Cuba Lives, Breathes, Resists – May Day, COVID, Guantánamo, & the Summit of the Americas

Billboard in Havana- Cuba Lives and Breathes

I set off for Havana at the end of April to participate in the 15th International May Day Brigade organized by ICAP (The Institute for Friendship with the Cuban People). Having achieved one of the lowest COVID mortality rates and highest vaccination rates in the world, Cuba had reopened the country to international guests on November 15, 2021. The U.S. had tried and failed to exploit the global disease disaster to bring about regime change, but the intensified embargo have made living conditions worse than ever for the Cuban people. May Day 2022 was a chance for Cuba to welcome tens of thousands of international guests to uphold the vision of International Workers’ Day and demonstrate that global solidarity with Cuba lives.

Forty-five years before in 1977, I had joined Cuba’s May Day celebration as part of the tenth Venceremos Brigade. In defiance of the U.S. blockade which had been put into place in 1960 to suffocate the revolution, the Venceremos Brigade mobilized people from the U.S. to break the blockade and engage in work in material support of Cuba. From the earliest days of the revolution, Cuba recognized that building the broadest international solidarity possible was critical for countering the unrelenting attacks from the imperialist regime to the North. My work in Cuba in 1977 cemented my belief that radical change within the U.S. had to be connected to liberation struggles around the globe.

I had visited Cuba a number of times since then, most recently in 2019 as part of the 50th Venceremos Brigade. After two years of pandemic isolation in the U.S., I was eager to march in Havana’s May Day parade to affirm a social system which, remarkably, continued to put people and care first. I was also looking forward to attending the Seventh International Seminar for Peace and Abolition of Foreign Military Bases which would take place in Guantánamo, Cuba right after May Day. The Seminar would be an important intervention at a time when the U.S. and NATO were using the war in Ukraine to further promote their expansionist strategies around the world.

At the Julio Antonio Mello International Camp where the Brigade was staying, I met many other people of my generation – from Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Turkey, and Sweden among others. We had all lived through decades of revolutionary setbacks and fierce repression but were still committed to social change. As some of us elder women worked in the Camp’s kitchen, we shared memories of Cuban youth festivals and brigades from decades gone by. We talked about current efforts for change in Latin America, such as the campaigns for leftist presidential candidates – Lula in Brazil and Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla, in Colombia (who is now the leading candidate.) And we appreciated the high energy and growing commitment of dozens of younger generation Brigadistas who had come from Africa, Vietnam, Latin America, Canada and the United States. These young people were the ones who would carry forward the work of solidarity in these very challenging times.

In the days leading up to May 1st, we learned about developments in Cuba over the past two years. We heard from Miguel Fraga who had been the First Secretary at the Cuban Embassy in Washington D.C. from 2015-2019. Fraga explained the many ways in which the U.S. had intensified destabilization efforts during the pandemic. While tightening sanctions which cut off medicines, medical equipment, food, fuel and family remittances, the U.S. orchestrated a social media war, blaming the shortages and problems on the Cuban government. This culminated in anti-government protests on July 11, 2021 with some U.S. politicians calling for “humanitarian” intervention in Cuba. Thousands of Cubans who supported the government took to the streets and the crisis was averted. However, the U.S. continues to try and manipulate Cuba’s serious economic problems to its advantage.

It was an honor to visit the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIBG) and hear from Dr. Manuel Raíces about the rapid development of three vaccines (with two more pending approval) in response to the pandemic. Cuba has vaccinated over 90% of the population starting at two years of age and has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. Dr. Raices pointed out that the Cuban biotech sector is the only one on the planet that is not market oriented. They have worked to distribute vaccine science and technology to countries of the global south at the same time as they try to commercialize their pharmaceutical products when selling to wealthy nations.

Six days into my trip, I woke up with mild congestion and went to get tested for COVID at the Camp’s clinic. Despite my four doses of the Pfizer vaccine and the masks I had worn most of the time as mandated by Cuban protocols, I had caught COVID as I lived and worked in the Camp’s congregate setting. Intellectually I knew that the pandemic wasn’t over when I decided to be part of the May Day Brigade. But part of me hoped that Cuba’s superior health care system and its indomitable spirit would magically protect me. Instead, all my plans were abruptly altered as I was quickly whisked away in an ambulance to the Clinica Internacional Camilo Cienfuegos.

The Clinica, founded in 1992, routinely provides specialized medical care available at reasonable costs, to international visitors in ophthalmology as well as internal medicine, orthopedics and gynecology. It had expanded its services to COVID-positive visitors in this period. Because I was a solidarity guest, six days of care, room and food were all free!

After having a complete medical review, including a chest x-ray, an EKG and a PCR test, I was escorted to a private room in the clinic where I would spend the next six days in quarantine. The room was air conditioned with a TV, my physical symptoms were very mild, and all the health care providers and staff were kind and concerned, but I was very disappointed and disoriented. Instead of participating in the huge social energy of May Day and the dynamic political exchanges at the conference in Guantánamo, I would spend the next days in a room by myself without access to the internet. While Cuba has internet, the U.S. blockade and limited economic resources have limited its accessibility and the government prioritizes wifi access for public spaces. The Clinica did not have wifi and I was told that the only possible access was through the hot spot in the public park across the street.

