Concert featuring legendary Cuban musician Gerardo Alfonso, raising funds for hurricane reconstruction and relief in Cuba.
On Friday October 27 over 120 people joined Vancouver Communities in Solidarity with Cuba (VCSC) to launch the 7th International Che Guevara Conference in Vancouver, Canada. It was a beautiful evening to gather together for a concert and fundraiser for reconstruction efforts in Cuba after the devastating Hurricane Irma hit the island in early September 2017.
Tamara Hansen, the coordinator of VCSC, welcomed everyone to the event. She soon introduced Lucy Ortiz, a Salvadorian poet and Frida Marzolina, a Bolivian poet, both living in Vancouver. Each woman read beautiful poems, Lucy dedicated her poem to children working to overcome natural disasters, especially in Cuba and Puerto Rico, and Frida read a poem in thanks of Evo Morales and to celebrate the Aymaran Indigenous culture and people of Bolivia. Tamara then welcomed to the stage local guests, CanAmérica, a Latin American band performing songs of social justice and change. They opened their set sending a hug to the Cuban people struggling after the hurricane, and also to the 5 Cuban heroes free in Cuba today after spending over 16 years unjustly held in U.S. jails. Following the lively performance by CanAmérica, attendees were invited to buy raffle tickets for some exciting Cuban prizes and the stage was set up for the evening’s headliner, the legendary Cuban musician, Gerardo Alfonso!
Joining us all the way from Havana, Cuba, Gerardo Alfonso began his set on the piano playing a wonderful mix of songs which communicate his observations about life, history, hopes, and aspirations. After performing beautifully on the piano, Gerardo let the audience know that he had been suffering from a cold and was holding back during his performance so far, but was going to give it his all as his claimed his most trusted instrument, his guitar. Soon he had everyone singing along with him to songs such as “Asi de Sencillo” (As Simple As That), “Sábanas Blancas” (White Sheets) & “Son los Sueños Todavía” (These are Still the Dreams). The audience was so impressed by his performance that they demanded an encore, he played a soothing melody to bid everyone good night.
The dynamic concert was an enormous success for kicking off the 3-day conference and also raised over $1000 for the Canadian Network on Cuba’s Hurricane Relief and Reconstruction Fund. Everyone was invited back to the Russian Hall the next morning for breakfast and a full two days of speakers, workshops, films, art displays, food, discussion, and revolutionary politics!
SATURDAY OCTOBER 28, 2017
“Fidel & Che’s Legacy in Cuba Today” was the title of the first keynote address of the Conference, delivered by Ms. Tania Lopez Larroque, the Cuban Consul General of the Cuban Consulate in Toronto. Tania started her talk remarking how the legacy of Fidel and Che is both easy and difficult to speak about, as they are “everything” to the Cuban people. Tania explained during her remarks, “Defence of culture, I would say, is one of the most relevant legacies Fidel and Che have left for our country. To defend culture, not as a slogan – not only because it is what defines our nationality or any other aspects of someone’s singularity – but because culture determines people’s capacity to think, to evaluate what is good and what is not. That is why Fidel always said to the people ‘Read’ not ‘Believe.’”Tania’s excellent keynote received a loud applause from the audience and led very well into the first conference workshop, “When Africa Called, Fidel and Cuba Answered”. Professor Isaac Saney, visiting from Dalhousie University in Halifax, as well as co-chair of the Canadian Network on Cuba, gave an excellent presentation on this topic, outlining the incredible role Cuba has played in Africa since the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959, especially the decisive victory at Cuito Cuanavale against the racist South African apartheid army.
After a good discussion, the meeting broke for lunch, with delicious food and a great time to continue the conversations. The conference then reconvened for the second workshop, “Discussion on Music and Race in Cuba with Legendary Cuban Musician Gerardo Alfonso.” Gerardo Alfonso, who had wowed everyone the night before with his music, came to share his ideas as an academic and artist, by outlining the long history of music and culture in Cuba as a tool of political struggle and independence. He also explained the need for culture to promote the voices of those who have been traditionally marginalized in Cuba and around the world, especially Afro-Cuban artists.
