Cuba at the Un

by John Haylett

Morning Star

WASHINGTON has developed a habit in recent years of designating itself, its Nato allies and assorted hangers-on as “the international community.”

By that token, the international community has suffered a crushing defeat at the UN general assembly where opponents of the US blockade of Cuba scored an historic 188-3 landslide victory.

The international community has now shrunk to the US, its partner in crime and gold medallist in US aid receipts Israel and tiny Palau, the beneficiary of $250 million from Washington in 2010 as part of a “compact of free association” between the two sides to help to concentrate its mind.

The Marshall Islands, which is also bankrolled by the US under a compact of free association and hosts Washington’s Ronald Reagan ballistic missile defence test site, felt secure to abstain on the issue.

Similarly with Micronesia, another poverty-stricken beneficiary of US largess to the tune of $100m a year and free access for its citizens to work in the US in return for allowing its territory to be used for military bases.

US diplomat Ronald Godard, who drew the short straw to justify the ongoing blockade, called it “one of the tools in our overall efforts to encourage respect for the human rights and basic freedoms to which the United Nations itself is committed.”

In other words, the US considers it has a messianic role to choose how to defend UN values even when 188 of the organisation’s 193 member states say it is wrong.

It may appear to many people — or the international community, to coin a phrase — that this attitude is based on supreme imperial arrogance.

Unfortunately, it is based more on political cowardice than overconfidence.

Candidates from both major US parties still subscribe to the fairytale caricature of Cuba as an island of subversion in thrall to the Soviet Union, which hasn’t existed for over 20 years.

They buckle before the onslaught of the anti-Cuba right-wing Cuban-American lobby as they have bowed the knee to the Aipac pro-zionist machine.

And there is no longer any need to do so.

Cuban-Americans are no longer the undifferentiated reactionary mass of the 1960s and 1970s, largely composed of bitter anti-communists still mourning their wealth and power lost to the 1959 revolution.

Most recent immigrants left their homeland for economic reasons, with three-quarters of Cubans who migrated to the US from 1994 onwards backing unrestricted travel to Cuba and 70 per cent wanting diplomatic relations restored.

The recent US presidential election witnessed a sea change in Florida, where Barack Obama took the state with a big swing of Cuban Americans.

Even in Miami’s Little Havana they swung behind Democrat Joe Garcia, dumping anti-Cuba hardliner David Rivera, the sitting Republican.

There is nothing whatsoever to gain by President Obama remaining wedded to an inhuman and futile policy.

As Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez told the UN, Obama “has the constitutional powers that would enable him to listen to the public opinion and generate the necessary dynamics, by means of executive decisions, even without the approval of the Congress.”

Such a political initiative would be welcome at any time, but in the wake of hurricane Sandy, which devastated both the eastern US and eastern Cuba, it could lay the basis for a new era of US-Cuba relations.

And it would guarantee, as Rodriguez put it, Obama’s “historical legacy.”

Cuba: Lessons of Pragmatic Socialism

by Gary Fraser

The Point

Introduction

In the summer of this year I had the pleasure of visiting Cuba. It was exciting to be in Cuba at a time of great change in the island. For the first time in its history Cuba truly stands alone. In the 18th and 19th century Cuba was dominated by Spanish imperialists. Then, in the first half of the twentieth century, it was the turn of the Americans to dominate Cuba’s economy and its culture. Following the 1959 revolution, it quickly transpired that the socialist experiment in Cuba could not survive without support from the Soviet Union and consequently Cuba entered into a period of economic dependency which brought problems but also rewards. All of that changed in 1991 when Communism collapsed. Cuba nosedived into the biggest economic crisis its people have faced. Yet to the surprise of many, Cuban socialism survived the fall of Communism. In the 1990s, in the early days of what excited neo-liberals called the ‘new world order, many predicted the imminent collapse of the Cuban regime. The narrative of the period, to borrow from Fukunyama’s overused term, was ‘the end of history’. Yet the Cuban people continued to make their own history, different from the one espoused by the neo-liberals. In this essay, I want to examine that history in detail. I want to argue that socialism in Cuba survives because it is based on pragmatism first, ideology second. Furthermore, I want to discuss the current reforms taking place in Cuba and locate them within the overall discourse of socialism.

The Gains of Pragmatic Socialism

The gains of pragmatic socialism in Cuba are considerable, particularly when Cuba is contextualised as a Third World country. In 1959, around 40% of Cuban’s were illiterate, yet within two years of the revolution, Castro’s reforms had abolished illiteracy. Today, a comprehensive system of education is in place making Cubans some of the most highly educated people in the world.

In regards to health care, Cuba illustrates the curious fact that first world health standards are possible in a Third World country. Cuba has the lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America. In fact, Cuba’s levels of infant mortality are more comparable to rich Western countries like Canada. According to recent research by UNICEF, if Latin America as a whole had the level of medical and health care experienced in Cuba, then 700,000 children would be saved every year. Meanwhile, the life expectancy rate for Cubans (currently 77.5 years) is 18 years longer than it was in 1959. Cuba continues to train a surplus of doctors and other medical staff which it exports to many developing countries throughout the world.

The health specialist Aviva Chomsky notes that in Cuba a social model of health care is in place which recognises health in the widest sense of the term. Chomsky explains how community workers collaborate closely with health professionals in overseeing clinics, diagnosing health problems in the community, promoting people’s health in schools, and designing future health strategies. Moreover, health care is provided in neighbourhoods and not just in hospitals and clinics, something we witnessed firsthand when we were given a tour of a neighbourhood clinic in Mantanzas. Chomsky explains that family doctors live in the communities they serve accompanied by a small team of nurses. On average each small team cares for over 100 families and according to recent figures there is one doctor for every 200 inhabitants, which is one of the highest rates in the world.

