Cuba/Cuba Solidarity

US-Cuba Normalization Conference: ‘End US Blockade’

By Duane Stilwell

NEW YORK CITY, March 12, 2023 — About 200 people from across the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico gathered at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center Campus here March 11-12 for the fourth International U.S.-Cuba Normalization Conference. They came to discuss and plan this year’s activities around three demands:

  • Removing Cuba from Washington’s spurious list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism” (SSOT)
  • Ending Washington’s more than six decades long economic, commercial, and financial blockade of Cuba; and
  • Revoking all U.S. travel and economic sanctions against Cuba.

More than 100 organizations from the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico endorsed the gathering. It was the second such in-person event since the Covid-19 pandemic.

A large delegation from Cuba — including several leaders of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) — participated in the event, highlighting the leadership role that women play in Cuban society and politics. The delegation is taking part in the annual deliberations at the United Nations of the Commission on the Status of Women, an intergovernmental body dedicated to the promotion of equality regardless of sex, and women’s rights.

March 11, 2023, plenary session of U.S.-Cuba Normalization Conference in New York City. (Photo: Duane Stilwell / World-Outlook)

Organizers streamed the event online. Watch parties were held in Miami, Los Angeles, Boston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Portland, as well as in Vancouver, Canada. An estimated 300 people took part via Zoom. A video of the plenary session is available here.

Co-sponsoring organizations included the National Network on Cuba (NNOC), the Canadian Network on Cuba, the LA US Hands Off Cuba Committee, the Cuba Solidarity Committee in Puerto Rico, the New York-New Jersey Cuba Sí Coalition, Puentes de Amor, and the Saving Lives Campaign US.

Participants came mostly from the United States and Canada. Smaller delegations from Jamaica and Puerto Rico also took part. Organizers noted the growing number of young people attending the conference for the first time, including students from Fordham who helped arrange for the venue.

Those present enjoyed an exhibition of Cuban art and a short film festival that included the documentary “Cuba in Africa.”

Ike Nahem, a leader of the US-Cuba Normalization Conference Coalition, welcomed participants. “We are building a movement that unites organizations and activists that may not — and do not necessarily — agree on other issues,” Nahem said, but are united in opposing the U.S. blockade.

Tamara Hansen of the Canadian Network on Cuba co-chaired the plenary session. She emphasized the need “to demand that U.S. President Joe Biden remove Cuba from the so-called State Sponsors of Terrorism list. We know this is hypocrisy. This is cruelty towards Cuba.”

Yuri Ariel Gala López, Cuba’s Deputy Permanent Representative at the United Nations, and Cuban Ambassador to the United Nations Pedro Luis Pedroso Cuesta took part in the event. Pedroso gave brief welcoming remarks.

Impact of U.S. blockade on Cuban society

The plenary session of the conference featured a keynote address by Noemi Rabaza Fernández, First Vice-president of the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP).

Noemi Rabaza Fernández, First Vice-president of the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP), addresses plenary session of the U.S.-Cuba Normalization conference on March 11. Women bear the brunt of the hardships the U.S. blockade imposes on the Cuban people, she said. (Photo: Screenshot from conference video)

Rabaza Fernández outlined the damage inflicted on the Cuban people by the U.S. blockade, which has been intensified by more than 240 new sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and continued by the Biden administration, which has also added others.

These policies have “subjected the Cuban economy to extraordinary tensions that lead to worsening living standards for families,” the ICAP leader said. They “hit the country’s revenue, its financial transactions, its industry, construction, services, trade, investments, health services and education.

“It is a policy that causes hardships across our entire society, and comes down hardest on the most vulnerable, like children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with disabilities. In addition, it deliberately stimulates emigration.”

Over the past year 250,000 Cubans — more than 2% of the island’s population — have been detained after attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Most immigrants from the island travel overland from Central America, but significant numbers attempt the perilous journey by boat across the Florida straits. The exodus shows no sign of tailing off.

