Standing by Cuba

Published : Feb 10, 2006 00:00 IST

The Asia-Pacific Regional Cuba Solidarity Conference in Chennai concludes with a call to promote "multifaceted solidarity activities" with the socialist country, which has braved the 46-year-old economic blockade imposed by the United States.

V. SRIDHAR in ChennaiThe Hindu

NEARLY 200 delegates representing more than 100 organisations in 17 countries of the Asia-Pacific, gathered in Chennai on January 20 and 21 to express their solidarity with Cuba, which has been the victim of the longest economic blockade in history. They saluted the Cubans for having braved enormous odds created by the 46-year-long blockade imposed by ten successive United States administrations.

The declaration adopted at the third Asia-Pacific Regional Cuba Solidarity Conference resolved to observe July 26 as "Cuba solidarity day" in the region. It condemned the U.S. for its refusal to respect international law and public opinion, particularly its failure to comply with near-unanimous resolutions adopted by the United Nations General Assembly against the blockade in the past 13 years (see table). The latest vote in the General Assembly was on November 8, 2005 when 182 member-countries voted in favour of the resolution condemning the blockade; only the U.S., Israel, Marshall Islands and Palau voted against the resolution.

Although the blockade formally commenced in February 1962 when President John F. Kennedy signed a decree, measures that constitute the blockade were imposed soon after the Cuban revolution in 1959.

The blockade has been all-pervasive. And, it has been particularly harsh on the Cuban people after the collapse of socialist countries in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union with which Cuba enjoyed a special economic partnership. The collapse of the socialist camp resulted in a dramatic contraction of Cuba's foreign trade since the "eastern bloc" accounted for about 85 per cent of it. In the 1990s Cuba had to reorient the terms on which it engaged with the world at large.

The blockade implies that Cuba can neither export its products nor import merchandise from what would logically be its most important trading partner. American citizens are prohibited from visiting Cuba and Cuba cannot use the U.S. dollar for its transactions with other countries. Cuba does not have access to U.S. regional or multilateral financial institutions.

The blockade has a significant "extraterritorial" component, with its scope extended to other countries as well. The passage of the Torricelli Act by the U.S. Congress in 1992 marked an important step in the U.S. attempt to strangle Cuba. The Act placed restrictions on ships sailing to and from Cuba. A ship that has docked in Cuban waters cannot enter the U.S. until six months later and it has been granted a fresh permit from U.S. authorities. The passage of the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 further extended the scope of the blockade by providing for prosecution of and sanctions on existing and potential foreign investors in Cuba. Moreover, it authorised the funding of hostile and subversive activities on Cuban soil.

As a result of pressure from American public opinion, particularly from within the agricultural sector, in recent years Cuba has been able to purchase goods from the U.S. But the process is extremely complicated and one which still severely discourages trade with Cuba. In 2004, Cuba bought goods worth $474 million from the U.S. But it had to pay the cash in advance. Cuba does not enjoy access to credit and each individual consignment had to be backed by a permit. Cuba could not use its own fleet to transport these goods and payments had to be made through banks in third countries since the U.S. bars direct banking transactions between Cuban and U.S. entities.

Nearly three-quarters of all Cubans were born after the blockade. It is estimated that the direct economic damage suffered by Cuba since the blockade started is over $82 billion. In 2005, the damage is estimated to have been $2,674 million.

Despite the enormous difficulties Cuba has exhibited a resilience that few countries are capable of. During 2005 the economy grew by 11.8 per cent, compared to about 4 per cent in all of Latin America. Speaking at the inaugural, Sergio Corrieri Hernandez, President, Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos (ICAP-Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples), said that no U.S. administration had been as hostile as the current one headed by George W. Bush. He said that despite its posturing as a fighter against terrorism, it continues to nurture and promote the activities of the "Miami-based Cuban mafia" on Cuban soil. Hernandez said the Bush administration had escalated the attack on Cuba. "There is not a single screw that has not already been turned, not a single pressure that is yet to be applied, not a single abomination that has not already been committed."

