End the Embargo of Cuba Now – A Forum and Discussion

Ariel Hernandez, first secretary to Cuba’s UN Mission, with Bob Guild and Luis Matos

By Pat Fry

The Metro NY CCDS organized and co-sponsored a panel presentation February 19th at Local1199 SEIU in mid-town Manhattan on the breakthrough in U.S. policy toward Cuba and what it will take to end the five and a half decades-long embargo of Cuba. Co-sponsors were the Local 1199 SEIU Latin American and Caribbean Democracy Committee and the World Organization for the Right of the People
to Health Care (WORPHC).

Long time Cuba solidarity activist, Bob Guild, Vice President of the NJ-based travel agency Marazul that has organized educational trips to Cuba for many years, spoke of the new travel regulations announced by the Obama Administration.

“The changes are significant for the right of the U.S. people to travel to Cuba,” said Guild. He explained that any group can now sponsor a trip to Cuba – unions, neighborhood organizations, the PTA and not have to apply for a license to do so. From the point of view of U.S. State Department, said Guild,they are encouraging travel because they believe it will undermine the Cuban government and its political system. “We are not emissaries of the U.S. State Department,” Guild said.

He spoke of the attacks on many who have advocated against the U.S. ban on travel over many years, including bombings of Marazul Tours and Local 1199’s union hall that injured a maintenance worker, and the 1979assassination of Cuban American Carlos Muniz, a leading solidarity activist with the Antonio Maceo Brigade. The policy change is a victory for the Cuban people because the U.S. was forced to recognize the legitimacy of the Cuban state, he said.

Ariel Hernandez, First Secretary of the Republic of Cuba to the UN Mission, said “The blockade of Cuba continues and the U.S. policy of ‘regime change’ in Cuba has not abated.” One way in which this is playing out is the attempt by the U.S. to ease import/export restrictions for the private sector in Cuba and not for publicly-owned restaurants and hotels. Hernandez said that the private sector in Cuba has some of the strongest pro-government people in the country. “Cuba will never accept any U.S. interference in our internal affairs,” he said.

Negotiations on many issues including telecommunications and internet, will continue the week of February 23, he said. “We are optimistic in the process. We are very strong in our position of sovereignty.”

Luis Matos of the Local 1199 SEIU Latin American and Caribbean Democracy Committee and the World Organization for the Right of the People to Health Care (WORPHC) spoke of the importance of educational trips to Cuba. The WORPHC has been organizing trips to Cuba for 30 years mainly among health care workers and rank and file union members. Matos stressed the importance of educational trips to Cuba in order for people to learn of the Cuban system of health care, Cuban life and society.

Muata Greene, a retired EMT medic in NYC, works with the WORPHC in organizing trips. He said “Cuba is a great example of the right of the people to health care. The people that go to Cuba are taking the message back to the U.S. – single payer health care for the U.S.,” said Greene.

Among the 60 people attending were many activists in Cuba solidarity work, including Leslie Cagan who headed the Cuba Information Project in the 1990s, Gail Walker of Pastors for Peace/IFCO, Ike Naheem and Jaime Mendieta of the July 26th Coalition. Anne Mitchell of CCDS chaired the panel and welcomed everyone on behalf of the three sponsoring organizations.

In discussion of next steps to end the embargo, Pat Fry reported on the lobby efforts in Congress, spearheaded by the Latin American Working Group. The LAWG has an online petition in support of legislation to lift the travel ban (S. 299 and H.R. 664). The identical bills are bi-partisan but the lobby focus is aimed at Republicans before more Democrats sign on. A bill to lift trade restrictions was
also introduced in Congress but with less support at this time.

At the conclusion of the forum, there was consensus on a proposal to build a network to:

1) Share information and build support for “End the Travel Ban” legislation, including circulating the LAWG online petition at http://www.lawg.org/action-center/78-end-the-travel-ban-on-cuba/1407-tell-congress-its-time-to-end-the-embargo

2) Initiate a petition to completely bring an end to the embargo of Cuba and repeal the Helms-Burton law that enforces all aspects of the U.S. embargo.

3) Share information about educational trips to Cuba and build participation to encourage as many as possible to go to Cuba and learn first-hand the Cuban socialist project.