Changes are happening and the Cubans are trying to figure out how to accommodate them within a socialist framework
As I prepared for my recent November trip to Cuba I thought back to my many memories of my first visit in the spring of 1970. Having left teaching in the South Bronx, discouraged and risking the draft deferment NYC teaching ironically provided, I decided, with my wife at the time, to go on to Cuba on the Second Venceremos Brigade. The Brigade was a left initiative to help break the US imposed blockade on Cuba and 800 of us went from across the country to cut cane with the Cubans and help them succeed in their production goal in the Year of the Ten Million tons.
The result of weeks of cutting cane with Cubans, as well as with revolutionary guests from struggles around the world, and traveling across the country in a remarkable 100 bus caravan, changed my life. The world was aflame with liberation movements in all continents and the US anti-war, women’s and Black and Latino liberation movements were in full swing. Although new to left movements in the US, when the Cubans, including Fidel, told us we were revolutionaries I figured, who was I to argue? In essence, the trip set me on a course of a life-time as a participant in many progressive movements, especially labor, seeking to create social and economic justice everywhere. I have never regretted that decision for a single second.
What I saw in Cuba in November 2015 was both hopeful and upsetting. Hopeful because the Cubans have never given up on socialism as the methodology/system to solve their many problems, perhaps the only place on earth where that is the case. And upset because of the serious poverty that exists and the deathly stranglehold that the US Embargo still has on the Cuban economy.
The trip was organized by Code Pink who had already taken two groups since the US began the recent Cuban diplomatic recognition process, and has several more in the hopper. They do a very good job of it. The focus of the trip was the international conference being held in Guantanamo province against the US military base in Guantanamo Bay and US bases around the world. The conference brought delegates from many countries and perhaps as many as 100 folks from the US. Even as a long-time foe of US imperialism, it was a shocking reminder of the devastating political, environmental and economic devastation caused by the 800 or more US military bases located on every continent and in outer space.
We traveled throughout the province and were greeted in various places like visiting dignitaries, mostly because of the power of the message sent when those of us inside the belly of the beast go out of our way to support the victims of the beast. As I watched people lining the streets, smiling and cheering for our arrival, tears came to my eyes. I have learned over and over never to underestimate the importance of our international solidarity work, no matter how minimal it may seem, to those whose only face of the US is often the barrel of a gun or the weight of US global corporate power.
I thought of the irony and hypocrisy of the US demanding that the Cubans must clean up their human rights record before the embargo could be lifted
We visited the city of Caimanera, the closest point in Guantanamo province to the US prison. We climbed up to a second story and looked over the bay and saw the outline of the buildings where prisoners have been held and tortured since 2001, without trial and charges. It sent chills down my spine and made me feel shame for our country. It reminded me of a time with the Venceremos Brigade in 1970 in Oriente Province in Eastern Cuba. It was announced that a boatload of Cuban “gusanos “ had landed and were seeking to blow up the sugar refineries to prevent the Year of the Ten Million Tons from succeeding. Of course the invaders from the US shores didn’t pay any attention to the fact that the goal of the unfortunately unsuccessful effort was to produce enough sugar to acquire the capital to buy cane-cutting equipment so no Cuban would ever again have to endure the backbreaking work of cutting sugar cane. Those of us on the Brigade were outraged and embarrassed that the attack has been staged from the US and some Brigade members naively offered to pick up arms and fight. The Cubans politely and wisely declined the offer.
As I reflected on the world-despised torture site I thought of the irony and hypocrisy of the US demanding that the Cubans must clean up their human rights record before the embargo could be lifted. Here was the US making this demand while occupying the Cuban territory of Guantanamo Bay for more than 100 years, and brutally imprisoning Muslims from around the world without trial on Cuban territory.
The hypocrisy is also echoed by the US demand for up to $8 billion dollars in reparations for alleged revenue lost by the Cuban government’s expropriations of US owned businesses and property in the early 60s. I remembered riding past the former US mansions in Havana in 1970 and seeing little brown faces smiling and waving from the upstairs balconies. These were the faces of poor Cuban children from the countryside brought to Havana to live and learn in the former homes of the rich. Meanwhile, the school and neighborhood I left in the South Bronx before the trip were in total neglect and disarray and also filled with the faces of Black and Brown children.
