Our Trip to Cuba
By Joe Lombardo
From November 20 through the 28, UNAC supporters joined others from Code Pink, Witness Against Torture and the U.S. Peace Council at a peace conference in Guantanamo City, Cuba. Besides the large presence of U.S. peace and justice activists, the conference was attended by delegations from Canada, Mexico and many other countries from throughout the world. The conference was the Fourth International Seminar for Peace and the Abolition of Foreign Military Bases and was held at Guantanamo to draw attention to the fact that the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, generally considered the first U.S. foreign military base, still stands on land stolen from the Cuban people.
The conference was opened with remarks from Silvio Andres Platero Yrola, President of the Cuban Movement for Peace and Sovereignty and from Maria Do Socorro Gomes, President of the World Peace Council. Silvio Andres Platero Yrola defined the goals of the conference as strengthening the movement against foreign military bases, ending the U.S. economic blockade against Cuba, and promoting international solidarity.
Also speaking at the opening plenary session of the conference were the ambassadors to Cuba from Ecuador and from Bolivia as well as Ann Wright from Code Pink and Veterans for Peace. Ann Wright gave a powerful presentation in which she spoke about the work of the U.S. groups in attendance, including UNAC.
On the second day of the conference, we divided up into two groups to listen to presentations. Joe Lombardo, UNAC co-coordinator, gave a talk called “U.S. Military Bases: A Force for War.” During the first day of presentations, not much was said about the fact that the U.S. military base at Guantanamo is also a prison where the U.S. keeps and tortures prisoners as part of its phony “War on Terror.” Dr. Maha Hilal, Executive Director of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms (NCPCF) noted the absence of comments about the infamous prison right in the proximity and on the fact that the prison houses an exclusively Muslim male population. She gave an impromptu presentation re: the egregious abuses that occur behind prison walls. Joe’s presentation, which also discussed the situation for Muslims at Guantanamo and in the U.S., can be found here: http://nepajac.org/basespaper.htm.
The UNAC delegation landed in Havana and went with others by bus across the entire island to reach Guantanamo. As we got close to Guantanamo City, we were met by a police escort that brought us to Hotel Guantanamo, where we stayed during the conference. The police escorted us because we were considered honored guests of the Cuban people. We were struck by the contrast with police in the U.S., who often make it difficult for us to get to antiwar actions or put us behind barricades or attack our actions.
The trip to Guantanamo gave us a glimpse of the entire country. We saw the iconic old U.S. cars that have been kept running for decades, but there were also new cars and buses. We saw a country that was poor, in large part due to the U.S. blockade, but one with a revolutionary government and people. All throughout the island there were signs of support for socialism, education, healthcare and other programs. It was striking to arrive back in the U.S. and get bombarded by Black Friday advertising, as we saw no such advertising in Cuba on the TV, billboards, or anywhere else.
We visited the Che Guevara mausoleum and museum as well as the farm where Fidel was raised and other important places associated with the Cuban revolution. We heard about the terrible period in Cuba called the special period; this was the time right after the fall of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies. At the time of the Cuban revolution, the rich Cuban soil grew sugar cane and tobacco. They knew they needed to diversify their agriculture to feed the Cuban people, but the rate at which this happened was not fast enough, because they previously had been able to get what they needed from the Soviet Bloc countries. However, when the Soviet Union fell, Cuba found itself with not enough food to feed everyone. They went on a crash program to plant more food crops but people went without basic necessities. People lost weight, some went blind because of the lack of vitamins, but the U.S. would not allow these necessities into the country. We spoke with a Canadian pharmacist on the trip who explained how he tried to order bulk vitamins through his pharmacy in Canada and through various means get them down to the island. But the U.S. government put pressure on the Canadian government to take away his license. However, the Canadian Pharmacist Association supported him, and today he still practices his profession in Canada.
Through the special period the Cuban people and government persisted and survived. Today, the Cuban people look well fed and healthy.
We were also able to see several cultural performances of music and dance during our trip. Participation in the arts is very important in Cuba and is the way that the Cuban people entertain themselves, along with drinking a little rum.
Our trip gave us the confidence that the Cuban revolution will survive and will always be on the side of peace and the antiwar movement throughout the world. With the loosening of some travel restrictions, it is important that the people in the U.S. go to see Cuba to express solidarity with the Cuban people and the Cuban revolution.
It is also our duty and responsibility to the Cuban people to fight to end the blockade and to close the Guantanamo Navy base and return the land to the Cuban people.