None of the demonstrations I attended in the 60s prepared me for the experience of marching with one million Cubans last month to protest the United States’ blockade against Cuba. More than 100 U.S. lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild joined the march.
Absent was the tension always present in U.S. marches, which usually protest against the government. Fidel Castro led the Cuban march. Scores of children laughed and sang as they walked with their arms around each other. Attendance at the Cuban event was voluntary and the police were unarmed. Tear gas and rubber bullets, staples in American protests, were nowhere in sight.
Forty years ago, the U.S. imposed an “all-out ‘quarantine’ – economically, politically and diplomatically – of the Castro regime,” in the words of Vice President Richard Nixon. Its aim was to starve the people so they would overthrow Castro’s communist government, yet he remains in power. The Cold War has ended and the U.S. has normal relations with China and Vietnam. Nonetheless, we maintain a blockade against Cuba tighter than any other in the world. Its restriction on the sale of medicine and food is unprecedented.
Notwithstanding rhetoric to the contrary, the legislation passed last month actually strengthens the blockade, by forbidding U.S. financing to Cuba to buy food from American farmers, and tightening the travel ban. Although an overwhelming majority of both the House and Senate had voted to relax the blockade, the GOP House leadership and right-wing Cuban-American members of Congress held the rest of Congress and President Clinton hostage at this crucial election juncture. Indeed, the pivotal role of Florida – the center of anti-Castro sentiment – in the excruciatingly close presidential election does not bode well for an early lifting of the blockade.
Meanwhile, Cubans suffer under the thumb of a vitriolic policy of economic isolation imposed by the U.S. Some flee in small unseaworthy crafts. But, scores of people from Mexico and Central America perish every year trying to cross the U.S. border. And, the U.S. approves only about 10 percent of visa applications from Cubans who seek to visit relatives in the U.S. but wish to remain in Cuba. Of the Cubans who have come to the U.S. on non-immigrant visas and who could have requested to stay under U.S. laws, 95 percent have voluntarily returned to Cuba.
Behind me in the march were large twin photographs of Jose Marti, the father of the Cuban revolution, and Abraham Lincoln. Castro is fond of quoting Lincoln’s “of the people, by the people and for the people.” The Cuban constitution enshrines due process rights, the right to work, to education, to medical and dental care, to prenatal care and paid maternity leave, to child care, to participate in the running of the state, and the right to a life free of racial or gender discrimination. Although, like the U.S., Cuba still has the death penalty and instances of racial profiling, the chief justice of the Supreme Court is black.
Cuba has the highest literacy rate in the Americas and one of the highest in the world. Vice President Al Gore told a Canadian magazine in 1994, “It’s disgraceful that we have this level of illiteracy; countries like Cuba put us to shame when it comes to this problem.” There are more doctors per capita in Cuba than any other country in the world. In fact, when representatives of the Congressional Black Caucus complained recently to Castro about the lack of doctors for the poor in the U.S., he offered to send them some Cuban doctors. He also offered 500 medical scholarships for Third World youth and other groups, on the condition they return to the U.S. to care for people in their communities.
At 74, Castro has demonstrated not only resilience but also a capacity for change reminiscent of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X. Since the Pope’s visit, Cubans enjoy more religious freedom. A woman at a Jewish synagogue in Havana told us that when Castro visited at Chanukah, he regaled them for two hours with stories of Jewish history and was well versed on the Holocaust. Castro quipped to our group that if he hadn’t been a guerrilla, he would’ve been a pastor. He says, “He who betrays the poor betrays Christ.”
The U.S. government continues to betray the poor in Cuba, who remain under a state of siege in an undeclared war by the United States. We must lift the blockade of Cuba, not just for the Cuban people, but for our own humanity.