More than 500 people packed the TUC’s headquarters to learn more about the radical social and political changes redefining Latin America.
Speakers from across the continent, together with British MPs and trade unionists, participated in lively plenaries and seminars at the Latin America 2008 Conference. The annual event, held on the first Saturday in December, now in its forth year, has become a permanent fixture, and its popularity continues to grow.
The conference enabled participants to hear firsthand from representatives of the countries that comprise the so called ‘Pink Tide’ of nations pushing forward progressive, redistributive and democratic processes.
Cuba first threw down the gauntlet in 1959, and one of the conference’s major themes included a reflection on what the Revolution has achieved. The event also discussed the Left’s resurgence across Latin America following the election of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez in 1998, and subsequent elections of leaders such as Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Tabare Vazquez in Uruguay.
MP George Galloway said: “Fifty years ago Cuba had been reduced to a bordello of the United States, a playground for the criminal class, the mafia and corrupt politicians like President Nixon. It was a place where blacks were banished from the parks, from the drinking fountains and from the hotels – unless they were being brought in for prostitution.
“Life expectancy was 58 years, literacy was on the floor, and health figures were on a par with the continent’s poorest countries.
“Fifty years later a newly born Cuban has a better chance of living longer and more healthily than a baby born in Washington DC. If Cuba had achieved nothing else, she would have deserved the right to have her name written in the stars for this feet.
“But she has achieved much more. I visited a nursery in the darkest days of the Special Period and met a teacher in tears because milk had been cut to half a pint a day. I didn’t have the heart to tell her a lady called Margaret Thatcher had done more than that here in the UK.”
Mr Galloway said the greatest demonstration of the country’s internationalism was evidenced by the thousands of Cubans who died fighting against Apartheid.
He added: “After Nelson Mandela’s release every country clamoured for him to pay them the honour of visiting them first. After 27 years of imprisonment he went to Havana to stand with Fidel Castro and to thank the Cuban people for what they had done.
The Scottish firebrand finished by praising the Cuba Solidarity Campaign (CSC), which had helped organise the conference.
He said: “CSC is now one of the longest running and the best run and the most exciting solidarity campaigns in this country, and it has performed miracles in Britain.”
Speaking on the double standards in the media’s reporting on the “war on terror” Salim Lamrani said: “This media conspiracy is glaringly evident. How is it possible that in the middle of the “war on terrorism” the information and communication corporations are not dealing with the case of Cuba, the country which has suffered the longest and most ferocious terrorist campaign in modern history?”
“If the “struggle against terrorism” had any basis in reality, the international media would denounce the implacable terrorist campaign which successive U.S. administrations have waged against the Cuban people since 1959. The censorship of the most sophisticated kind of terrorism against Cuba clearly illustrates the duplicity of the Western press.”
Rene Mujica Cantelar, Cuba’s Ambassador, said: “This conference clearly demonstrates that people in the UK are passionately interested in the developments taking place across Latin America and the Caribbean – although you wouldn’t believe that by reading the newspapers.
“I think the crisis affecting the world capitalist system – the model which promised us progress for everyone but which statistics show delivered inequality – provides us with a great opportunity to show that another world is possible.
“Crucially Cuba is no-longer isolated in Latin America, but on the contrary has been joined by a broad based movement throughout the whole region.”
Conference speakers included Venezuelan Ambassador Samuel Moncada, and activists from Nicaragua, Bolivia, Paraguay and Mexico and MP Jeremy Corbyn and Adam Price.
The event, which jointly organised by the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, Venezuela Information Centre and South East TUC and thanks to the sponsorship of OH Parsons, and unions Unison, Unite, POA, TSSA, UCATT, RMT, SERTUC and the GMB.
Obama provokes debate in Cuba seminars
A look at the Cuban Revolution’s achievements and the significance of Barack Obama’s election for the country prompted lively debates at CSC seminars during Latin America 2008.
Speakers included former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, French Professor Salim Lamrani and the Cuban Ambassador Rene Mujica Cantelar.
The Ambassador attacked the view that if the US were to drop its blockade then that would do more to destabilise the Revolution than North America’s traditional brand of aggressive foreign policy.
He said: “Half-a-century of US hostility and economic warfare have not derailed us from our objectives, I therefore doubt that a policy of friendship and trade between our countries will accomplish just that result. Trade would give us the capacity to really grow and to multiply the work that we’ve been doing in different fields inside our own country and in support of other developing nations.”
The panel went on to outline their hopes and fears triggered by Barack Obama’s election.
Francisco Dominguez, a lecturer in Latin American studies at Middlesex University, said the context in which Obama has been elected opens up a “possibility” of change.
Mr Dominguez said: “The political landscape has dramatically changed. Cuban exiles in Miami no longer run the show, as clearly demonstrated by the Democracy Now campaign waged against current US foreign policy in the state. The demographics have also changed, Miami Cubans are not a majority anymore, so Obama cannot use that as an excuse.”
Mr Dominguez added: “US policy has been built up over 50 years, there are hundreds of pieces of legislation coupled with detailed military plans for the island’s invasion. It will take several BarackObamas to undo all of this.
Mr Cantelar said: “Many previous US presidents have had a similar opportunity, but have wasted it, while Cuba has consistently made gestures to US governments.
“The outgoing administration has been such a disaster – in all respects – but one cannot underestimate the serious limitations that Barack Obama’s administration will face even if it wishes to improve relations with Cuba.”
The Ambassador said Obama’s administration includes people closely identified with the previous establishment, and the president-elect has already listed his priorities: saving the US economy from collapse and concluding two wars.
Prof. Lamrani said Obama was the first president-elect to openly state his willingness to meet Cuba’s president without preconditions.
“Barack Obama has an historic opportunity to drop once and for all the cruel, inhumane and unjustifiable blockade. He must rise to the hope that his election has sparked.”
Ken Livingstone speaking on his election defeat said: “There are several reasons why I was disappointed to lose the election, but one was that I had made clear our intention to host a celebration of each country participating in the games so as to develop our cultural appreciation of them, and the process was to start with Cuba. I’d talked to Cubans and we were to bring over a whole range of things and were to show Cuba as a beacon of hope, to show what normal people against overwhelming odds have achieved.
“Sadly Boris Johnson didn’t share our vision. But if I’m re-elected in 2012 I shall have a celebration of the 54th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution in Trafalgar Square.”