Sunday, January 3, 2010

Dec. 5 at SIXTH U.S./Cuba/Venezuela/Mexico/North-South America Labor Conference, Dec. 4-6, 2009 Tijuana, Mexico

Tijuana Conference Saturday Session Addresses the Capitalist Economic Crisis and Multiple Issues of Importance to Workers

By Bob McCubbin

U.S./Cuba Labor Exchange member Ignacio Meneses opened the Saturday morning session with a reflection on revolutionary Cuba’s success, even during the darkest hours of the “special period” following the collapse of the Soviet Union, in maintaining its cordial relations with workers’ organizations all over the world and its refusal to reduce in any measure the many beneficial social programs enjoyed by its people. He noted, however, that Cuba and the nine-member Latin America ALBA alliance face a new resurgence of reaction: the precedent created by the Honduran coup against President Zelaya, the presence of the U.S. 4th Fleet in Latin American waters and the seven new U.S. military bases in Colombia.

The first speaker on the morning panel was Larry Holmes, whom Meneses, in his introduction, characterized as a leader in the U.S. workers’ movement for many years. Holmes opened with special praise for the Cuban comrades: “No other people have played a stronger role in supporting Black people in the U.S.,” he noted. Holmes went on to emphasize the seriousness of the economic crisis in the U.S. and warned against the danger of inaction. He stressed the need to be in the streets, to push the unions into action and to embrace the unemployed, the immigrant workers and the poor. “Let me remind you,” he concluded, “that last year during this conference we got the news about the Republic Windows and Doors takeover. When the workers stand up, they win!”

Following Holmes, José Rivera of the Frente Amplio de Solidaridad y Lucha of Puerto Rico spoke. He reported with pride that Puerto Rican workers have expressed their solidarity with the Mexican electrical workers who were recently fired by Mexican President Vicente Calderón with a huge protest at the Mexican consulate in San Juan. He also described the attempts by Puerto Rican Gov. Luis Fortuño to impose neoliberal solutions for the Puerto Rican economic crisis. These “solutions” include the firing of 30,000 workers, something the governor had previously promised not to do. Some 50 organizations, including 18 unions, have responded to the call to fight back. There have been dramatic mass actions including marches and the mass takeover of the San Juan banking district. “We are being called terrorists and they are threatening to use the Patriot Act against us,” Rivera said. The workers’ response, he suggested, must be a general strike.

Next, Raymundo Navarro, director of foreign relations of the Cuban CTC (Confederation of Cuban Workers), spoke. He commented on the importance Cubans attach to the international solidarity they’ve always received. He emphasized that without it, he didn’t know what would happen to Cuba. He estimated that the U.S. imposed blockade against Cuba has cost them $96 billion. An added obstacle imposed by nature, the fierce hurricanes Cuba has had to contend with, have caused $10 billion in damages. A third difficulty they presently face is the world economic crisis. Navarro said that Cubans appreciate the difference in tone of the new U.S. administration, but, though the methods are now different, the objectives remain the same. There is still a demand for concessions on our part and we reject that, he emphasized.

He urged the audience to remain alert, as Cuba prepares for more sophisticated methods to be used against it. “In Cuba they will find a poor and humble people, but with much dignity,” he added. He enumerated six Cuban demands: the U.S. must lift the blockade, free the Cuban Five, eliminate Radio and TV Martí, stop financing internal subversion, return Guantánamo to Cuban control and repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act.

Elaborating on the economic problems Cuba faces, he pointed out that world market prices for nickel and sugar, important Cuban exports, are way down, while the price of foods that Cuba must import are up. Reflective of the general orientation of Cuba’s workers’ government, when low world market sugar prices resulted in job displacement for 150,000 sugar cane workers, Fidel Castro said, “Let the workers study and continue to be paid.” An added factor that highlights Cuba’s economic vulnerability is the decreasing ratio of active workers maintaining retired workers. Fewer children and longer life spans represent yet another, though related, economic problem.

With understandable pride, given the harsh economic realities, Navarro concluded his talk with a challenge to the deriders of Cuban socialism: “We graduated 186,000 students this year. We openly invite the imperialists and their bootlickers to find one student who didn’t get a job.” Unemployment in Cuba is 1.8 percent despite the world economic crisis.

Representing the Venezuelan workers’ movement on the Saturday morning panel was union leader Rolando Semprum. He had with him five Venezuelan baseball caps, which he presented to Alicia Jrapko, asking that she pass them on to the five imprisoned Cuban heroes.

