Monday, 30 January 2012

Campaigner asks President Obama to release Miami 5 – but gets no response

Andy Young, CSC Brigadista
POLITICAL campaigner Andy Young has e-mailed US President Obama in a bid to get The Cuban Five released from American custody, and he has just returned from a trip to Cuba.

Andy, 52, says the five intelligence officers convicted of espionage and other offences in Miami in the 1990s are innocent. “They were working to prevent terrorism when they were arrested,” he said.

Unemployed Andy, who lives in March, has received letters from two of the five men - also known as the Miami Five - and he has written to them in captivity.

He explained: “My son lived in Venezuela for a year, and so I got involved in South American politics.”

Andy made the three-week trip to Cuba with the Cuba Solidarity Campaign.

With other members of the Northern Brigade, Andy worked in the fields, and took various items to give to Cuban residents, including razor blades and toothpaste. They stayed in a camp while clearing ground ready for cultivation, and then spent some time sight-seeing.

Andy said: “This was the 54th trip the campaign has made to Cuba, but the first time I have been with them. Cuba is a very beautiful country. Havana is semi-derelict, but they have some magnificently preserved 50-year-old cars on the streets.

“We worked alongside the Cubans with hoes and machetes to clear away weeds, so derelict land can be brought back into production.

“Four of The Cuban Five are still in jail, and one is under house arrest, and they are not allowed to see their families. I asked President Obama to free them, but had no response.”

This article appeared in the Cambridge Times

Monday, 9 January 2012

Cuba acts as inspiration

Will Stone of the Morning Star speaks to actor Adjoa Andoh about her recent trip to Cuba.

"I think Cuba has got a lot to teach us about being decent," says actress Adjoa Andoh. She's taken time out during her lunch break at the BBC, where she's recording a radio play, to tell me about her first impressions of the country.

Andoh recently made her Hollywood debut alongside Morgan Freeman in Clint Eastwood's Invictus and was one of several actors from this country to perform at the Havana Theatre Festival in November.

During their trip, organised by the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, they performed a series of works by playwright Harold Pinter, who was posthumously awarded the International Medal Of Friendship by the Cuban government for his support of Cuba, its people and the revolution.

"When we arrived the airport reminded me of being back home in Ghana, so I loved that," Andoh recalls.

"During the journey in from the airport to Havana I was struck by how green and lush everything was - very rural - and the fact that there was no advertising."

The festival's opening ceremony in a young people's centre was "just fabulous" with giant puppets, stilt-walkers, Cuban hip-hop, film installations, artwork and fireworks.

It was a "real vibrant scene," she says.

And she was impressed by meeting people working at cultural institutes who told her their job is to discover the particular gifts of children and then to put them on the path to developing those gifts. "That's really something else," she stresses.

She cites the Cuban school system, which tests children to see what they have an aptitude in so that those with an engineering will study in that direction and those with a gift for acting will go to drama school.

Apart from "free education, free healthcare, free sanitary wear and free condoms," that discovery of what it is that somebody's gifted in and "how we help them to flourish as a human being," are all things Adjoa believes Britain could follow Cuba's example in.

"That is not education's purpose in this country," she says. "We don't educate to find out what people are really good at so I feel that we are just losing the talents of huge chunks of our population because we're not looking that hard."

Apart from performing Pinter the group helped to run drama workshops and went to visit a music school where the instruments were provided by a fund set up by singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl, a great lover of Cuba, who was tragically killed 11 years ago.

"It was like Fame in the tropics," Andoh jokes. "There would be children practising on balconies, then you would walk around a corner and there'd be someone playing a bassoon, you'd go upstairs and there'd be another child playing a cello. It was the most inspiring thing.

"We also went to a school for children with disabilities. There was no provision for these children pre-revolution and now they have schools across the island.

"But everyone is working with one hand tied behind their back because they don't get access to all the latest equipment because they're poor and because of the embargo."

Basics like loo paper and soap may be rationed in Cuba, she says, "because they're denied access for wanting to live in a world that is about valuing everybody and not one of 'you can get it if you've got the money and if you haven't got the money you get nothing'."

A negative impression from the trip is that while recognising that tourism gives its economy a welcome boost, it potentially skews Cuba's intent to create a society where all are treated as equal.

"Having tourism back is a tension," she explains.