Rabaza Fernández pointed to “the insidious persecution” of Cuba’s medical cooperation brigades around the world by the U.S. government and its allies and the “infamous inclusion of Cuba on the arbitrary list of countries that allegedly sponsor terrorism. In addition, the financing of destabilizing activities and slander campaigns against Cuba continues.”

Cuba has an unparalleled record of providing selfless medical aid around the world, especially in semicolonial countries. During the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, Cuba responded to calls from help from around the globe, dispatching 57 brigades of medical specialists from its Henry Reeve International Contingent, treating 1.26 million Covid-19 patients in 40 countries — including much wealthier nations like Italy. The brigades joined another 28,000 Cuban healthcare professionals already serving in 66 countries.

The U.S. government regularly denounces the Cuban medical missions as “human trafficking” and has called on other countries to stop accepting them. This includes Italy, where 52 Cuban medical specialists arrived in January to help close a staffing gap in public hospitals in Calabria, in the country’s south. (The lack of medical personnel was the result of budget cuts in Italy’s health care system.)

Cuban doctors and nurses arrive in Calabria, Italy, in January 2023 to help compensate for a shortage of medical staff in public hospitals in the region. About 45 percent of Calabria’s residents live at the risk of poverty, the third highest rate in Italy, after Campania and Sicily, and the seventh highest rate in Europe. (Photo: Corriere della Serra)

In 2005, Washington rejected an offer by Cuba’s then president Fidel Castro to send Cuban doctors to U.S. states devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

The blockade, Rabaza Fernández said, also harms “those countries that could receive solidarity and help from Cuba [and] the people of the U.S., who are denied the right to travel freely to our country, restricting academic, cultural and scientific collaboration and the access to Cuban medicines and treatments.”

“We will never give up,” she added, on “our aspiration of living in peace as the highest human achievement.”

Rabaza Fernández described the approval by popular referendum in 2019 of a new constitution that codifies the protection and promotion of human rights for all Cubans, men and women. The New Families Code, which was also approved in a referendum last year, she added, represents “an advanced approach that offers broad protections for the rights of minors and women, the elderly, the LGBTIQ+ community, and people with special needs, among others.” (For more information see “New Cuban Family Code: A Revolutionary Achievement.”)

“It is my sincere hope,” Rabaza Fernández concluded, “that this conference will help spread the truth about Cuba more widely among the American people. A beneficial, less hostile relationship is always possible.”

The ‘Off the List’ campaign

Two new co-chairs of the National Network on Cuba, Shaquille Fontenot and Calla Walsh, gave a short presentation on the #OFFTHELIST campaign, highlighting a new digital anti-SSOT toolkit of resources that can be used in this effort. The kit includes graphics, flyers, and other materials.

A number of academics also spoke. They included William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University, in Washington, D.C., and a co-author of the book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana. He addressed the conference via Zoom. LeoGrande mentioned a long list of mutually beneficial agreements between the United States and Cuba that Washington then violated. The Trump administration, for example, ignored or violated every single one of 23 agreements reached between Cuba and previous U.S. administrations.

August Nimtz, a professor of political science and African American studies at the University of Minnesota, pointed to the role of the Biden administration. Nimtz is co-editor/translator of the book Race in Cuba: Essays on the Revolution and Racial Inequality, and has published the article “Why There Are No George Floyds in Cuba.” Nimtz cited a speech by Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Fernández de Cossío, who noted that “the current government of the United States, that of Joseph Biden, is the one that has applied the blockade most aggressively and effectively. It is the one that punishes the most, the one that most harms the daily life of Cubans and the economy as a whole.”

Taking the fight against the blockade to a broad array of trade union and civic organizations would be an effective way to raise consciousness about Washington’s economic war on Cuba more broadly, Nimtz said.

Carlos Lazo, founder of Puentes de Amor (Bridges of Love), spoke in Spanish, noting that about 150 Spanish speakers were listening online. Puentes de Amor has promoted monthly caravans for the last two years to build support for the campaign to end the U.S. blockade of Cuba. “As a Cuban American, I am part of a growing segment of our community that sets aside political or religious beliefs and wants to lift the blockade and build bridges of love between the people of Cuba, of the United States, and the whole world,” Lazo said.

