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Issue #1690      June 24, 2015

Internationalist dedication recognised

Vinnie Molina, President of the Communist Party of Australia and Australia Cuba Friendship Society (ACFS), Perth, recently received the Medal of Friendship from the Cuban Council of State. The award ceremony took place in Havana on April 27, 2015. Vinnie has been an active campaigner for the Cuban Five* since their incarceration and a worthy recipient of this honour.

Here the Guardian interviews Vinnie and asks his thoughts on his award, on Cuba, the role of the Cuban Friendship Society and the need for solidarity work.

Vinnie Molina with Cuban Five hero Gerardo Hernandez and Tamara Hansen from the Canadian Solidarity movement.

Guardian: Vinnie, you were recently awarded the Cuban Council of State’s Medal of Friendship in Havana. Could you give our readers the background to this honour?

Vinnie Molina: Thanks for the opportunity to discuss this event. For me at a personal level, for the Party and other supporters of my solidarity work, like the Australia Cuba Friendship Society (ACFS) and the CFMEU it was a great honour. It was a very emotional moment. The Medal of Friendship is not awarded lightly by the Cuban Council of State. I’ve been involved in Cuban solidarity since 1996 in different positions in the ACFS in Perth, as President or Secretary.

It has been a continuous 19 or 20 years of work but the award was particularly important and emotional as it was bestowed by Antonio Guerrero, one of the Cuban Five*. We got heavily involved in the Cuban Five campaign through the ACFS, which was established in 1994. ACFS had a particular objective to strengthen the friendship between the people of Cuba and Australia, to break the blockade on Cuba, and for the return of Guantánamo Bay to the legitimate owners – the people of Cuba.

For the campaign for the Five we had an additional big task. In Australia we didn’t have a committee for the freedom of the Five and in Perth we decided to organise for it. We felt the freedom of the Five represented the dignity of the Cuban people and people around the world. Following the example of the National Committee for the Freedom of the Five that was set up in the US with many prominent figures, it became like an international family.

So we took the challenge and did whatever was possible. Even WikiLeaks, in one of its leaked US documents, mentions that these people always come and protest in front of the US Consulate in Perth. We were there at every opportunity – rallying, leafleting with placards and giving speeches.

Of course, the work wasn’t done just by myself and that’s the importance of this award. I received the award on behalf of many good-hearted people, Communists, people without party affiliations, socialists, Labor Party members, Greens, people who just believed the incarceration of the five in different jails in the US for 16 long years was an unjust decision by the system. Its background rests on the hostile policies of the US towards Cuba. The US just couldn’t forgive Cuba for the 1959 revolution, for the decision of the people to be truly independent.

G: What was the spark that ignited this activism? What was your very first interest in Cuba and the Cuban revolution?

VM: My background is Latin American and also Communist. Firstly, it derives from my close connection to the Caribbean revolution and to Cuban solidarity. Cuba has shown solidarity with many countries around the world. They have shared their small resources, particularly the human capital that they’ve been able to create through years of socialist revolution – the doctors and other health professionals, teachers and specialists.

Fidel said once, “To be an internationalist is to pay our own debt to humanity. Whoever is incapable of fighting for others will never be sufficiently capable of fighting for himself or herself.” And Cuba has given a lot, including their own blood, their sons and daughters who fought, for example, in Angola and against Apartheid, to free Namibia, and Africa from that horrendous deviation. Also because of my Guatemalan background, a rich country in natural resources but poor because of being a class society where the entire wealth of the Guatemalan people is concentrated in only a few hands.

I recall Hurricane Mitch that affected Central America quite heavily with a lot of deaths, particularly among poor people. The first country that offered help was Cuba. Fidel Castro sent the Henry Reeves Brigade that was set up to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina that devastated the south of the US – an offer that was rejected by the US government.

Fidel, the visionary that he is, didn’t stop at that. He made the historic decision to establish the Latin American School of Medicine where young people from all over the world, including the US, are training to become doctors with a social conscience. Now I’m happy to see the number of doctors working in the mountains of Guatemala where doctors trained under the system can’t go because they have to walk and go and look after Indigenous people and no money is to be made.