By holding my phone up to one corner of the window, I was able to get weak wifi sometimes for a few minutes, an exercise in frustration. However, as I stood by the window and watched Cubans go about their daily routines, I recalibrated my focus. I saw people on the corner waiting (and waiting) for buses to come and take them to work. I watched children playing games in their school uniforms at recess during the day and teenagers playing ball in the early evening. I observed people hanging their laundry out to dry on lines that they strung between the trees in the park, presumably because this provided more air and space than they had in their nearby homes. I saw couples sit and talk and embrace on a popular bench under a tree directly across from my window. I remembered that every day, especially since the pandemic, Cubans had to reimagine their lives because of shortages of everything from medicine to food to fuel. I needed to take my cue from Cuban resourcefulness. I would unplug and learn what I could from being in Cuba under quarantine.

I read the books on my ipad. I did daily stretches and yoga and walked back and forth across the room several times a day. I watched crappy old American sitcoms and movies, and flipped through news in five languages (English, Spanish, Chinese, German and French.) And I was able to view the exuberant May Day events as they were happening not only in Havana but across the island in Holguin, Santiago de Cuba, Santa Clara and Pinar del Rio. I absorbed the May Day energy and later supplemented my impressions with information from those who attended the march.

Havana’s march was attended by more than 700,000 workers and students from across the region while more than 5.5 million people celebrated throughout Cuba. Leading the Havana march was a gigantic banner 100-feet across, which read “Cuba Vive y Trabaja (Cuba Lives and Works),” with 50,000 doctors and scientists involved in the anti-COVID struggle marching behind it. After them came workers, student, women’s and neighborhood contingents each with their own banners, posters, bands, dances and chants.

At the Plaza de la Revolución, Ulises Guilarte de Nacimiento, General Secretary of the CTC (Cuban Workers Federation) spoke of the ominous global circumstances in which this celebratory event was taking place, “Hostility is growing and the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed on us by the United States government, the main obstacle to our development programs, is intensifying to the extreme, together with a pandemic that maintains negative impacts in the economic, social and labor spheres … Faced with this panorama, Cuba does not stop…. We will not bend. Cuba lives and works for its present and for its future.”

The vibrancy of May Day helped carry me through the next few days of my quarantine. On May 3rd I heard the chilling news, from TV reports in multiple languages, about the U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion which could potentially overturn Roe v. Wade. Cuban commentators pointed out that reproductive rights for Cuban women were enshrined in Cuba’s constitution, a fact that was elaborated on later in an article by Calla Walsh, one of the young May Day Brigade members.

On the sixth day of quarantine, I happily tested negative for COVID and was able to leave the clinic and return home. Back in San Francisco, I was eager to hear about the Seminar in Guantánamo from those who had gone. The Seminar was attended by eighty-four delegates from twenty-five countries. Mark Ginsburg, a Brigadista from the Bay Area, was struck by the statistics that were shared. The U.S. maintains approximately seven hundred and fifty military bases around the world in eighty countries. 90% of the bases around the world belong to the United States! He was particularly moved by testimony from people in other countries, such as the Phillipines, who spoke about the damaging impact of military bases on their communities.

On a Voices with Vision radio report back, hosted by May Day Brigade leader Netfa Freeman, Dr. Samira Addrey from IFCO reported on the Seminar and the effect of the Guantánamo military base on the people living there. “The US military occupation of Guantánamo has impacted the lives of the people of that province, it has stripped them of their agency and their ability as a province to produce a large share of efficient fishing products.”

Dr. Addrey also called out the barbaric use of the base as a detention center since September 11, 2001. “Guantánamo Bay base has become a death camp that has targeted Muslims…. all those prisoners held there were taken from one place or another, and disappeared into the system of black sites in different countries and then sent to Guantánamo to be tortured, and put in solitary confinement with all those parallels to the experiences of our political prisoners in the United States.”

The Declaration issued at the end by Seminar participants cited the increasing aggressiveness of the U.S., NATO and the European Union as the urgent context for the conference. The Declaration demanded the closure of all foreign military bases worldwide, the return of Guantánamo naval base to Cuba, and an end to the criminal U.S. blockade.

In the weeks since I returned from Cuba, the U.S. has ramped up its aggressive actions by banning Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua from participation in the Summit of the Americas which is scheduled to be held in Los Angeles between June 6th and 10th. In response, Mexican President Manuel López Obrador, Bolivian President Luis Arce, Honduran President Xiomara Castro, and many other heads of state have all declared that they will not participate if the exclusions are maintained. The U.S. seems to have underestimated important political shifts that have taken place in Latin America over the past two years in the wake of the pandemic, making it less likely that countries will roll over and accept the U.S. belligerent policies.

The People’s Summit for Democracy is being organized by activists from June 8-10 as a progressive alternative to Biden Administration’s exclusionary summit. Unfortunately, the twenty-three member delegation from Cuba has been denied visas by the U.S., and the L.A. police have denied a permit for the legal mass march planned to protest the official Summit gathering. The Workers Summit of the Americas, another alternative gathering, will take place in Tijuana, Mexico, June 10-12. It will not be subject to U.S. control and will welcome delegations from Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Solidarity is on the rise. Cuba lives, resists and inspires others to do the same!

Diana Block works with the Bay Area Cuba Saving Lives Committee. She is a founding and active member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners , an abolitionist organization that celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2020. She is the author of a memoir, Arm the Spirit – A Woman’s Journey Underground and Back (AKPress 2009), and a novel, Clandestine Occupations – An Imaginary History (PM Press 2015). She writes for various online journals.