Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Cuba creates four anti-cancer vaccines, media ignores it

That Cuba has already developed four vaccines or inoculations against different types of cancer is without doubt important news for humanity. The World Health Organisation says each year about 8 million people die from this illness.

However, the international mainstream media have almost totally ignored this news.

Last year, Cuba patented the first therapeutic vaccine against advanced lung cancer in the world, called CIMAVAX-EGF. In January, the second one, called Racotumomab, was announced.

Clinical testing in 86 countries shows that these vaccines, although they don’t cure the illness, do managed to reduce tumours and allow for a stable stage of the illness, thereby increasing hope and quality of life.

The Molecular Immunology Centre of Havana, a Cuban state organisation, is the creator of all these vaccines.

In 1985 it developed the vaccine for meningitis B, the only one in the world, and later others that fight hepatitis B and dengue. For years, the centre has been conducting research to develop vaccines against AIDS-HIV.

The other Cuban state-run centre, Laboratories LABIOFAM, has developed homeopathic medicine for cancer such as VIDATOX, created from the blue scorpion’s venom. Cuba exports these medicines to 26 countries, and takes part in joint companies with China, Canada, and Spain.

All of this goes against the well-enforced stereotype, reinforced by the media silence regarding advances achieved by Cuba and other global south (so-called Third World) countries, that vanguard medical research takes place only in so-called developed countries.

Undoubtedly, the Cuban state obtains an economic benefit from the international sale of these pharmaceutical products. However, its philosophy of investigation and commercialisation is diametrically opposed to the business practices of the large pharmaceutical industry.

Nobel Prize for Medicine winner Richard J Roberts recently denounced the pharmaceutical industry for orienting its research not to curing illnesses, but to developing medicine for chronic ailments, which is much more economically profitable.

Roberts suggested the illnesses that are particular to poorer countries, because of their low profitability, simply are not researched. That is why 90% of the budget for research is aimed at illnesses suffered by 10% of the world’s population.

Cuba’s public medicine industry, even though it is one of the main sources of foreign currency for the country, is guided by radically different principles.

In the first place, its research is aimed at, in a large part, developing vaccines that prevent illnesses and as a consequence, reduce the population’s spending on medicine.

In an article in the prestigious magazine Science, researchers from Stanford University (California), Paul Drain and Michele Barry, said Cuba has better health indicators than the United States, despite spending up to 20 times less on the sector.

The reason for this is the absence, in the Cuban model, of commercial pressures and encouragement by pharmaceutical companies, and a successful strategy of educating the population about preventative healthcare.

Furthermore, traditional and natural therapies, such as herbal medicine, acupuncture, hypnosis and many others — practices that are not very profitable for the makers of medicine — have been integrated into the free public health system of the island for years.

Also, in Cuba, medicine is distributed via the national public hospital network as something that is either free or highly subsidised, thanks to the income from exporting it.

The Cuban medicine industry also barely assigns any of its budget to publicity. In the case of the multinationals, publicity spending is higher than what they invest in actual research.

Finally, Cuba promotes the production of generic medicine. These are made available in other poor countries and to the World Health Organisation at much lower prices than those offered by the global medicine industry.

But these measures, removed from market rules, generate a lot of pressure from the pharmaceutical industry.

Recently, the Ecuadorian government announced it would buy a large number of medicines from Cuba in exchange for scholarships for Ecuadorian students to study in Cuba and for the support provided by Cuban specialists.

Protests against the move by the Ecuadorian Association of Pharmaceutical Laboratories were immediately converted into a media campaign, spreading the message of the supposed bad quality of Cuban medicine.

On the other hand, many analysts see the international pharmaceutical industry as being behind the coup in Honduras in 2009. The elected government of Manuel Zelaya, in the framework of agreements made within the Cuba- and Venezuela-founded Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our Americas to which Honduras then belonged, aimed to substitute Cuban generic medicine for imports from multinationals.

The US blockade against Cuba imposes big obstacles to the international commercialisation of Cuban pharmaceutical products, but it is also directly detrimental to US citizens. For example, each year the 80,000 diabetics in the US who suffer the amputation of their toes don’t have access to the Cuban vaccine Heperprot P, which would prevent such amputations.