Chomsky makes an interesting point when she notes that many global health care policy makers often omit Cuba from their analysis and data. They do this Chomsky argues because the Cuban experience contradicts thirty years of Third World countries being told that in order to improve health care they should embrace the doctrines of neo-liberalism. According to the neo-liberal discourse, the best way for a country to improve health care is to increase its share of GNP as a pre-requisite for improving overall health outcomes; wealth will then ‘trickle down’ and find its way into social welfare programmes.

Countries that sign up to such policies are forced to implement structural adjustment programmes imposed on them by the International Monetary Fund. The IMF then demands the opening up of economies to international finance capital accompanied by the privatisation of state assets. The result has been a disaster for the global poor. Instead of equitable systems of health care emerging the reality is a patchy system of health care in most ‘developing countries’. Charities and NGOs often do their best to plug the gap but at the same time health inequalities between the poor and the more affluent continue to widen.

Why then is Cuba, a Third World country, boasting first world standards of health care? The primary reason Cuba stands out is twofold. Firstly, surplus wealth in Cuba, the bulk of it anyway, is reinvested into public goods and services. Secondly, the gains in health care would not be possible without a strong and interventionist state. These two factors make the Cuban model socialist. For Chomsky, Cuba demonstrates that the distribution of resources within a country is more important than overall GNP when it comes to impacting on health outcomes.

The Special Period

That Cuba performs well in regards to health indicators is remarkable given the fact that Cuba has recently experienced what the Cuban government called ‘the special period’. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuban society and its economy went into free-fall. The sudden demise of the Soviet Bloc brutally exposed Cuba’s economic dependency on the Soviet Union. In the early 60s, whilst simultaneously advocating a strategy of promoting revolution across Latin America, argued passionately by Che Guevara, Fidel Castro recognised that if socialism in Cuba were to have any real chance of survival then his country would need the active support of the Soviet Union. Always a pragmatist Castro recognised that there could be no third way. He paid a political price for the direction he chose. In 68, Castro surprised and disappointed many when he supported the Soviets crushing of the Prague Spring. Yet given the historical and economic context Castro chose the only path available to him, the path of pragmatism and for a time he did what was best for his people in the circumstances.

Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union was problematic. There were times when the Soviet Union failed to consult Cuba on strategy, especially during the difficult days of the 1962 Missile Crisis, but on the whole the relationship was an enabling one from a Cuban perspective. Unlike American or European colonial powers the Soviet Union did not seek a profit from Cuba, instead it subsidised the Cuban economy for the best part of thirty years. The main Cuban export was sugar which the Soviets paid for at higher than average world market prices. By the 1970s and 80s, 70% of Cuba’s trade was with the Soviet Union. The consequence was that the Cuban economy became highly dependent on sugar. The historian Richard Gott, in his excellent study of Cuba notes that in addition to paying over the rate prices for sugar, the Soviet Union wrote off Cuban debts, or delayed them well into the future, and provided Cuba with fresh credit for capital investment programmes at low interest rates. The result was a period of economic growth in the 1970s and 80s and an overall increase in living standards for the Cuban people. The collapse of the Soviet Union was devastating for Cuba. Cuba realised the hard way that dependency on a single export had made it incredibly vulnerable to external factors.

The scale of the problems Cuba experienced in the 1990s cannot be overestimated. In one single blow the country lost 85% of its foreign trade as sugar production collapsed. Factories closed and workers roamed the streets desperate for work and hungry for food. There was electricity and fuel shortages and for a time cars and buses disappeared from Cuba’s streets. Malnutrition, once a problem of the past returned in some areas. In addition to this, Cuba has had to address the injustice of being subjected to an economic blockade by the world’s only remaining superpower.

The US and Cuba

Since the early 1960s, the US declared war on a small Caribbean country simply because it dared to put its own people before the interest of American capital. The many attempts made on Castro’s life are well known. As early as 1960, the Kennedy administration wanted Castro removed. ‘Operation Mongoose’ was the codename for the American invasion of Cuba which was personally overseen by Robert Kennedy. The plan was to train a group of Cuban émigrés and mercenaries to invade Cuba who would then topple Castro. The invaders were the sons of rich landowners and wealthy families who wanted to return Cuba back to the status of a US colony.

Fortunately they were defeated at the Bay of Pigs, which helped to consolidate support for Castro. There is not the space to go into detail here but it often claimed that the Bay of Pigs invasion failed because JFK refused to provide the invaders with air cover (a point made by Oliver Stone in his absurd movie JFK, a film which ludicrously suggests that Kennedy had a soft spot for communism). Whilst it is true that Kennedy did not provide air cover his primary reason was that US intelligence had briefed him beforehand that the invaders had no real support base in Cuba. Most Cubans instinctively knew that the invaders were paid mercenaries acting at the behest of a foreign power. Led by Castro, fiercely patriotic Cuban men and women defeated the agents of US imperialism in what was one of Cuba’s finest hours.

