Cuba survives and inspires

Forty-five years ago, Bob Dylan described revolutionary Cuba as “a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it.” Some things don’t change.

As recently as July 2006, the United States announced it would not “allow” a transition from Fidel to Raul Castro. Fidel Castro’s illness and the orderly, peaceful and constitutional transfer to the new transitional, collective leadership in Cuba have proved almost every prediction of the Washington wolves wrong.

They certainly thought they could move in for the kill in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Cuba’s economy with it. But Cuba has survived.

Cuba’s ‘special period’

Cuba survived its “special period” after the fall of the USSR by making some compromises. European multinationals were invited to build and manage (but only partially own) new hotels throughout the island. Tourism replaced sugar as the main income producer. The U.S. dollar was legalized.

Farmers markets dramatically increased the availability of food. Organic farming emerged everywhere, including every open space in the cities. Cooperatives replaced state farms.

Entrepreneurs were allowed to open private restaurants and rent out extra rooms in their homes to tourists. Some services were privatized. The highly educated Cuban workforce began to develop and produce low-cost pharmaceuticals for the world market.

Cuba was forced to choose which elements of its revolution were essential and would not be sacrificed. No schools or clinics or hospitals were ever closed. Free health care and education for every Cuban remained the bottom line of the revolution.

Washington ratchets up the pressure

During this period, the CIA-trained terrorist Luis Posada, funded by a secret wing of the Cuban American National Foundation, coordinated a series of bombing attacks on Cuban hotels, killing an Italian tourist. The goal was to curtail the booming tourist industry.

The “Cuban Five” were trying to foil such terrorist crimes when they were nabbed in Florida by U.S. agents and subsequently sentenced, unjustly, to long prison terms. The terrorists themselves remain free in Miami.

The Helms-Burton Act became law in 1996, further intensifying the U.S. economic blockade, and tightening and codifying the travel restrictions.

But again, Cuba survived.

Recent gains

Last year, Cuba had one of Latin America’s highest growth rates, 12.5 percent (by Cuba’s measure) or 9.5 percent (using traditional measurements). Either way, it’s a remarkable achievement.

Through cooperative arrangements with Venezuela, Cuba receives oil in exchange for the services of 20,000 doctors and teachers providing health care and literacy programs to the Venezuelan people.

The export of professional services — in health care, education and sports — has surpassed tourism as the most important source of hard currency.

Cuba just reached a 50 percent self-sufficiency level in oil and gas production. Substantial oil reserves have been discovered off the coast of northern Cuba.

Increased nickel prices and pharmaceutical exports now account for 25 percent of Cuba’s exports. China, among others, is expanding its trade with Cuba.

Cuba is continuing to develop a sustainable agricultural system through both private and cooperative farms. Despite the smallest crop in its history, sugar income is booming.

By investing $1 billion on its energy grid, Cuba has finally ended most of the blackouts that plagued its people during the “special period.” About 110,000 new homes were built last year. Another 70,000 new homes and the repair of 150,000 others are projected for 2007.

Cuba continues to have the second lowest infant mortality rate in this hemisphere (after Canada): 5.3 percent per 1,000 live births in 2006. Cubans have a life expectancy of 76.5, nearly identical with the U.S. Everyone in Cuba is covered by its highly regarded health care system, spotlighted recently in Michael Moore’s movie “Sicko.” The country’s HIV/AIDS rates are among the lowest in the world.

Progressive changes in Latin America

These advances take place in the context of left-wing governments being elected in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Uruguay. Further, leftish governments have been elected in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Panama and Nicaragua.

Four of them (Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua) have joined together in the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), an economic alternative to the failed Free Trade Area of the Americas proposed by the United States. In the Caribbean and Central America, diplomatic hostility toward Cuba has waned considerably.

Continuing challenges

Cuba did not emerge from its “special period” unscathed, however. As reported in the Miami-based Progreso Weekly, “The combination of the economic crisis and the measures to save the country, the revolution and the achievements of socialism radically altered the values and attitudes in important social sectors. … The concept that linked individual improvement to collective advancement (everybody’s advancement) became instead a concept that said personal benefit — by any means — came first. Values were turned upside down.”

The special period brought the following:

• The re-emergence of prostitution and privileges for those with hard currency followed the dramatic expansion of tourism.

• Social stratification increased between those with access to hard currency and those without. Since a majority of those with families in the U.S. are lighter-skinned Cubans, this unequal access to hard currency contributed to color social stratification as well.

• Discriminatory attitudes towards darker-skinned Cubans, steadily decreasing after the revolution, began to increase. Fueled by foreign managers from multinational hotel chains and other companies, this discrimination was aimed particularly at young people.