The Chemistry Nobel Prize winner Peter Agre recently said: “Cuba is a magnificent example of how scientific knowledge and research can be integrated.”

Irina Bokova, general director of UNESCO, said she was impressed by Cuba’s scientific achievements and her organisation is willing to promote them to the rest of the world.

The inevitable question is, will she count on the essential collaboration of the international mainstream media to spread this information?

This article was written by Jo MacLean and translated for Green Left Weekly by Tamara Pearson

Friday, 15 February 2013

Walk for Cuba - Sunday 14 July 2013

Join a wonderful walk through the beautiful Chess Valley to raise funds for the Cuba Solidarity Campaign.

The Walk for Cuba is a sponsored event to raise much needed funds for the work of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign. It also celebrates the 60th anniversary of the symbolic start of the Cuban revolution on 26 July 1953 when the revolutionaries made the famous and audacious assault on the Moncada army barracks in Santiago de Cuba.

Each walker will be asked to raise a minimum sponsorship of £30 (£5 children) and will receive a special Walk for Cuba t-shirt and badge. CSC will organise some celebratory activities along the route and there will be a co-ordinated refreshment stop at one of the lovely historic public houses along the way.

The Walk for Cuba, starting at Little Chalfont, is a 6½ mile circular walk and will take 3 hours at a leisurely pace. A shorter walk of 3 miles is also offered for those that can’t manage the full route. 

Your journey begins and ends in the village of Little Chalfont near the Chalfont and Latimer tube station on the Metropolitan underground line. It takes in three beautiful villages and two imposing country houses as it weaves its way through the varied and unspoilt countryside in and around the Chess Valley.
The beautiful Chess River

There is something for everyone on this truly unique walk. Wildlife lovers will relish the chance to spot herons, woodpeckers and kingfishers; children will enjoy the chance to walk through fields of cows, horses and Shetland ponies; lovers of history will marvel at the ancient Tudor manor in Chenies and real-ale enthusiasts can find refuge in the wonderful pubs along the way. All this set within an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty across the rolling hills of the Chilterns.

Why not get a group of friends to sign up with you and enjoy a wonderful summer’s day out together and support Cuba and the work of CSC at the same time.

Exact start time and location will be sent out to participants six weeks before the Walk for Cuba.

For information and sponsorship packs please call CSC on 020 8800 0155 or email office@cuba-solidarity.org.uk today.

Alternatively, you can download Registration Form, Sponsorship Form and Fundraising Tips below.

Route Map
Please Join, Share and Invite friends to the Facebook Event for the Walk for Cuba

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Food sovereignty: a long-term aim

More than 100,000 farms have now been distributed, covering more than 1 million hectares in total. Photo: Alice Mutasa
By Wendy Emmett and Lorraine Tillett

The recent devastation of agricultural areas in eastern Cuba by Hurricane Sandy is a tragically large but, hopefully, temporary setback to the slow progress towards food sovereignty in the country. Fortunately, over the past few decades, even despite the blockade and other natural disasters such as hurricanes, Cuba has been decreasing the amount of food imported into the country despite the image often portrayed of a country entirely and eternally dependent on others for sustenance. Since the 1990’s this progress has been of a noticeably different order as the Cuban government has officially recognised the significance of food sovereignty.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent disappearance of both the market for Cuba’s agricultural exports (sugar, tobacco and citrus), and the source of its food and agricultural imports, the situation was so bad that, for a time at the start of the ‘90’s (the ‘Special Period’), Cuba posted the worst growth in per capita food production in all of Latin America and the Caribbean.

 By contrast, and absolutely because of the socialist basis on which the country is organised, Cuba has rebounded over the following years to show the best performance in food production in the region: an annual growth rate of 4.2 % per capita from 1996 to 2005, where the regional average was 0 %.

