[Pnews] Two Wings of the Same Bird – Puerto Rico, Cuba, Hurricanes and Political Prisoners

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Feb 14 10:29:49 EST 2018


  Two Wings of the Same Bird – Puerto Rico, Cuba, Hurricanes and
  Political Prisoners

by Diana Block - February 14, 2018

Six months after Oscar López Rivera was released from prison having 
spent 35 years inside, he traveled to Cuba.  “I feel at home 
this is a dream come true; for many, many years, I have wanted to come 
to Cuba and today for the first time I have arrived,” Oscar told 
Fernando Llort González, the President of ICAP (Cuban Institute of 
Friendship with the Peoples), who greeted him when he stepped off the plane.

The last time Oscar had seen Fernando was in the cell he shared with him 
for four years in Terre Haute prison where they became good friends. 
Their friendship wasn’t surprising. Oscar was in prison because of his 
participation in the struggle to win Puerto Rican independence from the 
U.S. while Fernando 
one of the Cuban 5, was in prison for his efforts to protect a sovereign 
Cuban nation from U.S. aggressive interventions.   A Puerto Rican and a 
Cuban freedom fighter sharing a cell was a twenty-first century 
manifestation of the historical bonds between the two islands, 
eloquently expressed in the lines that Puerto Rican poet Lola Rodriguez 
de Tió //wrote <http://ciudadseva.com/texto/a-cuba/> in 1893:

    Cuba and Puerto Rico are
    as two wings of the same bird,
    they receive flowers and bullets
    into the same heart.

When Oscar arrived in Cuba on November 13, 2017, both Cuba and Puerto 
Rico had recently received bullets into the geographical hearts of their 
islands. Cuba was hit by Hurricane Irma, a category 5 hurricane, on 
September 8, 2017. Two weeks weeks later, on September 20^th , Puerto 
Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane.  In 
Cuba, the electricity was restored to the entire island within a few 
weeks <https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/10/16/a-tale-of-two-islands/>.  
In Puerto Rico, over four months after Maria nearly 40% of the island 
is still without power. The scandal-plagued response to the hurricane on 
the part of the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments exposes the operation 
of disaster capitalism at its worst.

In Cuba, Oscar summed up the situation. “After Hurricane Maria 
Puerto Rico was left devastated and is now showing the world the poverty 
that existed and was hidden; the world is being shown what colonialism 
is, because it is perhaps the best example of what becomes of a country 
that has been colonized for 119 years by the U.S. government.”

I recently spoke with Oscar to find out what he had learned during his 
trip to Cuba and how he saw the current Puerto Rican reality.  He 
started by telling me how he had toured Villa Clara, the Cuban province 
hardest hit by Irma, with the Director of Civil Defense.   All 
electricity in the province had been restored in little over two weeks.  
The rebuilding of thousands of structures that had been damaged by Irma 
was rapidly occurring with many houses already repaired, all with 
government support.

The Cuban government put all available resources into action before and 
after the hurricane, prioritizing the preservation of life 
<https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/10/16/a-tale-of-two-islands/> above 
all else.  Days before Irma hit, the Trump administration renewed the 
embargo against Cuba, which has been in place since 1960.  This meant 
Cuba couldn’t access vital supplies needed for reconstruction from the 
U.S. or  assistance from many international financial organizations that 
are impacted by the embargo’s sanctions. Fortunately, many other 
countries, including Venezuela, China and Bolivia, provided assistance 

I asked Oscar what he thought was key to Cuba’s capacity to respond so 
rapidly and effectively. “It is their commitment to developing the human 
resource,” he answered unequivocally. “They continue to fortify and 
strengthen the people and it gave me the most amazing emotion to see how 
this was being done on all levels. Everyone is organized into 
neighborhood and civic organizations that get the information out to 
everyone very quickly. “

He went on to explain how all parts of the society were mobilized  – 
  neighborhood organizations helped to coordinate the evacuation of 
almost one million people in Havana, civic brigades conducted 
search-and-rescue operations across the island, electric workers began 
repairing the electrical infrastructure as soon as the hurricane 
dissipated, and medical brigades fanned out through the country to help 
with health emergencies.

