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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 48 New Delhi November 17, 2018

On the gathering ‘Cuba speaks for Itself!’ at the Riverside Church, Harlem

Sunday 18 November 2018

by Archishman Raju

The magnificent Riverside church is in Harlem, a part of Manhattan that has been a historic part of African American culture and resistance. Entering the church, one is struck by a sense of awe and wonder. Places of worship have a spiritual character to them and it is the spirit of struggle that one feels in this church.

It is here that Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. made his speech on April 4, 1967, “Beyond Vietnam”, calling for an end to the American war on Vietnam. It must have been a sight that those in my generation can only imagine, as he called for action to face the “fierce urgency of now”. Dr King saw the war not as a mistake, or an aberration, but as a symptom of deep-rooted and systemic problems in American society. He saw the struggle for peace as essential and the African American struggle for liberation as part of world revolution.

I enter the church on September 26, 2018, 50 years after Dr King’s assassination, to hear the new President of Cuba, Miguel Diaz-Canel, address a crowd of more than 2000 people. There is excitement in the crowd and a hum of conversation fills the space. Many have been here before, to hear Fidel Castro speak in 2000 or Nelson Mandela in 1990. Possibly a few people were even present for that historic speech in 1967. Today, in different times, the Cuban President is given a warm reception as he enters.

First, however, there is a surprise in store. Venezuela’s President Nicholas Maduro makes a surprise visit to the church. There is no announcement initially but the news of his presence spreads like wildfire in the crowd and people jump to get a glimpse of the Venezuelan leader. ‘Madurooo!’, the woman next to me screams, and soon the crowd is chanting. Shouts of ‘Viva Maduro!’ and ‘Viva Chavez!’ fill the room. President Maduro makes a small speech, saying he felt compelled to visit this historic cathedral in Harlem. He says that Venezuela is the victim of imperialist aggression, but the Bolivarian revolution will stand strong.

His speech is followed by the statements of two doctors from the United States who were trained in the Latin American School of Medicine. Cuban doctors are famous around the world for the selflessness and dedication of their service. These are US doctors who were trained in Cuba and have come back fulfill the precondition for their scholarship: to serve the poor in the United States. Their speech is followed by a piano recital before the main event of the evening, the speech by President Diaz-Canel. President Diaz-Canel speaks to the heartfelt emotion being felt in the gathering. A miracle is taking place here tonight, he says.

It is Harlem that provided a place for Fidel Castro to stay in 1960. My best friends in America are in Harlem, Fidel would say. As he mentions the friendship of Fidel and Harlem’s very own Malcolm X, nods and shouts go out in the crowd. Some carry a long history within them. In Hotel Theresa in Harlem, Fidel met Nasser, Nehru and Khrushchev, the President reminds us. Tonight, he said, we will speak about solidarity. Cuba does not have many resources, but we practice solidarity by sharing what we have and through the sacrifices of our people. Our greatest endeavour was our solidarity with Africa.

Indeed, it took the imagination of Fidel and the courage of the Cuban people to decide to send troops all the way from Cuba to defend the national revolutionary struggle in Angola against the brutal apartheid regime of South Africa. Cuba contributed to the ending of apartheid by striking it a strong moral blow. Cuba stands for peace, said the President, for this is the commitment of those who have suffered from colonialism, racism and neoliberalism.

Cuba has had its own struggles. There is an economic blockade on Cuba for the past 60 years. Nevertheless, Cuba has continued to fight, and it is indebted, said the President, to international solidarity. The President ended his speech beautifully, saying: “This is what friends do when they get together after a long time; share old memories. In our case, memories of our father. The spirits of Fidel and Chavez are with us.” As he ended, the crowd roared and stood up in excitement and applause. It indeed felt like we had returned to older days, when solidarity was so natural for the darker nations and peoples of the world. This brief time was filled with hope, excitement and with deep emotions.

Stepping outside, one could not help but remember, under the imposing buildings of New York City, the chaos and confusion that reigns today. It seems as if it is for this moment that Dr King had chosen the words he spoke in 1967: “Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world”.

We must fight against the economic blockade on Cuba. We must oppose the economic sanctions and imperialist aggression on Venezuela. We must believe that a people can make their history, and a people can make their own fate. It is this that sets us apart from the racist and colonialist assumptions that have been with us for far too long. All of us with conscience must rise in support of Cuba and Venezuela and continue the long struggle against imperialism.

Hasta La Victoria Siempre!

Archishman Raju is a Research Fellow in Physics and Biology at Rockefeller University. He is a member of the Saturday Free School in Philadelphia.

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