Monday, August 17, 2015

Roosevelt Island Resident Ike Nahem Attends Ceremony Opening Cuban Embassy In Washington DC And Reports On Recent Visit To Cuba

The United States Embassy in Cuba reopened last Friday, August 14 after being closed for 54 years. US Secretary Of State John Kerry attended the flag raising ceremony.

Last month, Roosevelt Island resident Ike Nahem attended the July 20, 2015 opening of the Cuban embassy in Washington DC. Mr. Nahem shares these pictures of himself with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriquez

and American actor Danny Glover

as well as Minister Rodriquez with Arizona Senator Jeff Flake at the Washington DC Cuban Embassy opening.

According to the White House:
... The opening of the embassies in Washington, D.C. and Havana culminate an important step in the normalization of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba. President Obama’s new approach towards Havana moves beyond decades of unsuccessful efforts to isolate Cuba, and is the continuation of a process designed to allow the Cuban people chart their own future. This will allow us to increase contact with the Cuban government and the Cuban people, helping us to contribute to the democratic development and prosperity of the country. To inaugurate the re-opening of the Cuban embassy in the United States, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez travelled to Washington and became the first Cuban official to visit the capital since 1959.

The embassy openings in Washington, D.C. and Havana follow the decision taken by Secretary of State John Kerry to rescind the designation of Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, and President Obama’s announcement to formally re-establish diplomatic relations and permanent diplomatic missions on July 1. These measures further advance U.S. interests, including counterterrorism and disaster response. The Administration is also taking steps to improve travel and remittance policies that will increase people-to-people contact, support civil society in Cuba, and enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people....

Mr. Nahem reports on a recent trip to Cuba:
From April 28-May 5 my wife Erin Feely-Nahem, son Andrew Feely, and myself

spent a week in Cuba. We were part of a “people-to-people” delegation legal under US law. Our group included doctors and other health care providers, teachers, trade unionists, and activists against the decades-long U.S. government policy of economic and travel sanctions and political hostility and subversion against the island aimed at overturning the Cuban Revolution that triumphed in 1959. That unchanging anti-Cuba policy ultimately resulted in the utter and embarrassing isolation of the U.S. government across the Americas and at the United Nations year after year, as well as being contrary to public opinion at home, and seems to be finally collapsing.

Erin, Andrew, and I were on one of the first charter flights from JFK that recently went into service under recently loosened travel regulations approved by President Barack Obama. These were part of the historic December 17, 2014 announcement by Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro that Washington and Havana would move to establish the normalization of diplomatic, state-to-state relations which were unilaterally severed by the United States in the period following the 1959 triumph of the Cuban Revolution. This can open up the prospect of mutually beneficial economic and cultural exchanges between Cuba and the United States.

Just before our trip, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo traveled to Havana, met top Cuban officials, and secured a few deals. Among the agreements inked was one between the Roswell Park Cancer Institute of Buffalo, New York and Cuba's Center for Molecular Immunology to develop a lung cancer vaccine with a clinical trial in the United States. Another agreement with a New York-based software company will promote the integration of Cuban medical data.

Cuba is a major world medical "power." The Caribbean island of less than 12 million people recently sent more doctors to fight the Ebola epidemic in West Africa than the rest of the world combined. Cuba trains free of charge medical students from around the world, including from the United States, who are motivated to become doctors and serve in poor and working-class underserved communities in their home countries. Cuba's biomedical industry is at the cutting edge of the field worldwide.

On the plane with us were many Cuban-Americans who have been traveling to the island freely for several years, renewing family ties. This registers a sharp turnaround in Cuban-American public opinion in favor of normalization of relations and ending sanctions. It indicates the crumbling of the long domination of that community by hardline “anti-Castro” exile forces committed to the violent overthrow of the Cuban government, often trained and supported by bipartisan Washington.

Erin and I have been to Cuba many times, including on our honeymoon in 1998. We are both long-time activists in the movement to end all US sanctions against Cuba and to establish normalized relations between our two countries. We are now seeing the fruits of these long struggles.

Having visited and led many delegations to Cuba in years past, I am often told that what strikes people the most is the gap – chasm really – between the relentless anti-Cuba propaganda that paints the “communist” island as a totalitarian hell of oppressed, cowering people and the actual Cuban social, cultural, and political reality, with all its problems, challenges, and contradictions.

Santa Clara and the Eternal Presence of Che Guevara

In Cuba our group spent several days in Havana and at the end of our stay visited the Varadero resort area for two days, with some of the most stunning beaches in the world. (Unfortunately it rained much of the time we were there.)

