BY BRIAN TAYLOR AND OLGA RODRÍGUEZ
NEW YORK - Luis Ernesto Morejón and Itamys García Villar, two young leaders from Cuba speaking in several cities across the United States, addressed some 250 students, workers, and others here at three campus meetings during the New York leg of their five-week tour.
The largest meeting was held at Columbia University April 9. It drew 130 people, mainly students from Columbia, as well as from Barnard and Vassar Colleges. Also attending were a dozen youth in town to attend the annual East Coast Chicana- Chicano Students Forum Conference.
The event was co-chaired by Columbia students Jane Garrido, president of Casa Latina, and Griselda Pérez of the Chicano Student Caucus.
Addressing the students in the audience, Morejón, 23, pointed out, "Our schools are not as sophisticated as yours, but we do have the essentials, including teachers who devote themselves to the education of their students. Under no circumstances will a school in Cuba be closed, nor will a teacher be left unemployed. Education is something all have access to."
Morejón outlined Cuba's fight for national liberation from the 19th century anticolonial struggles against Spain led by José Martí and Antonio Maceo, to the revolutionary movement, headed by the Rebel Army led by Fidel Castro, which overthrew the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and established a revolutionary government in 1959. In addition to this history, he said, "we are anti-imperialist and internationalist because we know" the history of U.S. interventions in Haiti, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Grenada."
Deeds, not words
What distinguishes Cuba is that "the revolution has brought concrete results for our people through deeds, not just words," Morejón stressed.
García elaborated on these results, noting that "the revolution is proud of what it has demonstrated in the arena of democratic rights." She highlighted statistics on infant mortality and life expectancy that "put us at the top of the Third World and that are comparable to the industrialized countries."
Pointing to strides made by Cuban women, García added, "Before 1959, women were less that 12 percent of the workforce. Today we are 42 percent, including 60 percent of the middle- level technicians."
García explained that starting in the early 1990s Cuba was hit by a deep economic crisis, known on the island as the Special Period. "The Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost 85 percent of its commercial trade. And the U.S. deepened its embargo," she noted. The revolutionary leadership led the population to take a series of necessary steps to confront the economic crisis.
"Today in Cuba we have socialism and will continue to have socialism, but we have to use certain capitalist measures to maintain the gains of the socialist revolution" and overcome the worst effects of the economic crisis, García said. These measures include the decriminalization of the use of the dollar, the expansion of tourism, and seeking foreign capitalist investment to bring in needed hard currency to fund social priorities.
One member of the audience asked a question about the volunteer Cuban doctors who have gone to Central America and the Caribbean in response to the devastation caused by the hurricanes last fall. "It's the countless Cuban doctors, not only in Latin America but also in Africa, who not only go to these countries, but to the most remote areas and even learn local languages to treat patients better," Morejón said.
"Is there police brutality in Cuba? How do people see the police?" was asked.
García, who had learned much since arriving in the United States about the reality of police and right-wing violence here, replied, "Under no circumstances in Cuba do you have cops gunning people down for being black or homosexual. What role do they play in combating drug use and prostitution? Primarily one of prevention, but if they have to detain someone they will do so."
"But we also rely on the forces of people's order" to minimize antisocial activity, added Morejón, referring to the fact that millions of Cuban working people play an active social role through neighborhood organizations and other mass organizations.
One man raised several sharp criticisms about the Cuban revolution. "How do you justify Cuba having political prisoners?" he charged. "How do you justify that Cubans were forced to turn out to see the Pope? How do you justify putting AIDS victims in camps? I have been to Cuba and people are afraid to say anything about this."
The two Cuban youth leaders replied to each one of his points. Morejón said, "From our experience as youth who live in our country, there are no political prisoners, but there are counterrevolutionary prisoners. It had been proven in a court of law that the actions [those who are jailed] took violated Cuban laws. He referred to recent trials of a Salvadoran citizen convicted of bombing Cuban tourist hotels, and to the conviction of several Cuban citizens belonging to small groups that oppose the revolution and have called for foreign businesses not to invest in Cuba.
Replying to the comment about the pope's 1998 visit to Cuba, Morejón explained that most Cubans are not Catholics, and some hold other views and religious beliefs. "That's why the Cuban constitution defends all beliefs but backs none in particular. People were encouraged to treat the Pope's visit as an educational experience," he said. The revolutionary government asked Cubans to treat Catholic believers and the Pope with courtesy and respect, and that is what happened.
Morejón added, "When the AIDS virus first broke out there was no understanding of how to live with the virus. What happened in Cuba is another example of social justice. [Those suffering from AIDS] were interned in centers and treated with the best medicine available, as we waged an intense campaign explaining the truth about AIDS and contraception." Today, the government's policy is to "make it possible for people with AIDS to live with their families."
