations' 50th anniversary. "Welcome Fidel!" was seen on many placards and frequently heard from many protesters, often in Spanish.
Floyd Davis Jr. and John Peralta addressed protesters from a makeshift sound truck at the assembly point beneath an overpass on 42nd St. near 1st Ave. They are on strike against the Detroit News Agency, which prints and distributes the daily Detroit News and Free Press. "This embargo has got to go," said Davis. "I feel strong for this cause, the cause of the Cuban people. It's a fight for freedom like our strike in Detroit."
Some 2,400 newspaper workers in Detroit walked out July 13 to protect jobs, wages, working conditions, and the right of their unions to bargain jointly with management. "We understand your struggle," added Peralta, who is the vice president of the mailers union Local 2040. "This embargo is outdated. We are also tired of being shafted by corporate America and we are here to bring you our message. We need your solidarity."
Exchanges with passersby
As the march began, a contingent of some 70 people from Miami, including many Cubans, were among the most vocal. "Fidel amigo, el pueblo está contigo!" (Fidel, our friend, the people are with you) they chanted, eliciting some honks in favor by motorists and passersby on 42nd St., but also thumbs down and some heated arguments.
Exchanges with passersby
"Hey hey, ho ho, U.S. out of Guantánamo," and "USA hands off Cuba," were some of the other chants. Many motorists expressed amazement to see the drenched protesters marching in defiance of the elements, as wind whipped the rain around..
The Montreal group, overwhelmingly young, was among the liveliest. "Cuba is the best example of socialism, unlike the ex-Soviet Union," said Germain Fourneaux, a high-school student from Montreal and member of the International Solidarity Association (ASOC). "That's why the U.S. government wants to crush Cuba. And that's why I'm here to defend it and learn more about the revolution."
Valerie Leclerc, also a member of ASOC, said the student group has organized demonstrations in Canada against cuts in education funding by Ottawa. Leclerc and many other students interviewed said they are also involved in the campaign to win a "yes" vote in the referendum for Quebec's sovereignty.
Dozens of the protesters were already involved in Cuba solidarity work. Blanca Martínez, for example, a 19-year- old bakery worker in New York, said she had participated in a similar demonstration in November 1994 in Washington, D.C. For others it was their first such activity.
First time in a march on Cuba
"I don't know much about Cuba, but I do know that there's free health care and very little racism there," said Marshall Thompson, a member of the Greensboro Committee to Save Mumia [Abu Jamal]. He came with 17 others from Greensboro, North Carolina.
First time in a march on Cuba
Dora Whiteside, a student at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, came with a group of six others from that city. "I am trying to start a Black Student Union at school," she said, "and we must deal with international issues, not just what's going on on campus." She came to the demonstration after meeting activists of the Birmingham Network on Cuba at a literature table.
"I came to learn more about Cuba. I think the embargo is oppressive and imperialistic," said Dan Hanley, 21, a student at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. He drove in a van for 16 hours with five other students. "I got involved in politics recently by going to Detroit to join the picket lines of the newspaper strikers. This is my first major demonstration. I like it."
A number of demonstrators had become involved in Cuba defense work in their areas since this summer, after returning from the Cuba Lives International Youth Festival in Havana. "I don't like capitalism and Cuba is an example of an alternative kind of government," said Kim Sanel from Boston, who went to the August 1-7 youth gathering. "In Cuba, I was very impressed with the concern and respect the Cubans have for people."
Eight people from Japan from the group "Linking Peace and Life" joined the march. They passed out leaflets to demonstrators announcing an action the following day at the United Nations to protest Tokyo's bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Sachiko Mitsunaga from Osaka said they are demanding compensation for the victims of Japanese military aggression in Asia, especially the tens of thousands of Korean "comfort women" who were forced into sex slavery during World War II.
Addressing the concluding rally, Andrés Gómez, one of the four national coordinators of the NNOC referred to the blowing up of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana's harbor in 1898, during Cuba's war of independence against Spanish colonialism. "Washington staged the sinking and then used it as an excuse to invade and colonize Cuba, just as we were winning against the Spaniards," Gómez said.
"What is the purpose of the Helms-Burton bill if not the same," asked Gómez, who is also the chairperson of the Antonio Maceo Brigade, a Miami-based organization of Cubans who support the revolution. "To use it as an excuse to intervene and destroy Cuba's sovereignty. But the Maine can't be repeated again because the Cuban people are now in power and refuse to get on their knees."
With a vote of 74-24, the Senate approved a version of this bill, which aims to significantly tighten the U.S. embargo, on October 20, the day before the march. The House of Representatives had passed another version of the legislation earlier.
Lelsie Cagan, a national NNOC coordinator and a chair of the rally, urged participants to continue a variety of activities to put pressure on the Clinton administration to veto the bill. "The showing for this march gives us strength to continue our efforts to end the blockade against Cuba," she said.
Other speakers included Lucius Walker of Pastors for Peace, Dagmaris Cabesas of the Cuban American Research and Education Fund, political activist Angela Davis, Brian Taylor who was one of the leaders of the U.S. contingent in the Cuba Lives festival, Ignacio Meneses of the U.S.-Cuba Labor Exchange, and Tania Tirado of the Friendshipment Caravan.
Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Pennsylvania death row inmate whose struggle against the executioner's chair has become a rallying point in the fight for Black rights, sent a message that was read at the rally.
Ruarí O Brádaigh, president of Republican Sinn Fein, also sent a message from Dublin. "Having been denied a visa myself to travel to the United Sates for over 20 years now, at the behest of the British government, I can understand the sense of injustice felt by the people of Cuba at the blockade being imposed on them by a powerful neighbor," it said.
In his remarks, Meneses pointed to upcoming trips to Cuba sponsored by the Labor Exchange in November and April. Other speakers talked about the next contingent of the Venceremos Brigade in the spring of 1996. Taylor urged young people and others present to get involved in building an international youth brigade to Cuba in August 1996, sponsored by the NNOC, and a U.S. speaking tour of Cuban youth leaders early next year. Musical performances closed the program.
Lorena Gaibor, a student from New Jersey and one of the organizers of the youth brigade, said 25 young people signed up for the trip at an information table.
The evening ended with some 200 protesters packing into Casa de las Americas - the meeting site of the coalition that sponsored the march - to dry off and assess the day's events.
There, over coffee and refreshments, activists made plans to mobilize people for picket lines at the Cuban Mission to the UN over the next three days to welcome the Cuban delegation to New York and counter protests by right- wing Cuban American groups. Many from out of town changed their plans and stayed to take part in the upcoming activities. Others left to return to work or school in their cities.
"Thus nourished by the camaraderie and the events of the day, we boarded the bus for the return trip and left the city," wrote Walter Ogelsby, an activist from Miami, in a contribution he sent to the Militant on the march.
"And to top it off, we were happy to be greeted [in Miami] by a large, Sunday final edition of the Miami Herald, front page, color picture of our group standing under the underpass at the UN the day before, accompanied by a fair article (by Miami Herald standards)," he continued.
"This weekend was invigorating to my spirit, as well as a welcome adventure. I am looking forward to continuing my involvement with these warm and loving people and these kind of activities, and to furthering my understanding of alternative points of view."
Derek Bracey of Birmingham, Alabama, and Bob Miller, a member of United Auto Workers in Edison, New Jersey, also contributed to this article.
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