First-Hand Report from Conference in Cuba

Solidarity at the Crossroads

by W.T. Whitney, Jr.

In November, 50 North Americans and 12 people from other countries took humanitarian aid, mainly medical supplies, to Cuba in violation of U.S. embargo laws (see “It’s Not an ‘Embargo’; It’s a Blockade”). They were part of the 11th Friendshipment caravan to Cuba organized by Pastors for Peace. In Havana, Cuba, they joined more than 600 other U.S. citizens to take part in the Second World Conference for Friendship and Solidarity with Cuba from November 10 through November 14, 2000.

Every year trucks, buses, and ambulances loaded with supplies converge at a city near the U.S. border with Mexico or Canada. They travel in caravans from all over the United States. This year two caravans, one in July, the other in November, proceeded from San Antonio to MacAllen, Texas, where they crossed into Mexico. The Friendshipments, led by Rev. Lucius Walker, utilize civil disobedience to oppose the blockade. The organizers refuse to apply for or to accept the license required by the embargo laws for humanitarian donations to Cuba on the grounds that the whole system of blockade is illegal, cruel, and immoral.

On November 2, U.S. customs officials waved the latest caravan through, and consequently the action gained little publicity. The convoy proceeded on to Tampico, Mexico, where with the help of local longshoremen, material worth tens of thousands of dollars was loaded into a dockside container for shipment to Cuba. Two buses and two ambulances, all filled with supplies, were also hoisted onto the ship. Maine activists, especially Peter and Judy Robbins of Sedgwick, Maine, provided for one of the ambulances, and fundraising in London, England, led by the veteran caravanista, Paul Davidson, allowed for the purchase of the other ambulance. The Tampico dockworkers then joined the Pastors for Peace group for the ten-day visit to Cuba.

On the airplane as it approached Havana, Lucius Walker spoke words similar to those in June 1999 (this writer had been part of that trip, too), when he offered a brief, unadorned statement of support for Cuba’s socialist revolution and gratitude to the Cuban people for their courage and idealism.

The U.S. government’s response to the first few Friendshipment crossings of borders was to abuse and harass people taking aid to Cuba, and to confiscate their vehicles and humanitarian donations. Pastors for Peace responded by fasts and mobilization of allies. In 1996, Lucius Walker and three others fasted for 94 days to force the U.S. government to allow 400 computers to be sent to Cuba for use in hospitals and clinics.

The publicity and support given to the anti-blockade campaign must have proved embarrassing to Washington, because recently whole groups of vehicles have been allowed to cross, unimpeded. On November 15, six Friendshipment vehicles were stopped for less than five minutes as they returned through MacAllen, Texas. Passports were not checked, and questions were not asked.

The leadership of Pastors for Peace interprets the government response as a victory; officials are viewed as having backed down in their enforcement of embargo regulations. Lucius Walker calls upon other U.S. organizations donating medical supplies to Cuba to follow suit and to refuse to send licensed donations. However, many Friendshipment participants now have questions. They believe that a new strategy is required, one that calls for dramatic and highly visible protests.

For three days, members of the Friendshipment toured and visited in rural areas of Pinar del Rio province. They then joined the U.S. delegation to the five-day World Solidarity Conference. There, they found themselves on the receiving end of a strong, if unspoken, message that the heavy lifting in the fight against the blockade needs to take place in the United States. They learned that their future role in the campaign of solidarity with Cuba would be crucial.

The first World Solidarity Conference took place in Havana in 1994 when the suffering of the Cuban people was most acute, at the height of the “special period” (after aid from the former Soviet Union suddenly ended). This time, 4,347 delegates from 118 countries gathered in the huge Karl Marx theater, perched dramatically on the edge of the Caribbean. Plenary sessions were addressed by Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba’s National Assembly; Carlos Lage, vice-president of the Cuban Council of State; Sergio Corrieri, head of ICAP (Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples), the Cuban hospitality organization; Felipe Pérez Roque, Cuba’s foreign minister; and President Fidel Castro.

Welcoming the delegates, Corrieri matched forty years of solidarity with forty years of blockade. Carlos Lage noted that the Cuban economy has been slowly recovering in recent years with an average growth rate of 4.4 per cent per year. He promised that whether the blockade lasts one more year, or one hundred, Cuba will not compromise and will not renounce its principles.

On November 14, a “tribunal” was staged at a seaside park bound on the west by the U.S. Interests Section building and on the east by a statue of José Martí, who is holding up an accusing finger. Conference attendees and busloads of students brought in for the occasion heard denunciations of U.S. policy from ten representatives of various national delegations. Lucius Walker concluded the session with an eloquent speech, full of history and dramatic effect. (See the text elsewhere in this issue.)