After the meeting, Ann Fraioli, 22, remarked that she came to the meeting in part due to her opposition to the U.S. bombing of Yugoslavia. As she learns more and finds she disagrees with some U.S. government policies, she has come to question Washington's hostile policy toward Cuba.
Sponsors for the Columbia event included the Institute of Latin American and Iberian Studies, United Students of Color Council, Black Students Organization, Students Promoting Empowerment and Knowledge, Young Socialists, Roots of Culture Magazine, Casa de las Américas, and Socialist Workers Party.
In addition, co-chairs Garrido and Pérez read messages welcoming the two Cuban youth from Gary Okihiro, director of the campus's Asian American Studies Program; Shannon Salinas, Columbia Law School Dean of Students and member of the Native American Law Students Association; and Manning Marable, director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies. Greetings also came from New York state assemblymen Edward Sullivan and Adriano Espaillat; Fernando Ferrer, Bronx borough president; and Maude LeBlanc, co-director of Haiti Progres.
Also on the platform were Francisco Rivera-Batiz, director of the Latino Studies department, and Latino Studies professor Carlos Sanabria. Sanabria denounced the hypocrisy of the U.S. government for attacking Cuba over alleged human rights abuses while Puerto Rican independence fighters are locked up in U.S. prisons for their political beliefs and Mumia Abu-Jamal is framed up and placed on death row.
The Columbia University Daily Spectator ran a favorable front-page article on the meeting in its April 12 issue. New York's main Spanish-language daily, El Diario/La Prensa, ran a question-and-answer interview with García and Morejón April 10.
A few days earlier, on April 6, 40 students and others turned out to hear the two Cuban youth leaders at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University (LIU). Sponsors for the event included the Caribbean Students Movement, History Department, Latinos Unidos, Political Science Department, and Young Socialists.
Henry Dávila, president of Latinos Unidos and John Brennan, head of the History Department, chaired the meeting. Ofelia García, dean of the School of Education, was acknowledged from the audience.
Washington's hostile policy
One member of the audience, Curtis Harris, asked if the baseball games between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cuban national team reflected motion in U.S. government policy toward normalized relations with Cuba.
"We feel the policy of hostility by the United States toward Cuba will not change," Morejón answered. "Maintaining workers, farmers, and students in power in Cuba is a powerful example that the United States will never be in agreement with." He later added, "We are for any positive initiatives, but these are isolated from general U.S. policy."
A Puerto Rican student pointed to some Cuban athletes who had recently left the island to live in the United States, and said he thought this was a sign of oppression. García responded by explaining that millions of Cubans were striving to build a society based on human solidarity, and that people such as these athletes who seek individual solutions and want to make millions won't find that in Cuba.
Another meeting for the Cuban youth took place at the State University of New York at Purchase. More than 75 people listened attentively to the talks and then engaged in a lively discussion. Morejón and García were warmly received by Larisse Díaz, vice president of Latinos Unidos, which initiated the event, and Eric González, a leading activist in the Organization of African Peoples in America.
Other sponsors included NYPIRG, Purchase Environmental Society, SISTAS, Open Road, The Brotherhood, the Humanities Department, and Peter Schwab, professor of Political Science. A dozen high school students attended from Open Road, a New York City-based group that organizes youth into gardening projects in the city.
Connie Lobur, chair of the Humanities Department, opened the event. Also welcoming the youth was Rafael Santiago Jr., a pro-independence Puerto Rican poet.
Following their presentations, García and Morejón were asked a number of questions. One student asked whether the Cuban government discourages hip-hop music from the United States. Morejón replied that no such prohibition exists. To the contrary, he said, at his campus, "such music is quite popular" among students.
Another student asked if people can easily become artists in Cuba. García explained that since the revolution's triumph, the Cuban government has supported and promoted the arts. "Anyone wanting to develop an artistic talent has opportunities and is given the means to do so."
She explained that despite the very real material limitations facing Cuba, the government sponsors culture houses all over the country open to anyone to engage in artistic activities and have access to resources.
García added that one of the most important things the Cuban revolution has done for art is that major Cuban artists "take the theater and other arts to the countryside and the most remote areas of the country -something never seen prior to the revolution."
At a reception following the meeting, several students gave their impressions of the exchange. "The meeting helped to cut through the bad impressions we get of Cuba," said Rafael Santiago. "Meeting the Cuban youth encouraged me as a Puerto Rican nationalist to keep up the fight for independence."
Larisse Díaz, who had co-chaired the meeting, commented, "We plan to continue organizing events around Cuba."
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