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9 November 2006 Edition

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Cuba delegation finds visit an inspiration


Former Irish Hunger Strikers in Cuba


A Sinn Féin Delegation consisting of former Hunger Strikers Raymond McCartney MLA and Mary Doyle as well as former Derry POW Sean McMonagle and Sinn Féin Press Officer, Dominic Doherty returned last week from a packed schedule of visits to schools and medical facilities in Havana as well as political briefings with Cuban officials.

Describing the visit as an education in first class delivery of healthcare and learning Raymond McCartney said: "During our trip we met with high ranking Cuban Officials to brief them on the state of the Irish Peace Process and to learn from them how they tackle their many social programmes such as health and education delivery. After listening to the theoretical ideas behind their programmes we then went on to see the practical delivery of the services.

"During what I can only describe as a five day educational trip we visited the Sierra Maestra School for Special Needs students from four to eighteen years-old. To see the approach to learning at this school was inspirational. The students are taught every aspect of skills required for independent living. While the required emphasis is put on writing, reading and maths the students are also taught subjects such as horticulture, woodwork, electrical, domestic science, hairdressing etc to equip them for life's experiences.

"We then visited a number of Neighbourhood Health Centres where routine health matters are carried out free of charge to the general population and are staffed by Doctors and other Health professionals to meet all situations. During a visit to the Havana Ophthalmological Hospital we witnessed a live cataract operation and met with the team that has pioneered what the Cubans refer to as the 'Miracle operation' in sight recovery. They are world leaders in this field. Again these services are free of charge to the patient.

"During the visit to Havana we also participated in a commemoration to the Long Kesh Hunger Strikers at which a group of children from the Sierra Maestra special needs school put on a specially written mini-drama for the occasion. I found this ceremony exceptionally emotional and touching."

On Sunday, 29 October the delegation travelled to Santa Clara to see the memorial to Ché Guevara and to visit the Interpretative Centre depicting his role in the Cuban Revolution. This was an exceptionally enlightening experience providing an insight into the conduct of the revolution against the corrupt Battista Regime.

Reflecting on the impact the trip had on her, former Hunger Striker Mary Doyle commented: "Cuba is a beautiful country with beautiful people - my first impressions of Havana will live with me for a very long time. It was a privilege for me to hear first hand accounts of the importance they place on their health and education programmes - all delivered free of charge to the people. Nothing was too much trouble for the doctors, teachers and other professional providers that we met. Their facilities were definitely something that I wasn't expecting - out of this world.

" They know how to look after their people of all ages and prioritise health and education delivery for everyone. Factory workers have their meals provided free and local elderly people are also able to avail of these factory canteens free of charge.

"The visits to different museums depicting all aspects of Cuban history and the many phases of struggle leading to the Castro-led revolution and the present day Cuban society was an inspiration and very educational.

"A poignant and particularly emotional part of the visit for me was taking part in the Commemoration for the Irish Hunger Strikers in Havana. I felt so honoured and proud.

"I have many memories of Cuba that will stay with me for a very long time."

During the visit the Sinn Féin delegation also visited the International Medical Academy at which over 3,000 students from third world and other Latin American countries are trained - again free of charge - in all the different medical disciplines to enable them to return home equipped to provide first class healthcare to their own people.

One thing that surprised the delegation was that despite the inexcusable blockade imposed on Cuba by the USA, there are almost 100 students from impoverished inner city areas of America being trained at the Academy so that they can provide proper healthcare to their communities on completion of their studies.

Members of the delegation said that after witnessing first hand the success and excellence of the Cuban Health and Education systems, delivered to its people free, by a country struggling under the financial strains of the unjustifiable American imposed economic blockade, they would have to question the wisdom of the approach to health and education adopted by administrations North and South in Ireland. There was a strong feeling that the Ministers responsible should study the Cuban model and apply the lessons that they would no doubt learn on the delivery of first class healthcare and educational excellence right to University level.

The one constant in every engagement was the obvious compassion and humanity of the Cuban people of all walks of life. As Former POW and Derry Chomhairle Ceanntáir Vice-Chair, Sean McMonagle remarked: "It is difficult to highlight any one particular aspect of the trip. Whether it was the youth leaders, teachers, medical professionals or political leaders that we met, the constant thread throughout was the sense of camaraderie with the people of Ireland and our peace process, the humanity among of the Cuban people and pride in what their revolution had achieved.

"The necessity to meet the needs of the people, improving their quality of life, ensuring the delivery of proper healthcare and education and of the highest standard possible was uppermost.

"The Cuban policy of exporting healthcare to some of the poorest countries in Africa and Latin America (29,000 Cuban doctors currently work in these regions) shows that their vision of the world is based on humanity and compassion. Contrasted against the US administration's Blockade against Cuba and the exportation of war and repression to other regions of the world is an indictment of US Foreign Policy and of those countries who acquiesce in the blockade of Cuba. It also exposes how minimalist the Irish government's Foreign Aid contribution is. Cuban people passionately believe that Socialism remains the option for their future, I feel after this experience, that it's the best option for all our futures."

Interview Cuban Ambassador to Ireland, Noel Carillo

Carillo confident of Castro recovery and continuation of Cuban revolution

In the first of a two-part interview, Cuba's new Ambassador to Ireland, Noel Carillo speaks to An Phoblacht's INAKI IRIGOIEN on Irish-Cuban relations, the health of Fidel Castro, the continuing impact of the US blockade and political developments in Latin America.