The failure of the invasion did not end the US’s war on Cuba. A terror campaign was waged against the Cuban economy which included many attempts to sabotage the sugar harvest. American aggression against Cuba was the primary cause of the 1962 Missile Crisis. The cruellest of all the American actions is the economic blockade, whose impact was felt in full force during the special period. When I walked the streets of Havana, and other areas, the most common form of political graffiti I saw were slogans calling for the blockade to end. The blockade is responsible for robbing Cuba of billions of dollars. In addition to this, it denies Cuba access to specialist medicines, particularly specialist drugs manufactured in the US for treating cancer and leukaemia patients. Even though the blockade has been condemned by the world community it continues to be enforced by the US. There are only three countries which support the blockade at the UN: Israel, which comes as no surprise, and two tiny Pacific Islands, the Marshall Islands and Palau, two islands whose economic livelihood depends entirely on the US.

Reform in Cuba

Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and the war against its people by the US, Cuban socialism survives, albeit with imperfections. During the special period not one school or hospital closed on the island. Instead the entire state was mobilised to defend the gains of the revolution. In addition to this, the Cuban government demonstrated their commitment to pragmatic socialism by initiating a series of reforms. Gott argues that the reforms may have saved Cuba from the worst excesses of post communism seen in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

The reforms are varied and driven primarily out of necessity. In 1992, the state’s monopoly over foreign trade was abolished because Cuba desperately needed inward investment. The dollar was legalised and two currencies now operate in Cuba, the dollar, which is used by tourists and some Cubans, and the traditional Peso which the vast majority of Cubans use. Meanwhile, tourism has replaced sugar as the biggest industry in Cuba. The tourism sector grows every year with more and more hotels springing up across the island. The bulk of tourists come from Canada and the EU, most in search of a relaxing beach holiday in the Caribbean. Other reforms included the relaxation of laws in relation to self-employment. Many trades that once formed a ‘black market’ were legalised in the late 1990s. In total, 125 occupations and trades have now been legalised with the self-employed now having state permission to employ others. The Cuban constitution was amended and Cuba is now officially a ‘secular state’ not an ‘atheist’ one.

Last year, the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), now under the leadership of Raul Castro, initiated further reforms which will qualitatively change the economic landscape in Cuba. These reforms have been subject to intense debate, not only inside Cuba but across the international left. Dr Stephen Wilkinson, (Director of the Centre for Caribbean and Latin American Research and Consultancy at London Metropolitan University) detailed the nature of the reforms in a recent article for Red Pepper magazine. The economic background to the reforms lies in the fact that the recent global financial crisis, coupled with the effects of the blockade, has reduced Cuba’s exports by 15%. Moreover, world food prices are going up and according to Wilkinson the Cuban government can no longer afford to subsidise food alone for 11 million people. The economic reality is that the Cuban state is close to bankruptcy. This is evident just by taking a brief walk around the centre of Havana. Empty spaces and gaps in between buildings are everywhere with crumbling architecture commonplace.

Wilkinson argues that there is simply no other option available except what he calls a ‘fundamental re-direction of the economy’. If successful, re-structuring will mark the end of central planning and the beginning of a greater role for co-operatives, the self-employed and privately owned businesses. The state will become a regulator not an administrator of the economy (my italics). Approximately, 500,000 state workers could be re-deployed into workers co-operatives or social enterprises as they are sometimes called. According to Wilkinson these new enterprises can then sell their services back to the state, services which could include refuse collection, catering and office cleaning. State land is also being distributed to Cuban citizens who are being encouraged to become small farmers.

The PCC has consulted extensively with the Cuban people on these issues. Cuba is often criticised by the right and the liberal left for not being democratic, yet the term ‘democratic’ is usually constructed in a very narrow sense. The consultations in Cuba constitute a form of participatory democracy. As of last year, 7 million people had attended more than 160,000 meetings to discuss the reforms. Meanwhile, 3 million members of the Cuban Workers Confederation have been involved in the consultation process and over 80,000 workplace meetings having taken place. Wilkinson refers to this process as, ‘re-structuring through consensus’.

The Politics of Reform

How Cuba adapts to the reforms in the next ten or fifteen years is going to be interesting. Will the reforms aid economic recovery and consolidate support for the PCC or could we see the advent of a new middle class demanding Western style democracy and for their class interests to be represented? Some observers are curious to see if Cuba might follow the Chinese model. Both Fidel and Raul Castro have been complimentary towards China in recent years, certainly more complimentary since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In an article in Granma, Fidel wrote that ‘China has become objectively the most promising hope and the best example for all the countries of the Third World’. Yet we should note that that every country is different. In Cuba, there is not a surplus of rural peasantry ready to work in factories for poverty wages as is the case with China.

The reforms also present challenging questions for the left. There is nothing new about left debate on the question of Cuba, and the question, ‘is Cuba socialist’ has been discussed at length since Castro first came to power. Those with a history of criticism towards Cuba are unsurprisingly highly critical of the reforms, which they see as constituting a return to classic capitalist restoration.

Sandra Lewis, writing in Red Pepper, typifies this position. She argues that the Cuban reforms must be seen within the context of the neo-liberal financial crisis. According to Lewis, the Cuban government is making ordinary Cubans pay for the crisis. From this perspective, Cuba is no different from any other capitalistic state. Lewis argues that the industries which generate the most income for Cuba, namely agriculture, pharmaceuticals and tourism, remain highly centralised and controlled in a top down manner. For Lewis, the best solution would be to return the resources and institutions into the hands of the Cuban people and to advance the revolution towards what she calls a ‘truly liberatory socialism’. Yet quite what this means in practice is not clear. Neither is it clear why ‘people power’ to put it crudely would solve Cuba’s current economic crisis.

