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Cuban Futures conference report-back

14 October 2015

Executive Committee member Steve Leggett reports back from the recent conference on Cuba, held at Congress House on Saturday 3rd October 2015

Bernard Regan, National Secretary of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, welcomed everyone and opened the conference. Bernard informed the conference that unfortunately Rene Gonzalez was not able to attend as planned because he had been denied a visa to visit Britain, Bernard said that the UK was complicit along with the USA in the treatment of Cubans. Bernard then introduced each speaker in turn for the opening plenary.

The first speaker was Dr Carlos Alzugary, former Cuban Diplomat. Carlos first thanked everyone for their help and support and then spoke of the US’s relentless treatment towards Cuba with the blockade, which is not an embargo, which has led to hunger and poverty, it is still there though maybe not as full as before.

Carlos stressed that Obama’s statement on December 17th was not a change of policy but a change of tactics and the goal of the US has remained unchanged, there is a window of opportunity in Obama’s last 2 years and December 17th was a victory but the war is not over.

The second speaker was Arleen Rodriguez, a former member of the Cuban National Assembly and a prominent journalist. Arleen first talked about how they have arrived at the December 17th announcement, that this was not what the USA wanted, they have tried to separate them from Latin America but it has not worked, Arleen said that the Cubans don’t hate America as they work for good relations.

Arleen then mentioned Obama re-signing the trade act against Cuba, despite December 17th, and that in October the UN will debate the Cuban blockade and how will Obama vote then? Arleen thanked everyone for all the help and said that the US will only be defeated by Cuban resistance and international solidarity.

The third and last speaker was former Labour MP and Foreign Office Minister Brian Wilson. Brian said that he first visited Cuba in the late 70s and has regularly visited since then, in the 90s when he was Trade Minister he wanted to have normal trade with Cuba, something that he pushed for and tried to get.

Brain then talked about the venture he is now involved in, he is the Chairman of Havana Energy, he said that some years ago Cuba realised that its dependency on Venezuelan oil was not good and looked to renewable energy instead. Brian commented on Cuban’s diversity and of the trouble they had of setting up the company and getting financial backing, (they build power stations fuelled by sugar plantations), and that the UK Government was complicit with the US and how barriers were put up and influence to stop their funding, eventually a French state owned energy company backed them.

Next was a choice of 2 seminars, one on ‘Influencing Power and Cuban democracy’ and the one that I attended which was on ‘Economic Challenges’. This was chaired by Sue Michie and the first speaker was Dr Steve Ludlam, who is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Sheffield and teaches contemporary Cuban and Latin American politics.
Steve’s talk was very interesting and I wished there was more time, he first explained about the unions in Cuba and their changing role. Since 1939, so before the revolution, unions have had a legal structure and are independent, their members decide their democracy and the unions are entirely funded by members’ subs, which is by cash, no check off, which does present challenges in obtaining, they have 90+% membership rates.
The unions are partners in policy and government legislation, they organise meetings of mass consultations and present to the government the results and wishes. They have work place power, automatic right of facility time, they sit on company boards and decide on rest time, work patterns and bargaining agreements which are approved by members with over 70% participation. Members sit on workplace panels that are elected within the workplace which decide on discipline and grievance issues.

Steve continued that Raul Castro’s first speech highlighted the falling spending power of Cubans, due to the collapse of Soviet Communism and its trade with Cuba there has been in effect a 28% decrease in wages. As a result since 2010 they have decided on a restructuring of the workforce, from state employment to self employment, 1 million was the initial target but only 1⁄2 million has changed. In 2011 further new guidelines were agreed to update the economic state and to private and foreign investment law to encourage foreign investment in Cuba.

Steve said that salaries is a big challenge for Cuba, equal pay and with the new private sector jobs of which only 40% have protected workers rights, something that the unions fought hard for, also the right to work has changed and now the state regards it as only a right of opportunity to work. In addition the US is looking to form breakaway unions so there are big challenges ahead for the unions and Cuba. But this self employment has actually led to more formalisation of Cubans who receive free health and education in all sectors of work.

The next speaker was Brian Wilson who said that Cuba potentially offers the best investment opportunity, there is no corruption, it has a highly educated workforce and geographically well placed, they also try and find ways to move forward. The Marbu plant, which comes from Africa, plagues Cuba and grows everywhere but they found out that it can be used as a bio-fuel so now they are using it for that.

The next speaker was Carlos Alzugaray. Carlos first talked about the impact and the loss Cuba suffered with the decline and trade with the Soviet Union, Cuba lost over 70% of its trade and a 30% decrease in GDP and they are still experiencing problems from this. Cuba believes that to leave society in the hands of market forces is wrong but they have too have made mistakes, for example in the 60’s & 70’s school books were free however because they were free people didn’t treat them with value, so they have had to make changes but most changes have been debated and decided by all Cubans.

Carlos said that another big challenge is to unite their currencies, they have two currencies, the ‘National Peso’ and the ‘Convertible Peso’, which is often called the ‘dollar’, they need to just have one and this will help tourism which over recent years has increased dramatically, all the hotels are currently booked until May of next year. In 2014 over 800,000 Americans visited Cuba alone and this is likely to double which will have an enormous impact on them and their infrastructure.

