Cuba, Palestine, and the struggle for land sovereignty

BY:Len Yannielli| February 29, 2024
Cuba, Palestine, and the struggle for land sovereignty


Fidel Castro visited New York in September, 1960. Where did he stay during this now-famous visit to the opening session of the United Nations? He stayed in Harlem, to show solidarity with our class and people, especially with African Americans, and had lunch with the twelve Black employees of the Hotel.

During his visit, Fidel also keenly observed the kind of development he was witnessing. He saw the car economy as unsustainable. It stuck with him. Through the years, he would categorize capitalist development, especially in housing and the environment, as unsustainable. The car-and-road economy, sprawl, and megaprofits were running roughshod over the land.

There are other ways the environment is being trampled on, literally. Cows, and wealthy ranchers — “cowboys” — are being allowed to trample our public lands, especially prairies.

The most notorious example here is the Bundy family. Cliven Bundy initially led the charge. Bundy, like others, paid a grazing fee to use public land in Nevada. He did that up until 1993.

There were signs that the grasslands were being stressed. The Gopherus desert tortoise’s population, a signal organism for ecosystem health, was plummeting. It was placed on the endangered species list.

A signal species is closely watched. If it is in survival trouble, it can also mean the ecosystem as a whole is being stressed. Grazing permits were modified to lessen the impact on the land.

Bundy refused to continue paying the grazing permit.

During a twenty-year court battle, Cliven began saying that he didn’t recognize the court system. He once said that the U.S. is a foreign government.

By 2014, officials had enough. Through the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), it demanded $1.1 million dollars in fines and back payments. They began impounding Bundy’s herd.

Bundy, in turn, called out militia units from across the country. There was a standoff where government agents were out gunned. They backed off. The extreme fascist right celebrated.

Two of the militia members that had stayed at the Bundy ranch during the uprising took their anger at “government” with them. A month later, they killed two policemen in a pizzeria at point blank range. A yellow flag they carried, that had a coiled snake emblazoned on it — the Gadsden flag — was draped over the bodies.

At this juncture, Bundy’s son Ammon picked up the baton. Like Cliven, he was a Mormon with the narrowest views. “In the scriptures,” Ammon is quoted as saying in Christopher Ketcham’s book This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption are Ruining the American West, “we have guidance on what we are to do and how we are to act and what is right and what the earth is for, what the animals are for, what the grass is for, what the trees are for.”

Emboldened by his father’s and the militia’s actions, Ammon led a raid on a Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Why? The Hammond family ranchers had poached wildlife on BLM land near the refuge and lit the grassland on fire to destroy the evidence. They continually harassed and threatened refuge workers. They were about to be sentenced in 2015. Ammon’s idea was to hold the refuge hostage until the Hammonds were freed.

Ammon said that God had a plan and shared it with him. Apparently, he and God shared the plan with others. A dozen militia, one toting a machine gun, accompanied him on this fascist action.

The demands grew. Ammon stated that his men would not leave until all federal lands in the Western U.S. were relinquished and turned over to local control. It was a so-called liberation shout-out to ranchers everywhere.

The result was an occupation that lasted close to a month. Other supportive militia terrorized a nearby town where some refuge workers lived. Refuge workers had to be evacuated across the state which eventually cost all of us $2 million dollars. It was a dress rehearsal for the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

When it was over, damage done to the refuge building, and its cleanup, came to $9 million dollars. Here’s the kicker. Ammon and his militia/religious followers went free on judicial technicalities.
By the way, cowboy Ammon had a $540,000 federal loan. So much for the extreme-right’s attacks on the evil, administrative state.

Now let’s go full circle. “Cowboys” began showing up in Israel. They were helping Israelis work lands where Palestinians have been displaced on the West Bank. The cowboys considered themselves Christian Zionists. They believe God gave the land to Jews.

Part of their rationale is that such support will help the cowboys go to heaven.

Christian Zionists believe their actions will bring them closer to God. Some adhere to the prosperity gospel. In other words, there will be personal and financial gain.

Some of these supporters worship the likes of actors Mel Gibson and John Wayne. They see them as the epitome of white, militaristic, masculine power. Donald Trump is on the same list.

This all conjures up the white cowboy good guy versus “bad” “Indians.” Then, in too many minds, that is transferred to good Israelis versus “savage” Palestinians. Needless-to-say, imperialists love it.

