Thirteen Maine teachers and health workers returned April 21 after a week-long study tour in Cuba. They were there looking at schools, clinics, hospitals and services for children, to find out what happens to egalitarian ideals when social services have to be delivered under conditions of chronic scarcity.

The visitors observed that hospitals and clinics have few frills, but that while light bulbs, paper materials and bed sheets are in short supply, essential medical equipment and medications are available. They learned that those materials often have to be purchased at extra expense in Europe, or manufactured in Cuba, in order to get around the U.S. embargo.

The group, all but one of them women, appreciated the fact that at the general hospital in Holguin, every department head, save one, is a woman, as are two-thirds of a medical staff of 150 physicians and surgeons.

The visitors noted the anomaly of new CT scanners, made in Santiago de Cuba, inside the hospital and horse-drawn wagons, used as taxis, out on the street. Last year Cuba opened up four schools for social worker technicians, each with 2,000 students and each built in just six months.

The Cuban people whom the travelers met seemed resourceful, highly educated, hospitable and, above all, generous. The Cuban children appeared healthy and full of enthusiasm and self-confidence. The talent of the musicians and dancers in a provincial elementary school for the performing arts, for example, was extraordinary.

While Cuban teachers and students are reduced to bare essentials in regard to supplies and comforts, all of the schools visited by the group now have new computers in place, except for a tiny school for four students high up in the mountains.

Returning home, many of the teachers and health workers were looking at their own society from a new perspective, and an outcome like that perhaps indicates why Cuba is dangerous to U.S. orthodoxy. Left up to Washington, the Maine study tour to Cuba would have died an early death.

The delegation was traveling to Cuba under an authorization provided by that section of embargo laws having to do with general licensure. Three days before the trip’s departure, a representative of the Treasury Department had informed the travel agency making arrangements for the trip – one licensed by the Treasury Department for that purpose – that the travelers might not be legal.

Supposedly, the group was short of true “researchers” – one of the categories of legal travel set forth in the regulations. The agency responded by dropping out.

Twenty-five people hoping to go to Cuba legally, like thousands of other U.S. citizens, found themselves without the services of a “travel service provider,” required by Treasury regulations. Suddenly there were legal uncertainties. Twelve people stayed home, and 13 went on to Cuba.

Let Cuba Live, a Maine-based Cuba solidarity organization, unleashed a publicity campaign, and the story of the trip and of harassment on the part of the U.S. government spread far and wide.

The day before the group’s departure to Cuba, aides to Rep. John Baldacci (D-Maine) sought clarification from the Treasury Department, even securing a measure of reassurance that the trip did indeed satisfy legal requirements. The 13 travelers crossed back into the United States April 21 without interference from border officials.

Last summer, Let Cuba Live intentionally violated embargo laws by not obtaining a license to send medical supplies to Cuba. The result was a fracas at the international border at Coburn Gore, Maine. This time, every effort had been made to assure the legality of a trip to Cuba for health workers and teachers. The reward for such “good behavior” is not yet obvious.

However, from the point of view of both those who went on to Cuba and those who stayed home, the restrictions on travel to our island neighbor are irrational, wrong and irritating. Many of those who went to Cuba can hardly wait to go back and they may not ask permission.

Cuban independence and social revolution

W.T. Whitney, Jr., was a member of the 13-person delegation that travelled to Cuba at the end of April. He is associated with Let Cuba Live of Maine and the Public Interest Forum of Norway, Maine. The following is an abridged version of a pamphlet by W.T. Whitney, Jr., published in Maine.

A look at Cuba’s revolutionary history explains something of the tenacity with which that nation resists U.S. harassment. Some of the peculiarities of the Cuban revolution are evident in comparisons with the American Revolution of 1776.

The rebellion against British colonial rule lasted only seven years, and a Cuban revolution that began in the last decades of the 19th century and reemerged in 1959 continues. Both revolutions were wars for national independence, but Cuba’s has been a social revolution too, with a reordering of stark inequalities.

Throughout Cuba’s revolutionary history, the U.S. government has been there to lend a hand to Cuban property owners and business interests and in the process has been meddling with Cuban sovereignty. As a result, a prolonged struggle for national liberation has been necessary to make a reality of social justice and to protect it. The Cuban revolution continues because the matter of Cuban independence has not yet been settled.

And there was no Jose Marti on hand to inspire the North American revolutionaries of 1776. Living mainly in New York City after 1880, Marti formed the Cuban Revolutionary Party. He recruited, organized and taught the working-class Cuban exiles who would be joining the second war for independence from Spain. During the first weeks of that war, which began in 1895, Marti was killed; Cubans still refer to him as the “the Apostle.” His writings, speeches and organizational genius were instrumental in uniting the twin revolutionary strains of national liberation and social justice.

