Celebrating the Life of Fidel Castro Ruz – on his 94th birthday

On Aug. 13, 2020, the U.S.-Cuba Normalization International Conference webinar celebrated and honored the life and legacy of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro Ruz on his 94th birthday. This historic event was attended by hundreds on Zoom and many hundreds more via a live broadcast on Facebook. The entire event can be viewed on the U.S.-Cuba Normalization website, and on the National Network on Cuba Facebook page and YouTube channel. Some of the content is summarized here. 

Nalda Vigezzi, co-chair of the National Network on Cuba (NNOC), opened the program, welcomed everyone and thanked all the organizers who worked to bring this amazing virtual program filled with distinguished speakers, ambassadors, scholars, states people, academics, activists and so many of us who have learned from the brilliance of Fidel and the Cuban people.

The NNOC, the U.S. umbrella organization of solidarity groups, has been involved in the struggle to support Cuban sovereignty and end the travel ban and the unilateral economic, commercial and financial blockade of Cuba since 1991.

Vigezzi introduced the co-facilitators: Ike Nahem, anti-imperialist, socialist activist, author of “The Life of Fidel Castro: A Marxist Appreciation,” and member of Teamsters and Railroad Workers United Union; and Tamara Hansen, executive member of the Canadian Network on Cuba, author of “5 Decades of the Cuban Revolution: The Challenges of an Unwavering Leadership.” Vigezzi also thanked all the organizers who worked to bring this amazing program together, virtually.

Vigezzi spoke of the many lessons learned from Fidel, beginning with the first days following the triumph of the revolution prioritizing education and health care. She gave an overview of the many struggles that many of us in the U.S. have participated in, including traveling to Cuba in defiance of the travel ban, struggling to return Elián González to his home, campaigning to Free the Five, organizing programs to bring awareness of the medical opportunities offered by the Latin American School of Medical Science and of the many countries that currently have volunteer medical staff from Cuba.

A beautiful inspiring music video, Yo Te Veo by Raúl Torres, presented pictures of Fidel embracing and being embraced by the Cuban people. Then, a moment of silence recognized Eusebio Leal Spengler. This important revolutionary died on July 31. He served as Havana historian and directed the restoration of Havana’s historic architectural beauty. 

Fernando González Llort

One of Fidel Castro’s early projects to respond to the global support for the young emerging Cuban Revolution was the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the People (ICAP) formed in 1960. A video message from Fernando González Llort, one of the Cuban Five heroes and now ICAP president, expressed highlights of solidarity in the U.S. 

González began his presentation by saying that, for the Cuban people, Fidel lives on in our daily tasks and efforts. He continued, saying, “It is almost difficult to talk about Fidel because we run the risk of omitting aspects of his life that are of great significance. However, it is imperative that we make reference to ICAP.” Fidel created ICAP to connect with the hundreds of thousands of friends all over the world who supported the emerging revolution and wanted to know firsthand what the revolution was all about. Today, ICAP has links with more than 2,000 solidarity organizations in 158 countries.

González highlighted the U.S. solidarity movement continuing from the Revolution’s earliest days to now. He mentioned Sandra Levinson, and Center for Cuban Studies; Rosemari Mealy, former Black Panther and author of “Fidel & Malcolm X: Memories of a Meeting,” who organized Fidel’s second visit to Harlem. Marazul Travel who organized immigrant Cubans travel to Cuba even after their offices were bombed; Pastors for Peace caravans led by the late Rev. Lucius Walker and defended today with dignity and courage by his daughter Gail; the courageous members of the Venceremos Brigades, who worked side by side with Fidel in cutting cane; our friend Gloria LaRiva who Fidel asked to speak on May 1; the U.S. students who graduated from the Latin American School of Medical Science and are practicing medicine at the invitation of Fidel; those who joined Fidel’s call in the campaign to Free the Cuban Five; and the many who have visited Cuba in defiance of the travel blockade. These were among the many activists and solidarity actions that González acknowledged.

González spoke of the current COVID-19 crisis, where the U.S. government has blocked the purchase of medical supplies, and the many Cuban medical personnel saving lives in 28 countries.

Cuba’s Henry Reeve International Brigade — named by Fidel Castro for the 26-year-old U.S. soldier who fought and died on Aug. 4, 1876 in Cuba’s War of Independence  — formed from the volunteers gathered to respond to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. 

The three-hour program flowed nonstop with many live speakers, video-taped presentations, live cultural performances and solidarity messages. 