Noel Carrillo arrived in Dublin in October 2005, shortly after he was appointed Ambassador. But Ireland was not unfamiliar to Carrillo, who worked in an international capacity with the trade union organisation in Cuba, and in 2000 had joined the central committee of the Cuban Communist Party, with special responsibility for international affairs, specifically in charge of the relationship between the party and Northern European political parties, including those in Ireland.

Carrillo's arrival marked the departure of Teresita Trujillo, Cuban ambassador since 2000. Trujillo is now back to Cuba in her former position responsible for the Cuban Communist Party relations with European political parties. She was in Ireland again recently to attend a Cuban solidarity meeting. Her links with Ireland remain strong.

Does Carrillo believe the presence of an embassy in Ireland has had a positive impact in the relationship between both countries?

"There have been a lot of connections between both countries and our relationship is very positive despite the many problems Cuba is having with the European Union as a bloc", he says.

The problematic relationship with the EU came to a head after the invasion of Iraq, with the EU adopting a position in relation to Cuba more in line with US policy, a position Carrillo believes is very much the legacy of the former Spanish Prime Minister Aznar

The establishment of an embassy in Ireland has reinforced cultural links, with a Cuban cultural week in October and a series of Irish exhibitions in Cuba every year. This year, the eleven Irish citizens, married to Cubans and residing in Cuba had the opportunity for the first time ever to celebrate St. Patrick's Day in La Habana. A diplomatic presence in Ireland is also important for over 200 Cubans married to Irish people and living in Ireland. However, this has not been reciprocated yet by the Department of Foreign Affairs, and there is still no Irish diplomatic mission in La Habana. The Irish Ambassador in México remains responsible for Cuba.

With an increase in Irish tourists travelling to Cuba, Carrillo see further possibilities in the trade area.

Recently Cuba has been in the news due to the illness of Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. Last week Cuban TV broadcast a film of Fidel walking and reading that day's newspaper. This was the Cuban response to speculation that the Cuban leader was dying or already dead and that the Cuban authorities were hiding the fact.

US interest surrounding Castro's health is due to what Carrillo calls a "fantasy", that the Cuban revolution will collapse as soon as Castro dies.

"The only place in the world where people celebrated the supposed death of Fidel Castro was Miami", says Carrillo.

"From a humanitarian point of view, this is a very sad image and shows how ultra-reactionary these people are. However, the fact that he was resting for two months and the revolution continued with the intervention of the temporary leadership of Fidel's brother, Raul, showed the world, and specially, the people in Miami, that the Cuban revolution is a social phenomenon that does not depend on one single person and that Fidel Castro himself prepared the leadership of the Cuban revolution to take over in case of death or inability, as was the case at this time."

Carillo is confident Castro will recover and, in the long term, that the Cuban revolution will continue because "it is a social movement supported by the people". He believes that once Castro comes back he will take charge of all his former duties again.

Meanwhile, life in Cuba continues under the hardship of the US-imposed blockade. "Recently, the US tried to appoint a new task force to track any transactions involving Cuban nickel so as to block any product containing Cuban nickel enter ing the US. That means that if, for example, Ireland was buying Cuban nickel, Irish products containing it could not be sold in the US. They also created another task force to track all economic interests trading with and exploring for oil", explains Carrillo.

Now that the possibility of Cuba using US currency for trade deals has been made impossible, the island administration has been forced to introduce a new currency - Cuban Convertible Peso - with different exchange rates for euros, sterling, etc. The aim is to stimulate tourists to come and use other currencies.

A report compiled by the Cuban government has revealed that Cuba has lost more than 80,000 million dollars because of the blockade.

"And we have not included the economic impact of decreasing production due to the blockade or of the terrorist actions of people living in the US. In 1998, hotels were bombed in Cuba and a tourist died", affirms Carrillo.

"However, no one in the US declared a "war on terror". There was a bomb on a plane and the person responsible was arrested for entering the US illegally but the US Government has never considered this person's responsibility in the bombing."

And now, there is the new plan by the Bush administration. 'The Commission to Assist a Free Cuba' issued a 400-page report with new measures to strengthen the blockade, but what really worries Cubans is the existence of a "secret chapter" in that plan.

"It could include military actions. It could include further terrorist actions... We are asking for that secret chapter to be made public", explains Carrillo.

On the official the influence of Cuban dissidents in Miami Carillo differentiates between what he termed a 'mafia' element who he said were "a minority of the Cubans living in Florida. However, they are the most economically powerful within this community. We are talking of the people who are mixing business with politics and who are very rich because of US support.

"Most of the Cubans in Miami we consider to be economic migrants. Cuban migration to Florida is being used as part of a propaganda war. After arriving from Cuba these people immediately gets a residence permit. This does not apply to Haitians or Mexicans, though there are more people from Haiti and Mexico migrating to the US. Cuban migration is politically manipulated.

Asked how recent changes in Latin American politics and the election of a number of left wing governments has impacted on Cuba, Carillo said that what was happening was not a communist revolution but a reaction to neo-liberal policies.

"People got really sick of the traditional political parties because any of them, left or right, were representing the same policy. Let's take the case of Venezuela, one of the world's richest countries in oil where 80% of the population lived below the poverty level. A reaction to that was a nationalist movement concentrated on their national interests. For the US, this is a threat to its interests, but for Latin America it is a new opportunity to recover its dignity, its resources and to develop.

"Now we found a new undercurrent, with new political parties, and sometimes not even political parties, but social movements, coming with alternatives to the situation created by a policy of domination.

NEXT WEEK: Noel Carillo on economic co-operation between countries in Latin America; the Cuban health system, the Irish Hunger Strike and the Peace Process.

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