Fidel Castro at
Riverside Church — Part 1

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Speech delivered by Dr. Fidel Castro Ruz, President of the Republic of Cuba, at the Cuban solidarity rally held in Riverside Church,
Harlem, New York, September 8, 2000.

Dear sisters and brothers from the Reception Committee;

Dear sisters and brothers present here;

Dear sisters and brothers in the nearby room;

Dear sisters and brothers listening to us from outside on the street, since many were not able to get into this church hall:

You have been extremely generous and kind to me.

When a few questions were posed here that you responded associated to efforts we have made for the benefit of our children and all our people and the efforts we have also made for other children and other peoples in various parts of the world --things which we never mention for there is no need to-- something occurred to me. I thought, all of this actually has a name, and it is “violation of human rights,” (APPLAUSE AND SHOUTS) which is used in an attempt to justify a blockade and economic war that have now gone on for more than 40 years.

Also, when you sang “Happy Birthday,” it brought many things to mind, and it occurred to me that perhaps it would have been more fitting to say, “Happy Good Luck, Fidel.”

It is a miracle that I have lived this many years (APPLAUSE AND SHOUTS), and not because we spent a number of years fighting against the tyranny in our country, or for having participated in some war actions but rather because of everything that came after the triumph of the Revolution. They say that a word to the wise is enough (APPLAUSE), and you are not only wise but noble and intelligent, too.

On my way here, I recalled my four visits to the United Nations. The first time, I was thrown out of the hotel near the United Nations. I had two choices: pitching a tent in the United Nations courtyard --and as a guerrilla fighter who had recently come down from the mountains, it would not have been all that difficult for me (APPLAUSE)-- or heading for Harlem, where I had been invited to stay in one of its hotels. (APPLAUSE) I immediately decided: “I will go to Harlem because that is where my best friends are.” (APPLAUSE AND SHOUTS)

(SOMEONE IN THE AUDIENCE SHOUTS, “My house is your house.”) (APPLAUSE)

Thank you very much. That is what they used to say to me in many beautiful homes where very wealthy people lived. They had those little signs that read exactly like that. Later, when we did something to help the poor they definitely removed the signs. (APPLAUSE) However, in you I can sense the generosity of the humble.

When I came back the second time, in 1979, I do not remember right now exactly what I did; all I remember is that I spoke there on behalf of all the poor countries of the world. The third time I came back to Harlem, and not only to Harlem, but also to the Bronx (APPLAUSE), as someone said here tonight.

This time I have been honored with an invitation to this neighborhood that I believe is called Riverside. Is that right? (SOMEONE ANSWERS, “Yes.”) From what I can understand, I am beside a river (LAUGHTER); but at the same time, I am in the middle of a river, a river of the purest and loftiest friendship. (APPLAUSE)

I am sure you can understand that it is not easy for me to visit New York; there is more than enough proof of that. This time it was definitely not easy, and many of my compatriots were very worried. We are living in a special period, and I do not mean the special period in Cuba, which has been brought about by the double blockade, but rather the special period of presidential elections. (LAUGHTER) And I have received all kinds of threats, from killing me to sending me to a U.S. prison.

However, that was a very important meeting. They called it the Millenium Summit, and we truly are beginning a millenium full of uncertainties. What’s more, for those of us who believe that the 20th century ends this December 31, humanity is about to begin the 21st century in extremely difficult and extremely troubling conditions. I could not fail to attend for any reason, and believe me when I say that I felt very happy when I got on the plane, after the complicated procedures needed to obtain a visa.

As you know, comrade Alarcón came here with us. (APPLAUSE AND SHOUTS) He was supposed to attend a conference of chairmen or Speakers of legislative assemblies or Parliaments from all countries in the world. He had applied for a visa almost a month earlier and been turned down, but was finally granted a visa at the same time as me --since he was part of the summit delegation-- around 24 or 48 hours before the trip. I should add that I have been treated very well at all times and that the U.S. security staff assigned to us have been very cordial and highly efficient, so it is only right to acknowledge this. (APPLAUSE)

We were given five minutes to speak at the meeting. As I am sure you understand, that is very little time to address encyclopedic problems or rather an encyclopedic list of problems, but I did my homework and managed to speak for only seven minutes and three seconds. (APPLAUSE) I ended up as one of those who spoke the least.