In Miami the movement to end the U.S. embargo also includes a serious effort to defend free speech. “Today the Miami Caravan is under attack,” Lazo pointed out. “The right to express oneself is being attacked with intimidation and violence in that city.”

Jim McGovern, U.S. Representative for the 2nd district in Massachusetts, addressed the conference via Zoom. McGovern said the U.S. government “has to take responsibility for the role America’s policies play in forcing people to leave their home, their families, their culture, and their language.”

After the conclusion of the plenary session participants had a choice of several workshops: Women’s Rights in Cuba Today; Cuba, Africa, the Caribbean, and African-American Struggles (not online yet); Cuba and the Labor Movement; Youth and Cuba Solidarity; Organizing the Movement in the Streets — Building the Cuba Solidarity Movement in the US, Canada & Internationally; Solidarity Travel; and Resolutions and Legislative Outreach.

The fundamental role of women in Cuban society

Osmayda Hernández Beleño, the FMC’s Director of International Relations, was the featured speaker at the workshop on women’s rights in Cuba. The FMC is Cuba’s main women’s organization, which emerged from the 1959 revolution and has since played a major leadership role throughout Cuban society.

Hernández spoke briefly about the conditions Cuban women faced before the revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and how establishing a government of working people has changed conditions for women in the Caribbean nation.

Osmayda Hernandez, Director of International Relations of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), addresses the workshop on “Women’s Rights in Cuba Today” on March 11. (Photo: Screenshot from conference video)

“Cuban women have been active participants and beneficiaries of all the conquests of the revolution. That’s because as a part of the struggle for social justice a battle began for the full exercise of equal rights and opportunities for women in all spheres and at all levels of national life,” she said.

“We can say that laws have been progressively developed and perfected that prohibit — and strengthen the struggle against — discrimination for any reason and in all areas, making equality of women and men one of the key principles of our society. In this whole process the FMC has played a fundamental role.”

Hernandez noted that 91 percent of Cuban women over the age of 14 are members of the FMC.

Women today make up more than 53% of the members of the National Assembly, Cuba’s highest legislative body; 48% of the members of the Council of State; 60% of university graduates; 67% of technical and professional workers; and 81% of professors, teachers, and scientists, the FMC leader noted.

These levels of representation “have not been reached as the result of quotas,” Hernández continued, “but are due to the place, the effort, and the right that Cuban women have been able to earn on their own.”

Nancy Valiente Montes de Oca, the president of the National Union of Cuban Jurists in Matanzas province, spoke about the far-reaching New Families Code enacted in Cuba last year after an island-wide discussion and referendum. “Life in Cuba was moving faster than the law,” she said, and the law had to be updated to fit the new Cuban reality. “Women,” she added, “played a fundamental role” in this process.

The evening ended with a public rally against the U.S. blockade at the historic Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Center in Harlem. It featured music by the Puerto Rican group BombaYo, the Zulu Nation DJ Spirit Child, as well as the youth group The RBG Girlz.

The rally also included remarks and an introduction of the Cuban representatives by Mary-Alice Waters, president of Pathfinder Press and the editor of the book Women in Cuba: The Making of a Revolution Within The Revolution; a message from Cuban Ambassador to the United States, Lianys Torres Rivera, from Washington, D.C.; and remarks by Leima Martínez Freire, ICAP’s North American Director.

Other speakers included Solimar Ortiz Jusino of the Cuba Solidarity Committee in Puerto Rico and the Deputy Director of the Juan Rius Rivera Brigade, and Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, former President of the New York State Nurses Association.

The conference concluded on March 12. The 75 people who attended the last session discussed Cuba solidarity activities planned for the coming year. Deliberations revolved around an Action Plan that could help guide the campaigns to remove Cuba from the SSOT list and to end Washington’s economic war against the island nation.

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