One of the most inspiring parts of the trip was the constant presence of Cuban culture-live and very lively music every night, dance performances of large contingents of Cuban youngsters, art every where. One afternoon in Santiago my wife Evie and I wandered over to the hotel pool and there were a dozen teenage Cubans practicing hard to create their water ballet for future performances.
During one performance in the city of Guantanamo for a few hundred members of the international delegations and local Cubans, about 40-50 Cuban school children put on a series of choreographed songs and dances. Cute does not begin to describe the pride and skill and self-confidence of the young people, some as young as 5 or 6. As they entered the hall from the rear, those of us on the aisles, including myself, were given hugs and kisses by each child on the way to the stage. They had the audience enthralled even before the first note was played. After a series of elaborate songs and dances, including the ever popular song Guantanamera, they sang and swayed to John Lennon’s Imagine, in English. There was not a dry eye in the room.
In the midst of the large group on the stage was a small child, who clearly had Down syndrome, totally integrated into the performance and respected and helped throughout. I thought of our struggling inner-city schools, cutting deeply on budgets for the arts and special needs services in order to allow more time to assure that No Child Goes Untested. The Cubans understand the power of culture to make people’s lives full and to build a spirit of unity among a people.
The Blockade Stranglehold
It is hard to explain the viciousness of the blockade. There is no similar practice imposed by the US in our history. Any company in the world who does business in Cuba cannot do business in the massive US marketplace without massive fines. And this imposition is rigidly enforced, even since the onset of diplomatic relations. In 2014 the French bank BNP Paribas was forced to pay a staggering $6.5 billion fine for doing banking business with Cuba in order to have continued access to the US market. Also recently the Canadian owned division of Master Card, which was popular with the more than one million Canadians a year who travel to Cuba, was recently bought by Bank of America (suspicions that it had US government support) and immediately Canadian Master Cards could not be used in Cuba.
The impact of the blockade on the Cuban economy is massive and the country is poor, even using horse and carriages as regular public transport in the rural areas. But education is free through the university level, excellent healthcare is available to all, homelessness seemed non-existent compared to the rampant epidemic in US cities, basic food stuff are supplied to all, public transportation is virtually free and jobs are available for all, albeit at low salaries.
At the same time there is little in the stores to buy beyond the basics. Cuba is expanding worker owned cooperative businesses and privatized services such as taxis in the large old US cars, small restaurants and bed and breakfast accommodations in peoples’ homes to meet the needs of the growing tourist trade. Changes are happening and the Cubans are trying to figure out how to accommodate them within a socialist framework. One good example is Major League Baseball which is drooling over the chance to legally get its hands on so much untapped talent. The Cubans are proposing that multi-million dollar contracts include clauses that allow substantial amounts of the salaries to go back into Cuba to, among other things, develop sports facilities for Cuban children.
Little about the embargo itself has changed under Obama, and there remain many steps that he can and should take without Congress that would make a huge difference to the Cuban people. Any notion that the embargo makes the US seem like a friend and might inspire uprisings against Fidel were and continue to be beyond dumb—they feed the antagonism to the US government but not at all to the US people.
One other experience is illustrative. As our bus was barreling down a country road at night, several kilometers from Guantanamo, we were suddenly stopped at a military checkpoint. It was a surprise because we had seen virtually no police or military presence during the entire trip. Naturally many of us had an instinctual reaction to a military stop. Rodrigo, our Cuban tour representative, go off the bus and returned to explain that the police were there to give us a VIP motorcycle escort into the city. The Cubans understand the value of international solidarity.
So, in conclusion, I say Go to Cuba and fight for the end of the embargo. Socialism in Cuba can and must live as an example for us and the entire world
We at the Stansbury Forum would like to thank Lincoln Cushing for allowing us to use the poster images. To see all manner of political and cultural poster Lincoln’s site Docs Populi – documents for the public is a must stop.