So how do we beat back this imperialist, fascist threat? How can we start local where we are?

There are more dots to connect and allies of the working class that need to find each other. Some of those allies reside in movements that are important to all of us.

Saving land, prairie in the above case, isn’t only an issue in the west. Diminishing eastern grasslands — due to sprawl, primarily — is harming human beings and other living beings.

For example, Bobolinks are grassland birds whose numbers are plummeting. Here’s the catch: they migrate from the pampas of Argentina to the Eastern U.S. Their decline has been a focus of some environmental groups. Why?

Bobolinks are another signal species. Observing how they fare is like taking the temperature of the land and other living beings who reside there. Their plummeting numbers indicate a dangerous, high fever.

What’s the threat? Imperialism and its exploitation of natural resources plays a major role, especially in the area of fossil fuel development (e.g. shale oil and gasses) along the pampas of Argentina. With fossil fuel giants like ExxonMobile involved, the U.S. military followed. It was the Obama Administration that opened the door in Argentina during the latter’s Mauricio Macri administration. It’s a classic imperialist pattern. Per usual, it was presented as a humanitarian project.

While labor-led alliance protests stemmed the tide for a short period, there is now a U.S. military base in Neuquén. It is the largest Patagonian city. Large aquifers of fresh water are also there (as well as oil). Privatizing water supplies is high on big business, imperialist agendas.

So this bird signals trouble for itself and other beings, including humans, both in Argentina and the Eastern U.S. The struggle, particularly in Massachusetts and Connecticut, is led by the Sierra Club. As green lands also help mitigate climate change, there is room for many allies here.

Saving land always translates to more green jobs. This sets the stage for both union involvement and union leadership. Grasslands have to be mowed, with sensitivity to bird nesting patterns, and trails maintained.

There are now efforts to have a clean, healthy environment, including for wildlife, embedded in state constitutions. There is a special emphasis on climate justice. The Environmental Rights Amendment (ERA) is sometimes referred to as the Green Amendment. The ultimate objective is to enshrine these legal rights in the federal constitution.

Unity can be built around the Endangered Species Act, animal rights, and Native people’s “Land Back” movements. Not only is there room for everyone, it is necessary to win.

Building on the famous line from Rachel Carson, nothing in nature — or in politics — exists alone.

As it turns out, Fidel and the Communist Party of Cuba understood much about the environment. While some of this awareness was born by necessity, as Cubans lost the solidarity of European socialist countries in the early 1990s, there was also a developing environmental consciousness.

At a World Peace Council gathering in Cuba in 2015, we were transported out of Cuban towns with zero sprawl. The green areas that we encountered were of two kinds. Agricultural areas were active open space, that is, land that was compacted by human work and machinery.

There was undeveloped, passive open space, that is land with permeable surfaces. The latter especially mitigates climate change and recharges aquifers.

These large green areas reach up the sides of mountains in Cuba. Special areas are preserved.

Stretching 275 square miles, the Alexander von Humboldt Nature Preserve displays a sensitivity to their tropical land, wildlife, and includes coastal waters. Can these green lands be sustained as the revolution is severely challenged by an imperialist blockade? Time and increased international solidarity will tell.

Meanwhile, we need to heed the words of that sage of the back to the land movement and former communist, Scott Nearing. When people asked him what they could do, he would always answer, “Do the best you can where you are, and be kind.”

So what can we do? Go door-to-door. Bring People’s World articles. Connect to local issues. What seems like slow, plodding work can be the fastest route to working class power locally and beyond.

Saving land in a passive state, that is with permeable surfaces, along with banning fossil fuels, are issues everywhere. Combined, these steps would help wildlife to flourish, mitigate climate change, advance climate justice, and have added health benefits for human beings. Seven million people die prematurely due to air pollution.

Be an active participant in the fight for our planet and to defeat fascism where you are. Be kind, and militant, too.

Images: “Long live the friendship between the Palestinian and Cuban peoples” by Marc Rudin, published by La Asociacion de Amistad Palestino Cubano in 1990 (Reddit); Cliven Bundy by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED) / Ammon Bundy by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED); Bobolink by USFWS Midwest Region (public domain) / U.S. Air Force by Granma (via Monthly Review)



    Len Yannielli is professor emeritus, Naugatuck Valley Community College, Waterbury, Conn. He was the 2009 National Association Of Biology Teachers Evolution Educator of the Year.

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