Vilma Espín: "On our feet and not on our knees"
Progressive International | Thursday, 22 June 2023 | Click here for original article
In 1961, Vilma Espín attended the Latin-American Conference for National Sovereignty, Economic Emancipation and Peace, convened by the former Mexican President, Lázaro Cárdenas. Bringing together leftist leaders from across the hemisphere, this conference drew international attention to the grim conditions in Latin America, denounced the US's imperialist activities, and defended the Cuban Revolution.
Below is Espín's remarkable address to the delegations, where she invokes the hope for a renewed consciousness to emerge out of the Americas, rooted in independence and peace.
In the name of the Cuban delegation, we wish to extend to all of you – the Mexicans, our Latin American brothers, and the fraternal delegates - our most cordial greetings and our most fervent and deeply felt gratitude. From the warm reception at the airport – where along with the stirring cheers, there was not lacking the inspiring note of revolutionary songs rendered by the typical mariachis - to the revolutionary enthusiasm shown at this magnificent opening session; everything has made us feel, at each instant, that this magnificent Mexican people, and our brothers all over America, and our brothers from other continents as well, are body and soul on the side of our glorious Cuban Revolution. All this has deeply moved us and we want to begin by saying with profound and sincere brevity: "Gracias, compañeros."
General Lázaro Cárdenas has already expressed, with absolute clarity, in his admirable opening address, what this meeting means at the present moment in the world and in the history of our definitive emancipation. We, like him, are convinced that “among all peoples the same desire unites us – to combat imperialist war so that we can undertake our full development." We also know, as the great Mexican statesman put it, that "So long as any country remains without liberty, so long as nations exist without political independence, so long as national sovereignty is infringed in any way, and we face the unjust spectacle of the economic or political submission of one country to another, it is impossible for peace to prevail in the world." And we affirm with General Cárdenas that "enduring peace is linked to the liberation of the colonial territories, to absolute respect for the sovereignty and the consolidation of the economic emancipation of nations."
Cuba was until yesterday a typical example of a semi-colonial country, underdeveloped, a victim of imperialism. The Spanish- Cuban-American war of 1898 was the first typical imperialist war, the first such war fought between two rapacious nations disputing the possession of colonies. As a result of that war Cuba ceased to be a Spanish colony and became a semi-colony of the United States of North America. The Platt Amendment was the juridical expression – written in the Constitution of the newborn Antilles republic - of its situation of political dependence; the Reciprocity Treaty of 1903 confirmed our economic slavery; the Naval Base of Caimanera [Guantánamo] even now reminds us, anachronistically, of that deplorable colonial situation. An entire costly governmental apparatus staffed by presidents, senators, representatives, etc. – democratic in outward form - served as administrator or overseer for the foreign interests and the native latifundistas, and a well-oiled caste army - professionals in abuse and torture – maintained an order of the graveyard on the Island converted into an immense sugar-cane plantation to sweeten the life of Uncle Sam.
Cuba was an immense sugar-cane plantation – with a little corner left over for tobacco and a few manganese and nickel mines; and all this was destined for one single buyer, who set the prices and controlled the amount of harvest yields. Cuba was, furthermore, through unilateral and unjust agreements and treaties, subjected to this single buyer, forced to acquire in his storehouses the bulk of our indispensable consumers goods and any number of superfluous items, from rice to Cadillacs, flour or television sets.
Because we were slaves of the dollar and wore its livery, we appeared rich, but the illiterate peasant was starving to death and the workers and civil servants of the towns were dragging through a mediocre existence, with miserably low wages, constantly going downhill. The periodic economic crises characteristic of the capitalist economy - always sharper and more serious in the colonies engendered as their natural produce the dictatorships which toughened and hardened in our land – from Machado to Batista - excellent foremen in the service of imperialist interests.
The Revolution based itself on the exploited masses of the countryside and the city. It was and will always be a revolution of the poor, by the poor and for the poor. It was born among youth and students, workers and professionals of the city, and grew strong in the Sierra, having taken root in the people of the land, who form the majority of the exploited in underdeveloped countries. It became as any truly organic product, one with the earth itself, and has been forming its consciousness in contact with Cuban reality, living day to day the pain and exploitation, but also the desires of recovery of the peasants and workers and professionals and students, and of men and women of the middle class who hope to breath free air, and of the small manufacturers and native merchants who dreamed of achieving definitive economic independence.
The Revolution was not, and is not, and will never become the adventure of a few, to benefit a new class of self-seekers. It was, and is, and will be the irresistible impulse of a whole people to become absolute master of its destiny, without subjection to any type of colonial rule, to recover its land and its dignity, its right to bread and to culture, to exploit its own riches for its own benefit, and to live in peace and friendship with all the peoples of the world.