Lewis’s argument is based on the purist assumption that socialism is only socialism if it is ‘self-emancipatory’ and comes from below. For me, this is a narrow and ultimately idealist (or unrealistic) vision of socialism, and an easy assessment to make when not confronted with the realities of being in power. Moreover, it is based on a failure to understand two things. Firstly, there is not one variant of socialism just as there is not one variant of capitalism. From this perspective, Cuba is not abandoning socialism but initiating an experiment with a new variant of socialism, namely market socialism. I would argue that Cuba is socialist because market mechanisms are being adopted under firm state control. The state has a 51% stake in ‘joint enterprises’ and its uses it’s economic leverage to reinvest surplus wealth back into Cuban welfare. My second criticism of Lewis’s arguments, espoused by others on the left concerns the nature of the state itself. The Cuban state is socialistic in nature and the working class in Cuba exercise political power through the state. From this perspective, it is perfectly possible for a socialist state to be top-down and participatory at the same time.

From a more theoretical perspective the recently deceased Eric Hobsbawm noted that socialist governments arise not out of class, but out of the characteristic combination of class and organisation. According to Hobsbawm it is not the working class itself which takes power and exercises hegemony but the working class movement or party. Hobsbawm concluded that unless one is an anarchist, it is difficult to see how it could be otherwise. This analysis enables an understanding of how the working class, through PCC and the National Assembly, exercise power in Cuba.

Conclusion

Cuba demonstrates that there is no blueprint on how best to construct, or in Cuba’s case, defend and manage socialism and every country is different in terms of social and historical contexts. The creation of social enterprises and self employment has not created a capitalist class as some have argued. Based on my own experience the self employed people I met in Cuba live modestly, and like self employed people in the UK they come across as genuine hard working folk trying to do the best for their families.

Of course the reforms are not without problems. Inequality is rising in Cuba. This is compounded by the mixed currency and the creation of a two tier economy. Some Cubans, particularly those that work in the tourism sector have access to goods that can only be bought with the dollar. The same is also true for Cuban families who get access to the dollar via their families living in America, mainly Miami. Yet such inequalities are miniscule compared to the grotesque inequality we see in capitalist societies and they may be a price worth paying if the Cuban state is able generate income. It is also true that the arrival of tourism can create its own problems, particularly the creation of a mono-culture. The main tourist resort can be found on the Varadero peninsula and the peninsula is one long line of hotels catering for Western tourists. When we travelled though Varadero both my wife and I felt that it was cut off from the rest of Cuba, both geographically and culturally.

However, the bigger picture in all of this is that the tourism industry is creating jobs and income for the economy. Moreover, the Cuban government has a 50% stake in the hotels, something that would be unheard of in the West.

For me, Cuba can best be described as socialism but with compromises. This is the socialism of pragmatism first and ideology second. It is a socialism which is part of Cuba’s history. From 1959 onwards Cuba has been a laboratory of socialism where the realities and constraints but also the possibilities of being in power are realised every day. Under Castro’s guidance the Cuban people and the Cuban nation have made their own history. Although no longer at the helm he was the driving force that got Cuba through the special period and he was the instigator of many of the reforms being carried through today. For Gott, in initiating reform Castro may have performed his last great revolutionary service to his country. Fidel Castro put Cuba on the map. Yet I was encouraged to find that there is no cult of personality associated with Fidel. There is not a single school, hospital or factory named after Fidel. Whilst Westerners and Americans in particular see Cuba as being about one man the reality is somewhat different. Today, the bulk of the Cuban government and ministries are run by young graduates from universities and technical schools and according to Gott, 75% of them were born after the revolution. Castro said long ago that if the young are not in charge they might stand against it. By putting them in charge Castro has ensured the longevity of his revolution. Hopefully the reforms will ensure that the gains of the revolution, particularly in health care, will continue to live on long after their leaders’ passing.

There is an old saying, I think it derives from the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping but I have heard it from others, which sums up the Cuban experience of socialism well. I thought of it as I stood in Revolutionary Square in Havana and considered the nature of Cuban socialism in 2012; the saying goes

‘it does not matter whether the cat is black or white, what’s important is that it catches the rats’.

References

Chomsky, Aviva, The Threat of a Good Example, 2000, article published in the book Dying for Growth: Global Inequality and the Health of the Poor

Gott, Richard, Cuba: A New History, 2005

Lewis, Sandra, Cuba in Context, Published in Red Pepper, Oct/Nov Issue 2011

Wilkinson, Stephen, Cuba and the Updating of Socialism, Published in Red Pepper, Oct/Nov Issue 2011

Cuban Olympic Legend Alberto Juantorena Speaks to the Morning Star

6677734-l.jpgby Greg Leedham

Sports Editor, Morning Star

Alberto Juantorena, the Cuban runner who stunned the world by winning gold in the 400m and 800m at the 1976 Olympics, talks about politics with the same bullishness with which he used to gallop around the track in his heyday. “We cannot buy anything from the United States,” he tells me, thumping his hand down on the table next to us as we chat in a dimly lit room at the HQ of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign in London.

The man known as El Caballo (The Horse) is referring to the 50-year-old US blockade of his homeland – a policy which permeates all activity on the island, including his day job as a parliamentarian and vice-president of the Cuban Sport Institute. “For example,” he continues, “our pole-vaulters need poles, but the pole they use is produced in the United States. UCS Enterprise (who produce the poles) – we cannot buy from them.”

Juantorena, now 61, proceeds to offer a detailed description of wheeling and dealing of which Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp would be proud. “I call a friend of mine in Mexico, who was a former president of their federation. I say: ‘Listen, Pedro, go to UCS, talk to them’ – they are also friends of mine but I cannot trade with them directly. Pedro calls Jack (of UCS) and Jack sends the pole to Mexico. Pedro then takes the pole and brings it back to Guadalajara” for the 2011 Pan-American Games.”

