“Democracy is our word”: Historic exchange between Venezuela, Cuba, and US working people held in New York

On September 25, diplomats from Global South nations including Cuba and Venezuela, organizers, and working people gathered in Harlem to challenge imperialism

September 26, 2022 by Natalia Marques
Speakers at People’s Summit: Democracy Beyond US Empire (From left to right: Kristin Richardson Jordan, Claudia de la Cruz, Carlos Faria, Bruno Rodriguez, Vijay Prashad) (Photo: People’s Summit)

“We refuse to be told who our friends are,” opened People’s Forum co-executive director Manolo de los Santos at an event titled “People’s Summit: Democracy Beyond US Empire.” Convened by the International Peoples’ Assembly (IPA), organizers, intellectuals, diplomats, and working people gathered on the night of September 24 at the Riverside Church in Harlem, only a few miles from where the UN General Assembly (UNGA) was convening in Midtown Manhattan, to hear from Carlos Faria, Foreign Minister of Venezuela, and Bruno Rodriguez, Foreign Minister of Cuba. 

The event, which was a follow-up to the People’s Summit for Democracy in Los Angeles in June, sought to bring voices of socialist countries directly into dialogue with US working people on the question of people’s democracy. The ministers were joined by historian and journalist Vijay Prashad, People’s Forum co-executive director Claudia de la Cruz, and socialist NYC Council member Kristin Richardson Jordan who also offered reflections on the reality of democracy in the United States.

The venue, Riverside Church, has historically been the site of speeches by leaders of poor and working class people, such as Fidel Castro, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel. In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a historic speech against the Vietnam War at Riverside. The broader area, Harlem, is a historic site of Black class struggle, bearing witness to the artistic and political movement of the Harlem Renaissance and home to figures such as Malcolm X and Paul Robeson.

The “finger-wagging” of colonialism

On September 21, US President Joe Biden gave his remarks to the UNGA. “Now, it’s no secret that in the contest between democracy and autocracy, the United States — and I, as President — champion a vision for our world that is grounded in the values of democracy,” Biden stated, also touting the US’s stated mission to “defend and strengthen democracy at home and around the world.”

But with the self-praise came the denunciations of formerly colonized or invaded nations. “Despite our efforts to begin serious and sustained diplomacy, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea continues to blatantly violate UN sanctions,” said Biden at one moment. Biden also claimed, “fundamental freedoms are at risk in every part of our world, from the violations…in Xinjiang detailed in recent reports.” 

Both China and North Korea are under some form of attack by the United States, either through US military operations or devastating sanctions

At Riverside Church on September 24, Vijay Prashad condemned “those incredible habits of colonialism,” referring to leaders of Western nations such as Liz Truss, Emmanuel Macron, and Joe Biden.

“They can’t talk to us without wagging their finger,” he said. “Who gave them the right to claim the word democracy? Democracy is our word.”

“What democracy?” Vijay continued. “The democracy of money. Buying elections. Bribing politicians. That’s this democracy. How can you claim to be a democracy when you have people who are hungry in your country?”

Biden also aimed barbs specifically as socialist Venezuela at the UNGA. “In Venezuela, where years of the political oppression have driven more than 6 million people from that country, we urge a Venezuelan-led dialogue and a return to free and fair elections,” he said.

“They accuse us, speaking for Venezuela, of being a nondemocratic country, where there is a dictatorship,” Carlos Faria, foreign minister of Venezuela, said during his speech at the People’s Summit event on September 24. “What dictatorship would allow 29 elections in 22 years?”

Working class solidarity

Attendees of the event highlighted the importance of bringing people in the US into discussions which openly question US narratives around Cuba and Venezuela. 

“The majority of working class people don’t have antagonistic relationships with countries like Cuba or Venezuela,” Andira Alves, activist with the Party for Socialism and Liberation, told Peoples Dispatch. “[The US does] it in our names, and our money. It sanctions oppressed nations.”

Kristin Richardson Jordan, who represents New York City Council District 9 in Harlem, spoke to Peoples Dispatch about the importance of solidarity. “What I would like to see is this being connected with larger movements where the people in my community get connected to working people in Venezuela, Cuba, and what can we do to bridge the gap,” she said. “Because at the end of the day, we’re under this white supremacist capitalism system together.”

In his address at the event, Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez reiterated Cuba’s stance of solidarity with other nations, including Puerto Rico, Palestine, and Haiti. 

Claudia de la Cruz, speaking to Peoples Dispatch, elaborated on what exactly the socialist projects of Venezuela and Cuba can teach people in the US: “One of the things that the United States has done and has done very well is sell us the lie that we don’t have the power to organize and that we don’t have the power to win…Cuba and Venezuela are prime examples of what is possible when people organize.” 

Towards a people’s democracy

Speaking in front of the crowd of attendees, Councilwoman Kristin Richardson Jordan, a socialist activist elected to office in 2021, said, “This country, due to capitalism, imperialism, and white supremacy, oppresses its own people…I’m on the inside, and I have not been proven wrong. It is not democratic.”

Speakers reiterated the idea that the US, despite how the US government touts itself, is not a democracy. Claudia de la Cruz told attendees, “Democracy in the US is a bourgeois democracy. It is not a people’s democracy. It is a democracy that has been violently imposed on the working class.”

“It is a democracy that tells us that if we want to exist as a working class, we need to fight.” Claudia described how the Supreme Court recently took away federal abortion rights in the US, which feminist activists fought for half a century ago. “The Supreme Court, historically an instrument of the ruling class, has decided to roll back on very very basic rights that have been earned. They have been earned, bled for.”

Meanwhile, on September 25, Cuba voted in the world’s most progressive Family Code, which enshrines into law the right of same-sex marriage and adoption, equal distribution of domestic work, and the right to a family life free from violence. Same-sex marriage has yet to be enshrined into law in the US, only upheld through a Supreme Court case, thus marriage rights also risk a similar fate as abortion.

“This is where we live, by observing, accompanying, amplifying revolutionary developments in Venezuela and Cuba,” Vijay Prashad told the crowd. “Are we going to the people and saying, look at [the imperialists], they are so terrible, no! That’s not going to lift anybody up. We go to the people and say, this is what we want to do.”

“We want to build. We want to build with love. We want socialism.”