"Those people who interact with tourists on a face-to-face level such as taxi drivers have access to income that's not available to someone who's just done a 14-hour shift in a hospital or who is doing fabulous teaching work at a school in the middle of the countryside.

"There is a sense of a project of people being of equal value in Cuba that is wonderful and my concern was our being there as tourists kind of skews that a bit and could risk causing disillusionment among Cubans."

As for the Pinter performances, Andoh says they were a resounding success. The pieces were introduced and contextualised in Spanish by Cuban actors and actresses, with the poems read in Spanish first before the actors interpreted them in English.

"Pinter's humour, the stuff about oppressive regimes, the romantic drama and the interplay between men and women all went down very well," she says.

And she was struck by incredibly low ticket prices of 10 pesos - about five pence - that ensure the arts are not an exclusive preserve for the wealthy people, "allowing for Cubans to be brought up around culture from a very young age."

The five hours in the Museum of the Revolution obviously made a huge impression on Andoh, who confesses that she "wept on every floor" to see how much people endured pre-revolution to get the dictator Batista out.

"You see what people sacrificed and see photos of young women in the movement walking through the forests carrying their rifles. Then 20 years later you see older ladies in government and it's the same women," she says.

"Castro sent medical aid to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, to a country that embargoes Cuba. You have that sense that Cuba's mentality is that we are one human race and as citizens of the world we have a duty to commit to each other."

Thursday, 5 January 2012

“Why would we adopt capitalism now?”

Seminar report of ‘21st Century Cuba: Economic Development and Labour Relations’ at Latin America Conference 2011

In a lively discussion on economic developments and labour relations in 21st century Cuba, Emily Morris from London Metropolitan University began by contextualising the challenges facing Cuba’s evolving economy.

Emily demonstrated that, by 2004, the Cuban economy had recovered to the same levels as before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The recovery prior to 2004 had been driven by tourism and nickel and this had been buoyed by a surge in export services to countries such as Venezuela. Therefore, Emily concluded that, “it’s important to note that the current situation in Cuba is not due to economic mismanagement, but as a result of global financial crises” combined with the effects of three devastating hurricanes and a collapse in the price of nickel.

Emily noted that there is increasing acknowledgement of the significance of changes in Cuba and observed that some on the left – drawing parallels with the USSR’s pursuit of perestroika and glasnost – are concerned about the implications of these changes.  Emily argued that it’s wrong to characterise changes as an abandoning of socialism because socialist planning will remain the main means of economic management, although it will take the market into account. Instead, Cubans talk about “perfecting socialism”.  

Emily also challenged the Western assumption that economic changes in Cuba are part of “Raul’s project” by citing a speech made by Fidel in 2005 which signified a major reassessment of how the economy was run.

Furthermore, it is wrong to view changes in Cuba as a result of top-down government. As Emily showed, all policy decisions were reached through mass public consultation. Over 9 million Cubans participated in 163 000 public meetings. 3 million contributions were made and, from this, 800 000 individual ‘opinions’ were discerned which formed the basis of 311 new guidelines.

Dr Steve Ludlam of Sheffield University acknowledged that, although Cuban GDP had recovered to pre-Special Period levels by 2004/5, this had not been matched with real investment and much of the economy was still disrupted and unproductive. The economy was struggling to raise incomes and agricultural production whilst the socialist principle of distribution – that remuneration is based on input – was being challenged by unearned income through remittances.

Steve reiterated what Emily had said and argued that changes in Cuba were aimed at making the economy more efficient and “preserving the conquests of the Cuban revolution”. Steve re-emphasised the long process of public engagement and noted that all changes and developments will be carried out in a planned and orderly fashion with close consultation with workers and trade unions. “Workers are entitled to be consulted on any legislation which affects them and trade unions effectively have a veto on all workers’ legislation”. Workers’ assemblies must approve all production plans, implementation laws and collective bargaining with a turnout of at least 70%.

According to Steve, the process of restructuring “shows the power and influence of workers and trade unions in Cuba”. Cuba is trying to break away from the attitude of the 1990s and embrace self-employment. Trade unions are at the centre of these developments and are communicating directly with self-employed people to find out how they can represent them and offer support. As a result, self-employed people have the same rights to pensions, accident benefits and other social security as other Cuban workers. All this testifies to the inclusive and democratic nature of politics in Cuba which embraces trade unionism and workers as a core pillar of government.