Five ambassadors on the program made amazing presentations on the legacy of Fidel and the Cuban Revolution and the promise that a better world is possible: José Ramón Cabañas, Cuban ambassador to the United States; Ambassador Dang Dinh Quy, permanent representative of Vietnam to the United Nations; Ana Silvia Rodríguez, Permanent Mission of Cuba to the United Nations; Josefina Vidal, Cuban ambassador to Canada; and Adán Chávez, Venezuelan ambassador to Cuba. 

Ambassador José Ramón Cabañas

Ambassador José Ramón Cabañas [The full text of his remarks is published on Struggle-La-Lucha.org.]

Ambassador Josefina Vidal

Ambassador Josefina Vidal referred to one of the pillars of Fidel’s revolutionary thoughts and work by quoting, “The defense of universal access and free health care is a fundamental human right for every human being and the importance of training, the necessary resources, and establishing an effective health care system at all levels that allows the exercise and enjoyment by the people.”

Ambassador Ana Silvia Rodríguez

Ambassador Ana Silvia Rodríguez remarked on Cuba’s foreign policy, quoting Fidel at the United Nations General Assembly 60 years ago. He said, “In sum, we support all the noble aspirations of all peoples. That´s our position. We support and shall always support everything that is just, and be against colonialism, against exploitation, against monopolies, against militarism, against the arms race, against playing with war. We shall always be against those things. That shall be our position.”

Ambassador Dang Dinh Quy

Ambassador Dang Dinh Quy said that for the Vietnamese people Fidel has been a symbol of revolutionary heroism. Cuba was the first country to recognize the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam in 1963 and the only country who set up an embassy in 1967. Fidel sent construction engineers to build hospitals, and those hospitals were built very well and are functioning now. These are concrete examples of solidarity that Fidel had with the Vietnamese people and that solidarity exists today as we can see Cuban medical teams in many countries to fight COVID-19.

Ambassador Adán Chávez

Ambassador Adán Chávez is the Venezuelan ambassador to Cuba; vice president of International Affairs of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela; and director of the Hugo Chávez Institute of Higher Studies.

Chávez began his presentation by sending a big Bolivarian, revolutionary, Chavista, Fidelista and, therefore, anti-imperialist hug to all the organizers, speakers and viewers.

President Dilma Rousseff

President Dilma Rousseff, as president of Brazil, invited Cuban doctors to her country. She was removed from office on trumped-up charges in a parliamentary coup. Rousseff said, “Cuba’s humanitarian relationship with the world is exemplary and demonstrates that solidarity is its basic value and principle.”

Don Rojas

Don Rojas, former press secretary for the martyred prime minister of Grenada, Maurice Bishop, recalled the day in early 1980 when a Cuban ship arrived in Grenada to fulfill an economic development goal expressed by Bishop to Fidel Castro. Its cargo included brand new construction equipment from bulldozers to cranes and earthmoving trucks for construction of Grenada’s international airport, today named for comrade Maurice Bishop. 

In the following months, Fidel sent medical doctors, dentists and nurses, and then teams of Cuban engineers and architects who worked alongside their Grenadian counterparts to construct the airport as well as access roads to the airport. Today, there are literally hundreds of doctors and nurses from Cuba scattered throughout the country assisting in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Rojas concluded by saying that on this occasion, while we honor the life and legacy of Fidel Castro, “I also want to honor the memory of the many Cuban internationalist workers who fought and shed their blood and died defending themselves and defending their Grenadian comrades when the U.S. military under the command of President Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada in October of 1983, and to say, ‘Down, down with the illegal and immoral blockade of Cuba! Viva Fidel and the glorious Cuban Revolution.’”

Clever Banganayi

Clever Banganayi, with the Friends of Cuba in South Africa, is a Cuban trained engineer who studied in Cuba from 1991 to 1996 and the recipient of the Friendship Medal Award from the Cuban Council of State for his work in the campaign against the U.S. blockade and for the freedom of the Cuban Five. This is a portion of the statement he presented in person from South Africa.

“We celebrate Fidel Castro’s outstanding contribution as a world revolutionary leader, as a committed internationalist, as a statesman truly devoted to the aspirations of freedom, social justice, equality for the people of Cuba and for millions of people of the developing world. As a loyal friend of Africa, South Africa in particular, Fidel Castro led the people of Cuba in a most significant international contribution for the liberation of the African continent with his conviction, unity, and solidarity as a tool of victory. Fidel Castro’s lessons of unity, solidarity, and commitment to revolutionary peace groups are a source of inspiration for today’s young generations of Africans and all other youth in the world. His profound political ideas must be widely shared and understood. Only socialism can ensure conditions of survival of the human species, that another world, a better and peaceful one in harmony with nature is possible and that the oppressed have the rights and capacity to build against injustice.”