As ever, detractors have tried to deny the progress Cuba is making in this area. One in particular, Denis Avery, (a climate-change denier working for the Hudson Institute, a conservative US think tank that runs the Centre for Global Food Issues, promoting  pesticides and biotechnology) has spread the myth of Cuba’s total dependency on imported food and continually detracts from the advances being made in the eco-agronomy movement in Cuba. In an article entitled “Cubans Starve on Diet of Lies,” written in 2007 he stated:
The Cubans told the world they had heroically learned to feed themselves without fuel or farm chemicals after their Soviet subsidies collapsed in the early 1990s. … Now, a senior Ministry of Agriculture official has admitted in the Cuban press that 84 percent of Cuba’s current food consumption is imported... The organic success was all a lie.
Avery has used such distortions to promote a campaign discrediting both academics and practitioners of Cuban eco-agronomy. The figure of 84% came from a statement from the Ministry of Economy and Planning in 2007 but referred only to basic food distributed via the ration card. The picture elsewhere is very different. In fact, in his ‘The Issue of Food Security in Cuba’ report for the University of Florida, José Alvarez states that, between 1980 and 1997, despite many setbacks, food imports fell from 71% to 42% overall.

According to statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations from 2003, while there were still high levels of imports in such foodstuffs as oils and cereals and nearly 50% of meat was brought in, there was negligible or no importation of  fish, starchy roots (a staple of the Cuban diet), other vegetables, fruit, eggs, and sugar. In fact, overall, there was a net importation of less than 20%.

Dependency rose again later in the 2000’s: after being hit by three especially destructive hurricanes. In 2008, Cuba satisfied national needs by importing 55% of its total food, (ironically much of this from the US which has permitted limited food exports to Cuba since 2000). However, as the world food price crisis drives prices higher, the Government has re-emphasised food self-sufficiency. Regardless of whether food has been imported or produced within the country, it is important to recognise that, since the Revolution, Cuba has been generally able to adequately feed its people, despite the blockade and external factors such as the fall of the USSR. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Cuba’s average daily per capita dietary energy supply in 2007 (the last year available) was over 3,200 kcal, much improved over the lows of the Special Period and now the highest of all Latin American and Caribbean nations.

How the changes have been achieved

Since the Revolution, as in most countries in the latter half of the 20th century, there has been a huge rural to urban migration. In Cuba much of the reason for this lay in the high levels of education achieved by its excellent and accessible education system which initially drew people away from the rural lifestyle. The Cuban government, recognising the need to move away from dependence on imports for their food and specifically following the USSR withdrawal, began in the mid-1990s to give over some farms to people with the proviso that they cultivated the land. More than 100,000 farms have now been distributed, covering more than 1 million hectares in total. Most of these new farmers are members of Credit and Service Cooperatives. The government is currently trying to accelerate the processing of an unprecedented number of land requests

The most important developments, following these moves were in this cooperative sector, which in 2006, while controlling only 25% of the agricultural land, produced over 65% of the country’s food. Production of vegetables fell drastically between 1988 and 1994, but by 2007 had rebounded to well over 1988 levels. This production increase came despite using 72% fewer agricultural chemicals in 2007 than in 1988. Similar patterns can be seen for other crops like beans, roots, and tubers, all Cuban staples.

Changes in crop production and agrochemical use
% production change
%change in agrochemical use

1988 to 1994
1988 to 2007
1988 to 2007
General vegetables
Roots and tubers

Source: Peter Rosset, Braulio Machín-Sosa, Adilén M. Roque-Jaime, and Dana R. Avila-Lozano, “The Campesino-to-Campesino Agroecology Movement of ANAP in Cuba,” Journal of Peasant Studies 38 (2011): 161-91.

Thanks to the considerable input from highly-trained technicians with a scientific background working closely with the farmers themselves, the process of refining methods and practice in the field has been very successful and has brought extra benefits such as breeds and practices with resilience to climate change. All of this is closely followed by Cuba’s Alba neighbours, many of whom have benefitted from visits by Cuban technicians who have initiated some of the best practice procedures in countries such as Venezuela and El Salvador.

Hurricane Sandy

Sandy was the most devastating hurricane in the eastern part of Cuba for a century. A total of 2,695 hectares of banana and plantains were destroyed in Santiago de Cuba, also a significant number of hectares of coffee, potato, yucca, rice and other basic products of Cuban diet were seriously damaged by the floods and strong winds. Significant damage to industrial crops like sugar cane, plantain and others will affect the economy and employment in the short term. Substantial losses were registered also in individual farms and small plots of permaculture production suffered innumerable damage; these will impact on the food security in this region. In Holguin, 85% of plantain production was lost. As well as damage to crops, food and coffee processing units were damaged and the strong winds caused soil erosion.