At this point, Juantorena exclaims at the ludicrousness of the situation he finds himself in on a daily basis. “My friend! What is this, my friend?” His struggle to provide basic equipment for his country’s athletes stands in stark contrast with the money Britain is able to throw at its own – £264 million worth of funding between 2009 and 2013. Yet while time has eroded Juantorena’s famous afro, his enthusiasm for the Cuban system remains, as does his belief that money is not the crucial factor in producing world-class sportsmen and women.

“Let me tell you something,” Juantorena says, leaning towards me as if he is about to reveal a big secret. “We practise sport in my country with a real lack of everything. Almost from nothing. Our infrastructure is not sophisticated. Our track and field stadium, our baseball stadium – they are not sophisticated.

“But we pay a lot of attention to physical education. It is compulsory in the schools – from primary schools through to university, and it produces
athletes like a windmill.” Juantorena makes a spiralling motion with his hands. “And it never stops. Never stops, never stops. You know why? Because if you have mass participation, you have 2.5m students from primary school to university practising sport at least three times a week, and then you can
sit down and qualify and see the talent, select the talent – it’s easy!

“That’s the secret of Cuban sport.”

Critics argue that that windmill has been malfunctioning a little of late. By their high standards, Cuba had a poor Olympics in Beijing in 2008, winning
just two golds from 24 medals overall and finishing 28th in the final table. Compare that with Athens in 2004 when Cuba won nine golds – the same number as Britain – and finished 11th overall.

Juantorena believes Beijing was merely a blip and, regardless, he says the point of Cuban sport is not medals but the overall well-being of the Cuban people. “That’s why we promote sport,” he says. “Not to compete but to increase the life expectancy of people, to increase the health of the people first and as a consequence you can find the talent and you can find the medals. It is a model driven by 78,000 physical education teachers, compared with,” he says, “800 before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.”

Such is the human investment in sport – thousands of staff working on low wages across the island – that Juantorena seems personally betrayed by those who reap the benefits of the Cuban system only to defect. How does he feel about a compatriot who is seduced by riches in the US or Europe?

“Stupid guy,” he shrugs. “For me as an individual to become Olympic champion is impossible. I was born in Santiago de Cuba in very humble family in a very humble home, you know, and I feel sorry for them (defectors). Who made those athletes great stars? By themselves? From childhood they have schools, they have been supported by the municipal, by the state. The state pays everything to them. They think more with the pocket than with the heart – that is a fact. But let me tell you something – they are not many. The majority are in Cuba, fighting and leading.”

One of those who had riches dangled in front of him but chose to stay in Cuba was boxer Teofilo Stevenson, who was reportedly offered as much as $5m to turn professional and fight Muhammad Ali but famously declined, saying the love of the Cuban people was more important to him. “An example that real people don’t sell their soul,” Juantorena beams. “That was the guy to be.”

Juantorena is as talkative an interviewee as you could ever meet, but my next question has him momentarily tongue-tied. Would he ever accept a defector back into the Cuban team?

He begins his response twice, breaking off mid-sentence on each occasion. Silence briefly fills the room. After a few more seconds of reflection, he
says: “In my personal opinion, I say no.”

The lull provides an opportune moment to turn the conversation to his staggering feat of winning gold in the 400m and 800m gold in Montreal. With athletes today tending to specialise in one event, his unique achievement of winning at sprint and middle distance is unlikely to be
repeated.

Juantorena springs back to life at the mention of his career-defining moment. “Nobody took into consideration the tall guy with the basketball socks,” he grins. “Nobody cared about me and suddenly, boom, I kill everyone. That’s a fact, that’s a fact!”

Before Montreal, Juantorena specialised in the 400m until his Polish trainer Zygmunt Zabierzowski tricked him into running the 800m. He began training
for the event – to help his endurance, he was told – and it was only two months before the Games that he realised Zabierzowski’s plan.

“I say: ‘No way, man, you crazy’,” he recalls. “You know why? Because I was afraid. Because I know that the 800m was the first race. What happens if I get tired and nothing happen in 800 and nothing happen in 400?

“But he gave me the confidence, he proved to me that I can do it. And suddenly one time I was running for the first time in my life in May 1976.
“I ran 1’45.3″. I say: “Caramba! I can do it!” And then psychologically I start to believe that really I can do it.”

He blew away the field in the 800m final, breaking the world record in the process. Three days later, he added the 400m title. A legend was born then
and it has continued to grow given that no-one has replicated his feat in the 35 years since.

Juantorena believes it is lack of ambition that could prevent someone today trumping him.

“Human beings have been proved in world history to do unbelievable things. You never know with a human being! Maybe they run 800m, 1,500m and 100m – you never know. It is difficult, but it is not impossible.”

Injuries dogged Juantorena for the rest of his career, preventing him from adding to his Olympic tally, though he says his biggest regret is never
winning a gold at the Pan-American Games. His greatest challenge today is continuing to convince Cubans of the importance of sport. He looks utterly bemused when I tell him of those on the British left who believe that sport is a distraction from more important struggles.

“Firstly, they are wrong,” he says, chuckling. “The sport is a benefit for health. First to be a better citizen, to have better health. Second, sport
is a good moment to socialise, to be together, to share things and to teach you to think collectively.”