I have come here tonight after having gone through this training (SHOUTS), but I know that you will allow me more than seven minutes and three seconds. (APPLAUSE AND SHOUTS)

I draped a handkerchief over the little lights that signal the time, and I did it for two reasons. Firstly, it was a sort of protest against the fact that Heads of State and Government are subjected to the torture of a yellow light coming on first and then a red light to signal that their five minutes are over; nothing happens after that but it is humiliating. Secondly, I did it because I do not think that the speakers podium at the United Nations should be turned into a traffic light. (LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)

Of course, because there are so many speakers the time should be limited so as to reduce the many inconveniences caused to the city of New York by staying gathered here for a week or even two weeks. Still, one would suppose that they are not preschool children, and so if things are told and explained to them, they can be very brief.

I have taken part in many meetings with very short time limits. There are always some who talk for far longer than the time allotted, with or without traffic lights. I have always tried to comply with the time-limit because the worst punishment for those who go on for too long is the restlessness of those waiting for their turn, and no matter how interesting the things they are saying may be, people will criticize them. It is not advisable to speak at length in that kind of meetings. Now, although we are not at the United Nations I intend to limit myself to some basic issues.

Why did I say that, in my view, that was a very important meeting? Because the world is suffering a truly catastrophic situation. Do not believe those experts who feign optimism, or those who ignore what is really happening in the world. I have irrefutable statistics about the situation in the Third World, in the countries where many of you come from, or countries that have been visited by many Americans where three-quarters of humanity live. I have brought a few papers along and chosen various statistics, which I will read.

I could say, for example, that in more than 100 countries, the per capita income is lower than it was 15 years ago.

In the Third World, there are 1.3 billion poor people. In other words, one out of every three inhabitants lives in poverty.

More than 820 million people in the world suffer from hunger; and 790 million of them live in the Third World.

More than 840 million adults are still illiterate and the vast majority live in the Third World.

At the moment of birth, an inhabitant of the Third World can expect to live 18 years less than another of the industrialized world.

Life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa is barely 48 years. That is 30 years less than in the developed countries.

It is estimated that 654 million people living in countries of the South today will not live past 40 --almost half my age.

A full 99.5% of all maternal deaths take place in the Third World. The risk of maternal death in Europe is one death per 1400 births. In Africa the risk is one in six. I use the word risk because the number of those who actually die is lower, of course. But the number of mothers who die in Africa for every 10,000 births is no less than 100 times higher than the number in Europe.

More than 11 million boys and girls under five years of age die every year in the Third World from diseases that are largely preventable. That means more than 30,000 every day, 21 every minute, and almost a thousand since this rally began, about 45 minutes ago.

In the Third World, 64 children out of every 1000 born live die before reaching one year of age.

Two out of every five children in the Third World suffer from retarded growth, and one in every three is underweight for their age.

I said 64 out of every 1000 as an average for all the Third World countries, and that includes Cuba whose infant mortality rate is slightly under seven. But, there are numerous countries in Africa where more than 200 children out of every 1000 live births die every year before the age of five.

There are other terribly painful moral aspects such as the fact that two million girls are forced into prostitution and about 250 million children under the age of 15 are forced to work for a living.

Ten of the 11 new HIV positives occurring in the world every minute take place in sub-Saharan Africa, where the total number of people infected is now over 25 million.

And all of this is happening at a time when, throughout the world, 800 billion dollars are put into military spending, 400 billion are spent on narcotic drugs, and a trillion dollars are invested in commercial advertising.

By the end of 1998, the Third World’s external debt amounted to 2.4 trillion dollars, that is, four times the total in 1982, only 18 years ago.

Between 1982 and 1998, these countries paid over 3.4 trillion dollars for debt servicing, in other words, almost a trillion dollars more than the current debt. Far from decreasing, the debt grew by 45% in those 16 years.

Despite the neoliberal discourse on the opportunities created by the open-trading system the underdeveloped countries, with 85% of the world’s population, accounted for only 34.6% of world exports in 1998. That is less than in 1953, despite the fact that their population has more than doubled.

While flows of official development assistance in 1992 represented 0.33% of the developed countries’ gross national product, by 1998, six years later, that percentage had dropped to 0.23%, far below the 0.7% goal set by the United Nations. Therefore, while the wealthy world is becoming increasingly wealthy, contributions to the development of the large number of poor people decrease every year. Solidarity and responsibility shrink further by the year.

