Following tradition started by Fidel, Cuba’s new president visits Harlem
Miguel Díaz-Canel speaks at Riverside Church in New York. Courtesy MINREX (Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

NEW YORK—On Wednesday, September 26th, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel and the Cuban Delegation to the United Nations General Assembly concluded an intense day of work by speaking directly to the U.S. people at the Riverside Church in Harlem.

Díaz-Canel was continuing a 58-year tradition started by Fidel Castro in September 1960. Following his more than four-hour address to the U.N. denouncing racial oppression and imperial domination, Castro made his way up to Harlem’s Hotel Theresa. There, he met with leaders of the Civil Rights movement, including Malcolm X and New York NAACP President Joseph Overton.

Also present at this historic gathering were other leaders of the socialist and developing world, including Soviet leader Khrushchev, Egyptian President Nasser, and Indian Prime Minister Nehru. Forty years later, in September 2000, Castro again came to Harlem and gave a speech at the Riverside Church announcing the founding of the Latin American School of Medicine.

“It is fair to say,” Díaz-Canel said last week, “that the program for the training of young Americans from the poorest districts of this great nation at the [Latin] American School of Medicine (ELAM)…was actually born here.” The program provides medical school instruction with the only stipulation being that ELAM graduates return to the U.S. to practice in underserved communities.

“I only knew the very beautiful Riverside Church with its Gothic-styled spire by photographs and stories of that intense night of the year 2000, when the hospitable friends from Harlem gave a mass welcome of more than 3,000 people to our leader and his accompanying delegation,” Díaz-Canel reflected at the beginning of his address.

Moderating the event, “Cuba Speaks for Itself,” were Gail Walker, daughter of Rev. Lucius Walker and current executive director of IFCO / Pastors for Peace, and Frank Velgara of the New York Cuba Solidarity Project and ProLibertad Freedom Campaign, part of the Puerto Rico solidarity network. “This majestic environment is where many noble individuals have spoken over the years,” Walker said, “including Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.” It was at the Riverside Church that Dr. King gave his famous speech Beyond Vietnam. Other world leaders to speak at Riverside have included Rev. Jesse Jackson, Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela, and many others.

Med school grads and a Bolivarian surprise

A diverse delegation of ELAM graduates were in attendance, filling a number of pews with bright rows of pristine lab coats. Two of them addressed the crowd.

“We represent the 175 U.S. medical doctors who have graduated from Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine, and the 75 medical students studying in the country on free and unencumbered scholarship,” remarked Dr. Sitembile Sales, an internist at a local health clinic serving 32BJ SEIU.

“Since its first graduation class in 2005, the Latin American School of Medicine has graduated over 28,500 physicians from over 103 countries,” Dr. Joaquin Morante added, who works as a primary care physician in Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. Morante affirmed that the Cuban people’s internationalism has provided “a model of medical training and caring which demonstrates how medical education can result in social transformation.” ELAM graduates are using their training “to fight against medical apartheid, sickness, and impoverishment” in the U.S.

“Graduates of ELAM have been a beacon for our communities,” he said, “not only locally, but…abroad, we have aided in the direct aftermath of the 2010 earthquake which devastated Haiti. Most recently, U.S. ELAM graduates provided relief work in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria,” and “provided relief work in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy right here in New York City.”

As the ELAM graduates were being introduced, a commotion began to stir, gathering momentum and finally erupting into cheers as the President of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, made a surprise appearance. When the ELAM graduates had finished speaking, the Bolivarian leader spoke briefly, and to the point.

“I made a last-minute decision to come here to New York today…to bring the truth of Venezuela,” and “to bring my love and solidarity to all of you,” to “my dear brother, the President of Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel, and to the Cuban people.

“I’d like to say so many things tonight,” Maduro said. “However, I’m going to summarize it in the following sentences: We have been the victim of imperialist aggression. However, today…the Bolivarian revolution is standing, is alive, and is victorious!”

Cuba speaks

Shortly after, Díaz-Canel took the stage and began his address.

“Today, at the United Nations, peoples across the globe raised their voice,” he said. “Today Cuba also spoke out…in support of Venezuela, in support of Nicaragua, in support of Puerto Rico, and in support of all of Latin America, also in support of the Palestinian people and the Saharan people” and “to denounce the very unfair blockade that the U.S. government has imposed on us for nearly 60 years.

