KAREN WALD in Havana gives her impressions of last month's World Cuba Solidarity meeting.
Havana has been flooded with people from every continent, practically every country of the globe, for the past two weeks. They overflowed the Karl Marx theatre (where plenaries of the ICAP [Cuban Institute for Solidarity of the Peoples] solidarity meeting were held when it became clear that the International Conference Centre's largest auditorium wouldn't be able to hold them all), clogging streets, creating traffic jams, noise, phone-line tie-ups — but nobody seemed to mind.
They were here for dozens — perhaps hundreds — of reasons, and they were here for one reason: to show their solidarity with the Cuban Revolution, to call for an end of the blockade, to put their heads and bodies together to come up with concrete, practical suggestions as to how to achieve these goals.
They were here because for over three decades Cubans have interrupted their lives (sometimes permanently) to teach, heal, fight and build in countries that needed their help.
They were here because, contrary to media-produced conventional wisdom, the unipolar post-war-post-history neo-liberal world on line in real time has not made life better for them.
They were here because Cuba still represents the dream of what could be if people keep believing in the dream and struggling for it. As a Venezuelan delegate declared in a hastily scribbled poem: "I believe in Cuba".
The solidarity conference really began a few days earlier, at the gathering of some of the world's foremost left and revolutionary movements and leaders sponsored by the Organisation of Solidarity of the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America (OSPAAAL).
They were here ostensibly to participate in a pre-conference on "The Right to Social Development", which will bring their ideas and resolutions to the UN-sponsored conference on that topic in Denmark next May. But a look at the depth and breadth of the participation made one wonder whether this was a rebirth of OSPAAAL, the Tricontinental organisation founded by Che Guevara and others in the 1960s to promote mutual self-help among the liberation movements and newly independent countries of the three continents that have become known as the "Third World".
When a Danish activist promoting the parallel NGO conference that will coincide with the state-government one urged that Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela speak jointly at the NGO meeting, he reminded everyone of the role Cuba played especially in the '60s of uniting many divergent movements around key issues of sovereignty, independence and self-determination.
At that time, OSPAAAL's Tricontinental magazine contained articles reporting and reflecting on the key issues and struggles of the day by the world's foremost left intellectual and revolutionary leaders. (In 1969, working at the magazine, I translated articles by and about El Salvador's Roque Dalton, Carlos Marighella on armed struggle in Brazil, Wilfred Burchett on Vietnam, the Tupamaros urban guerilla warfare in Uruguay, Rene Depestre on Haiti, to name only a few.)
OSPAAAL's vivid posters (now highly valued collector's items and memorabilia of the left) called for solidarity with these movements, often with biting images, sometimes with subtle wit.
In recent years, both the posters and magazine declined. Long before the "special period" made paper and printers' ink scarce commodities, the inability of the world's progressive movements to reach meaningful agreements on key issues made OSPAAAL's commitment to tricontinental solidarity more wishful thinking than practical reality.
Now, looking at all these people coming together again out of the need to confront a world dominated by the wealthy capitalist countries, one could only wonder whether the time is now right for them to succeed in forging the unity they need.
The OSPAAAL event (November 18, 19 and 20) tumbled over into the solidarity gathering (November 21-25), with the hundreds of people from dozens of country becoming thousands from over a hundred nations (some which didn't exist as such when OSPAAAL began in the mid-'60s).
Cuba gives these people, diverse in every imaginable way — ethnically, linguistically, racially, ideologically — a reason for being together. There were people sharing platforms and ideas who would not be able to sit in the same room together without screaming at each other if they weren't held together by the sense of confronting a common enemy (in this case, world imperialism as represented by the US effort to destroy the Cuban Revolution).
At the OSPAAAL conference the chair had to gently remind an Israeli delegate who had jumped to the microphone after the comments by a Palestinian to ardently present his version of the Israeli-Arab conflict, that these bilateral issues were not appropriate in this conference.
(A Palestinian delegate had just commented that you can't even begin to talk about social development in a country that is occupied, not yet sovereign. At the ICAP gathering, delegates broke into long, loud applause when the Israeli delegate declared there were people on their side from the only country in the world that still voted with the US against the UN condemnation of the blockade.)
