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Vol. 73/No. 21      June 1, 2009

Int’l conference in Canada
discusses Cuban Revolution
KINGSTON, Ontario—An international conference marking the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution took place here May 7-9. Titled “The Measure of a Revolution: Cuba, 1959--2009,” it was hosted by Queen’s University in Kingston and cosponsored by the University of North Carolina and the University of Havana.

Some 300 people participated in the broad-ranging event that included more than 180 presentations organized in nearly 50 panels covering topics as diverse as sex education and Cuba’s economy. More than half the participants came from the United States. Thirty-nine came from Cuba. Leading the delegation from Cuba were Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba’s National Assembly, Josefina Vidal, North America director for Cuba’s foreign ministry, and Cristina Díaz, a vice rector of the University of Havana.

The event was held in Canada in part because of Washington’s policies of denying visas for Cubans traveling to the United States and prohibiting travel by almost all U.S. residents to the island. In 1989 a similar conference was held in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the 30th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution.

The conference on Cuba was preceded at the same location by a conference of the Canadian African Studies Association. The two events held one day of joint panels focused on Cuba and Africa.

U.S. government policy toward Cuba was a central topic of discussion at the conference, with many participants expressing the opinion that the Obama administration will ease or lift the U.S. trade embargo against that nation.

In the opening plenary, Cuban foreign ministry official Vidal said, “Cuba cannot be asked to give up its form of government as a condition to reestablish normal relations with the United States. That position is a nonstarter.” She was addressing recent White House statements putting demands on Cuba as a condition for moves toward lifting travel restrictions on Americans and other measures that have been part of Washington’s 50-year economic war aimed at punishing the Cuban people for making a socialist revolution.

Also speaking at the opening was Robert Pastor, who served as President James Carter’s national security advisor for Latin America from 1977-81. Pastor, a professor at American University, reiterated his support for Washington’s half-century-long course of demanding “change” in Cuba in exchange for an easing of the U.S. embargo. “President Obama has taken some significant steps and is now looking forward to Cuba taking some appropriate steps in response,” Pastor said, referring to the administration’s recent decision to lift restrictions on Cuban Americans traveling to Cuba and related moves.

“What ‘steps’ would be appropriate?” asked the following speaker, John Kirk, a professor at Dalhousie University and one of the conference organizers. “Should Cuba commit itself to not invade the United States? Should it commit itself to not impose an embargo on Cuban-made goods entering the U.S.?” he said with irony.

At the closing session, Alarcón said the new U.S. administration’s decision to maintain the embargo is “the continuation of an illegal, unjustifiable, and failed policy.” Obama’s recent actions are “nothing more than a partial return to the situation before the Bush administration,” and were taken for domestic political reasons, “because of the unpopularity of those restrictions in the Cuban-American community,” Alarcón added. “If the current administration wants us to believe that there is a change, then free the Cuban Five.” He was referring to five Cuban revolutionaries who have been unjustly held in U.S. prisons for more than 10 years for “conspiracy to commit espionage,” “conspiracy to commit murder,” and other frame-up charges.  
Canadian gov’t policy toward Cuba
An exchange also took place on Canadian government policy toward Cuba. José Curto, a professor at York University in Toronto who chaired a workshop on “Cuba’s role and influence in fighting apartheid and colonial domination in Africa,” said that many Angolan leaders he talked with charged that “the Cubans plundered Angola” when Cuban volunteer troops left Angola after a nearly 16-year internationalist mission helping defeat the invasion of that newly independent country by the apartheid regime of South Africa. When challenged from the floor by a speaker asking for facts, Curto responded that it would be inappropriate for him to say more as he was only chairing the panel.

In response to another question from the audience on “Canada’s strong opposition to Cuba’s role in Angola and in the fight against apartheid,” panelist Isaac Saney from Dalhousie University noted that Ottawa cut its “aid” to Cuba for more than a decade in protest against Cuba’s actions in defense of Angola’s independence, which also hastened the demise of the apartheid regime.

Later in the conference, Vidal noted that the Canadian government rejected Cuba’s offer to send volunteer medical teams to Haiti in collaboration with Ottawa’s paying for the medicine.

Speaking at a panel entitled “Engagement or Isolation: The Present State of Cuba within North America,” Mark Entwistle, a former Canadian ambassador to Cuba, claimed that “Canada has been wholly disinterested in regime change in Cuba.” Jorge Domínguez of Harvard University, who is no friend of the Cuban Revolution, replied that while Ottawa used different means—without a trade embargo—its fundamental objective has been the same as Washington’s: “regime change.”

Cuban poet and national literary prize winner Nancy Morejón was one of several Cuban artists who helped lead a number of panels and plenary sessions on cultural questions in Cuba.

The race question in Cuba was the focus of several panels, with some participants trying to use the issue to discredit the revolution.

In one panel, after several participants raised questions about “racism in Cuba,” Barbara Morita from Disaster Medical Response in California responded, “Based on my personal experience, the revolution in Cuba means that words don’t mean the same in the United States and Cuba. Divisions are much deeper in the United States where racism is a question of life and death.”

Pedro Pérez-Sarduy, a Cuban poet and writer who now teaches at the Caribbean Studies Center of the London Metropolitan University, told the audience that to understand anything about the question of race in Cuba you have to start from two revolutionary turning points. One was the Cuban Revolution itself, with the transformation of class and race relations that it opened. The other was the 1979-83 revolution in Grenada—a largely Black nation in the Caribbean—under the leadership of Maurice Bishop, and the impact it had among Cubans, especially Cubans who are Black.

In contrast with the 1989 Halifax conference, which had turned into a heated political confrontation between defenders of the Cuban Revolution and its enemies, the many prominent right-wing anticommunist “experts” who hold teaching posts in major U.S. universities were absent from the Kingston conference. And much of the discussion treated “Cuba” as if it existed in an isolated, timeless bubble. Virtually the only speaker who mentioned the world capitalist economic crisis or its potential impact on Cuba was Ricardo Alarcón in his keynote speech at the conclusion of the conference.

But the Kingston conference on “The Measure of a Revolution” was an impressive reminder that the first socialist revolution in the Americas continues to be the touchstone of class struggle in our hemisphere and the world.
Related articles:
José Martí: Cuban leader of anti-imperialist fight  
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