Later, Hernandez told Frontline that the Cuban economy had undergone a significant transformation in the past decade. Sugar, traditionally the most significant commodity in Cuba's export basket, had yielded to other commodities and services which Cuba is better equipped to provide to the world (see interview). Cuban advances in the field of biotechnology and medicine, backed by the skills of its highly educated workforce, have laid the basis for the transformation.

Cuban doctors and technicians are known all over the world. Hernandez said that expressing solidarity with others comes easily to most Cubans. After all, he said, "we have received so much from people all over the world". At present 27,000 Cuban health workers are in 60 countries. "We believe in solidarity and practise it to the best of our ability, sharing what we have and giving away what exceeds our needs." "Cuba," said Hernandez, "does not export arms, war or death; it exports health, education and life."

PARTIES from across the Indian political spectrum pledged their support to Cuba at the conference. The two main Left parties were there in strength; but so also were the Congress, and the main regional parties from Tamil Nadu. In his inaugural address, Sitaram Yechury, Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), likened Cuba to David, against the mightier Goliath, the U.S. He pointed out that the ongoing process of globalisation was unsustainable because it deprived people of jobs in both developed and the developing worlds. The resulting contraction in the purchasing power of the people of the world, accompanied by the increasing concentration of incomes and wealth in the hands of a few, results in a serious crisis for capitalism.

Yechury said the "naked aggression" of U.S.-led imperialism was aimed at defending what was basically unsustainable. He situated the U.S.-led war on Iraq and the threats against Iran in this context. Socialist Cuba, he said, stood as a bulwark against imperialism, fighting heavy odds. Moreover, he said, Cuba had galvanised a radical shift against imperialism in all of Latin America, reflected most recently by the election of popular governments in Bolivia and Chile. He said Cuba's influence in the region had caused a "multiplier effect", providing an alternative to neo-liberalism.

Yechury pointed out that by expressing solidarity with Cuba, "we are not doing Cuba a favour". "Our expression of solidarity is at the same time a condemnation of U.S. imperialism," he said. Solidarity is not only humanitarian, but also has a political component, he stressed. This, he said, was particularly important in the context of the "struggle towards a multi-polar world".

Earlier, N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief, The Hindu, and chairman of the conference reception committee, said "tangible and practical results" had been achieved in the Asia-Pacific region since the first conference in Kolkata in 1995. He stressed that what Cuba had undergone were not sanctions but a systematic embargo. He said that despite the "despicable lies" about Cuba's involvement in the Kennedy assassination, the solidarity movement had grown. The situation in Cuba, he said, was much more difficult. He praised socialist Cuba's "magnificent achievements in the field of health and education" and referred to the many instances in which Cuba itself, despite being hemmed in by a severe blockade, had assisted countries across the world. He cited the example of Cuban health workers in Pakistan in the aftermath of the recent earthquake.

However, N. Ram stressed that the solidarity movement in India and in the region needed to develop in a "more broad-based way". He suggested that the movement needed to develop in a more "sustained and practical manner". In particular, he said, the media "needs to do more in removing the semi-literacy" that characterises its coverage of Cuba.

The Chennai declaration urged political and social organisations representing workers, farmers, agricultural labourers, youth, women, students, intellectuals and artists to participate in activities expressing solidarity with Cuba. It also resolved to promote "multifaceted solidarity activities with Cuba in the region".

The highlight of the concluding session of the conference was a poem delivered by Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president M. Karunanidhi, dedicated to Cuban President Fidel Castro.

CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat and Communist Party of India national secretary D. Raja said the Left parties were organising a movement against imperialism. This would culminate in a protest during the visit of George Bush to India in March. Karat said the expression of solidarity with Cuba is a "reaffirmation of the rights of nations to choose their own path". "In Cuba we see the hopes and aspirations of all peoples who are struggling for a just and humane order. No other nation had faced this kind of hostility with courage and determination," he said.

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