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Vol. 76/No. 41      November 12, 2012

Asia-Pacific conference builds
support for Cuban Revolution
Event in Sri Lanka draws delegates from 20 countries
(feature article)
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka—A conference in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution, held here October 20-21, drew more than 220 delegates from 18 countries across Asia and the Pacific. Initiated by the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP) and hosted by the Cuba-Sri Lanka Friendship Association, it was the sixth such gathering in the region since 1995.

The meeting focused on opposing Washington’s long economic and political war against the Cuban Revolution and on the campaign to free the five Cuban revolutionaries who have been imprisoned for more than 14 years by the U.S. government on trumped-up charges. (See “Who are the Cuban Five” on facing page.)

Sizable delegations came from India and Bangladesh, and half of the delegates were from Sri Lanka. Participants also came from Australia, Cambodia, China, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea, East Timor, and Vietnam, as well as from Cuba and the U.S.

The gathering afforded delegates the opportunity to meet each other, exchange experiences on their work in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution, and strengthen their collaboration across the region.

Delegates were especially appreciative of the efforts made by the Sri Lankan committee to organize the conference in Colombo on short notice. It was originally scheduled to take place in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, last March, shortly before an April summit meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations convened there. At the last minute, the solidarity conference was abruptly canceled by the local hosts.

Caridad Diego, a member of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party and head of the Cuban delegation, thanked the Sri Lankan conference organizers. She reminded participants that “just a month after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in January 1959, Sri Lanka became the first Asian country to recognize the new revolutionary government of Cuba.”

In November 1962, in the midst of the Cuban “missile” crisis, she said, “many port workers in Sri Lanka went on strike, refusing to load or unload goods from U.S. ships.” This was part of “a national campaign to counter the threat of U.S. aggression against Cuba” during that confrontation, when disciplined mobilizations and military preparedness by the Cuban people stayed the hand of Washington and prevented a nuclear war.

Diego said that in Asia and the Pacific today there are committees campaigning for the release of the Cuban Five in 13 countries and Cuba solidarity organizations in 22 countries.

Representatives of several political parties and elected officials in Sri Lanka addressed the opening session, including guest of honor Chamal Rajapaksa, speaker of the parliament. Dinesh Gunawardena, chair of the Sri Lanka-Cuba Friendship Association and of the conference national preparatory committee, as well as minister of water supply and drainage, condemned Washington for wielding “the weapon of embargo, more popularly known as the ‘blockade of Cuba,’” for more than 50 years. Gunawardena called for support to “the long-standing struggle of the five imprisoned Cuban patriots” for freedom.

Cuba’s support to East Timor

The opening plenary session heard reports from most of the delegations. Estanislau da Silva, from East Timor, a parliamentary deputy and former prime minister of that country, recounted how he had experienced Cuba’s solidarity with the Timorese people’s fight for independence against the U.S.-backed Indonesian military occupation. Da Silva said he would never forget his participation in the 1978 world youth festival in Havana, where “Cuba was under pressure” from opponents of East Timor’s independence not to accept a delegation from that country. Welcomed by the Cuban leadership, the Timorese marched in the opening ceremony as a national contingent, while other delegates “stood up and applauded us,” he recalled.

Da Silva noted that “despite its own severe economic difficulties today,” Cuba has trained hundreds of Timorese youth as doctors, and Cuban literacy volunteers are working in his country. Merita Monteiro, a recent graduate of the Cuban medical program and president of the East Timor-Cuba Friendship Association, was also part of the East Timor delegation, along with parliamentary deputy Carmelita Moniz.

Alberto Betancourt Roa, vice president of the National Association of Accountants and Economists of Cuba, gave a clear and informative presentation on how the Cuban leadership is confronting the economic challenges today.

He noted that “the Obama government has intensified the blockade,” going after companies in other countries—such as a recent $600 million fine against the Dutch bank ING—for not complying with U.S.-dictated sanctions. When passenger flights from Europe to Cuba overfly U.S. territory, Betancourt said, every airline now has to give U.S. authorities their passenger list in advance and Washington can then “decide who flies.”

The unfolding euro crisis has also hit Cuba hard, the economist noted, because U.S. embargo measures make it virtually impossible for Cuba to settle accounts in U.S. dollars. “We’re quoted a price in U.S. dollars but have to pay in euros,” a currency that has lost value in relation to the dollar.

‘We will not go back to capitalism’

Betancourt carefully reviewed some of the recent economic measures in Cuba. These include steps that range from reducing the size and scope of responsibilities of numerous government ministries to other measures designed to eliminate administrative obstacles and increase productivity. The distribution of idle land to tens of thousands of Cubans willing to farm it has been an especially important step taken to increase cultivation of food crops.

“Cuba is not going toward a capitalist economy,” he emphasized. “We will maintain the basic social services that are conquests of the revolution. No one will be left unprotected. The major means of production will continue to be state-owned.”