As Communists we’ve got a responsibility to look after the socialist revolution in the Americas. Cuba is just one of the handful of socialist countries left in the world. And Cuba continues to be a leading force.

I could talk much more about Cuban solidarity in Australia with the program “Yes I can” or “yo si puedo”, teaching Indigenous communities in NSW, for example, with successful results in the communities of Bourke and Wilcannia.

G: Over the years you’ve been to Cuba many times and it’s obvious that what you’ve seen doesn’t disappoint you. What is it in Cuba that you find impressive?

VM: That’s an interesting question because Cuba is not perfect. Many things if you view them with Western eyes, don’t live up to your expectations. However, the Cuban revolution is very self-critical; they’re aware of both the shortcomings and the successes. Every time I visit Cuba I encounter new things happening for the betterment of the Cuban people.

My first visit was in 1997 during the World Youth Festival (I travelled with the Australian delegation). It was a very difficult time, the ‘special period’ after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with a lot of scarcities. Tourism was one avenue for the Cuban revolution to attract revenue. It was then, in August 1997, that we witnessed how the counter-revolutionary forces based in Miami, encouraged and funded often by the US government, were planting bombs in tourist hotels. An Italian tourist died in one of those bombings while we were there. But I also saw the resilience of the Cuban people to continue to fight for what they fought for in the ’50s – for true independence, the right of self-determination to build the sort of society they want, which is not a westernised society.

I’ve noted in the other trips right up to this latest one in April/May of 2015 that there have been a lot of changes. People continue to be happy and getting happier. There are more goods to buy in the shops. Many people think “Well, that’s consumerism” and so on but there are so many needs. To feed 12 million people every day is a challenge – a challenge that is faced by a revolutionary government with a very wise leadership.

I have visited Cuban people in their homes and they have more access to better things. The government is helping them with social programs. They are replacing TVs, fridges with low power consuming models, rice cookers and so on are available. These are very simple things, and one thinks “A rice cooker, so what?”, but a rice cooker in a country that has been blockaded for more than 50 years where you can’t have access to these things, even if you have the money, is an achievement.

We see a country led by the Communist Party of Cuba, a party that is in close relationship with the masses. The Party trusts the people and the people trust the leader, which is very important. It is a very democratic process where the population is involved.

G: On several of your trips you’ve travelled with the Southern Cross Brigade from Australia and New Zealand with people that have come from a wide variety of backgrounds. They may not have your particular perspective and they aren’t all Communists, by any means. What sort of impressions do they get of Cuba?

VM: It’s important to invite everyone to travel to Cuba. That’s one of the roles of the Southern Cross Brigade – to take people to witness first-hand what the situation is, which will provide a big contrast to what we hear on the news. People come from all walks of life – the Communists, the socialists and people who have nothing to do with politics but are curious about the Cuban situation. I can say that after a few days of being there and having contact with the Cubans, people actually love it.

I know people who have been on two, three and four Brigades. It involves living in the conditions of the International Camp, travelling with a group of people, trying to get involved in a program and developing some discipline. By sharing and meeting new friends, having a drink and talking you learn to love the Cubans because all of them are highly educated. They know about the world. They’re informed, which is a big contrast to the situation when you talk to people in the streets in our country. Often people here are misinformed.

The Cubans often speak other languages they are so nice and warm they open their homes to you. In some of the old Southern Cross Brigades we used to spend time with families. You spent days with them – two weeks in the case of the Festival, and they became your family forever. Some people cultivate these relationships, others don’t, but the majority keeps in contact with those Cubans. You visit schools, hospitals and hotels without any impediment. You relate to people on the street. There’s no control, no objections – you talk to them and you form your own ideas.

When people return to Australia, some get involved with political parties, or become members of the Cuban Society. Hopefully they get involved with the Communist Party. Others don’t. The Brigade is highly recommended to really learn about Cuba from a different perspective.