“What’s needed in Puerto Rico is to organize the people,” Oscar asserted 
when I asked him about the failure of the governmental response to 
Maria.  Oscar described how he was shocked when he returned to Puerto 
Rico, after decades of being in prison, by the level of poverty, the 
intensifying gentrification, the takeover of land, buildings and 
infrastructure by private U.S. corporations and the strangling 
dictatorship of the PROMESA fiscal control board 
over all areas of Puerto Rican economic life. These were the conditions 
which contributed to the breakdown of recovery efforts.  When Oscar 
testified to the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization in 
June 2017, even before the hurricane, he told them that in spite of the 
deteriorating conditions “many Puerto Ricans believe this is the best 
moment to wage an effective decolonizing process.” 

As soon as he could after he was free, Oscar jumped into organizing in 
Puerto Rico. “I love to figure out communities and organize at the 
community level,” he explained.  With Maria, the focus has necessarily 
shifted to supporting self-determined survival efforts of the community. 
As one example, Oscar described how the people of San Sebastián in the 
rural western part of Puerto Rico were still without electricity two 
months after Maria hit. Through the initiative of the town’s mayor, 
retired electrical workers formed volunteer brigades to restore 
electricity to the town.  PREPA (the Puerto Rico Electric Power 
Authority) accused the town of illegally circumventing its monopoly 
but the town refused to stop its work to turn the power back on.  Based 
upon San Sebastián’s example, other municipalities began to pressure the 
Puerto Rican government to allow them to legally restore their own 
power.  As a result of the widespread pressure, a bill has been 
introduced in the legislature to allow cities to hire their own contractors.

For Oscar, this type of grassroots action is a core part of the 
decolonization project in Puerto Rico at this moment in time.  He has 
been involved in organizing town hall meetings in various communities to 
get input from the people on how they see conditions and to support them 
in developing their own solutions to the many problems they face.   
Puerto Rico’s Governor Rosselló has begun the privatization of PREPA, 
  marketing  privatization as the solution to the corrupt practices of 
the agency – a false solution that the Fiscal Control Board has been 
promoting.  In contrast, a main focus of the town halls has been 
alternative energy projects using renewable energy from the sun, air and 
water – real solutions that channel Puerto Rico’s natural resources 
towards sustainable self-sufficiency.

Casa Pueblo <http://casapueblo.org/> is an example of a Puerto Rican 
community-based organization that has a long history of organizing to 
protect and develop Puerto Rico’s natural resources dating back to 1980 
when it started as part of the struggle against open-pit mining 
<http://www.mcall.com/all-environmental0604-story.html>.  I spoke with 
Arturo Massol- Deyá, <http://biology.uprm.edu/facultad/?prof=74> 
Professor of Microbiology and Ecology at the University of Puerto Rico 
at Mayaguez and Associate Director of Casa Pueblo.  According to Arturo, 
the Puerto Rican and U.S. governments set up false expectations that 
they would be able to manage the crisis catalyzed  by Maria.  In fact, 
there was a total collapse of governmental response so that not even 
tarps were available for people to protect themselves from the elements.

To support the people immediately after the hurricane, Casa Pueblo, 
which is based in Adjuntas in a mountainous part of the island, reached 
out to the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States to get tarps and 
solar-powered lamps which were flown to Puerto Rico on charter flights.  
Casa Pueblo was able to distribute over 10,000 solar lamps across 
Adjuntas which helped to alleviate the crisis of darkness in that area. 
This emergency lighting project was rooted in Casa Pueblo’s long 
standing commitment to solar power.  The organization’s headquarters has 
been run on solar power since 1999.  In 2017, ten houses in Adjuntas 
were converted to solar and the plan is to create an entire solar-based 
community in 2018 which can become a model for other municipalities 
around Puerto Rico.