The Cuban programme for sport is certainly ambitious. Juantorena tells me of his country’s efforts to develop cricket on the island, as well as football
with the help of Fifa. Yet his and Cuba’s biggest battle remains with their superpower neighbour – a nation which, he tells me, has denied him a visa four times. One day things will change, he believes, but only if the US approaches Cuba as equals.

“We don’t need to make any move to them,” Juantorena says, leaning forward in his chair and fixing me with a stern stare to emphasise his point. “We don’t need to ask them: ‘Please change.’ No, on the contrary they must approach us and sit down at the table, without any previous condition and we
can talk about everything in life.

“Our president Raul (Castro) said to Barack Obama many times a message – let’s sit down together at the table without any previous conditions. He
never answered.”

You sense that deep down Juantorena knows that change is unlikely to come soon. He says Cuba will do better at London 2012 – just don’t ask him to predict the number of medals they will win. His patriotism is clear and he leaves me with a glowing endorsement of the Cuban system.

“You have many in Cuba fighting and working to improve the whole condition in every aspect in my country. I am one of them and I will die in Cuba. I
will die there.”

Tuc Delegates Show Support for Miami Five

Nearly 200 TUC delegates attended a lively Latin America solidarity meeting on Monday to hear from speakers on Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia and Nicaragua and mark the 13th anniversary of the arrest of the Miami Five. Chairing the meeting, NUT General Secretary Christine Blower declared it was “probably the best supported fringe at conference”.

Len McCluskey, Unite General Secretary, started by paying tribute to the Cuban Che Guevara medical brigade in Nicaragua which – organised as a result of the ALBA agreement – has performed more than four million consultations since 2007. Len noted that “whilst the prospect for trade unionists in non-ALBA countries is bleak” Cuba is leading the way in providing “real and material benefits” to the dispossessed of Latin America.

Len told delegates about a “remarkable trade union rally” in defence of the Miami Five in Los Angeles recently which was addressed by Tony Woodley. British trade unions continue to raise the issue of the Five with American unions and, with legal avenues exhausted, only this “spirit of internationalism will break through the wall of silence”.

Cuban Ambassador, Esther Armenteros, lamented the lack of coverage in the mainstream media of the 13th anniversary of the Miami Five’s arrest. Esther told attendees that the Miami Five “remain unjustly imprisoned for combating terrorism against our country and have been subjected to all sorts of humiliations”.

Esther reflected on a telephone conversation she had with Fernando González when she was working as a diplomat in South Africa. “After ten year in prison, Fernando’s voice was of such strength and conviction that, if I ever feel weak, I think of him”. The British trade union movement knows that it will take the same strength and conviction to bring justice to the Five. This, as Esther observed, will only be achieved by building international solidarity and taking the fight to the US.

Esther also drew attention to a recent Save the Children report which placed Cuba top in Latin America and 8th in the world for paediatrics and children’s medical care. The study was based on three fundamental variables: the number of doctors and nurses per thousand inhabitants, the coverage of the vaccination system and the proportion of women who gave birth with an obstetrician present. Cuba finished ahead of Germany, Russia, France, the UK and America. “How is this possible when we have been subjected to 50 years of economic blockade?” asked Esther. “The US has been stopping Cuba from buying drugs to help sick children – despite this, Cuba has come way ahead of the US”.

Venezuelan Ambassador, Samuel Moncada, hailed the trade union movement as the “most progressive section of British society”. Samuel reflected on the huge social strides made in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez declaring “excluding Cuba, we have the least unequal society in Latin America… and we are striving for the best public services after Cuba too”.

Before delegates mingled over Havana Club cocktails, Christine Blower thanked everyone for attending and Thompsons Solicitors for sponsoring the meeting. “Hope and change clearly is possible,” affirmed Christine as she urged everyone to get involved with CSC’s campaign to mark the 50th anniversary of the blockade which will be launched next month.

The mothers of the Five will be speaking at Unite sectoral conferences in November and will join the annual Cuba Solidarity Campaign vigil for the Miami Five outside the US Embassy on 1st December and the Latin America 2011 Conference on 3rd December. In Spring 2012, a prestigious exhibition featuring Cuban and British artists will include work by Gerardo and Antonio.

CUBA CELEBRATES 50th ANNIVERSARY OF BAY OF PIGS VICTORY

Cuba staged a massive military parade on Saturday to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1961 defeat of CIA-backed exiles at the Bay of Pigs.

President Raul Castro hosted the parade, which also marked 50 years since his brother Fidel proclaimed the socialist character of the Cuban revolution.

Raul Castro, the former head of Cuba’s armed forces before taking over the presidency from his brother Fidel, donned military fatigues for the occasion. He looked on with other dignitaries from a dais, waving and saluting the troops. There was no sign of Fidel Castro.

The parade opened with a brief speech by Maydel Gomez, president of the Federation of University Students, who said “young people will not fail to continue to support the socialist revolution.”

The first part of the parade was a “symbolic journey” throughout the Cuban military history, including a “Mambi” cavalry with 128 riders and a replica of the Granma yacht in which Fidel Castro and his followers arrived in Cuba in 1956.

That was followed by a review of 6,000 soldiers and a display of military vehicles, including armored vehicles, tanks, ground artillery, fighter jets, helicopters and air defense equipment.

“Long live Fidel! Long live Raul! Long live the Communist Party of Cuba!” a female announcer shouted, and particpants responded with shouts of approval.

The parade concluded with tens of thousands of young people “representing the new generations of Cubans and their commitment to the revolution led by Fidel Castro.”

The parade was held before the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba started Saturday afternoon. The congress was expected to set new political and economic goals for the island country.