The insurrectionists of 1895 took Marti’s egalitarianism with them into battle. His writings were replete with calls for equality and economic justice.

“I want the first law of our republic to be the Cuban cult of full dignity for man. Every man must feel upon his own cheek the slap upon any other man’s cheek …” Writing about the Haymarket martyrs – the five falsely accused anarchists executed in Chicago in 1887 – Marti offers reflections about working people:

“I believe that the worker has a right to a certain security for the future, a home with a certain comfort and order, to be able to feed his children without anxiety, to a more equitable share in the yield from his work – an essential consideration – to some hour in the sun so as to be able to help his wife plant a rose in the patio of their house, to some corner to live in, other than a fetid hovel where in cities like New York, one can not enter without nausea”

Beginning with Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, Washington governments cast covetous eyes on Spain’s island colony. Cuban planters and slave-owners, threatened by a worldwide emancipation movement, approached Washington, sympathetic to slavery, about annexation.

In 1868, planters unhappy with Spanish economic controls launched the first war for independence. They soon became nervous; the rebel ranks “were filling with peasants, workers, poor whites and blacks, former slaves.” For General Antonio Maceo and other rebels of African descent, “the emancipation of slaves was no less important that the liberation of the island.”

The civilian leaders of the rebellion, snubbing their military chiefs, reached out for protection from the United States, pleading for annexation. Maceo and 1,500 other rebels rejected an 1878 peace settlement with Spain that had left slavery intact. His “Protest of Baragua” would become, 60 years later, a rallying cry for the revolution that brought Batista down.

Marti had long spoken against those Cubans willing to exchange rule by Spain for annexation by the United States. He would not have been surprised by the 1898 U.S. military invasion of Cuba. Faced with social upheaval and economic chaos, the well-to-do classes had reached out to a United States only too willing to oblige.

Landless peasants, Cubans of African descent, and the urban poor were left to fend for themselves. Even though the Cuban rebels had defeated Spain by 1898, the U.S. Army moved in and settled down in Cuba for four years. Cuban hopes for social justice were put on hold.

To put a legalistic face on U.S. rule, the Platt Amendment was inserted into the Cuban Constitution of l902 to facilitate future military incursions. There would be four more military intrusions during the next three decades. The economies of the two nations became fully integrated, much to the advantage of the upper classes in Cuba and investors in the United States. Cuban dictators and political parties found friends in Washington, and blatant racism remained intact.

The egalitarian ideology espoused by Jose Marti and his fellow insurrectionists survives in contemporary Cuba. And so too has his insistence upon independence from the United States. Statements from contemporary Cuban leaders suggest that they know only too well that prosperous North Americans and the descendants of former top dogs in Cuba have interests in common, with none of them hinting at solicitude for the downtrodden.

Most of the refugees arriving in the United States after l959 were white and well to do. Since then, safe and prosperous in Florida, those exiles have nurtured the close ties of their class to conservative U.S. politicians.

Language from Havana directed at rightwing Cubans living in the United States parallels that of Marti castigating Cubans lukewarm for independence during the rebellion against Spain. Foreign Minister Felix Perez Roque, testifying before the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, March 21, 2001, accuses, for example, the United States of wanting “to organize the party calling for annexation to the United States in a fragmented, weak Cuba.”

The specter is occassionally raised of a U.S.-inspired puppet regime that would replace Cuba’s present government. The Cubans know that Latin American governments beholden to U.S. power and investors generally show little zeal for educating all children, for universal health care, and for environmental protection.

Echoes of a revolution cut short in 1898 were heard decades later in a Santiago courtroom as Fidel Castro, on trial for the attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953, concluded his defense with an appeal to Marti.

“Cuban politics must be in strict solidarity with democratic peoples… Cuba would be a bulwark of liberty and not a shameful link to despotism… It appears that the Apostle … lives, he has not died; his people rebel, his people are worthy, they are faithful to his memory: they are Cubans who have fallen defending his doctrines [the 61 insurrectionists who died in the Moncada attack.] They are young people who have made amends magnificently, who came to die next to his grave to give him their blood and their lives so that he might forever live in the soul of the nation. Cuba! Who would you be if you let your Apostle die?”

Consistent dedication to a national independence seen as essential for the protection of social gains defines the Cuban brand of revolution and must account, at least in part, for the staying power of the present revolutionary government. The U.S. government appears to have belittled the high regard of the Cuban people for their independence.