On Aug. 13, 2020, the Organizing Committee of the International Conference for the Normalization of US-Cuba Relations, the Saving Lives Campaign U.S.-Canada-Cuba Cooperation, and the New York-New Jersey Cuba Sí Coalition held a webinar paying tribute to the remarkable life of Fidel Castro on his 94th birthday. Following are the remarks made by José Ramón Cabañas, the Cuban ambassador to the United States.
Thank you to all organizers and thanks for having us.
In terms of Fidel Castro’s legacy, there is no doubt that his ideas, speeches, works and reflections are the main asset, the cornerstone of Cuban foreign policy in general, but particularly in terms of our bilateral ties with the United States.
Let’s remember Fidel´s visits to the United States before the Revolution and immediately after, in April 1959. We treasure at the embassy many pictures of those moments.
He came to explain the meaning and the many reasons why the Cuban Revolution happened. President Eisenhower passed on the opportunity to meet him and he was welcomed by then Vice President Richard Nixon, who evidently didn’t get the message.
Fidel had the time to pay tribute to Abraham Lincoln at his memorial, he exchanged views at the National Press Club with hundreds of journalists, talked to social leaders and walked all along 16th Street, where he exchanged directly with the local population. A lot could be said about his visits to New York.
Without any doubts, Fidel was the Latin American Leader who welcomed more senators and congressmen from the United States throughout many years. On April 6th, 2009, Fidel wrote an article about the subject, specifically about the Congressional Black Caucus’ visits to Cuba. In the article, he mentioned the caucus’s first visits to Cuba in February 1999 and January 2000. He remembered the role played by the Congressional Black Caucus in the return of the child Elián González to Cuba.
A third delegation of the CBC visited Cuba in May 2000, presided by the Honorable James Clyburn, current Majority Whip at the House of Representatives. On that occasion, Fidel explained the project known as ELAM [Latin American School of Medicine] and offered scholarships at that school to members of the delegation.
ELAM was created a year before. In 1998, Central America was severely hit by Hurricane Mitch and Fidel had the idea of helping those countries by not only sending experts to support the local populations, but by creating human resources in a sustainable way. But suddenly he realized that this project would bring the attention of several countries outside Latin America and the Caribbean.
The same offer of scholarships for American students was made by Fidel to the religious organization Pastors for Peace, presided over at the time by the Rev. Lucius Walker, who was able to select the first American students that would benefit from the offer. Since then, ELAM has graduated 196 American students and currently there are 70 others. ELAM has also graduated 30,000 medical doctors from another 114 countries.
Fidel wrote that article three months after President Obama came to power and at a time when another delegation from the CBC was visiting the island with a message of willingness to support a rapprochement between the two countries. You all know what happened afterwards. Relations were re-established and embassies reopened in 2015. We were involved in a process of negotiation that brought about 23 memoranda of understanding, among them one very meaningful on public health. Under that agreement, a project for bilateral cooperation on public health between the city of Chicago and Cuba was created. By mid-2017, four Cuban experts were working with their counterparts in Chicago.
Among the many activities around the project, we were invited to a public presentation on how medical systems in Cuba and the U.S. could complement each other. One of the main speakers was a young, brilliant woman who graduated as a medical doctor from ELAM years before. She started her presentation by saying thanks to “Papa Fidel.” She went on by saying that probably for some people that term would not be politically correct, but she was thankful to Fidel simply because he provided her with the possibility of becoming a doctor in a family with no resources to face that cost in the United States. Her example is not the only one. As we speak you have almost 200 young medical doctors all over the United States who graduated in Cuba and are fighting COVID here. They are doing their best respecting a principle that health is a human right and that all humans are equal and deserve solidarity and respect. They didn’t come from Cuba to make a fortune at fancy clinics, but to help the low-income communities where they come from.
Fidel definitely has a place in their hearts, probably even a picture at their homes, but more importantly, he has a presence among young people who firmly believe that a better world is possible.
Thank you for your attention.