• Services provided by farmers markets, private restaurants, rental rooms and a small privatized service sector also fostered significant differences in wealth, unknown in Cuba since the revolution.

• Shortages of food and services resulted in widely used black- and gray-market economies. One result was growing corruption, cynicism and the erosion of “revolutionary ethics and morality.”

Even today, everyday life in Cuba can be very difficult. Examples include a transportation system near collapse; lines for food; lack of openings in child care centers; low retirement benefits; and the lack of easy access to many non-luxury items such as oil, soap, toothpaste, apparel and footwear.

Revolutionary ethics

With new economic possibilities, will these problems of everyday life be solved? If so, how?

Fidel Castro spoke at length on the battle of ideas at the University of Havana in November 2005 in order to intensify a struggle to re-establish revolutionary ethics. He acknowledged that the Cuban Revolution not only faces enemies abroad, but could also be destroyed from within if corruption and cynicism, particularly among young people, are not faced and overcome.

The Cuban leadership is encouraging a full public discussion of the ideological basis for using the economic and political gains to solve everyday problems in a just and equitable system. President Raul Castro has urged students to “fearlessly engage in public debate and analysis.”

New leadership

There are new leaders and leadership collectives in the Cuban Trade Union Federation, the Union of Young Communists, the University Student Federation, the Communist Party and the government.

In a radio interview, the new leader of the Cuban Trade Union Federation, Salvador Valdes Mesa, said, “Don’t give up being optimistic, trusting the people; these are things learned in the University of the Cuban Revolution.”

Abel Prieto, the youthful minister of culture and a member of the Communist Party’s top leadership, commented recently on the battle of ideas among young people in the context of today’s Internet and consumerism: “It would be delusional to think we could hide the torrent of information. The only possibility is to beat them with a better concept of life.

“We cannot design a future for the Cuban where every family has — as seen in the Yankee films — two cars, a pool or a chalet,” Prieto continued. “However, we can guarantee conditions of a decent life and the same time a rich life in spiritual and cultural terms. … We are convinced that culture can be an antidote against consumerism.”


Cuban internationalists, mostly young, exemplify the alternative worldview and the continuing revolutionary morality of the Cuban Revolution:

• More than 220,000 Cuban doctors, nurses and other medical personnel have worked abroad since 1963, and another 100,000 are now being trained for service abroad. These doctors and nurses live in the communities where they serve — and provide free care 24/7. In cooperation with Venezuela, Cuba has set up Operation Milagro (Miracle), providing free cataract eye surgery to the people of the Americas. So far, 300,000 Venezuelans and 100,000 from 28 other countries throughout the world have been treated.

• Cuba has established emergency medical brigades to travel with almost no advance notice to countries faced with catastrophic emergencies, e.g. hurricanes, earthquakes.

• In 1999, Cuba set up the Latin American Medical School in Havana to train doctors without charge from other countries, as long as they promised to return home to provide health care to those most in need. It serves more than 10,000 students from more than two dozen countries, including from the U.S. and several African nations.

• Cuban educators also serve abroad. Yo sí Puedo (Yes I Can), Cuba’s international literacy program, currently involves 2.3 million people in 15 countries. Over a two-year period, 1.5 million Venezuelans learned to read using the Cuban system.

Cuba’s continuing commitment to the struggle for a more just world is exemplified by the words of Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba’s National Assembly, spoken last May: “To struggle so that the antiwar and anti-globalization movements flow into the same giant stream, and that all those discriminated against, all the marginalized be included, is the main duty of revolutionaries today. It is the way to create a better world. It is the road to take in advancing socialism. To achieve socialism in this century there must be ‘heroic creation,’ a creation that is authentic, independent, and therefore diverse and unique.”

U.S. people reject blockade

Washington’s policy towards Cuba has remained remarkably consistent through almost all Democratic and Republican presidents since the revolution. It can be summed up as follows: Isolate Cuba. No discussions. Expand the embargo/blockade. Prevent U.S. citizens from traveling there. Regime change.

But the most recent poll indicates 66 percent of the U.S. people are in favor of normal relations with Cuba and even more are opposed to the travel ban. And there is reason for guarded optimism about making gains in the new Congress on these issues.

The “travel challenge” actions of groups like the Venceremos Brigade, the U.S./Cuba Labor Exchange and Pastors for Peace are also critically important.

There is good reason to believe Cuba will prevail. As Alarcon has said, “Our boat will continue sailing. Nothing will stop it. It is driven by ‘a wind that never dies.’ They will call us dreamers but our ranks will grow.”

Bob Guild has been active for many years with the Venceremos Brigade. A longer version of this article appeared in Dialogue and Initiative; it is reprinted here with the author’s permission.