That is why the Cuban Revolution started out by destroying the tools of colonial bondage, that is latifundism and the caste army. The Revolution counterposed the Agrarian Reform to latifundist holdings, and created the Rebel Army as against the caste army; the Rebel Army which, in the apt definition of the unforgettable Camilo Cienfuegos, is none other than the people armed in defense of their Revolution. Thus the militias also were born, the entire people ready to fight, in an organized manner, in defense of their recovered land. Without latifundios to feed off, without a mercenary army and caste army on which to lean, the very possibility of existence of dictators disappears. And with that begins also the exodus, the precipitate flight of the odious caste of self-seekers and time servers of the unjust regime.
Those who could not flee, and were incapable of adapting themselves to the new situation, attempted desperate attacks against the Revolution and are falling victims of their own senselessness. Because while it is possible to fight against a class, against a dominating group - it is absolutely impossible to defeat an entire people that has taken possession of the land which it waters with its blood and sweat, and which has in addition the courage and more than enough arms to defend that land. A people that is sinking deeper roots every day into the land recovered by the Agrarian Reform.
The Revolution learned in the days of struggle against the dictatorship, in the rigors of the Sierra Maestra and in the plains, that were won bit by bit, that it is not enough to give the land to the peasant – to create a host of small landowners – nor was it possible economically to parcel out the sugar latifundios dividing them up into small plots among the macheteros and the other sugar workers. Modern economic development, mechanization, and technical advances in agriculture, the intimate link between agriculture and industry, and many other reasons, call for a collective effort, for the union of muscles and creative enthusiasm, in order to derive the maximum benefit from the rich lands which were liberated. And so were born the cooperatives and the peoples stores, which have made it possible for the Cuban Revolution to achieve the miracle of increasing production in the second year of the revolutionary process, in sharp contrast to the economists and false prophets of imperialism - economists and prophets who recommended the economic blockade of the island to starve us out.
But they didn't take into account the resolute attitude of the Cuban people, who stepped out into the international market to offer their products and to find buyers and friends first of all in the socialist countries. The United States, which has maintained diplomatic relations with the socialist countries for a long time, and has the further advantage of its excellent markets, has always been insistent on keeping these doors closed tight to its semi-colonies, to the underdeveloped countries subjected to its unjust domination. But when the Cuban Revolution shook off the yoke of colonial bondage, it was able to overcome the strangulation to which the imperialist interests sought to condemn it, thanks to the generous and unselfish aid of the socialist nations and that of the brother nations which – like Mexico and Canada – have arrived at a degree of economic and political maturity which allows them to act with a certain independence vis-a-vis their powerful and merciless neighbor. And all of the peoples of our America, faced with the harassment of imperialism, have stood up and demanded that their governments defend Cuba's right to win its definitive independence.
Independence that is spelled out in the complete abolition of latifundism, in the nationalization of factories, in the Urban Reform which recognizes the right of every man to possess the roof over his head, in growing industrialization, in the struggle against illiteracy and low cultural levels - the root of all superstitions and fanaticism; in the creation finally of a new consciousness. Everyone who visits Cuba can already feel this new consciousness in the atmosphere, this consciousness which has returned to the Cuban the dignity of a free and independent people which can now stand up erect face to face with its friends and enemies, no matter how great be their stature. Now for the first time we can speak out without having our answers dictated to us. On our feet and not on our knees, which an unworthy posture, not to speak of being highly uncomfortable for carrying on a conversation. And we are ready to converse with the whole world, including the United States, whenever we are both standing or both seated, which is even more comfortable. But as equal to equal and without any attempt to force the agenda on us beforehand.
We want to live in peace and be friends with everyone, but we are on guard in case they attempt aggression against us. And we are not exporting revolutions. But neither can we prevent the example of the Cuban Revolution from going beyond our borders and revealing to the brother peoples of our America and the world that imperialism is not invulnerable. That when a united people decides to obtain its full freedom and its complete independence, there are no forces which can stand in its way.
They say that when the forces of Lincoln were fighting in the North against the slave-holding states of the North American South, the slaves around the sugar mills and canebrakes of Cuba were singing this chant:
“Avanza, Lincoln, avanza, tu eres nuestra esperanza.”
(Forward, Lincoln, forward you are our hope.)
We know only too well – and this admirable conference is another demonstration of it - that in the soul of every Indian and every Negro and every Mestizo or white who is exploited, from the Rio Grande to Patagonia, there is today resounding a similar chant, and that the underdeveloped peoples are now repeating in chorus:
“Avanza, Fidel, avanza, tu eres nuestra esperanza."
And what is involved is not a military advance - which would have the illustrious precedent of Bolívar or San Martín, liberators of many nations - but the peaceful spiritual advance such as headed by Sarmiento or Bello, Juárez and Hostos, Martí or Emiliano Zapata, the uncontainable advance of a new American consciousness, which flowered here in Mexico in 1910 and which is now bearing fruit in our Antillean land; where a people anxious to live in peace is preparing to defend its threatened soil, and in the face of any attempt to violate its recovered independence, proudly raises its battle cry - which has already been converted into a hymn of victory.
Patria o Muerte! Venceremos! (Country or Death! We Will Win!)