On the other hand, the daily volume of the currency buying and selling transactions has reached a sum of approximately 1.5 trillion dollars. This figure does not include operations involving the so-called financial derivatives, which account for an almost equal additional sum. That is, some three trillion dollars worth of speculative operations are carried out every day. If a 1% tax were charged on all speculative operations, the amount raised would be more than enough for a sustainable development, with the necessary protection of nature and the environment in the so-called developing countries. Actually, these countries are headed down the path of growing and visible underdevelopment, since the gap between the rich and the poor countries is wider every day, as is the difference between the rich and the poor within countries.

I could ask you, for example, whether adding up the savings that all of you may have in the bank, big or small, would amount to even a thousandth of the wealth of the richest man in the world who, by the way, happens to be a citizen of this country.

I mentioned trillions of dollars in speculative operations every day: 3 trillion dollars. What does this have to do with world trade? All of the world trade as a whole totals 6.5 trillion dollars a year, which means that every two working days, speculative operations are realized on those stock markets that you hear so much about amounting to approximately the total of world trade operations in a year.

When those stock markets were created, the phenomena I have described did not exist. This is something totally new, and genuinely absurd. Speculative operations in which money is used to make money have absolutely nothing to do with the creation of material goods or services. This is a phenomenon that has developed uncontrollably over the last 30 years and is growing to ever more absurd heights every day. Can this frantic gambling be called economy? Can the genuine economy that should meet the vital needs of humankind withstand it?

Money is no longer used primarily in investments for the production of goods; it is used in currencies, stocks and financial derivatives in the desperate pursuit of more money, directly, through the most sophisticated computers and software and not through productive processes as was historically the case. This is what the much trumpeted and infamous process of neoliberal globalization has brought about.

The developed countries control 97% of all the patents in the world, of course, they have monopolized the finest minds on the planet. In the last 40 years, the industrialized countries have taken a million professionals away from Latin America and the Caribbean. I repeat, a million professionals! In the United States it would have cost 200 billion dollars to train all these people. Thus, the poor countries of the world supply the developed nations with the finest fruits of their universities.

I had some figures about this on a sheet of paper around here somewhere. I spoke about this at a round table in the United Nations. In the last 10 years, out of 22 Nobel Prize Laureates in physics, the United States attracted 19 and the same happens with Nobel prizes in medicine and other sciences. While knowledge is considered a major asset for development today, the Third World countries are constantly deprived of their best talents.

One last statistic, from a few I chose: barely 1% of the 56 billion dollars invested every year in medical research is spent on research into pneumonia, diarrheic diseases, tuberculosis and malaria, four of the primary scourges of the underdeveloped world.

The most advanced medicine used to add a few years to the lives of those faced with the tragedy of being HIV positives cost 10,000 dollars in the industrialized nations. This is what they charge for them although the actual production cost is approximately 1000 dollars.

We are well aware of the tragedies facing the world because one of our most sacred principles is that of solidarity. (APPLAUSE)

Those who do not believe in humankind, in its potential for noble sentiments, in its capacity for goodness and altruism, will never understand that we do not only hurt for every Cuban child who dies or suffers --we must not limit ourselves to only those who die --but also for every child in Haiti, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Africa and every country in the world. (APPLAUSE) It cannot be claimed that the human species has attained a maximum of consciousness while it is incapable of hurting for the suffering of others.

Actually, humanity will attain its maximum of consciousness and potential qualities when people feel the same sorrow for the death of any family’s child as they would for their own child or other close relative. (APPLAUSE)

I know that many of you --perhaps the vast majority-- are Christians, and we are gathered together in a church. Well then, this is exactly what Christ preached, and this is what “Love thy neighbor” means to us. (APPLAUSE) This explains the efforts that Cuba has made for other countries to the extent of its capabilities. Some of these things were raised by you at the beginning of this rally.