A delegate from Angola — still besieged by UNITA's bloody attacks) — talked about the everyday practical problems many governments face in acquiring the resources (for everything from schools and hospitals to irrigation systems): realities that have to be overcome before talk of international rights to social development makes sense.
Some delegates at the solidarity meeting spoke of the importance of defending Cuba's socialist option. The comments were well received in the context of Cuba's self-determination (and by many as a reflection of their own beliefs and aspirations), but not as an organising tool.
In the closing session of one of the work commissions, a delegate urged the participants who are members of Marxist-Leninist parties not to use the conference as a recruiting ground for their parties, but to focus on developing the most broad-based support for Cuba possible in each of their countries.
A Dominican commented on the profound racism, others noted the xenophobia, as integrally linked with the problems Third World peoples are facing confronting a Eurocentric new world order. Frequent comments were made about California's recently passed Proposition 187 barring medical care and education to children of undocumented (primarily Mexican and Central American) workers.
(Cuban media have had reports and comments on Proposition 187 practically every day. The daily Granma had an article headlined "First Child Victim of 187" reporting a wire-service story of an 11-year-old Mexican child who died in Los Angeles because his parents were afraid to take him to the hospital when he became ill.)
Fidel mingled much more than his security guards probably felt comfortable with. He let delegates swarm around him, stick tape recorders in his face, pose for pictures with him between every session. Love and adulation for Fidel clearly haven't diminished among these defenders of the spirit of the Cuban Revolution.
It wasn't just "star-struck" young activists. Many of the delegates were silver-haired veterans of long struggles and bloody battles in their countries, and their admiration for Fidel, like their conviction of the need for supporting the Cuban Revolution, was based in their concrete realities. Paulo Jorge of Angola commented that when he came to Cuba a few years ago for a ceremony honouring Fidel and the Cuban people's contribution to his country, for over an hour before the ceremony, Fidel questioned him intensely about every aspect of development in Angola. When it came time for Fidel to speak at the ceremony, he incorporated into his remarks many of the points, facts and figures the Angolan leader had told him — without having taken a single note.
I didn't hear any shouting matches, even in the hallways. That doesn't mean there was always good communication or that all differences were wiped away — but they were at least put aside for awhile. Non-verbal communication was at an all-time high. There was a lot of mingling at the Cristino Naranjo (a social club next to the Karl Marx, it served as meeting hall, exhibit centre cluttered with tables hawking everything from T-shirts and souvenirs to books, magazines and videos on the Cuban Revolution, with another area for viewing videos).
The delegates presented an amazing amount of facts, figures, and data about the deadly effects the past and current world economic/political systems have had on their peoples.
A woman noted that an article in a highly respected scientific magazine, speaking of the economic considerations that influence life-and-death decisions, reported that when the people of Bangladesh were hit by the severe famine that rocked the world with concern for their starving millions, the US postponed sending the life-saving rice and grains it had at its disposal for four months — to "punish" Bangladesh for having sold shoes to Cuba!
People reeled off stories of manufactured or totally distorted reports about Cuba in their local media. (A Spanish magazine published a report after Cuba's elections — in which over 95% of the electorate voted — in which it claimed that a fictitious Cuban polling institute had admitted that nearly a third of the ballots had been intentionally defaced or left blank. A French news service published the figure, based on this story but leaving out the made-up "institute", based on the Spanish article. By the time it hit the US wires, it was "factually" reported that 31.7% of Cuban voters had voted against the regime's candidates.)
Many of the signs, chants, slogans and speeches indicated that a lot of people felt it was "payback time". "In one way or another, our people have benefited from Cuban solidarity. Now when they are in need, it is time for us to help them."
An often-overlooked point: Many people date the "special period" and Cuba's time of need to the collapse of Cuba's essential trading partners in the socialist camp and in particular the Soviet Union. But they tend to overlook the fact that if the US hadn't imposed its blockade in the first place, Cuba wouldn't have needed to rely so heavily on these partners halfway around the globe. [Via Pegasus.]