“We continue on the road to socialism,” Betancourt concluded.

At the invitation of conference organizers, Mary-Alice Waters, president of Pathfinder Press and a leader of the Socialist Workers Party in the United States, presented two recent books published by Pathfinder, The Cuban Five: Who They Are, Why They Were Framed, Why They Should Be Free and Women in Cuba: The Making of a Revolution Within the Revolution.

To applause from the delegates, Waters noted that nearly a quarter million copies of Pathfinder’s 60-some books and pamphlets offering accurate and truthful accounts of the Cuban Revolution have been distributed worldwide in the last 25 years, the overwhelming majority of these sold in the United States. “This is not about solidarity alone,” she said. “Understanding, defending, and emulating the course taken by the workers and farmers of Cuba is decisive to transforming the working class in the United States into a force capable of leading the coming socialist revolution in the strongest imperialist power.”

Pathfinder’s two most recent books focused on the Cuban Revolution complement each other, Waters said. They are about “the millions of men and women in Cuba who transformed themselves and became different human beings” as they fought to make and defend the revolution.

The Cuban Five, she said, tells the stories of Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González, and René González. “Conducting themselves with courage, dignity, creativity, and humor, and reaching out with solidarity to others who refuse to stop fighting the conditions capitalism imposes on us, the five embody the finest qualities of the revolution,” Waters said.

“Our confidence that the five will return to Cuba is not based on looking to the good will of the next chief executive of U.S. imperialism, whether it be Obama or Romney,” Waters told the conference. Only a “jury of millions,” in Hernández’s words, can win their freedom. That jury will be created, she explained, by the growing resistance of working people worldwide to the consequences of the global economic crisis.

This was the second Asia-Pacific regional Cuba solidarity conference held in Sri Lanka. The previous one, in 2008, took place during the final months of the war waged by the government against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers). The 26-year war—with roots going back to the divide-and-rule policies of the British empire, and fueled by decades of discriminatory measures and brutal attacks against the Tamil minority of Sri Lankans since independence—ended with the defeat of the LTTE in 2009.

In informal discussions, numerous Sri Lankan and other delegates commented that discussion and debate is today more open than in 2008, when security measures at the conference were tight, heavily armed soldiers patrolled street corners throughout the capital city of Colombo, and the army restricted movement in the war-ravaged north and east, where the Tamil population is concentrated. “Today it is easier for people to see that the source of our problems is not the war but those who profited from it,” commented one Sri Lankan participant.

Conference delegates recalled Cuba’s assistance when Sri Lanka was devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Prasanna Cooray, vice president of the Sri Lanka-Cuba Friendship Association, noted how in the aftermath of the tsunami a team of Cuban doctors rushed to Sri Lanka and “under very trying conditions served the community for many months till the health infrastructure in the area was reestablished.” And in the 1980s and early 1990s, he said, “when there was a dearth of medical specialists to serve the war-stricken so-called border areas, Cuban doctors defied the war and the rough terrain to serve the Sri Lankan peasantry.”

During the two-day gathering, many delegates stopped by the literature table with Pathfinder titles on the Cuban Revolution and other topics to discuss and purchase books and pamphlets that most had never seen before. More than 300 copies of The Cuban Five and more than 100 copies of Women in Cuba: The Making of a Revolution Within the Revolution were distributed at the conference. Many delegates took multiple copies with them for use by their solidarity committees.

One Indian delegate, holding a copy of Women in Cuba, commented, “I am from a woman’s organization in Kerala and this book will be very useful in our campaigns for women’s rights.”

Delegates were also able to view a well-presented display of paintings of Cuban butterflies by Antonio Guerrero, one of the Cuban Five.

During the conference, delegates from abroad were guests of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa for a reception at his official residence, followed by a performance of traditional Sinhalese dance. The conference ended with a trip to the Yahalakele Estate, a rubber plantation outside Colombo famous for the resistance of the plantation workers, where Ernesto Che Guevara, a central leader of the Cuban revolutionary government, planted a mahogany tree in August 1959 during an international tour through Asia, Africa and Europe.

The day after the conference, delegates still in town attended a rally to mark the 45th anniversary of Guevara’s death, organized by the Socialist Youth Union of the People’s Liberation Front (JVP). In front of banners demanding “Free the Cuban 5” and under pouring rain, more than 1,000 SYU and JVP members listened for several hours to international guests and JVP leaders and stayed for a cultural performance by JVP members. Nirsia Castro Guevara, outgoing Cuban ambassador to Sri Lanka, told the crowd that support is needed “all over the world to win the release of the Cuban Five.”

Delegates concluded the regional meeting by welcoming the offer of solidarity organizations in Vietnam to host the next Asia-Pacific conference in early 2014.
Related articles:
Who are the Cuban Five
New Zealand exhibit wins support for Cuban 5  
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