People travel by the invitation of ICAP** and are guests of the people of Cuba. They really look after you. They love you to try to learn and to share – that part is important.

G: You mention people coming back from the Brigade and feeling this desire to work in solidarity but in general, what is the message from Cuba to the people of Australia? It’s a very different type of society. What can people learn from Cuba.

VM: People will learn that it’s possible to achieve big things with little things. There are more resources if we learn to use them wisely, to avoid consumerism, to try to leave aside the individualism that is often taught in our schools. Simple things like talking to your neighbour that have been forgotten; the sense of solidarity, which we don’t see a lot of nowadays.

I had the advantage of attending May Day rallies in Cuba. They are massive. You see a million people in the square and this year Australian trade unionists participated. Despite rain, the rally began early morning and people carried a massive banner, united in the construction of socialism. For two hours, non-stop, there was a happy celebration, in solidarity with the peoples of the world. Those trade unionists are used to small rallies for May Day in Australia where it is usually no longer a public holiday or no longer takes place on the first of May.

Moreover, Australian workers today are campaigning for equal pay, the right to be employed, penalty rates, and permanent jobs because most people in the western world are now employed in a precarious way unlike in Cuba. Everybody exercises the right to be employed there. Cuban workers have access to holidays. Everybody works five days a week, eight hour days. That’s the real sense of the triple eight – eight hours for work, eight for rest and eight for play. That is practised in Cuba.

When you hear things like they are being forced to march, you think “Yes, go and force a million people to go and be happy on that particular day.” It’s a big celebration – highly recommended not just for trade unionists but for everyone to witness.

G: Did you get a chance to observe changes in the economy and attitudes to gender and sexuality in Cuba?

VM: We had a very extensive program in Cuba. We had the opportunity to attend a conference conducted by Mariela Castro, the daughter of Raúl Castro, and who is the director of Cenesex – the centre for sexual education.

This conference was hosted by the CTC – the Cuban workers’ trade union central organisation – against discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sexual preference. LGBTI people in Cuba have achieved many rights because of the hard work and the commitment of the revolution against discrimination. People can have sex change operations for free for health reasons.

There was a big debate about equal marriage and related matters. It was an interesting discussion, the concept of marriage, and of family. But marriage, should be the union of two people regardless of their sexual orientation. As Communists we don’t really encourage marriage because it has been used for the domination and exploitation of women – a relationship of power. However, we live in a capitalist society in Australia, and if people from different sexual orientation wish to get married they should be able to do it like any heterosexual person.

I think that we, including the Communist Party, should continue the solidarity work with Cuba. The historic decisions of December 17, 2014 with the great victory of the Freedom of the Cuban Five and the opening up of the opportunity for the governments of Cuba and the US to sit at the negotiating table and to re-establish diplomatic relations is encouraging.

We have to continue work for the elimination of the US blockade and for the return of Guantánamo Bay to Cuba. It has been under US occupation since the Platt Amendment in the Constitution in 1903 and should be returned to the legitimate owners.

We should also continue to demand the right to self-determination for Cuba, to live in peace, with an economic model chosen by the people of Cuba, which is socialism. Cubans have shown great solidarity without expectation of exchange. Cuba doesn’t send doctors anywhere asking for the natural resources of the country – the diamonds or the oil. People do it just because that is the concept of the Cuban revolution – to share the little they have.

* The Cuban Five are Cuban nationals who were sent to infiltrate US-based Cuban ex-pat terrorist groups. Cuba handed over the information on these groups to the FBI. But instead of arresting the terrorists, the FBI arrested the Cuban Five anti-terrorists on September 12, 1998. They were unjustly charged for espionage and murder, and given long sentences, including life sentences. Since within days of their conviction, up to 350 committees to free the Cuban Five were formed across the world, including in the USA.

** ICAP, Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos, (The Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples, ICAP) is an NGO established with the purpose of reaching out to the international community and forming ties of friendship between Cuba and citizens of other countries.

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