Gail Walker

Gail Walker, executive director of IFCO/Pastors for Peace, referenced one of Fidel’s many living legacies, the creation of the Latin American of School of Medical Science (ELAM).

“It was the forward vision of Fidel Castro to take a naval barracks and convert it into an internationally renowned medical training center and, thanks to that vision, tens of thousands of young people from more than 125 nations including the U.S. are now practicing medicine in underserved communities across the globe. In the year 2000 at that historical Riverside Church meeting, Fidel offered free medical scholarships to qualified candidates from all regions of the U.S. from low income communities and communities of color who would not otherwise have access to medical education. That was the gift with the only obligation being that those scholarship recipients would return and practice in medically underserved communities in the U.S. 

“And since that year 2000, under the direction of my father, Rev. Lucius Walker, IFCO has been honored to take on the role for young people to participate in this scholarship program. To date, as the ambassador explained, Cuba has graduated 196 doctors from the U.S., the very country that has imposed a genocidal blockade for more than six decades.”

Walker continued, “From Standing Rock to the front lines of the fight against coronavirus, we in the United States are the benefactors of Cuba’s long-standing commitment to medical internationalism. The U.S. government may have shamefully rejected Cuba’s beautiful offer to send doctors in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to New Orleans or to Puerto Rico after it was viciously slammed by Hurricane María, but today Cuba is beginning to revolutionize health care in the U.S., one ELAM grad at a time. And we are immensely grateful to Fidel for planting those seeds for solidarity that are now bearing fruit.”

Vijay Prashad

Vijay Prashad, Indian historian and Marxist intellectual, executive director of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research and chief editor of LeftWord Books, joined in person to celebrate the life of Fidel Castro. Prashad emphasized Fidel as a socialist human being, the highest form of human being. He explained that Fidel’s real dynamism came out, not at a time of victory, but at a time of defeat. Prashad read a quote from the famous speech at trial after his arrest at the Moncada Barracks uprising, “History Will Absolve Me.” On July 26, 1970, after the 10-million-ton sugarcane harvest failed, Fidel went before the people and said, “I am ready to be removed from office.” Fidel analyzed the mistakes. As his comrade Amilcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau said, “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories.” Fidel never lied. Prashad ended by saying, “The Cuban revolution brought humanity to the planet earth. It affirms life through the doctors, which is why those doctors, more than anybody else, deserve the Nobel Prize. It expends social resources of the Cuban citizens to affirm life, not to build a military force.” Join together to defeat the decaying forces of Imperialism, he urged.

All African People’s Revolutionary Party representative Onyesonwu Chatoyer said by video message that the AAPRP stands in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and will uplift the legacy of Fidel Castro. “The Cuban Revolution embodies the possibility of socialism, a world that can be built once people come together collectively and decide to be free and move in a spirit of humanism and solidarity. The AAPRP deeply respects and honors Fidel Castro. We study him, learn from his example, we seek to continue his work in this world and to bring that model of liberation to the African continent and African people around the world.”

Additional messages were aired from Mary-Alice Waters, president of Pathfinder Press, publisher of the speeches and writing of Fidel Castro. Waters has edited or written 30 books on the Cuban Revolution; Nancy Cabrero from Casa de las Americas, the oldest Cuban organization in the U.S. that supports the normalization of the relationship between Cuba and the U.S.; and João Pedro Stédile from Brazil’s Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), the Landless Workers Movement.

Cultural performances were interspersed throughout by artists and poets live and recorded and greatly enriched the program.

Nancy Morejón

Nancy Morejón, Cuba’s most renowned, widely published and translated post-revolutionary poet, wrote a Poem for Fidel during his lifetime. The recorded poem was read by Morejón in Spanish and English and provided by the Cuba In Focus monthly program on WBAI in New York City.

El Jones

El Jones is a Canadian poet, professor, activist and author of “Live from the Afrikan Resistance.” Jones recited her poem, which began with “This is a birthday card from the Wretched of the Earth,” written for Fidel’s 94th birthday, especially to be read at this program

Singer-songwriter, musician and poet Normand Raymond, sang and played guitar. He is a member of the Artistes pour la paix du Québec board of directors. As an anti-imperialist and social justice activist, he is a longtime supporter of the Cuban Revolution.

Katharine Beeman, poet and a longtime member of La Table de concertation de solidarité Québec-Cuba also presented.

In closing, co-facilitators emphasized that we have to continue to fight to end the criminal U.S. blockade, and we have a duty to call on the world to mobilize and demand that the Cuban doctors receive the Nobel Peace Prize because they deserve it, because they are working towards peace and because they are working while under attack by the Trump administration.