After a good discussion with Gerardo, it was time for the third workshop of the conference, “Cooperatives & Sustainability in the Land of Martí,” featuring Wendy Holm, Professor of UBC’s International Field Studies in Sustainable Agriculture (Cuba), agrologist, economist, author, and sustainability expert. Wendy gave a dynamic presentation about Cuba’s drive for environmental sustainability and the creation of worker’s cooperatives in both the agricultural and non-agricultural sectors.
This led to the special session with a film and discussion. The documentary “Mariela Castro’s March: Cuba’s LGBT Revolution,” outlined the history of homophobia and transphobia in Cuba and the campaign against them today being waged by Cuba’s queer activists, the National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX), and Mariela Castro, a member of Cuban parliament and Cuban President Raul Castro’s daughter. The moving film was followed by talks from: Azza Rojbi, a North African LGBTQ+ organizer in Vancouver and coordinator of Friends of Cuba Against the U.S. Blockade-Vancouver; Moon Vázquez, a Latina Lesbian Feminist on the national steering committee of the U.S. Women & Cuba Collaboration; and Deb Goldman, also an organizer with the U.S. Women & Cuba Collaboration from Seattle, Washington. All three women spoke about their experiences visiting with organizers in the queer community in Cuba. Each shared moving personal anecdotes illustrating the important struggles and victories of LGBTQ+ people in Cuba.
After a dynamic day covering many topics, it was time for the session on, “Marxism, Communism and the Relevancy of Revolutionary Ideas Today.” This special session was organized to mark one year since the passing of Fidel Castro, 50 years after Che’s Assassination & 100 years after the triumph of the Russian Revolution. It featured four speakers: Tamara Hansen, coordinator of VCSC and author of the book “5 Decades of the Cuban Revolution: The Challenges of an Unwavering Leadership” (Battle of Ideas Press, 2010); Henry Heller, Professor of History at the University of Manitoba and Marxist scholar; Tania Lopez Larroque, Consul General of the Cuban Consulate in Toronto; and Luis Morlote Rivas, Vice-President of the Cuban Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC) and a member of the Cuban National Assembly, visiting from Havana, Cuba. Each speaker reflected on revolutionary history and struggle, as well as the role of revolutionaries today to continue learning, organizing, and building towards a better world. There were many comments from the floor and the evening wrapped up with ongoing discussions and plans to return Sunday morning to continue and deepen the discussions, and debates of the 7th International Che Guevara Conference.
Day 2 of speakers, workshops, discussion & revolutionary politics!
The conference was honoured to open the stage Sunday morning to Chief Bob Chamberlin, Vice-President Union of BC Indian Chiefs and Elected Chief Councilor Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis First Nation, who brought special greetings. As a conference addressing many issues around building a better world, he reminded the audience that any discussions on change in Canada must take into consideration the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), and build towards equality, justice, and respect for Indigenous people and their land rights. Soon after, the conference welcomed Arnold August, journalist and author of many books including: “Cuba and Its Neighbours: Democracy in Motion” (Fernwood Publishing/Zed Books, 2013) and “Cuba-U.S. Relations: Obama and Beyond” (Fernwood, 2017). Arnold gave the Sunday opening keynote address on “Cuba- U.S. Relations: Obama and Beyond.” He explained the policy of U.S. imperialism towards Cuba from Cuba’s independence from Spain, to today under President Trump, in a wide-ranging and educational talk. He also explained the importance of the ongoing campaign against the U.S. blockade on Cuba and encouraged people to join efforts across Quebec and Canada to end this unjust U.S. policy.
The fourth workshop was led by Helen Yaffe, an Economic History Fellow at the London School of Economics and author of “Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) who joined via video conference from London, England. She spoke on the main themes of her book, as well as many updates related to the economic and social guidelines of 2011. Helen’s ability to break down the complex economic ideas of Che Guevara and their implementation was a highlight for many at the conference.