In between we visited the lovely city of Santa Clara, population 240,000, where the decisive battle of the Cuban Revolution was fought. Santa Clara was where an army of several hundred guerrilla fighters led by Argentine-born Che Guevara defeated thousands of demoralized troops of the dictator Fulgencio Batista, a battle which opened the door to the conquest of Havana by Fidel Castro’s revolutionary army. Preserved intact in a park is the famous derailed troop train, sabotaged by pro-Revolution railroad workers, that was key to the guerrilla victory.

Che Guevara was killed in 1967 in Bolivia where he had been trying to organize a continental revolutionary army to fight US-backed Latin American military dictatorships. Since then Che became a legendary emblem of anti-imperialism and revolutionary struggle worldwide. His image is ubiquitous in Cuba.

When his remains were recovered and forensically confirmed in 1997 from a field where his corpse had been secretly dumped by his executors, they were returned to Cuba, along with those of his fellow fighters. A stunning statue of Che

overlooks Santa Clara’s Plaza of the Revolution. A museum and mausoleum built in in Che’s memory is part of the large square. Tourists stream into Santa Clara from around the world to see it all. We met visitors from Germany, France, China, Israel, Norway, and several Latin American and African companies.

May Day in Havana

Another highlight of our trip was our participation in Havana’s annual May Day parade where one million Cuban workers mobilize in a massive outpouring of dancing, chanting, and singing. It is an almost surreal festival-like celebration organized by the Confederation of Cuban Workers (CTC).

While a Cuban jazzy, salsa-esque orchestra blares infectious Caribbean beats over large loudspeakers. Cuban workers from every trade and industry -- from ballet dancers to athletes to medical workers and railroaders --parade with banners and homemade signs. The parade was led this year by medical personnel who had returned from West Africa fighting the Ebola epidemic.

Our group was on the reviewing platform, along with over 1000 international guests, not far from where Cuban President Raul Castro and other top Cuban leaders

waved at the marching and chanting Cuban workers. We met groups of trade unionists and others from Brazil, Chile, Venezuela, Germany, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Italy and many other lands.

Half-way through the parade, which begins gathering in the early morning as the sun begins to rise, a steady, mounting rain began to fall. This seemed only to increase the enthusiasm of the workers who marched and danced. Umbrellas went up and ponchos went on. The orchestra’s musical numbers became more animated, punctured with intensely dramatic blaring and syncopated trumpeting. As the last contingents passed by the band belted out the traditional socialist anthem, “The Internationale:”

Arise ye prisoners of starvation/ Arise ye wretched of the Earth/ For justice thunders condemnation/ A better world’s in birth/ No more tradition’s chains shall bind us/ Arise ye slaves, no more in thrall/ The Earth shall rise on new foundations/ We have been naught, we shall be all.

May Day has faded or become a bureaucratic routine in many countries, but in proudly socialist Cuba it is not only a national holiday but a festive -- patriotic and internationalist -- mass mobilization of the Cuban working class. It is truly a sight to behold – over a mile of ordinary and extraordinary Cuban working people and families, waving, dancing, and chanting.

To witness May Day in Havana gives the lie to any notion that Cuban working people do not fiercely identify with their Revolution and the essence of the social relations and system ushered in by it.

Having said that, Cubans, far from the stereotype of a cowed, oppressed people, are quite contentious and argumentative in their views on how to move their society forward. They have no illusions or rose-colored glasses in looking at their grinding economic problems and challenges in labor productivity, technological backwardness, housing shortages, and so on.

They tend, in my experience, to be very engaged in finding solutions. And there are many grass-roots platforms and mass organizations by which ordinary Cubans debate and impact on the formulation and implementation of the policy changes now being implemented. Nearly all Cubans we spoke with expressed the hope that the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba will lead to greater industrial and agricultural development for their country.

Image Of US Embassy, Formerly US Interest Section In Havana

Coming Out of the “Special Period”

Cuba is emerging from an extended period of economic crisis and contraction following the overnight collapse of its economic relations with defunct Soviet-bloc governments in the early 1990s. It’s slow, steady recovery was further interrupted by a series of devastating hurricanes a few years back. The effects of what the Cubans call the “Special Period” are still seen everywhere.