Carlos Alfaro from the Cuban Embassy echoed the conclusions of the two British academics and emphasised Cuba’s commitment to socialism. Carlos said that there has been three crucial moments for the Cuban economy since 1959: First after the triumph of the revolution, second after the collapse of the Soviet Union and third the current global financial crisis. “Three times we have faced a major economic dilemma and three times we have rejected a capitalist model – why would we adopt capitalism now?”

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

“We leave your country with hope in our hearts”

Photo by Mark Thomas
The three surviving mothers of the Miami Five have thanked trade unionists for the help and support offered to them during a recent visit to the UK, writes CSC Communications Manager Natasha Hickman for Union News.

Irma Sehwerert, Magali Llort, and Mirtha Rodriguez came to the UK in December to speak at Unite sector conferences and to speak at the annual Cuba Solidarity Campaign vigil outside the US Embassy in London.

Their sons were arrested by the FBI in September 1998 and charged with spying, shortly after they had passed information to the US government about terrorist groups operating from Miami who were planning attacks against the Cuba people.

Although best known as the mothers of the Five, all three women played their own individual roles in building the Cuban society and revolution for which their sons sacrificed their freedom.

Rene’s mother, Irma, grew up in Chicago and between1956-59 was active in raising US funds for the 26th July Movement in support of Fidel Castro’s guerrilla army. Both Magali and Mirtha were once trade union leaders in their own right, and all three expressed a keen interest in, and support for the 30th November public pension strike action which took place during their stay.

Speaking at the Candlelit Vigil outside the US embassy on 1 December, Magali paid tribute to the striking workers: “Cuba is present alongside you and anyone engaged in struggle for justice in whatever part of the world.”

With such a family legacy, it is no wonder their sons became heroes and volunteered to defend the country and revolution their mothers had helped to build.

In the 90s, Rene, Antonio, Ramon, Gerardo and Fernando, infiltrated right-wing Miami based groups responsible for almost 3,500 Cuban deaths since 1959. The information they gathered was passed on to the FBI, who rather than arrest the terrorists, arrested the five, and charged them with conspiracy to commit espionage and sentenced to harsh jail terms of 15 years to double life.

Their case has been taken up by Nobel prize winners, and religious, legal and human rights groups across the world including Amnesty International. In the UK, both the TUC and many unions have passed conference motions and are active in support of the campaign for justice for these five Cuban men unjustly imprisoned in US jails since 1998 for trying to stop terrorist attacks against their country.

“Since this date there has not been a moment of happiness. In the years that have passed we have witnessed violations of their rights, difficulties visiting them, and denial of visas to two of their wives. It has been a nightmare that has lasted more than 13 years” explains Irma.

And since their arrests in 1998, the families have continued to fight for their freedom, travelling around the world, speaking to whoever will listen and trying to break the international silence around the case.

Irma has just returned from visiting her son in Miami. Although released on 7 October 2011, Rene must stay another three years on supervised release. His mother is visibly and justifiably worried for his safety since he must live in a secret location, forced into hiding in close proximity the very terrorist groups that he was in the US to infiltrate.

“The media silence has prohibited people from knowing that our sons were only in Miami to monitor groups that have devastated the lives of thousands of Cuban families by carrying our terrorist activities against Cuba for more than 50 years. Their only mission was to find out about these actions to stop them from happening again, not just against Cubans but against the American people and other nationalities visiting Cuba too.”

Antonio’s mother Mirtha is just a few weeks away from her 80th birthday and painfully aware that she may not live to see justice for her son. “I don’t have much time left. Antonio must serve another five years, and then a further five on supervised release in the US. My life is short but what I have experienced since being here fills me with hope for the future and for my son. I can see that the work you are doing in the UK is real, and it won’t stop when we get on the plane back to Havana. I know you will continue fighting for Antonio when I am no longer able to do so myself.”

Speaking alongside Brendan Barber, Tony Woodley, Sally Hunt and 19 other trade union leaders and MPs at the annual US Embassy candlelit vigil for the Miami Five the three mothers gave thanks to the 250 people gathered there and the wider trade union and solidarity movement in Britain.

“We had heard about your work before but we want to tell you with all our hearts that what we have experienced has completely surpassed every expectation we had. We bring thanks and love from the Five to you all, and thank you for the warmth and solidarity which you have shown us in our short time here.

“We leave your country with hearts full of hope and with immense thanks for all that you are doing for Cuba and for the Five.”