After enjoying lunch prepared by a local Cuban chef, everyone came back for the fifth workshop, “Cuba’s 2011 Economic & Social Guidelines: The gains and challenges today.” Led by Luis Morlote Rivas, Vice-President of the Cuban Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC) and a member of the Cuban National Assembly. He who spoke about the changes brought by Cuba’s social and economic guidelines, both positive and negative. Luis outlined many examples of how the government and parliament is consulting with their feedback to make further changes and adjustments, while continuing on the path of socialism.
The sixth workshop titled, “Cuba and Its Neighbours: Democracy in Motion” featured Arnold August who returned to the stage to speak on the themes of his second book – Cuba’s electoral system and Cuba’s role in Latin America and the world. Arnold gave a detailed explanation of Cuba’s democratic electoral system and the role of the Communist Party of Cuba in Cuban society. The workshop was followed by a chance for everyone to buy copies of Arnold’s books and have them signed by the author!
For the seventh workshop, the conference was grateful for the presence of the Venezuelan Consul General of Vancouver, Wilfredo Perez Bianco, who spoke on the issue of “Building Solidarity with Venezuela Today.” Wilfredo specifically looked at the power of the ALBA alliance between Cuba and Venezuela and its grassroots associations of ALBA-TCP. He outlined what unity amongst poor and oppressed people has been able to accomplish, as well as the heavy attacks the Venezuelan government is facing today, and the need for international solidarity.
The final workshop was followed by the closing keynote address, which was on the theme of the conference, “From the Russian Revolution to the Cuban Revolution: The Question of Leadership, Implementing the Socialist Project & Where We Are Today.” The presenter was Ali Yerevani, political editor of the Fire This Time Newspaper. Ali explained, “We oppressed people, we working people, we must look at ourselves with more confidence. With more understanding that we need to work together in a united way in order to bring back what we accomplished and what we established with the Russian Revolution of 1917 and Cuban Revolution of 1959.” With these inspiring words, many of the threads and ideas discussed throughout the conference became more concrete and tangible.
As the conference drew to a close, Thomas Davies, executive member of Vancouver Communities in Solidarity with Cuba (VCSC), gave an impassioned conference summary appealing to the audience to get involved in building solidarity and a movement for change.
One of the most powerful moments of the conference was the Indigenous closing featuring Kelly White, Coast Salish elder; Martin Sparrow, of Musqueam nation; Shona Shutter, of Okanagan nation; and Vivian Sandy, of the Shuswap and Northern Diné nations. Martin Sparrow shared a new born song to unite Indigenous people around the world, encouraging other peoples to also support their struggles. The three Cuban guests, Tania Lopez Larroque, Gerardo Alfonso, and Luis Morlote Rivas, were gifted beautiful star blankets recognizing the medicine wheel and four directions. Kelly White invited each guest at the conference to join in a circle with the Cuban guests and thank them for their participation. She concluded chanting, “In the spirit of Indigenous peoples’ right to life, We Will Win against the enemy to our peace! Viva! To those who are the enemy to our peace, we don’t know how to quit, we have no words for surrender! Viva our next 7 generations!” As the 7th International Che Guevara Conference came to a close, Tamara Hansen thanked Kelly, Shona, Vivian and Martin for their strong and memorable closing.
With over 350 people in attendance over three days, as well as 161 live stream participants, over 450 views on Youtube, and a diversity of revolutionary topics and themes discussed, the Che Guevara Conference was an important success. The conference featured many prominent guests from Cuba, Venezuela, the Middle East, Africa, England, the U.S., and Canada, including many speakers representing those who are traditionally underrepresented in political discourse: Indigenous people, people of colour, LGBTQ+ people, young people, and women. Now is the time to join together and continue building towards the better world we know is possible, and necessary!
Reprinted from Fire This Time Volume 11 Issue 11