Speaking about the impact of Maria on Puerto Rico, Arturo explained, 
“When one system fails, you have to create another.  The new reality 
means that solar power is not an alternative but a necessity. Energy is 
a clear example of how the colonial model has failed to provide for the 
Puerto Rican people….We have to redefine the energy agenda from the 
bottom up because from the top down clearly doesn’t work.”   According 
to Arturo, Maria has also led to a strengthening of relationships 
between Puerto Ricans on the island and those in the diaspora who have 
stepped forward to help on an unprecedented level.  “The commitment of 
the people in Puerto Rico and on the mainland is from their heart. That 
makes all the difference.”

Cuba has also been pushed by the impact of Irma to accelerate its 
100-year plan, /Tarea Vida/ 
, for responding to climate change. According to Dalia Salabarría 
Fernández, a marine biologist at Cuba’s National Center for Protected 
Areas (CNAP), “The overarching idea is to increase the resilience of 
vulnerable communities.” 
The plan bans construction of new homes in threatened coastal areas, 
mandates relocating people from communities doomed by rising sea levels, 
calls for an overhaul of the country’s agricultural system to shift crop 
production away from saltwater-contaminated areas, and spells out the 
need to shore up coastal habitat defenses. Arturo sees the value of this 
Cuban initiative for Puerto Rico. “We might be in different political 
realities, but regarding climate change, we are islands in the Caribbean 
facing the same environmental challenge…We [Puerto Rico] have the 
science, but lack of political will (or power) to act on climate change 
is compromising the security of many communities and critical 
infrastructure. Taking a closer look at our neighbors could be a good 
reference for our people. “

For Oscar, his visit to Cuba reaffirmed his sense of the indelible 
solidarity between the two nations. During the three decades of Oscar’s 
imprisonment, Cuba repeatedly introduced a resolution 
<https://www.un.org/press/en/2017/gacol3312.doc.htm> before the United 
Nations Decolonization Committee that recognized Puerto Rico’s right to 
independence and self-determination and demanded Oscar’s release as a 
political prisoner.  This year for the first time, Oscar himself was 
able to testify <https://www.un.org/press/en/2017/gacol3312.doc.htm> on 
behalf of the decolonization resolution.  As part of his speech, he 
spoke in support of Ana Belén Montes 
a Puerto Rican who is currently serving a twenty-five year prison term 
for relaying U.S. intelligence information to Cuba, one more example of 
the complex political links between the islands.  Oscar has also 
continually denounced the United States’ economic embargo of Cuba whose 
goal is to undermine the right of the Cuban people to determine their 
own political system and destiny.

When they were cellmates at Terre Haute prison, Oscar and Fernando had 
imagined celebrating their freedom together many times.  Even though 
there were few indications that this could ever happen, they both 
trusted that the persistent struggles of their peoples would at some 
point win their release.  On November 14, 2017, Cuba presented Oscar 
with the Order of Solidarity in a ceremony held at the José Martí 
Memorial at the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana.  At the ceremony, 
Fernando praised Oscar as a “brave, modest, educated man 
with a great artistic sensibility” and “a concerned father, caring 
grandfather, and committed lover of his island and people.”  The flower 
of shared struggle between Puerto Rico and Cuba will continue to bloom.

*Diana Block* is the author of a novel, Clandestine Occupations – An 
Imaginary History 
<https://secure.pmpress.org/index.php?l=product_detail&p=738> (PM Press, 
2015) and a memoir, Arm the Spirit – A Woman’s Journey Underground and 
Back <https://www.akpress.org/armthespiritakpress.html> (AK Press, 
2009).  She is an active member of the California Coalition for Women 
Prisoners <http://www.womenprisoners.org/>and the anti-prison coalition 
CURB. <http://www.curbprisonspending.org/> She is a member of the 
editorial collective of The Fire Inside newsletter 
<http://womenprisoners.org/?page_id=1061> and she writes periodically 
for various online journals.


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863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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