However, in recent years new economic policies being led and implemented by the Raul Castro-led government are starting to kick in. These policies aim at increasing labor productivity and efficiency; technologically modernizing and refitting industrial plant and infrastructure; boosting food production by offering land and other state support and subsidies to private family farmers and farming cooperatives; reducing the state and government bureaucracy; and encouraging private wholesale and retail operations, especially in services. Further progress is contingent on attracting capital for investment. Much of this is coming from China, other Latin American countries, and Canada. Soon a major port at Mariel Harbor will be opened, largely developed in partnership with Brazilian capital.

But to this observer, having visited Cuba many times from the worst depths of the Special Period, most recently two years ago, it is also apparent that the Special Period is steadily receding into the past and being overcome at an accelerated pace. Along the famed Malecon ocean side drive and walkway,

many classic old structures

and buildings have been rebuilt and repainted, and stylish new buildings have gone up. Old Havana, already a United Nations Heritage site, is renewing its status as an architectural gem.

We observed an expansion and greater visibility for privately owned restaurants, called paladores, where we took in a number of fine meals, which are emerging from a quasi-underground existence. They are more visible today with nice signs and lighting on the outside and more comfort and menu choices inside.

Cuba is considered poor by “middle-class” US standards. But it is a strange "poverty." You see nothing like the destitution of desperate, "crime-riddled," drug-ravaged, “gang”-infested communities (hello West Baltimore!) that are widespread in every Latin American and Caribbean country, and also in the US. Street crime in Cuba is almost unheard of and it's not because of a heavy police presence on the streets. In fact, police seem few and far between. Addiction to hard drugs, and the thriving, profit-making, if nominally illegal, drug businesses that drive it, are also virtually non-existent in Cuba. (Before the Revolution, of course, Cuba was a center of the drug and organized crime rackets; Havana the home base of top U.S. Mafia families. The Revolution wiped that out. See the Godfather Part II.) While I would say that the most regular complaint I hear from average Cubans is around housing availability, especially for new, young families, as well as bottlenecks and shortages for home repairs, there is no homelessness. Most Cubans own their homes or pay a pittance in rent.

Every Cuban child is in school getting a first-rate education totally free of charge, with an extensive network of technical, vocational, university, and graduate schools, all free. Cuba not only has long conquered illiteracy, but "exports" thousands of teachers to Latin American and African countries, where they organize literacy programs.

The Cuban health-care system is a marvel of organization and compassion, with clinics in every neighborhood, all free of charge, from checkup and vaccinations through heart surgery and even transgender and transsexual procedures and surgeries.

There is in Cuba today undoubtedly a more relaxed political atmosphere and context in which debates and discussions take place among the Cuban people over the new economic and other polices and changes that are being implemented.

These policies are debated out in continuous mass forums in workplaces and neighborhoods as well as in the trade unions and grass-roots mass organizations of women, private and co-operative farmers, students, artists and intellectuals, and within the Cuban Communist Party. This is the actual dynamic that frames and guides policy making decisions and legislation. And the fruits are already apparent in legal and other positive changes on questions ranging from expanded travel rights to ending all legal discrimination and vastly opening up social and cultural space for LGBT Cuban citizens. Any objective observer visiting the island – without malice or prejudice in their brain and heart – cannot but note the desire and ability of average Cuban working people to engage in no-holds-barred discussions on all the questions and challenges facing Cuba today, and debating the policies to overcome them.

The relative political weakening of Washington’s anti-Cuba policy, combined with the mounting changes in the political dynamics among Cuban-Americans, has paved the way for significant shifts in the political orientation and policies of the Cuban government. The Raul Castro-led government feels more confident in politically engaging with the “Cuban Diaspora,” including in its South Florida heart, and at the same time is less inclined to carry out legal prosecutions and punitive measures against those who collaborate and consort with US government agencies and their subversive schemes in obvious violations of Cuban law. The overhaul in Cuban travel regulations is one example. The release of all “dissidents,” some 75 in all, convicted and imprisoned following increased threats to Cuba in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, is another. Today, Amnesty International and the Cuban Catholic Church, who have both, to varying degrees, advocated in favor of these US-connected “dissidents” have declared that there are no more, as they term it, “political prisoners” in Cuba.

Above all a trip to Cuba combines stunning beauty and unmatched beaches, a fantastic music and art scene, and a history that has truly helped define, and continues to impact, the world. Finally all of this appears to be opening up to US citizens.

Image Of Ike Nahem In Front Of Car

Take advantage of this change. I hear JetBlue is starting direct flights later this summer.
More from Mr. Nahem on Cuba and his trip here.

But Vice News reports:
Here's more from Secretary Kerry
and the raising of American flag at embassy in Cuba.