Food and practical help were received from other parts of Cuba immediately and international solidarity began within days. Venezuela sent over 300 tons of non-perishable food, water, equipment and machinery. Bolivia sent two shipments of water and food totalling 120 tons of aid, noting the solidarity Cuba had shown in helping to eliminate illiteracy and train Bolivian doctors.

Of course a major obstacle to hurricane recovery is the 50-year old US economic blockade which has cost Cuba up to $1.07 trillion. However, despite the blockade, the hurricanes and other effects of climate change, Cuba is gradually making significant advances in self-sufficiency. Detractors of the gains of the Cuban revolution will always present false information and a negative view of what has been and continues to be achieved. La victoria in food sovereignty may not be just around the corner, but it is on its way.

This article draws heavily on a Monthly Review article by Fernando Funes-Monzote and Miguel A. Altieri to be found here

Fernando, who researches at  the Experimental Station Indio Hatuey, University of Matanzas, Cuba, visited the UK in 2010 and spoke at several CSC meetings on the topic of eco-agronomy.

This is a corrected version of the article that appeared in CubaSi magazine. 

Friday, 8 February 2013

The not-so-secret lives of Cubans

Special delivery
For some reason, when it comes to Cuba, journalists are obsessed with discovering the “secrets” of Cuba. Maybe it's an instinct for self-promotion, or maybe items about Cuba sell better with promises of secrets revealed.

A Swiss filmmaker went to the island to discover "Cuba’s Secret Side." Her stories will be broadcast beginning tomorrow on a South Florida TV station. She went "undercover" she explains, although the clips we saw were filmed outdoors. Last Monday, a preview was posted on the Internet, an entertaining instalment called "How To Order A Pizza In Havana."

One enterprising man who lives on a third floor receives orders for pizza slices yelled up to him from the street level in front of the building. Cubans are generally no slouches when it comes to yelling. He delivers the pizza, but only down to the sidewalk, where the pizzas arrive by means of a basket that rides a pulley system up and down.

How secret is that? It’s open and notorious. Perhaps few people outside that particular neighbourhood in Havana have seen it, but it's not because the process is secret. The man may offer the only pizza delivery service by basket in Cuba.

Two days before the pizza story was posted, another groundbreaking journalist, this time writing for the UK's Independent, wrote "Cuba Reveals the Secrets of the Saints." The first part merits citation: 
In many Cuban houses, eerie, unblinking dolls form a mini altar laced with fruit and tobacco offerings, icons of saints, crosses and seemingly random objects. You might think this is a deep devotion to Catholicism. But these are in fact marks of Santería, still one of the best-kept secrets here.

You can spend weeks in Cuba, learn about the revolution, cigars, the proportion of Cadillacs to Chevrolets, and how to live on ration books – and yet learn nothing about Afro-Cuban culture. This is due not to the lotus-eating indolence of tourists, but the secrecy in which Santería is cloaked.
"Eerie, unblinking dolls" and "best-kept secrets." Really? The fact is that Santeria is noticeable everywhere, although not everyone takes part in it in the same way. Some hold bembés where they are "mounted" by the orishas, while others simply know the major saints and have an idea of what it's about. (We can reveal, for example, that the Virgin of Charity is also Oshun, the Yoruba goddess of love. That will be a secret between us and about 9 million Cubans, not counting small children and the totally clueless.) But the references are constant and public, as in popular music, movies, and conversations anywhere.

Our intrepid reporter receives a reading from a Santeria priest and awakens to what is going on: "Ever since meeting Tomas, I can't help noticing motifs of Santería everywhere I go." So much so, that one day while crossing a bridge she looks down and sees what she takes to be another instance:

On a boulder at the river edge is a smiling woman about to chop a chicken' s head off into the swirling emerald waters. Santería is everywhere, if you choose to see it.

Maybe that was an offering, or maybe the woman was just getting dinner ready, but, if it was an offering, it was hardly secret. In fact, as the author herself points out, Santeria is everywhere, if you choose to see it. Our reporter most likely will not ever take part in an abakuá ceremony, and if she saw an nganga in Cuba she did recognize it as such, but at least she has experienced Santeria, or a part of it.

So the secrets unravel.