Semprum pointed out that explaining all of the missions created by President Chávez would take a long time, but he was clearly proud of the countrywide literacy program undertaken with Cuba’s assistance, the national health program, also undertaken with Cuban help, the national agenda in favor of women, and the strong solidarity between the people and the military. Semprum reminded the audience several times that the overriding U.S. goal is seizure of Venezuelan oil and other natural resources. He cited the U.S. military presence in neighboring Colombia and internal subversion financed by the U.S. as major threats. As a leader of the subway workers union, he is well aware of the potential for sabotage of public transportation, pointing out that two million people a day use the Caracas subway system and damage to the system would create an immediate economic crisis.

A further problem is continuing capitalist control of the major media. To get around this problem, there is strong government support for local, community-based media, mass use of inexpensive cell phones and a government supported mass organization called Madres del Barrio involving women in the working class communities who are paid for security and other community-based work.

CTC leader Carmen Godinez took the floor next to ask for conference endorsement of a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama. The letter, although diplomatically phrased, was a strong demand that the Cuban Five be released from U.S. prisons and that until that could be arranged, that their families be granted visas to visit them. All present were in firm agreement.

Two Colombian labor leaders with the country’s national telephone union, Óscar Gustavo Penagos and Segundo Hernández Cañón, opened the second Saturday. session. They come from a country where more than 3,800 union leaders and labor activists have been assassinated since the mid 1980s. (

Penagos explained how Colombian society is presently ruled by criminals. President Álvaro Uribe has been an open promoter of paramilitarism. Many former members of the national legislature are in prison based on proven links to the paramilitary forces. The former chief of intelligence, now in prison, was providing the paramilitaries with lists of progressives to kill. Drug trafficking and money laundering continue to be big business.

The present U.S./Colombia military treaty is an agreement between the world’s biggest drug producer and its biggest drug consumer. In addition to the use of seven new military bases, the treaty gives the U.S. control of Colombia’s telecommunications network. The Colombia military has, in fact, become an appendage of the Pentagon. One of the new airbases under the control of the U.S. is so huge that three aircraft can lift off at the same time. Such facilities are not needed for combating guerrillas or drug traffickers. The seven U.S. bases are clearly designed for international espionage and war. They are bases of a new type with the ability to threaten all of Latin America and can also be used as jumping off places for attacks on other continents, Africa in particular.

Penagos proposed a May Day solidarity action by Venezuela and Ecuador on the border with Colombia where the imperialist puppets killed comandante Raúl Reyes. He asked for a conference resolution rejecting the seven new military bases, emphasizing, “Uribe is a puppet of U.S. imperialism! Long live the unity of the workers of the world!”

Hernández Cañón pointed out that anyone with a cell phone anywhere in the world can now be monitored by the imperialists. He also noted that TVs are now going to be made interactive. However, he added, the people are learning how to use this technology against the imperialists. He concluded his presentation with a succinct characterization of the present Colombian situation: “vende patria” – sold out country.

Representing the Frente Amplia de Izquierda Social de México, Gabriela Santos Romero described her group as an umbrella of 53 progressive organizations and unions in struggle. She stressed the need for national and international unity among working people and described the position of the Mexican electrical workers, the Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas, as very difficult right now given the government’s neoliberal attempts to privatize electricity and other utilities. Nevertheless, the work stoppage in September and the unity shown against the government on the International Day of Action on Dec. 3 in solidarity with the 45,000 SME workers who have lost their jobs show the importance of a broad front to fight against the empire.

The moderator for the third session on Saturday was Cheryl LaBash, a key organizer with the U.S./Cuba Labor Exchange.

The first speaker was Carlos Mejía of the Frente Resistencia Hondureña. Mejía saluted the Cuban Five and reminded everyone that we must not just oppose the Honduran coup but also stand with all the workers’ organizations of the world. He pointed out that a mere 21 percent of Honduran voters participated in the recent sham election on Nov. 29. And at least 661 people have been murdered up to the date of the election, with four of his comrades seized and disappeared on election day. Mejía called for unity of all the anti-coup forces.

Celina Benítez of the Coalición por la Paz in Honduras witnessed the Honduran election at first hand. “We were in Honduras, in part, to report human rights violations. I was also there to speak with the people. My life and the lives of my comrades were threatened.” Benítez continued: “In the ‘80s I heard stories about El Salvador. Now I’ve seen it in Honduras.”

Bayan USA -- the New Patriotic Alliance -- was represented by Kuusela Hilo, who had just returned from the Philippines. Hilo spoke in front of a projection of a newspaper front-page article announcing the intention of Melissa Rojas, Los Angeles Bayan coordinator, to take the Filipino authorities who tortured her to court. Hilo began by noting her membership in the International League of Peoples Struggle and explained how that group organizes Cuba solidarity meetings that are attended by hundreds of students.

