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Vol. 79/No. 44      December 7, 2015

(front page)

Cuban leaders tour Bay Area:
‘Join fight to lift US embargo’

SAN FRANCISCO — “The opening of diplomatic relations with Washington was an important achievement,” Kenia Serrano, a member of the Cuban parliament and president of the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP) told a meeting of over 80 people at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco Nov. 12. She was interviewed by Walter Turner, president of the board of directors of Global Exchange, which coordinated a five-day tour in the Bay Area for Serrano and Leima Martínez, a representative of ICAP’s North American division.

“We have diplomatic relations, but the economic blockade against Cuba is still there,” she said. “It should be lifted!”

Foreign companies that trade with Cuba face sweeping sanctions if they also do business in the U.S. Last year Washington fined a French bank almost $9 billion for dealing with Cuba, Serrano said.

The Barack Obama administration has allocated $20 million in its 2016 budget to pay Cubans to organize opposition to the Cuban government. “It’s a contradiction to say you are in favor of better relations, but at the same time work to overthrow the revolution by different means,” she said. “These programs should be stopped.”

“We are very jealous about guarding our independence and sovereignty,” she said. “The U.S. should return the base in Guantánamo that was taken illegally from Cuba a century ago.”

During their visit to the Bay Area, Serrano and Martínez spoke to hundreds of people, including 200 at a Nov. 13 meeting in Richmond sponsored by the International Committee for Peace, Justice and Dignity and other groups at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts and at a Nov. 11 meeting here of over 100 sponsored by the Bay Area Latin America Solidarity Coalition, the ANSWER Coalition and others.

“For the police to shoot someone is very rare in Cuba. The police are respected. Cuba is not segregated the way the U.S. is,” Serrano said at the Commonwealth Club in response to questions about the conditions of Afro-Cubans and the role of the police since Cuba’s 1959 revolution. “If you visit, you will see that Cubans of different skin colors live in the same buildings, go to the same schools.

“At the time of the revolution, Cuba was a very poor country and the gap between rich and poor was huge,” she said. “Since then we’ve made gains, including in health and education, both of which are free to all Cubans. Women were once excluded from politics, but now they are 48 percent of the parliament.

“At the same time, all the inequalities inherited from the history of slavery and discrimination have not been eliminated,” Serrano added. Blacks were hit hardest in what Cubans call the Special Period in the 1990s, when Cuba lost over 80 percent of its trade and aid from the collapsing Soviet Union, and Washington tightened its economic blockade. “We are very conscious about that and are working to overcome.”

Will tourism undermine revolution?

Won’t increased tourism undermine the values of equality and cultural independence that Cuba has fought for, Serrano was asked.

“One of the things the media says is that Cuba is moving toward capitalism. We are not. The main productive property remains in the hands of the state,” Serrano said. “We also have private property. For example, 80 percent of Cubans own their homes. But the main sectors of the Cuban economy remain in state hands and we plan how they are going to be used.”

“We welcome tourists to Cuba,” she said. “But the U.S. continues to maintain restrictions on its citizens visiting Cuba.”

Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have volunteered for what Cubans call internationalist missions, Serrano said. “We sent doctors to Africa to treat Ebola. We have a literacy program called ‘Yes I can’ that we have helped to implement in 30 countries. Recently I was in Australia where I saw how this campaign was being carried out in indigenous communities.”

Serrano thanked those at all her meetings who were part of the international campaign that won freedom for the Cuban Five. The five revolutionaries were imprisoned by Washington in 1998 for efforts to protect Cuba from violent attacks by enemies of the revolution based in the U.S.

Serrano said Cuba was making some changes today, under the pressure of the world capitalist economic crisis and the continuing U.S. embargo. “With 500,000 Cubans now self-employed and cooperatives being formed in various sectors, some people will earn more, but they will also pay more taxes,” she said at the meeting in San Francisco.

“We will not allow the accumulation of wealth in the hands of individuals. It will be Cuba that prioritizes where investment is needed,” she said. “Foreign companies have to respect our labor code, including laws to guarantee against racist and other forms of discrimination.”

Cuba is also fighting against bureaucracy, reducing the number of government ministries, and encouraging productive work in agriculture and other areas, Serrano said.

What is Cuban socialism?

“What is Cuban socialism?” asked a student at San Francisco State University, where 65 students packed a room to hear Serrano and Martínez, with more spilling into the hallway.

“In Cuba we have social property and no exploitation of workers. Human beings are the center of everything,” Serrano answered. “The essence of capitalism is selfishness. In socialism people transform themselves as they build a new society. It’s the only way possible.

“We have had 134 medical students from the U.S. studying in Cuba,” said Martínez, who works with U.S. students attending the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM). Cuba grants scholarships to youth from around the world. “We have doctors helping in many countries. After the nuclear accident in the Ukraine at Chernobyl, we brought 20,000 kids affected by the disaster to Cuba for medical treatment.”

“I studied in Cuba because I was looking for a place where health care is a priority and a human right,” Laura Gomez, one of 21 U.S. medical students who recently graduated from ELAM, said at the Richmond meeting. “All our tuition, including books, food, board and even pencils, were provided. Cuba is a country with limited resources. They share, not what they can spare, but what they have.”

Miguel Pendás contributed to this article.
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