There is a statistic that demonstrates this spirit of solidarity: about half a million of our compatriots have carried out internationalist missions in numerous countries in different parts of the world, especially in Africa (APPLAUSE), such as medical doctors, teachers, technicians, construction workers or soldiers. (APPLAUSE)

When many were investing in and trading with racist and fascist South Africa, tens of millions of voluntary soldiers from Cuba fought against the racist and fascist soldiers. (APPLAUSE)

Today, everyone speaks glowingly of the preservation of Angola’s independence, although the country is still subjected to a brutal civil war. The fault lies with those who supplied the armed bandits for many years, among them, the apartheid government and other authorities whom I will not name out of respect for where I am right now. (APPLAUSE)

Those half million volunteers who carried out their mission for free did not go there to invest in oil, diamonds, minerals or in any of the country’s other riches. (APPLAUSE)

Cuba does not have a single investment in any of the countries where our internationalists fulfilled their duty (APPLAUSE); it does not have a single dollar of capital invested, and does not own a single square meter of land. (APPLAUSE)

Amílcar Cabral, a great African leader, (APPLAUSE) once made a prophetic statement that was an unforgettable honor for us: “When the Cuban soldiers go home, all they will take with them are the remains of their dead comrades.” (PROLONGED APPLAUSE)

Nobody blockaded the obnoxious apartheid regime. Nobody waged economic warfare against it. There were no Torricelli or Helms-Burton Acts against that fascist and racist regime. Yet, all these laws and measures have been adopted against Cuba, a country that always has and always will be dedicated to solidarity.

Simply by reducing infant mortality in our country from approximately 60 deaths per 1000 live births in the first year of life to less than 7 per 1000, we have saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. We have protected the health of all children free of charge and guaranteed a life expectancy of over 75 years. (APPLAUSE) Moreover, we have not only preserved lives but also guaranteed free education for all (APPLAUSE), and not a selfish and mediocre education but one based on solidarity and excellence.

A study carried out by UNESCO, a UN agency, revealed that our children possess almost twice as much knowledge as the average child in the rest of Latin America. (APPLAUSE)

We have also saved the lives of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of children in Africa and other parts of the Third World throughout the years of the Revolution, and we have provided health care for tens of millions of people. Over 25,000 health care workers have taken part in these internationalist efforts. (APPLAUSE) This is called a “violation of human rights,” and it is why we must be destroyed.

Our Revolution has a history. I would have absolutely no moral right to be speaking here now if a single Cuban had been murdered by the Revolution at some point throughout these 40-plus years, if there were a single death squad in Cuba, if a single person in Cuba had been vanished. And I will go even further: if a single person in our country had been tortured --mark my words-- if a single person had been tortured in our country. And the Cuban people are very much aware of this. (APPLAUSE AND SHOUTS) They are a rebellious people with a very high sense of justice. They would not have forgiven us a single one of the acts I have mentioned (APPLAUSE) and these people have followed the Revolution throughout more than 40 years.

Also, with exemplary courage they have withstood 41 years of a blockade enforced by successive governments of the most powerful country in the world in political, economic, technological and military terms. Furthermore, for the last 10 years, they have withstood the double blockade that resulted from the collapse of the socialist bloc and the USSR. We were left without markets and without a source of supplies of food, fuel, raw materials and many other essential products that we paid for with our earnings, and in order to pay, of course, we needed to trade. If nobody buys anything from a country, that country will not have anything with which to buy from those who deprive it of earnings.

Perhaps a day will come when history will recount how Cuba worked the miracle of withstanding all of this (APPLAUSE); but in the meantime, I can assure you that no other country in Latin America and the Caribbean would have been able to do it.

This country, where we are right now, is one of the few countries in the world that could be almost totally self-sufficient in terms of the basic elements for maintaining life. But, the same cannot be said of a small isolated country, or a medium-sized country or even a large country in Latin America. None would have been able to withstand this for even two weeks, and we have withstood it for 10 years. (APPLAUSE) And for several years now, little by little, we have managed not only to survive but also to gradually increase our economic production, although we have still not bounced back to the rates we had before the double blockade that forced us into what we call the special period.

Suffice it to say that a daily caloric intake of 3000, more or less evenly spread, was reduced overnight to 1800 calories. It now stands at around 2400 calories.

But not even that stopped us from doing what we should. Throughout these ten years, we added 30,000 new doctors to our health care network and we have not closed a single clinic, or a school or a classroom. (APPLAUSE)

Our country has never been subjected to those so-called economic shock policies that wipe out hospitals, schools, social security and vital resources for low income people. We have resisted and not a single one of those measures was ever used, and those that we did implement to confront this terribly difficult situation were discussed with all of the people, not just in our National Assembly. We do have a National Assembly --even though many people ignore it-- characterized by a democratic spirit that fills us with pride because it is the neighbors who put up the candidates, nominate them for delegates of their districts and elect them by direct and secret ballot. No candidate is nominated by the party. They are all freely nominated by the district residents --no more than eight and no less than two candidates from whom one is chosen-- and elected on the basis of their own merits and capacity.

