By Argiris Malapanis
NEW YORK CITY, March 20, 2022 — About 150 people from across the United States and Canada gathered at the People’s Forum here March 19-20 for the International US-Cuba Normalization Conference. It was the first such in-person event in two years. Previous conferences were cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
To facilitate those who could not attend in person, organizers streamed the two-day event, and another 160 people took part via Zoom. (The entire event was videotaped and is available at: https://iucnc.org/)
Co-sponsoring organizations included the Canadian Network on Cuba, Cuba Solidarity Committee in Puerto Rico, National Network on Cuba (NNOC), New York-New Jersey Cuba Sí Coalition, and Saving Lives Campaign US.
The meeting’s focus was coordinating efforts to end Washington’s economic war against the Caribbean nation, launched six decades ago after a popular revolution overthrew a U.S.-backed dictatorship on the island and opened the socialist revolution in the Americas.
A large delegation from Cuba — including several leaders of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) — participated in the event.
“Your support has special significance,” said Pedro Luis Pedroso Cuesta, Cuba’s permanent representative to the United Nations (UN), in his presentation at the opening of the conference. “Cuba is under siege.”
‘Abominable’ U.S. policies
February 3 marked 60 years since the official launch of the “U.S. economic, commercial, and financial blockade of Cuba, through the signing of a decree by President John F. Kennedy that same day,” Pedroso noted. “Over the years the blockade was toughened and expanded.”
The U.S. animosity is a result of the continued inspiration millions of oppressed and exploited around the world draw from a revolution that put in power a government of working people, instead of capitalists. That government has mobilized the Cuban working people to work towards social equality at home and selfless internationalism abroad.
Pedroso pointed to the more than 240 new sanctions against Cuba the U.S. government imposed under the Donald Trump administration, reversing a “process of improvement of relations between the two countries undertaken under President Obama.” He also emphasized that the current Democratic administration has not only kept all of Trump’s policies aimed at asphyxiating the Cuban people firmly in place but has added new sanctions. “Despite his campaign promises, President Joe Biden has not changed an inch the burden of the blockade, keeping immutable all the measures taken by his predecessor,” he said.
These aggressive measures include U.S. efforts to deprive Cuba of fuel supplies, impose harsh penalties on any banks doing business with Cuba, halt the transfer of remittances by Cubans living abroad to their families in Cuba, and impose new restrictions on travel to the island, the Cuban ambassador explained.
Other measures that stand out, he added, are “the full implementation of the Helms-Burton Act to expand the extraterritorial application of the blockade, and even the unbelievable and slanderous inclusion of Cuba in the list of state sponsors of terrorism.”
The U.S. Congress adopted the Helms-Burton Act, named after its original sponsors, in 1996. Then U.S. president Bill Clinton signed it into law on March 12 of that year. The legislation represented a substantial escalation of Washington’s economic war against the Cuban people.
Such an onslaught in the middle of the pandemic makes these policies “abominable,” Pedroso said. Once the pandemic spread and began to devastate the economies of many countries, Washington “saw it as an opportunity to further aggravate the effects of the blockade and the suffering of the Cuban people,” he explained, “when the world needs more brotherhood and solidarity than ever.”
Washington’s hostile actions “reached such a point that they prevented people and solidarity organizations around the world from sending donations and medical supplies to Cuba to tackle Covid-19,” he underlined. “What inhumane policy is that one that seeks to divide families and try to make an entire people surrender due to shortages?”
Under such adverse circumstances, however, Cuba achieved “the feat of developing three homegrown vaccines and two vaccine candidates against Covid-19,” Pedroso said, because the Cuban people are steadfast in defending their revolution and the country’s sovereignty.
“At this juncture, the friends of Cuba in the United States and other parts of the world represent an indispensable pillar for the Cuban people in their resistance and struggle for dignity,” Pedroso said. “No matter how huge the challenges can be, we will overcome them because Cuba is not alone.”
Cuban women at forefront of revolution
The first panel at the conference featured FMC general secretary and member of Cuba’s Council of State Teresa Amarelle Boué. The FMC is Cuba’s main women’s organization, which emerged as a result of the 1959 revolution.
Boué pointed to a speech by Fidel Castro, the central leader of the Cuban revolution, who told the FMC congress in 1985: “In Cuban women today, the revolution has a veritable army, an impressive political force. And that’s why we say the revolution is simply invincible.”
The FMC leader alluded to how ordinary women were transformed through the revolution, which combated social prejudices that previously prevented most women from assuming leadership positions in the workforce, society, and government.
About 55% of the workforce in Cuba today are women, Boué noted. This includes more than 67% of teachers and other personnel in education, 62% of doctors, 64% of those engaged in internationalist missions around the world, and 35% among the self-employed.
Women’s participation in leadership positions at the local and national level of the Cuban state has increased. “By the end of 2021, nearly 52% of the decision-making positions in government were occupied by women,” Boué said. This includes 53% of the members of the National Assembly, Cuba’s parliament, and 52% of the Council of State.
With the help of the FMC, the Cuban government has taken measures to combat domestic violence, which includes organizing centers in 156 municipalities to assist women who have been victims of such violence.