Cubans on the island are not familiar with aspects of life in some other exotic countries, like the US and the UK. Maybe the reporters will return and share with them How to Order Delivery Pizza In Washington, and Secrets of the Church of England. The latter has some dark chapters to reveal about its origins. The necks that were chopped in that story were not of chickens.

Click here for original story

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Gentrification in Cuba? The Contradictions of Old Havana

Old Havana shops, housing. Credit: Ben Achtenberg

Strolling down the narrow boutique-lined streets on a recent Saturday afternoon, admiring the stunningly refurbished colonial facades and elbowing streams of tourists, we could have been in Soho or any other upscale urban shopping district—but for the colorful laundry hanging from upper-story balconies and the kids of all skin tones racing through the central plaza.

This is Old Havana, where a 20-year old experiment in urban planning and historic preservation has essentially revitalized a decaying historic center without displacing its poor and working class population. Now, the question is whether Cuba’s recent market-based housing and economic reforms could significantly alter the character of dynamic neighborhoods like this one, creating new gentrification pressures that reinforce persistent class- and race-based inequalities in Cuban society.

The restoration of Old Havana—a 826 square mile district containing some 3,370 buildings and 66,750 residents, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982—has been carried out under a unique model of self-financing and sustainability that has achieved worldwide recognition. Since 1993, the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana (OCH) has had broad authority over all planning, land use, development, and investment activities within the historic district, including the ability to develop and operate stores and hotels, tax businesses, carry out construction projects, and use its earnings to finance housing renovations, community facilities, and social services for local residents.

This novel approach is linked to a new focus on tourism that began in the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union wreaked havoc on Cuba’s economy. It also marked a recognition that the Revolution’s rural priorities, which had diverted resources away from Havana for decades, were exacerbating the destruction of the city’s architectural heritage. (The process of neglect and deterioration had begun much earlier, leading to a proposed U.S.-style urban renewal plan by the Batista dictatorship that would have demolished much of Old Havana, and was promptly squelched by the new Revolutionary government.)

The OHC, despite its autonomy, has a high status within the Cuban government. It is linked directly to the Council of State (Cuba’s top governing body) and is not subordinate to any ministry.

The OHC’s track record to date is impressive. Starting with the reconstruction of Old Havana’s four public plazas, it has now restored 40% of the district’s deteriorated buildings, typically with commercial space on the ground floor and housing above. The OHC operates more than 300 facilities, including 18 hotels, a tourism agency, restaurants, galleries, museums, and a radio station. It also runs a construction company that restores historic structures.

Over the past 15 years, OHC has generated more than $400 million in net revenues from its operations, as well as taxes and rents paid by private businesses under its jurisdiction. Its current annual profits exceed $40 million. Of this total, around 45% is reinvested in tourist-oriented businesses, 20% is returned to the central government, and 35% is used for housing renovations, community facilities, and social programs.

OHC’s social programs include a center for children with special needs, a home for women with high-risk pregnancies, assisted living facilities for the elderly, and educational programs for schoolchildren provided by the museums that it operates. OHC also runs a school, funded in part by the Spanish government, to train skilled craftspeople in rehab trades. It has created more than 13,500 jobs, 42% of which are held by women and 20% by youth under age 25.

For the most part, the revitalization of Old Havana has occurred without involuntary displacement, although not all original residents are able to return, and the process has not been free of difficulties. Because many of the units undergoing renovation are severely overcrowded—especially tenements which have been illegally divided into single room units with shared facilities—not everyone can be re-accommodated.

Some households have accepted relocation to outlying districts, where they have become owners of new apartments that are spacious and well-equipped, but not easily accessible to Havana. Some elderly residents have moved to rent-free assisted living facilities in the neighborhood. Others have waited years to return, living in nearby temporary housing.

On the issue of who gets to return, there are alternative narratives. According to one architect/planner we spoke with, OHC multidisciplinary teams work closely with residents to assess their needs and options, but leave the final decisions about who stays and who goes to the residents themselves. Others referred to an official priority system that favors legal occupants (excluding squatters, or illegal migrants to Havana), long-term residents, and those who “contribute to the tourist economy.”

