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Photo: Bill Hackwell

The Second Days of Action against the Blockade of Cuba in Washington DC ended on April 22 with a successful community forum at the UDC Law School. From April 18, participants from cities across the United States, including Hawaii, and also from Brazil and Canada, attended a variety of activities.

The Days of Action was designed this year to bringa number of Cuban guests to participate and to share the Cuban perspective with U.S audiences. The expectation of the organizers was that it would be easier to get visa approval for them after the favorable announcements about improved relations between the two countries were made on December 17, 2014.

As it turns out, in this new period of “thaw” the exact opposite is true. Two Cuban medical professionals who had participated in the Cuban brigade to fight Ebola in West Africa were invited to participate. Also Luisa Campos, the Director of the Havana Literacy Museum who has come to the US before, a representative of the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP) and Jorgito Jerez -all of them representatives of Cuban civil society. They were all set to come but of the five Cuban invitees only Jorgito got his visa, and that came after the first leg of his tour in New York had passed. He arrived in DC just 2 hours before he was to speak at American University.

Many in the United States believe the blockade is over thanks to the lies and disinformation in the corporate media that are meant to confuse people on a daily basis about what this new period is all about. Despite the many announcements coming from the White House about changes the truth is that not much has changed at all. Obama could do so much more and has the executive power to render the blockade virtually useless. Meanwhile the policy of regime change remains encoded into law concerning the official government stance on Cuba.

When Obama spoke live on Cuban TV on March 22 he stated “I want you to know, I believe my visit here demonstrates that you do not need to fear a threat from the United States.” No one should believe that to be true. On the other hand the people of the U.S. have no reason to see Cuba as a threat because Cuba has never invaded the U.S., never tried to kill a U.S. president, never tried to undermine the U.S. government in any way, they do not have an unwanted military base in the U.S., nor have they imposed a cruel and inhumane blockade for more than 50 years, and Cuba does not prohibit its citizens to travel freely to any country that grants them visas.

It is hard to understand why many Cubans who are invited to participate in events in the United States, as a way to exchange ideas, viewpoints, share experiences, etc. are denied visas or receive them too late to come. This happens on a regular and unpredictable basis making it nearly impossible to plan events for them. There is an undeniable ingredient of calculated cruelty in all this that the Cuban people are used to. One thing however is crystal clear and that is that the United States government continues to underestimate the resilience of the Cuban people, and they also underestimate the vast international support that Cuba has in all corners of the world.

Visits to U.S. Congress and Senate

The Second Days of Action against the Blockade began on April 18 with an orientation for grassroots advocacy. Participants and organizers strategized about issues that they could possibly face in their meetings in the different congressional offices. The visits were directed to members of congress who have not yet signed onto legislation in favor of ending the blockade and/or the travel ban. Also, some visits were geared to members of congress who have been supportive of changes in U.S. policy towards Cuba. Four advocacy teams fanned out over The Hill and visited a total of 41 offices, emphasizing the impact that the blockade of Cuba has not just on the people of Cuba but also how the people of the U.S. would benefit with the ending of the 56 year old failed policy.

Congressional Briefing

Drs. Alicia Steele and Vanessa Avila, both graduates at the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) in Havana gave a presentation during a briefing with Congressional staffers. They replaced the two medical professionals from Cuba who did not get their visas and spoke about the advancements that the Cuban medical system is making in medicines such as Heberpro-P that cures diabetic ulcers avoiding amputations, and the development of new vaccines for cancer. The two young Latina doctors also spoke about the unparalleled internationalism that Cuba displays when there is a natural disaster in any part of the world such as the devastating earthquake that took place last week in Ecuador. Cuba has already sent 650 medical professionals to help out.

Cuban Ambassador José Ramón Cabañas speaks at UDC Law School, with Jorgito Jerez to his left, and Alicia Jrapko (right). Photo: Bill Hackwell

The Power of the Weak film presentations

During the Days of Action film screenings of the new documentary by German filmmaker Tobias Kriele took place. Power of the Weak tells the story of Jorge, “Jorgito” Jérez, born in Cuba in 1993 during the special period with cerebral palsy. The movie shows how a society structured to support human development can make the disabled powerful. Provided with care from birth by Cuba’s health and educational systems, Jorgito is now a self-sufficient, independent young journalist.