A feature of Boué’s presentation was the current campaign to revise Cuba’s family code, in which the FMC is playing a leading role.
Proposals include legalizing gay marriage; expanding the definition of marriage to include de-facto unions of couples who live together for more than two years without having been wed; facilitating surrogate motherhood for altruistic, not money making, reasons; and making it easier for anyone to change their last name.
Another proposal is revoking “parental custody” (“patria potestad” in Spanish), which exists throughout Latin America and emphasizes parental rights instead of responsibilities toward children. The concept put forward in place of this practice is “parental responsibility,” which includes a host of parental obligations and children’s rights “to guarantee the well-being and happiness of children,” Boué said.
“The process of popular consultation started in February,” the FMC leader pointed out. The 24th draft of the new family code is now being discussed and debated in 78,000 neighborhood and other community meetings where every Cuban can contribute orally or in writing. All suggestions will be considered in revising the draft, which will then be discussed and approved by the National Assembly. It will finally be put to a popular vote in a referendum.
“This is democracy in action,” said Boué.
Confronting climate change
Another panel at the conference focused on how Cuba is confronting climate change. It included Osmayda Hernández, another FMC leader.
Helen Yaffe, a lecturer on economic and social history at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, was one of the main speakers in this session. She spoke via a video link. A frequent visitor to Cuba, she recently produced a documentary film, “Cuba’s Life Task: Combating Climate Change,” part of which was shown at the gathering here.
Cuba may be responsible for only 0.08 percent of global CO2 emissions, but it is disproportionately hard-hit by the effects of climate change, Yaffe said. The frequency and severity of hurricanes, drought, and other extreme weather events is increasing to the detriment of ecosystems, food production, and public health.
“Without action to protect the coastline from rising sea levels, up to 10 percent of Cuban territory could be submerged by the end of the century,” Yaffe pointed out. “But unlike many countries, where climate action is always something promised for the future, in Cuba, serious action is being taken now. Over the last 15 years, several international reports identified Cuba as the world leader in sustainable development. And in the spring 2017, the Cuban government approved Tarea Vida [Life Task], its long-term plan to confront climate change.”
Yaffe, who was denied a U.S. visa waiver to travel to this country, is on a virtual tour in a dozen U.S. cities March 16 – April 19 to talk about her work in solidarity with Cuba.
Other speakers in this session included Allison Bodine from the Canadian Network on Cuba and Regina Cobian, a nurse and member of the Los Angeles U.S. Hands Off Cuba Committee.
“Capitalism is a system that seeks to maximize profits at any ecological or social cost,” Cobian said in her talk. “More recently, capitalism has found a sinister way to profit off of climate change through what is called ‘green capitalism.’ Unfortunately, this is not a solution.”
She continued: “Capitalism shifts blame from the corporations that are responsible for over two-thirds of all the greenhouse gas emissions and most of the ocean pollution towards the working class. Green capitalism pushes the false idea that our individual actions as consumers are responsible for the state of our planet, because we could not afford organic produce, pay for paper straws, or drive electric cars.”
Cuba, on the other hand, Cobian said, has a more comprehensive plan for climate change and has made more strides to keep its word than any imperialist nation. “It shows that a better world is possible.”
A rally in solidarity with Cuba concluded the first day of the conference. Speakers included Yuri Gala López, Cuba’s deputy ambassador to the UN; Fernando Gonzalez, one of the Cuban Five revolutionaries imprisoned in the U.S. in 1998 on trumped-up espionage charges and released in 2014, who addressed the conference from Cuba via video link; Carlos Lazo, a leader of Puentes de Amor (Bridges of Love); Joselyn Velasquez of the Puerto Rican pro-independence group La Promesa (The Promise); and Chris Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union seeking to unionize workers at Amazon’s warehouses in New York.
Clever Banganayi of the Friends of Cuba Society in South Africa, and Terry Marryshow of the Grenada-Cuba Friendship Association in Grenada, sent greetings to the conference. Kayla, a Puerto Rican singer, and her band performed during the rally.
The second day of the event was devoted to solidarity activities to promote the campaign to lift the U.S. embargo, encourage travel to the Caribbean nation, and send material aid to Cuba.
Carlos Lazo described the monthly car caravans demanding an end to Washington’s economic war on Cuba and normalization of relations between the two countries. The next caravans take place March 27, he said, encouraging participants to organize such activities in their areas.
Gail Walker of IFCO/Pastors for Peace described several delegations heading to Cuba in coming months. These include the NNOC-sponsored International May Day Brigade to Cuba, the Venceremos Brigade, IFCO’s Friendshipment Caravan, and an environmental and political delegation sponsored by the LA US Hands Off Cuba Committee traveling to Cuba at the end of April. “Go to Cuba, and, most importantly, return and share your stories and experiences,” she said.
Bob Schwartz of Global Health Partners described the successful campaign that sent 7.5 million syringes and tons of personal protective equipment from the U.S. and Canada to Cuba last year to help the country inoculate its population against Covid-19. The Saving Lives Campaign is now organizing a new effort to raise funds and send Cuba badly needed medical equipment, he said.
A terrific concert by jazz musician Arturo O’Farrill and his trio concluded the conference.
Categories: Cuba/Cuba Solidarity