Like other tourist-oriented ventures, the OHC’s initiatives have been criticized for furthering social and economic inequality in Cuban society. Clearly most Cubans can’t afford to shop in Old Havana’s upscale boutiques. Still, as historian Félix Alfonso has noted, “What makes this restoration unique is that it’s not an example of gentrification, where the rich buy and restore buildings while the poor are moved out. Our historical center is remaining a place where (ordinary) people live and work.”

Apartment for sale. Credit: Ben Achtenberg
Could recent (2011) changes in Cuba’s housing laws that legalize the free market sale of housing unleash speculative pressures that work to undermine this vision? The new housing law is part of a broader package of reforms (including a significant expansion of self-employment) that are designed to revitalize Cuba’s socialist economy and absorb steep layoffs in the government workforce. It is widely viewed within Cuba as a way of rationalizing the existing housing exchange system—currently restricted to “house swaps” of equivalent value—that makes it difficult for people to move and encourages evasion and corruption.

With the legalization of sales, it’s at least theoretically possible that some owners of unrenovated units in Old Havana (still a significant majority of the housing stock) will be able to reap the benefit of the government’s investment in the neighborhood by selling at elevated prices. Potential buyers include other Cubans with access to cash—from relatives abroad, lucrative self-employment in the tourist industry, or other sources both legitimate and illegitimate.

Reportedly, increasing numbers of Cubans living abroad are seeking to purchase homes for themselves (through straw buyers, since legal sales are restricted to permanent residents of Cuba). Speculators may also be attracted to this market, although legal ownership is limited to one primary residence and a vacation home.

Still, the substantial cost of renovations required for most units in Old Havana is likely to constrain both demand and prices, as is the lack of traditional mortgage financing. While the government has expanded access to credit for building repairs, real estate—other than vacation homes—can’t be used as collateral. Given the historical importance in revolutionary Cuba of protecting tenants against eviction—which could result from mortgage foreclosure—this prohibition is unlikely to change any time soon.

As for the OHC-renovated units, it’s currently unclear whether they can be sold by their occupants at unrestricted market prices. While knowledgeable OHC architects and planners told us that at least some categories of residents have ownership and resale rights (or will acquire them in the future), official OHC publications suggest that these residents will remain as renters in perpetuity. Logically, these renovated units should provide a bastion against gentrification, although the evolution of residents’ tenure and resale rights bears watching.

A review of current real estate listings on Cubisima, Cuba’s new “Gumtree” (for housing and other items and services), shows only 300 units on the market in Old Havana, out of a total of some 12,000 Havana listings. Other popular neighborhoods farther from downtown, with better housing stock and amenities, have a much higher proportion of listings and may be more immediately vulnerable to gentrification pressures. 

It would be paradoxical indeed if the tourism that appears to be saving Old Havana were ultimately responsible for destroying it. Still, a more immediate threat may be posed by the continuing deterioration of the district’s remaining unrenovated housing stock, with partial or total building collapses still occurring on a regular basis. For the OHC, saving Old Havana from destruction by either gentrification or deterioration may be simply a race against time.

This article was written by Emily Achtenberg for NACLA

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The Monroe Doctrine Turned on Its Head?

Last Monday, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Countries (CELAC) met for its second summit in Santiago, Chile, one year after its founding meeting in Caracas, Venezuela in 2011.  The Summit is the culmination of roughly a decade of efforts to create a viable mechanism for greater integration in the Americas, and particularly a year of planning by a “troika” of representatives from, believe it or not, Chile, Venezuela and Cuba.  They were able to pull it off successfully, despite their obvious differences, and all 33 presidents or heads of state from the region attended, with the exception of Hugo Chavez from Venezuela, who sent a letter with his Vice-President Nicolás Maduro.

CELAC explicitly excludes the US and Canada, a historic first for a hemispheric organization with huge symbolic importance, because it answers a long-standing dream for unity of the subcontinent that harks back to Simón Bolívar and the struggles for independence from the European colonial powers.  Beyond the symbolism, however, it is strategically crucial:  It means that there is now a subcontinent bloc of developing nations that can speak with one voice, and also serve as a counterweight to US political and economic hegemony.