“Cuba is not a large or powerful country, not rich in natural or financial resources,” Díaz-Canel confessed. “But these limitations have not prevented us from practicing solidarity on the basis of sharing what we have, not giving away our leftovers.”

As testament, he spoke of the “more than 42,000 Cuban professionals,” in over 75 countries, “that have served in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean since the triumph of the revolution, providing health and medical services…engineering jobs,” and “consulting services” related to economic and sports development.

“During all these decades,” Díaz-Canel affirmed, Cuban teachers “have trained tens of thousands of technicians and professionals from the Third World helping them to eradicate illiteracy.” One would never guess from these numbers the entire Cuban population today is just shy of 11.5 million people.

Cuban support for African liberation movements, he reminded those present, also “contributed to the safeguarding of the sovereign integrity of Angola, achieving the independence of Namibia, and dealing a demolishing and demoralizing blow to the war machine of the apartheid regime in South Africa.” When Cuba “promotes cooperation and solidarity, as opposed to threats, competition, racism, and selfishness” within the U.N. General Assembly, it does so having “turned words into concrete actions.”

Díaz-Canel reiterated Cuba’s commitment to “total disarmament and international solidarity” and “a foreign policy that makes common cause with the have-nots, marginalized, and exploited.”

Many of those have-nots have responded to the Cuban Revolution’s internationalism, and Díaz-Canel said the Cuban people are also indebted “to the solidarity of thousands of friends and activists here in United States, including many Cubans who live here,” citing “the mass international movement” to release the Cuban Five and the struggle to return Elian Gonzalez to his home in Cuba.

Lifting the blockade is still key

Díaz-Canel then summarized the issue of major concern to the Cuban people and government. “Our bilateral relationship with the United States continues to be characterized above all by the economic blockade, which is a major obstacle to the development and well-being of Cubans, and brings hardships to the Cuban families.”

This policy, cemented by at least 11 Acts, Proclamations, and Regulations, reflects the hopes of “politically very powerful” minority groups “to bring back Cuba to the past,” he said. Such forces “promote tensions and hostility” with their “huge financial resources” and “manipulate support by influential media.” In his address to the U.N., Díaz-Canel had earlier noted the “tens of millions of dollars” officially allocated in U.S. budget for “public and covert programs of gross interference in Cuba’s internal affairs.”

Nicolás Maduro, President of Venezuela, speaking at Riverside Church in New York. Courtesy Embassy of Venezuela.

He said these right-wing efforts will “clash” with the Cuban community, “and the ideals of independence and rebelliousness in which our nation was forged.” They will “clash,” he said, “with the rejection and activism of Cuban friends in many parts of the world, including our brothers and sisters here in the United States.”

These clashes can be seen in efforts underway nationwide by the National Network on Cuba and others in the Cuban solidarity movement to pass resolutions in local and state legislatures, calling on the U.S. Congress to lift the blockade on Cuba. With support from organized labor, these efforts have met with some success. Resolutions calling for an end to the blockade have been passed by the Washington, California, and D.C.-Maryland AFL-CIO Central Labor Councils, as well as the City Councils of Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, and Richmond. Another was presented in the Seattle City Council.

In addition to establishing its official opposition to the “embargo,” and its support of “unrestricted travel between the United States and Cuba,” the Miami Dade Democratic Party in Florida took a positive stance on enforcing “the shutdown of the Guantanamo Bay military base and prison.”

Even in conservative Alabama, due to business sectors with an interest in Cuban trade and investment, the State Senate and House of Representatives both passed resolutions “urging Congress to lift the current embargo and other trade barriers with the Republic of Cuba.”

Before closing his speech, Díaz-Canel referred to the national conversation now underway in Cuba on its new draft constitution. This process, he said, is aimed at improving Cuba’s “model of economic and social development in order to build a sovereign, independent, socialist, democratic, prosperous and sustainable nation.” He characterized the draft constitution as a continuation of Cuba’s “commitment to building socialism, faithful to the ideals that have accompanied the struggle for independence [and] social struggle in our country throughout history.”

It reinforced comments Díaz-Canel made in his address to the U.N. General Assembly, when, speaking of his own succession following the governments of first Fidel and then Raul Castro, he remarked: “The generational change in our government should not raise the hopes of the enemies of the Revolution. We are the continuity, not a rupture.”


Cameron Orr
Cameron Orr

Cameron Orr is a musician and writer living in Jersey City, New Jersey.