In 1961 a CIA-backed force of Cuban exiles landed at the beaches bordering the Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) in Las Villas Province, 150 km south-east of Havana, in an invasion to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro, but was defeated by the Cuban armed forces within three days.

from Xinhua

How to Visit a Socialist Country

By Richard Levins, from Monthly Review, recommended by Dave Riley via Facebook

Travelers from the United States to Cuba cross more than ninety miles of sea: they cross decades of history. They may be limited to one suitcase, but they carry trunks full of ideological baggage, including biases about Cuba, beliefs about communists, commitments as to what a good society should be like, and a collection of conventional poli-sci formulas about power, government, and human behavior.

One Cuban commentator notes:

Coming from North America or Europe to a typical Cuban urban neighborhood, the visitor’s first impression might be one of poverty: crumbling or poorly maintained buildings, pot-holed streets, ancient cars, homes where there are few “extras” etc. On the other hand, if you arrive from Latin America or another developing country, other aspects of Cuban life might get your attention: no street kids, no malnourished faces, no beggars, and people walking the streets at night with almost no fear.1

Or easily identified as foreign, visitors may be beset by scouts for private, tiny restaurants, offers of guides, ginateras (a Cuban euphemism for prostitutes, usually amateur).

Members of delegations usually have planned itineraries, visiting various institutions and cultural events. They will learn about health care, education, cultural and sport resources, commitment to an ecological pathway of development, urban agriculture, equitable distribution through the rationing system, full employment, formal aspects of the political and judicial systems, achievements in gender and racial equality. These are all real, and demonstrate how far a poor country can go with so little. But it is obviously not the full story. There is nothing sinister in this. These are the things in which Cuba has pioneered, and of which Cuba is most proud and eager to show the world

When you get to know people better, the descriptions become more nuanced. Given the platform of achievement, difficulties and dissatisfactions command people’s day-to-day attention. Basic equality has been undermined, not by socialism but by concessions to capitalism. There is no homelessness, but some 16 percent of the housing is classified as substandard. There is no unemployment, but there are wasteful jobs, such as parking lot attendants, that have become necessary only because of the inequality. There has been a massive recruitment of teachers in order to reduce class size, but teaching is not just a job, it is a calling. People enter on a wave of enthusiasm and some learn it isn’t their thing, leading to a great turnover in the teaching profession. And there are people who manage to live without working. There is little crime by U.S. standards, but you still have to lock your car.

My own experience has been that the more committed revolutionaries have the most serious, complex, and thoughtful criticisms, while counterrevolutionaries mostly complain about particular hardships or unpleasant incidents.

Tourists who are on their own are exposed to less of the proud achievements and more of the dissatisfactions. Cubans are a complaining people. An old joke in Havana stated that, in Cuba, all economic plans are over-fulfilled. All plans are fulfilled, but the stores are empty. The stores are empty, but people have what they need. People have what they need, but they all complain. They all complain, but are all Fidelistas.

Sympathizers with the Cuban process, as well as anticommunist leftists, sometimes carry a clipboard and grade sheet so that they can grade Cuba for health care, sexism, racism, pollution, homophobia, elections, number of political parties, a free press, strikes, or whatever else is on their minds. In the end, depending on the grade point average Cuba accumulates, they can decide if Cuba “is”or “is not” socialist (or whether socialism is or is not a good thing). Then they write praise or denunciations when they get home. The items on the grade sheet may be liberal, a list of rights we fight for under capitalism and then turn into universal principles. Or they may come from a priori schemes for socialism, principles such as “bottom up, not top down,” or “workers’ councils running the factories.” Click to continue reading

Cuban Medics in Haiti Put the World to Shame

 By Nina Lakhani

The Indpendent

They are the real heroes of the Haitian earthquake disaster, the human catastrophe on America’s doorstep which Barack Obama pledged a monumental US humanitarian mission to alleviate. Except these heroes are from America’s arch-enemy Cuba, whose doctors and nurses have put US efforts to shame.

A medical brigade of 1,200 Cubans is operating all over earthquake-torn and cholera-infected Haiti, as part of Fidel Castro’s international medical mission which has won the socialist state many friends, but little international recognition.

Observers of the Haiti earthquake could be forgiven for thinking international aid agencies were alone in tackling the devastation that killed 250,000 people and left nearly 1.5 million homeless. In fact, Cuban healthcare workers have been in Haiti since 1998, so when the earthquake struck the 350-strong team jumped into action. And amid the fanfare and publicity surrounding the arrival of help from the US and the UK, hundreds more Cuban doctors, nurses and therapists arrived with barely a mention. Most countries were gone within two months, again leaving the Cubans and Médecins Sans Frontières as the principal healthcare providers for the impoverished Caribbean island.

Since 1998, Cuba has trained 550 Haitian doctors for free at the Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina en Cuba (Elam), one of the country’s most radical medical ventures. Another 400 are currently being trained at the school, which offers free education – including free books and a little spending money – to anyone sufficiently qualified who cannot afford to study medicine in their own country.

John Kirk is a professor of Latin American studies at Dalhousie University in Canada who researches Cuba’s international medical teams. He said: “Cuba’s contribution in Haiti is like the world’s greatest secret. They are barely mentioned, even though they are doing much of the heavy lifting.”

This tradition can be traced back to 1960, when Cuba sent a handful of doctors to Chile, hit by a powerful earthquake, followed by a team of 50 to Algeria in 1963. This was four years after the revolution, which saw nearly half the country’s 7,000 doctors voting with their feet and leaving for the US.