There was then a short Q&A session before it was time for the next seminars, again there was a choice, ‘Defending the gains of the Revolution’, and the one what I attended which was ‘The Blockade, where is it and how to end it’.

This was again Chaired by Sue Michie and the first speaker was Bernard Regan. Bernard said that despite December 17th the blockade remains solid, people believed that Obama’s statement changed things but the situation remains and there are 10 laws which form the blockade and gave examples since December 17th of the continuing blockade of foreign banks and companies that don’t recognise Cuba and the impact that this has for Cuba.

The next speaker was Keith Bolender, who is a lecturer in journalism and award winning author of two books on Cuba, ‘Voices from the Other Side’ and ‘Cuba under Siege’. Keith first talked about Obama’s December 17th statement and the fact he then re-signed the trade embargo. Keith said that by re-signing the embargo it keeps the control at Presidential level where he can water down things over a period of time, had he not re-signed it then the control would pass to Congress where the Republicans hold the power, in 1996 President Clinton changed it that only Congress can end the embargo.

Keith continued that in Congress there are many right wing Republicans who were very mad with Obama’s statement, it also meant that Cuba came off the terrorist list, and he read some quotes to highlight this, Keith then asked about the future and what could happen and can Cuba achieve normalisation?

Obviously a big factor in this is who will be the next President, Hilary Clinton supports normalisation, but of course the worse case scenario is that a Republican President gets elected and turns back the clock, but Keith was optimistic, Congress will pass to the Democrats and some of the more right wing Senators will be stepping down so Keith feels that it will be difficult for any future President to turn back the clock on Cuba now things are moving in this direction, even some of the right wing Cubans in Florida are supporting normalisation now. Keith also believes that the US will abstain from the UN vote on the embargo in October, leaving only Israel and Palau to be the only ones to still vote in favour of the embargo.

There was then a brief Q&A session before lunch was taken. After lunch there was a ‘Round Table’ discussion on Cuban perspectives and Cuba-US relationships, former Associate Editor of the Guardian, Victoria Brittain, was the Moderator and the panellists were Dr Rafael Hernandez, Editor of the Temas, the leading Cuban magazine in the social sciences and humanities, Dr Carlos Alzugaray and Arleen Rodriguez.

This took the form of members of the audience asking the panellist questions, this worked very well and enabled people more time to engage with the speakers. Some of the themes/subjects that were discussed was again on the recent change of relations with the US, views that this is just a change of tactics, aims of the US remain the same. Guantanamo Bay, which should be returned to Cuba but in terms of the greater picture the feelings were that this is not a top priority and should not be a deal breaker.
Followed was then the last of the seminars, one was on ‘US influence and intervention in the new Latin America’ and I attended the one on ‘Is it business as usual for US regime change?’, this was Chaired by Carole Regan and speakers were Dr Francisco Dominquez, who is a Senior Lecturer and Head of the Latin American Studies Research Group at Middlesex University, and Keith Bolender.

Francisco spoke first and he has been doing research in trying to track and trance the US money going through the organisations influencing and carrying out the US policy, it is clear that he has been doing a vast study of this and had many slides to show the relationships, which was far too detailed to go into in a brief report, of all the various public and private organisations and how they are all geared up to act against Cuba and Latin America, certainly his work would be well worth further reading. But one of the central roles in all this is the US Aid Budget, this then filters down through many other sympathetic and biased organisations, in 2004 the US Aid budget was $10 billion, 2016 it is $22.3 billion and bigger than many of the Latin American countries alone.

Keith then spoke about that for America this is just a different way of achieving regime change, the US have used the stick now they are going to try the carrot, they feel that it will be easier to manipulate Cuba through democracy, but if this helps end the blockade then this is the main thing. Keith also talked about the ‘Helms-Burton Act’, which penalizes foreign companies that does business with Cuba by preventing them to do business with the US, and that 80% of the US money spent on ‘Cuban democracies’ goes in salaries, offices and travel.

There was then a longer time for questions and much of the questions and debate was with concerns that if Cuba is then open to US capitalism that this will change and corrupt Cuba. The panellists thought that this won’t happen, in particular Keith was of the opinion that Cuba won’t change, if anything it will be the Cubans changing the Americans, they have been preparing for this for decades, they will be going into this with open eyes and Keith asked who are we to deny them this and tell them no? If they want MacDonalds then that is up to them. Keith also asked what are the alternatives and what are people proposing? Not to end the blockade which forces them into poverty and denies them their right to improve themselves, society and the lifestyle that they deserve? If they do change and go back on the society that they have created then that is up to them and their fault. Keith asked for faith in the Cubans as they did not look for this fight, this was forced on them.

The day ended with a final Plenary about the ‘Future for Cuba and International Solidarity’, this was Chaired by Jayne Fisher and speakers were Carlos Alzugaray, Rob Miller, Director of Cuba Solidarity in the UK, and Linda Perks, London Regional Secretary for Unison and Vice President of SERTUC.

This focused was on the future for Cuba and the Cuban motion to the UN to end the blockade which will be discussed in October and was a good end to a very interesting day. What is clear is the thanks and appreciation of the international solidarity and how important this is and what it means to the people of Cuba and that this should not only continue but pressure increased domestically on our governments.

• Find out more on the website of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign.

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