Community Forum: “Through Cuban Eyes”

Friday night about 175 people attended the closing event at UDC Law School in Washington DC. Alicia Jrapko from the International Committee for Peace, Justice and Dignity was the moderator of the evening forum that focused on the current state of U.S./Cuban relations. Panelists included well-known Cuban attorney Jose Pertierra who practices in Washington DC, Stephen Kimber, Professor of Journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax and author of What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five, and Jorgito Jerez.

From left to right, Dr. Vanessa Avila, Dr. Alicia Steele, Jennifer Bryant and Gail Walker. Photo: Bill Hackwell

Also taking part in the panel were recent ELAM graduates Dr. Alicia Steele from Michigan and Dr. Venessa Avila from California as well as Jennifer Bryant, from the Venceremos Brigade and Gail Walker, Executive Director of IFCO/Pastors for Peace. Barbara Curvello, a Cuban American from Pensacola, Florida who came to participate in the activities against the blockade provided translation for Jorgito. The Cuban Institute of Friendhip with the Peoples (ICAP) sent a solidarity message that was read by Nalda Vigezzi, one of the co-chairs of the National Network on Cuba (NNOC). Netfa Freeman from the Institute for Policy Studies and a WPFW commentator read a solidarity message sent by the German Network in Solidarity with Cuba. Another powerful addition to the evening was a message of solidarity from National Nurses United that was presented by one of its members, Nurse Joe Cassidy.

Panelists discussed several current issues such as the Cuban Adjustment Act, the regime change programs still in place, and what more can Obama do using his Executive Powers to effectively eliminate the blockade.

As a Cuban youth Jorgito spoke eloquently about how he sees the future of Cuba. “What happened on December 17 is a challenge to Cuban youth. President Obama geared his talk to generational change. I come to say to friends of Cuba that when Obama spoke about Cuban youth he was wrong. It is no secret that the President and his advisers, even some politicians, say that the blockade will end when the historic leadership of the revolution is gone. One of the sectors most affected by the policy of the blockade are young people.” He continued by saying, “On behalf of young Cubans, let us work together and do everything possible to break down the walls of the blockade. The future of Cuba is in the hands of young people, the future of Cuba is guaranteed.”

Both Dr. Alicia Steele and Vanessa Avila spoke about their experiences studying in Cuba. Dr Steele said that she not only became a medical doctor thanks to Cuba, an impossible dream for her here in the United States, but also became fluent in Spanish and reconnected with her Hispanic roots. “Growing up I was unable to speak with my grandmother who only spoke Spanish, but after I returned from Cuba I could communicate with her, something that is very valuable to me.” Other panelists spoke about the importance of Cuba solidarity and the right to travel to Cuba.

The Ambassador of Cuba in Washington DC José Ramón Cabañas closed the evening with an explanation from the Cuban perspective on what it will take to arrive at normalization of relations. “For those who have doubts about the need for solidarity, we have to look at what is happening around us,” Cabañas continued. “And in those first world countries, most of the problems are fixed from an economic point of view. You have those who own a lot and those who have no resources for a decent life. With those people we need to create solidarity. Cubans of the last three or four generations have been born and educated with the principle that we have to show solidarity to others, because we have received a lot of solidarity from you, from many countries and many societies. One thing I want to emphasize, the blockade is still in place. … The core issues are still there. Large regulations and limits have to be overcome if we really want to have a normal relationship with the United States. … The sanction regime from 1962 and what the Helms-Burton law established – by the way, 30 years ago this year – is still there.”

The activities of the Days of Action in Washington made clear the urgent need to continue working for an end to the oldest unilateral blockade in history. The events were organized by a coalition of groups in the U.S., including the International Committee for Peace, Justice and Dignity, IFCO/Pastors for Peace, the National Network on Cuba, the Institute for Policy Studies, and the Venceremos Brigade.

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