50 years of solidarity
In June, CSC will mark 50 years of the Cuban Friendship Institute with a public event in London. Jenny Kassman reports on five decades of building solidarity with the island
In 2010, the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos, or ICAP for short) celebrated half a century of developing international solidarity and links between Cuba and the world.
Formed on 30 December 1960, the Institute’s first priority was to tell people outside Cuba of the true purpose of its embryonic Revolution and of the progressive changes taking place there in the face of threats and attacks from the United States.
At a time when the majority of international media only reported hostile and distorted opinions about the changes in Cuba, through ICAP, it was left to international solidarity campaigns like CSC to convey a truer picture of Cuban reality.
Consequently, ICAP’s principal task during these early years was to forge links with the groups that had formed in solidarity with Cuba worldwide, particularly following the imposition of the US blockade in February 1962. Today ICAP has relations with more than 2,000 solidarity groups worldwide, and developing these links remain the Institute’s first priority.
Work is divided in five geographical areas, each housed in a separate office in Havana’s Vedado district: Latin America and the Caribbean, North America and Puerto Rico, Europe, Asia and Oceania and Africa and the Middle East. ICAP’s palatial headquarters are located in Calle 17, once the home of the wealthy Faya Bonet family who, having made their fortune from sugar plantations, left Cuba for Florida in 1959.
It was from here that Holmedo Pérez Rubio, director of the European department, who has worked at ICAP for 36 years, described the Institute’s early years.
“One of the principal tasks for the new organisation was to arrange work brigades (where international volunteers work alongside Cubans on agricultural and building projects) so that people could see for themselves the ways in which the Revolution was transforming the lives of our people,” explains Holmedo.
The first work brigades had already visited the island before ICAP was formed. This included one in August 1960 with eight volunteers from the UK, one of whom, long-time CSC member Nicola Seyd, captured rare colour pictures of Che Guevara on camera when he came to address the volunteers. Another, the Venceremos brigade from the USA, continues to visit the island to this day, defying their country’s stringent laws and fines on those who do.
Other long-standing brigades are the Juan Rius Rivera from Puerto Rico, the José Martí from Europe, the Brigada Nórdica from Northern Europe (to which CSC sends people), the Southern Cross from Australia and New Zealand and numerous brigades from Latin America and the Caribbean. Recently, the 1st May Brigade was established to enable any nationality who wished to join Cubans in their May Day celebrations, to which CSC has sent 110 young trade unionists between 2008-2011.
ICAP has worked actively with the many solidarity groups in African countries. Cuba’s involvement in the struggle to achieve just and equitable societies in Algeria, Ethiopia and the Congo in the 1960s and in Angola in the 1980s, where it played a major role in ending apartheid in South Africa, as well as the hundreds of medical missions sent by Cuba throughout the continent has earned the island particular affection and support from Africans.
Despite the demise of support from Eastern European governments since 1989, there are still very active solidarity campaigns, especially in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Russia and the Ukraine. At the same time, since 1986, Cuba has been giving medical treatment to children affected by the Chernobyl disaster (including during the Special Period) and the arrangements made for the children during their visits have been the responsibility of ICAP.
ICAP’s work includes arranging conferences for activists from abroad. For the past six years, ICAP has organised the International Colloquium for the Miami Five in Holguín. This conference draws together groups from countries around the world to unite efforts and to consolidate the campaign to free the five Cubans unjustly imprisoned in the US since 1998. In 2010 there were about 350 participants from 56 countries, including a CSC group from the UK. (See pXX for details on how to participate in the 2011 conference).
On an individual level, representatives from ICAP frequently travel overseas, hosted by the solidarity campaign in each country they visit, to give talks and to inform people in those countries about the current situation in Cuba. In 2009, ICAP’S President, Kenia Serrano spoke at the Arab-Cuban Solidarity Forum held in Damascus attended by 12 Middle-Eastern countries and the CSC AGM in London.
Holmedo has travelled and worked abroad extensively in his 36 years working for ICAP. His father was a peasant from Sancti Spíritus before moving to Havana and becoming a metal worker. As a child, he would never have imagined that he would become the head of a major section of an organisation like ICAP.
As a nine year old he vividly remembers seeing Fidel and Camilo Cienfuegos in 1959 as the victory convoy passed near his house. It was thanks to the Revolution that he was given the opportunity to study International Economic Relations completely free of charge. It was also thanks to his decision as a nine year old not to leave the island in 1960 in Operation Peter Pan after being urged to do so by the priests at his school. In the US it is highly unlikely that he would have received the opportunities offered by the Revolution.
On 30 December 2010, ICAP celebrated its 50th anniversary, “Although,” says Holmedo, “the anniversary that we are celebrating is really 50 years of international solidarity with Cuba.” Nonetheless, no-one is resting on their laurels. “We need more than ever to continue defending the principles on which our Revolution has been built in the face of mounting US threats and the blockade which costs lives and millions of dollars a year,” explained Holmedo. “As the US government is now pressurising companies and banks from third-party countries to discontinue trading with the island, even with Cubans living abroad, the work done by solidarity groups is more important than ever.”
So what are the priorities for the future?
Holmedo described the three most important tasks for Cuba’s friends: “First, it is essential that we continue the struggle for the freedom of our Five Heroes. Next comes the continuing condemnation of the US blockade which inflicts so much damage and suffering on our society. Finally, we have the task of counteracting the inaccurate and often openly hostile reporting about Cuba by the mainstream foreign media - what we Cubans call the ‘media war’ against our country (la guerra mediática). We supply information to the solidarity organisations so that they can confront the media and inform the public about the way Cuba really is in their own countries.”
Before Luis Marrón became Political Counsellor at the Embassy in London, he was head of the section for Northern Europe at ICAP, having worked for the organisation for over 20 years. Coming from a Lebanese and Spanish background with parents who were primary school teachers, he was born during the first year of the Revolution. He remembers vividly how, during his early years, he saw his mother voluntarily giving lessons in literacy to adults who attended classes in their home. “One point that needs to be made,” he emphasised, “is that support for Cuba comes from people who cover a broad spectrum of political views.
It is not just people on the left who believe that Cuba has the right to be a sovereign state, that the US blockade should be lifted, that our Five Heroes have been unjustly imprisoned and that Gerardo and René should have the right to receive visits from their wives.”
Kenia Serrano Puig, the new President of ICAP, has reiterated that Cuba must continue to strengthen its links with other countries and solidarity organisations so that more people around the world may come to know the true nature of Cuban society. The need to defend Cuba and the principles of the Revolution remain as important as ever.
After 50 years, ICAP has links with 2,121 solidarity organisations in 151 countries, some of which do not recognise Cuba and in which Cuba has no diplomatic mission. In Europe alone there are over 800 solidarity organisations in 45 countries. Kenia has described Cuba as being “the voice of those who have no voice.” For this to happen, others have to speak for Cuba where Cuba’s voice is unheard - and within the British Cuba Solidarity Campaign there is no shortage of people who are willing to do so.