Delegates to the Conference visited the Latin American School of Medicine, several other educational centers, a psychiatric hospital, botanical gardens, agricultural cooperatives, and the center for the care of now 16,000 children victimized by the Chernobyl nuclear accident. They were entertained by the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional de Cuba and by Compay Segundo of Buena Vista Social Club fame. Visiting trade unionists met with the leadership of the Confederation of Cuban Workers, and national delegations from various Communist parties met with their Cuban counterparts.

Over 700 of those attending had the opportunity to address either a plenary session or one of the smaller focus groups. Many described ongoing struggles in their own countries or regions and asked for support. Their message was that they were fighting against the same system of arrogance and unchecked power that has long menaced Cuban sovereignty. And they uniformly expressed gratitude for Cuba’s solidarity. A Cuba spokesperson, however, responded to a plea for the Zapatistas with a remarkable silence. Speeches on behalf of the Palestinian cause, Puerto Rican independence, the guerrilla movements of Colombia, and the “Bolivarian revolution” of Hugo Chávez were all enthusiastically received by the crowd.

While within the United States anti-blockade rhetoric speaks of cruelty and illegality versus decency and tolerance, the overwhelming cry from the Solidarity Conference was that of anti-imperialism and internationalism. There were references to consumerism as a U.S. tool for profits and for obscuring the realities of class conflict throughout the world. It might be added that for North Americans, twinges of resentment that one’s patria was being bashed should have been cured by commitment to the main theme of the Conference, that of a socialist future.

Speakers concluded their remarks with slogans such as: “Abajo Bloqueo!” “Viva Fidel!” “Viva Cuba Revolucionaria!” “Viva Cuba Socialista!”, and “Venceremos!” Cuba is respected both because of its resistance to the United States and because of its socialism. Cuba’s friends value her as the standard bearer for world socialism, an “example for the whole world.”

Speakers at the Conference and individual Cubans elsewhere cited examples of Cuba’s practice of socialism. These included the remarkable health status of the Cuban people, educational achievements, and Cuban solidarity with freedom fighters throughout the world. Speakers recalled the military support that Cuba gave to the anti-apartheid struggle in Southern Africa and measures taken against counter-revolution in El Salvador and Nicaragua. The Cuban revolution was given credit for thousands of doctors, nurse, teachers, and technicians who have worked abroad, for thousands of foreign students who have studied in Cuba, and for the Latin American School of Medicine.

Two main messages derive from these events. First, the Cuban revolution will survive and will withstand the blockade; there is a spirit of optimism about. The economy has risen from the ashes of the “special period” (even though there are growing income inequalities, according to Cuban leaders). Cuba has friends, as evidenced by the Solidarity Conference itself (reported in detail to the Cuban people) and by the November 9 vote in the UN General Assembly on a resolution that condemned the U.S. blockade, with 167 nations voting in favor of the resolution, and only the United States and its client states, Israel and the Marshall Islands, opposing it. The outcome of the Elián affair gave Cuban self-confidence a big boost, with the truth about Cuba’s enemies in Miami being showcased for all to see. And Cubans have taken immense pleasure in the U.S. debacle over the presidential election. The paragon of electoral democracy turns out to be a “banana republic.”

Second, opposition to the blockade from within the United States from now on must derive from a socialist perspective. Left forces, such as they are, must build a unified opposition movement against the blockade, and join it to other struggles that serve the need of the poor and excluded. Cuba stands up against globalization almost alone and she deserves support. Organized labor needs to be turned on to Cuba. Unions are the backbone of the British, Spanish, and Italian solidarity campaigns. The British Postal Workers Union, for example, is at this time sending fifty ambulances to Cuba. In addition, actions that appear daring, principled, even outrageous must be utilized to capture the attention of a manipulated, distracted U.S. public. Cuba needs to be brought within the range of the public’s radar screen.

Among the Conference recommendations were these: to establish October 10, 2001, as World Solidarity Day with Cuba; to make the year 2001 the year of solidarity with Cuba, with vigils and demonstrations to be held in front of U.S. embassies and at the UN; to continue sending solidarity work brigades and educational tours to Cuba; and to make use of the Internet in defense of the Cuban revolution.

Such projections should have brought North American participants to full alert. Knowing that activities like these, by themselves, are not likely to have much of an impact on policy makers in Washington, they realize that for the fight against the blockade to succeed, most of the work within the United States is going to have to be done at the grassroots level.

Unfortunately, at the Conference, the U.S. delegation failed to begin the process of organizing effective campaigns. The group was diverse, and seemed to lack cohesion and unity. Pastors for Peace is planning another Friendshipment in July 2001. That organization seems to be much appreciated by the Cuban leadership and people, and indeed no other U.S. organization, in my view, has consistently kept up as direct and principled an opposition to the blockade as Pastors for Peace. But its future direction is unclear.

Returning home, the visitors should have been re-energized by the intensity and content of the Solidarity Conference, and by Cuba itself, to fight for Cuba and to oppose the blockade with a new determination. What will happen, of course, and how, is unknown.