Friday, October 9, 2015

Our man in Havana

The sun was shining gloriously in a clear blue sky last Friday in Havana. It was a hot and humid Cuban morning. Our small delegation – myself, Lucilita Bhreatnach, Eric Scanlon and Richard McAuley – walked the short distance from our cars to the hunger strike memorial in Parque Victor Hugo - a beautiful park in central Havana - named after the author of Les Miserables.

I was first there just before Christmas in 2001 to unveil the memorial which was erected to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike. The hunger strike clearly had a significant impact on the people of Cuba. On September 15 1981, during the hunger strike, Fidel Castro addressing the 68th conference of the Interparliamentary Union in Havana said: “In my opinion Irish patriots are writing on the most heroic chapters in human history. They have earned the respect and admiration of the world and likewise they deserve its support. Ten of them have died in the most moving gesture of sacrifice, selflessness and courage one could ever imagine.” Part of his remarks are inscribed on the memorial.

The Sinn Féin delegation was joined in our celebration by a small crowd of Cuban activists, some of whom were involved in solidarity work at that time, as well as representatives of the Cuban Communist Party.

It was a poignant moment. Friday was October 2nd. It was almost 34 years to the day - October 3rd 1981 - when the hunger strike ended.

The Stailc Ocrais (hunger strike) has since become a metaphor for Ireland’s long struggle for freedom and independence. I reminded my Cuban audience that “it was an epic story of unselfishness, courage and generosity versus self-interest, intransigence and imperialism. Though it ended in the deaths of 10 prisoners and countless other people outside the prison it was a triumph for human dignity and the human spirit.

That same spirit is visible here in Cuba and everywhere stronger powers refuse to recognise that people have the right to be who we are. It is visible when stronger powers try to grind down those who have different more egalitarian values. The people of Cuba have been vindicated by the change of US policy recently and while that will present many challenges, such challenges are part of revolutionary struggle.”

I concluded my remarks by stating my belief that the hunger strikers would be pleased that this memorial stands in Havana.
They would also be pleased by the changes that are evident in Cuba’s economy and in the quality of life of its citizens. Clearly the embargo still makes life very difficult but the Cuban people have demonstrated a remarkable resourcefulness in circumventing this obstacle. For example, major progress has been made in developing Cuba’s economy; in introducing new tax laws and a labour code, and in the creation of huge deepwater sea port, and special economic development zone at the port of Mariel, just west of Havana.

Tourism too has expanded significantly since I was last here. And the relaxation in some of the restrictions on US visitors by President Obama has seen an increase in travellers arriving from there. Many are coming to visit families but others have come to enjoy Cuba’s rich history; its cultural diversity; its great weather and beaches; and the warmth of its people.

Some have also come to look at or travel in the fleet of 1950s American cars that are a regular sight on Havana’s roads. They come in all shapes and sizes and colours. Some, even after 60 years, are still immaculate. They look as fresh as the day they came off the assembly line in Detroit.

Havana is famous for its streetscape of old buildings and castles. Some dating back to the early 16th century. Its’ museums have reminders of gold and silver plundered by Spanish adventurers and monarchs from central and south America, as well as Cuba. The Museum of the Revolution is in Old Havana and in what was the Presidential Palace of all Cuban presidents. It contains many artefacts and photographs from the revolutionary period, including in a glass building beside the museum the Granma – the 60 foot yacht that was used to transport Fidel and 80 fighters from Mexico to Cuba in 1956 at the start of the revolution.

In one glass case is an instrument that was used to tear off the fingernails of prisoners while in another there is a photograph of a crowd of smiling revolutionary prisoners – not unlike smuggled photographs from within Long Kesh and Armagh Women’s prison in our own time. A guitar, with the names of political prisoners written across it, is another reminder of the similarities of prison struggle between Cuba and Ireland. The museum is currently under renovation and the guide who brought us around proudly showed us the bullet holes in the walls that were revealed during the restoration process.

Last week’s visit was an opportunity to build on the close ties of solidarity that Irish republicans and many Irish people share with the people of Cuba. It also came on the back of a very successful visit to Cuba by Pope Francis and the major breakthrough in Cuban – US relations. In the course of a very busy schedule I met senior political leaders in the Cuban government, including Cuban Vice President Salvador Antonio Valdés Mesa, as well as a the Minister for Health; the Minister for Foreign Trade; the Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and senior figures from the People’s National Assembly and the Central Committee.

Our conversations ranged across international affairs and the role of Cuba in the world today, including its medical aid to other countries. The recent thaw in relations between Cuba and the United States dominated much of our discussions.

While US President Obama has taken steps to ease some of the more punitive aspects of the embargo most of the really important elements of it are written into US law and need the Congress to introduce the necessary enabling legislation to finally bring an end to the embargo, as well as to close the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay and return it to the Cuban people.

Sinn Féin has consistently opposed the embargo imposed by the USA. Its economic, cultural and human cost on the people of Cuba has been enormous. The interests of Latin America and especially of Cuba and the USA are best served by an end to the embargo and the creation of a new relationship based on mutual respect and equality. Key to the progress we have witnessed thus far has been the leadership of President Raul Castro and President Obama.

On October 27th Cuba will introduce its annual motion to the United Nations calling for an end to the embargo. How the US responds will be an important indicator.

Finally, I also took the opportunity to publicly and privately commend Cuba's role in facilitating the Colombian peace process. The recent press conference in Havana, hosted by President Raul Castro, at which Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the leader of the Farc rebel group Timochenko shook hands, was a remarkable breakthrough after many years of effort. They have now set six months in which to achieve a final agreement.

Finally, finally I left Cuba impressed by the candour and determination of the Cuban people and their political leadership. All of those I spoke to made clear their willingness to construct a new relationship with the USA but there was an equal determination not to compromise on the principles of the revolution.


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