Describing the present situation in the Philippines, she said that a Katrina-like situation exists there due to recent terrible natural disasters. Over one million people have been permanently displaced and more than 3,000 people are forced to leave the country every day to find work. But a disturbing human rights crisis is also in progress, with 1,013 cases of extrajudicial killings, 1,010 cases of torture and 202 cases of forced disappearances. All this repression is being funded by U.S. imperialism, which views the Philippines, just as it does Colombia, as a strategic area and has poured in over $1 billion in military aid in the last 10 years and has plans to increase that aid. It also has troops permanently based there, in direct violation of Philippine sovereignty.

Hilo also spoke of a recent massacre in Maguindanao, in the south of the country, where 64 civilians including 30 journalists were killed. The people, some of whom had already received death threats, were on their way to file for an election and assumed, because among their delegation there were many women, that they would not be attacked. In this case a local war lord was responsible although the weapons used were supplied by the military.

Hilo urged organizations present at the conference to send statements to the Arroyo government demanding justice for the victims of the Maguindanao massacre.

Clarence Thomas, speaking on behalf of the International Longshore Workers Union Local 10 and the Million Worker March Movement, gave an inspiring history of his union’s international solidarity actions and support for progressive struggles in the U.S. He urged that special attention be paid to the most oppressed workers, people of color and immigrants. He pointed out that support for May Day in the U.S. was reawakened by the most exploited sector of the working class, the immigrant workers. Labor, he insisted, must look beyond the scope of business unionism. The way forward for the working class, he emphasized, is for labor to become part of the vanguard for social justice.

Service Employees International Union Local 721 activist Luz Díaz spoke next with a personal history. Her Mexican grandfather, running for mayor in a town in the state of Jalisco 40 years ago, courageously defended the right of the Indigenous people of the area to own the land they worked and urged that they be allowed to receive free education. For these progressive stands he was murdered. Observing that things haven’t changed much, she noted that a Tijuana union leader had been kidnapped that very morning. Continuing her personal history, she told how her mother was the victim of a common trick of the bosses. Rather than pay her for her labor picking grapes, the boss, knowing she was undocumented, called the immigration authorities on her just before payday. Díaz called unions necessary tools in the fight for a decent life.

The last speaker for this session, before the floor was opened for a spirited open mike discussion, was Cristina Vázquez, of Workers United. Her union affiliated this year with SEIU. She acknowledged all the unions present, she said, but especially those from other countries, who had come at great expense and sacrifice and often, danger. She commented that this year of global economic crisis has been the hardest for negotiating new labor contracts. But it is also the beginning of the fightback. “We know how to organize,” she affirmed.

At this point in the program, Raymundo Navarro took the floor to offer special recognition, on behalf of the CTC, of Ike Nahem of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and Ignacio Meneses of the U.S./Cuba Labor Exchange for their long exemplary records of Cuba solidarity work.

Carmen Godinez of the CTC then offered a short lesson on the history of ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, and its accomplishments. She characterized it as an integration that benefits the masses with its goal of eliminating inequalities. The basic idea is to increase the independence of its members from the imperialist financial system. Created through the initiative of Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro, it now counts nine nations of Latin America and the Caribbean as members.

Opening discussion from the floor, Jefferson Azevedo of the Los Angeles International Action Center spoke briefly on the necessity for solidarity with the struggling people of Palestine. Jorge Mercado of the Frente Farabundo Martí de Liberación Nacional of Los Angeles raised the need to rescue working class history, such as the heroes of the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago in 1886, and revive May 1 as the international workers’ day. Mercado also noted Hugo Chávez’s proposal for the creation of a 5th Workers’ International.

Other topics of discussion raised from the floor were the present international role of Brazil, the problem of a generally conservative union leadership in the U.S., the need for more political education geared toward workers, the current situation in Haiti, the need to make imperialist war a working class issue and the need for unions in the U.S. to stop handing over the workers’ union dues to the Democratic and Republican parties. We need, Ben Prado of the Unión del Barrio urged, to start offering financial support to socialist candidates for public office. On the topic of making war a working class issue, Teresa Gutierrez of the New York City May 1 Coalition offered an incident at an ant-Honduran coup protest where there was, at first, resistance on the part of a few to the idea of also raising the U.S. war against Afghanistan. But they were turned around by the argument that Hondurans and Afghans are fighting the same bully. Finally, Cristina Vázquez urged the assembly, “Promise yourself to bring one more person or organization to this conference next year!”
wwphotos credit: Bob McCubbin (