The travelling doctors have served as an extremely useful arm of the government’s foreign and economic policy, winning them friends and favours across the globe. The best-known programme is Operation Miracle, which began with ophthalmologists treating cataract sufferers in impoverished Venezuelan villages in exchange for oil. This initiative has restored the eyesight of 1.8 million people in 35 countries, including that of Mario Teran, the Bolivian sergeant who killed Che Guevara in 1967.

The Henry Reeve Brigade, rebuffed by the Americans after Hurricane Katrina, was the first team to arrive in Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake, and the last to leave six months later.

Cuba’s constitution lays out an obligation to help the worst-off countries when possible, but international solidarity isn’t the only reason, according to Professor Kirk. “It allows Cuban doctors, who are frightfully underpaid, to earn extra money abroad and learn about diseases and conditions they have only read about. It is also an obsession of Fidel’s and it wins him votes in the UN.”

A third of Cuba’s 75,000 doctors, along with 10,000 other health workers, are currently working in 77 poor countries, including El Salvador, Mali and East Timor. This still leaves one doctor for every 220 people at home, one of the highest ratios in the world, compared with one for every 370 in England.

Wherever they are invited, Cubans implement their prevention-focused holistic model, visiting families at home, proactively monitoring maternal and child health. This has produced “stunning results” in parts of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, lowering infant and maternal mortality rates, reducing infectious diseases and leaving behind better trained local health workers, according to Professor Kirk’s research.

Medical training in Cuba lasts six years – a year longer than in the UK – after which every graduate works as a family doctor for three years minimum. Working alongside a nurse, the family doctor looks after 150 to 200 families in the community in which they live.

This model has helped Cuba to achieve some of the world’s most enviable health improvements, despite spending only $400 (£260) per person last year compared with $3,000 (£1,950) in the UK and $7,500 (£4,900) in the US, according to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development figures.

Infant mortality rates, one of the most reliable measures of a nation’s healthcare, are 4.8 per 1,000 live births – comparable with Britain and lower than the US. Only 5 per cent of babies are born with a low birth weight, a crucial factor in long-term health, and maternal mortality is the lowest in Latin America, World Health Organisation figures show. Cuba’s polyclinics, open 24 hours a day for emergencies and specialist care, are a step up from the family doctors. Each provides for 15,000 to 35,000 patients via a group of full-time consultants as well as visiting doctors, ensuring that most medical care is provided in the community.

Imti Choonara, a paediatrician from Derby, leads a delegation of international health professionals at annual workshops in Cuba’s third city, Camaguey. “Healthcare in Cuba is phenomenal, and the key is the family doctor, who is much more proactive, and whose focus is on prevention … The irony is that Cubans came to the UK after the revolution to see how the NHS worked. They took back what they saw, refined it and developed it further; meanwhile we are moving towards the US model,” Professor Choonara said.

Politics, inevitably, penetrates many aspects of Cuban healthcare. Every year hospitals produce a list of drugs and equipment they have been unable to access because of the American embargo which prevents many US companies from trading with Cuba, and persuades other countries to follow suit. The 2009/10 report includes drugs for childhood cancers, HIV and arthritis, some anaesthetics, as well as chemicals needed to diagnose infections and store organs. Pharmacies in Cuba are characterised by long queues and sparsely stacked shelves, though in part this is because they stock only generic brands.

Antonio Fernandez, from the Ministry of Public Health, said: “We make 80 per cent of the drugs we use. The rest we import from China, former Soviet countries, Europe – anyone who will sell to us – but this makes it very expensive because of the distances.”

On the whole, Cubans are immensely proud and supportive of their contribution in Haiti and other poor countries, delighted to be punching above their weight on the international scene. However, some people complain of longer waits to see their doctor because so many are working abroad. And, like all commodities in Cuba, medicines are available on the black market for those willing to risk large fines if caught buying or selling.

International travel is beyond the reach of most Cubans, but qualified nurses and doctors are among those forbidden from leaving the country for five years after graduation, unless as part of an official medical team.

Like everyone else, health professionals earn paltry salaries of around $20 (£13) a month. So, contrary to official accounts, bribery exists in the hospital system, which means some doctors, and even hospitals, are off-limits unless patients can offer a little something, maybe lunch or a few pesos, for preferential treatment.

Cuba’s international ventures in healthcare are becoming increasingly strategic. Last month, officials held talks with Brazil about developing Haiti’s public health system, which Brazil and Venezuela have both agreed to help finance.

Medical training is another example. There are currently 8,281 students from more than 30 countries enrolled at Elam, which last month celebrated its 11th anniversary. The government hopes to inculcate a sense of social responsibly into the students in the hope that they will work within their own poor communities for at least five years.

Damien Joel Suarez, 27, a second year from New Jersey, is one of 171 American students; 47 have already graduated. He dismisses allegations that Elam is part of the Cuban propaganda machine. “Of course, Che is a hero here but he isn’t forced down your neck.”

Another 49,000 students are enrolled in the El Nuevo Programa de Formacion de Medicos Latinoamericanos, the brainchild of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, who pledged in 2005 to train 100,000 doctors for the continent. The course is much more hands-on, and critics question the quality of the training.

Professor Kirk disagrees: “The hi-tech approach to health needed in London and Toronto is irrelevant for millions of people in the Third World who are living in poverty. It is easy to stand on the sidelines and criticise the quality, but if you were living somewhere with no doctors, then you’d be happy to get anyone.”

There are nine million Haitians who would probably agree.