In the days preceding the Summit, the group also held another summit, its first one with the European Union. Germany’s Angela Merkel, Spain’s Mariano Rajoy and more than two dozen other heads of state or foreign ministers from the Continent were present, along with top leaders of the European Commission. The meeting focused on collaboration in trade and mutual investment, which is no surprise.  The EU is the biggest foreign investor in the area, and it is very interested in attracting investors from the region. This meeting with the EU is no fluke. According to the EU’s webpage:  From now on, CELAC will be “the EU’s counterpart for the bi-regional partnership process, including at summit level.” This is no trivial bureaucratic change.

The independent character of CELAC is best illustrated through some of the otherwise routine details of the event.  The rotating one-year presidency of the organization was passed from the conservative President of Chile Sebastián Piñera to the President of Cuba, Raúl Castro, who will hold the reins on behalf of the organization until the next summit in Havana next year, supported by a new “troika” that will include Chile, Costa Rica–the next president–as well as Haiti as a representative of Caricom, the regional organization of the Caribbean island nations!  No wonder that, according to the AP, Argentine President Cristina Fernández remarked that “Cuba’s assumption of the presidency of the CELAC marks a change of times.” And if anyone doubts that CELAC confirms the successful reintegration of Cuba into hemispheric organizations, note that one of the few unanimous declarations from both summits was a call for an end to the US embargo against Cuba.

The organization also is born and gains strength, while, “most governments are not taking the OAS seriously,” and in a letter to the State Department last November, Senators Kerry, Menendez, Lugar and Rubio write that the OAS “is sliding into and administrative and financial paralysis,” that threatens to condemn it to “irrelevance.”

The summit concluded with a joint declaration and plan of action, already begun in 2011.  These emphasize numerous areas of integration and coordination through work groups and events in areas as diverse as addressing the impact of the world financial crisis and creating regional financial structures, sustainable development and environmental issues, a regional energy strategy, new mechanisms for regional collaboration, as well as education, poverty, food security, and social justice.  In his brief acceptance speech upon assuming the presidency, Raúl Castro emphasized the goal of a unified voice to speak on behalf of the subcontinent, while respecting the diversity of its membership.  His comments echoed many in the opening speech by President Piñera and the addresses of many other heads of state.

Make no mistake.  CELAC is no panacea; there will be plenty of obstacles to its eventual success.  There is no lack of sceptics who have already tried to characterize it as little more than an occasional forum for presidential speeches. The clash of interests between the EU and the subcontinent will make it difficult to reach agreement on key issues such as protectionism and immigration. The reasons for joining and supporting CELAC range as widely as the many disparate political, economic and social systems of the subcontinent nations, so unity will not come easily.  There are also plenty of bilateral and regional historical obstacles—such as Bolivia’s dispute with Chile over access to the sea–that have torpedoed earlier integration attempts.  Not to mention that the US will likely try to sabotage it actively, even if the only official US comment about CELAC came when a State Department press spokesman in 2011 blandly commented that the US considered the OAS the “pre-eminent” hemispheric organization.

Yet here we are seeing something like the Monroe Doctrine turned on its head, excluding the US while seeking to deepen ties with many of the old colonial powers, led by CELAC, a new regional bloc of nations, designated as the “the EU’s counterpart for the bi-regional partnership process” and led for its coming year by Cuba and its President, Raúl Castro, who assumes the presidency from the hands of the conservative Chilean President Piñera!  And the new organization is born as the OAS is faltering, and it also adopts and reiterates a unanimous repudiation of the US embargo against Cuba, as well as supporting Argentina on its claims on the Malvinas.  No wonder Argentine President Fernández is reported to have said, “For Chilean President Sebastián Piñera to transfer the presidency pro-tempore to Castro shows the times we are living.”

And these are indeed different times, yet the mainstream US media barely mentioned this historic event—much less examine its significance, just as it largely failed to report on its founding meeting in late 2011 (CounterPunch, December 21, 2011).  Never mind the multiple potential and actual impacts of these regional developments, only a few of which are sketched here, or that the Chilean press reported more than 1300 journalists from 35 countries were present to cover the event, with the “largest press room ever installed in Chile” for such a gathering.

There is something very wrong with this picture and with our media; it would do the US public and leaders well to pay attention to CELAC, and all the currents that have created it.

By Manuel R. Gómez for Counterpunch. Gómez is a scientist in Washington, DC who emigrated from Cuba when he was 13 in 1961.  He serves on the Board of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a Washington-based educational non-profit organization that advocates engagement with Cuba.