These district delegates make up the municipal assemblies and these municipal assemblies, established at the grass roots level, nominate the candidates to delegates of the provincial assemblies and the deputies to the National Assembly. These delegates must also be elected by direct and secret ballot and must obtain over 50% of the votes cast.

Almost half of that National Assembly --of which Alarcón is the Speaker and other comrades in the delegation whom I can see from up here are members-- is made up of these district delegates who are, as I have explained, nominated and elected by the people, with no intervention by our Party. The only role played by the Party is to guarantee the observation of the procedures set forth in our Constitution and our laws for the electoral process.

Nobody needs to spend a penny, not a single one. (APPLAUSE) The district candidates campaign together as a group, as do the candidates to the National Assembly who are nominated in every municipality, proportionally to the size of each municipality, although every one must have a minimum of two deputies in the National Assembly. This is the procedure, the method we have developed to guarantee the democratic principle.

Yet, as I was telling you, when we adopted measures to confront the difficult situation of the special period all were discussed, first of all, at the grass-roots level, with workers, farmers, students and other mass organizations, at hundreds of thousands of assemblies and later at the National Assembly. Then, after they had been studied by the National Assembly, they were sent back to the grass-roots level for further discussion before their final adoption by the Assembly.

These measures protected everyone and guaranteed social security for all. Among the main measures adopted were taxes on alcohol, cigarettes and other sumptuary items. Medicines, food or other essential products were never taxed and despite everything, we still could ensure a liter of milk a day for every child up to the age of seven. (APPLAUSE) And do you know how much the population had to pay for that liter of milk? According to the official exchange rate, 1.5 cents of a U.S. dollar, one and a half cents.

We still have a ration card and we will maintain it for a number of foodstuffs. But a pound of rice, which costs between 12 and 15 cents on the world market, --without including the cost of transportation from distant places, since we cannot buy it from the country closest to us, and without including the cost of internal transport, distribution and the rest-- is sold to consumers for just under one and a half cents. (APPLAUSE) And a pound of beans is sold for the same price as a liter of milk, 1.5 cents of a dollar.

In our country, the vast majority of citizens pay 0 cents of a dollar for the homes they live in (APPLAUSE), because today, as a result of the revolutionary laws, over 85% of homes are owned by the families who live in them (APPLAUSE), and they do not even pay taxes on them. In the remaining homes, located in out-of-the-way places deemed essential for industry or services, the tenants pay an extremely low rent or are granted usufruct of them. That is why when people say that someone earns 15 or 20 dollars a month in Cuba, I say that you have to add X amount for what they would have to pay for housing if they lived in New York, X number of dollars for the cost of education, another X number of dollars for health care, and other rising costs. I am not saying that we are not poor, or that we do not have needs; but we have distributed our poverty or resources as fairly as possible. (APPLAUSE)

I will offer two or three more examples. To watch an important baseball game in Baltimore, for example, according to our experience costs an average of 19 dollars; at the current exchange rate, it would cost a Cuban five cents of a dollar. Going to a movie in New York costs between six and eight dollars, as you know, but in Cuba it costs five cents of a dollar. Visiting a museum --for those who pay because children do not pay-- costs our people five cents of a dollar. This is why we have been able to withstand such difficult circumstances despite the crisis, although there are still many things we lack.

The prices of basic medicines are the same they were in 1959, over 40 years ago. (APPLAUSE) At that time they were cut by half because one of the first things the Revolution did was to lower the price of medicines and those who are administered these medicines in a hospital do not pay a penny for them. (APPLAUSE) And if they need a heart transplant, a liver transplant, other transplants or costly operations or treatments, they do not pay a penny.

This is what the Revolution did for the people. This is what forged the heroism with which our people endured the tremendous hardships never before withstood by any other country throughout more than 40 years of blockade, of which the last 10 years were characterized by the conditions I have explained to you. Therefore, it is only natural that the very United States recognizes that the healthiest young people who migrate to the United States, one way or another, are the Cubans. In addition, they have higher qualification than immigrants from any other country in Latin America or the Caribbean. (APPLAUSE)

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