FRFI 147 February / March 1999
Revolution tightens its grip
Build one, two and many brigades
Children of the revolution
Brigade visits family doctor's clinic
This year's brigade was in Cuba at an exciting time - not only for the opportunity to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Revolution in the small rural community of Fomento, dancing to the beat of the sound system provided by Rock around the Blockade. It was also a time when Cuban communists themselves were reaffirming their commitment to the Revolution and taking measures to protect its gains against the encroachment of capitalist mechanisms. Just before the brigade arrived in Cuba, the Union of Young Communists (UJC) had held its VII Congress, analysing and discussing its role as the vanguard of Cuban youth. Alongside this, measures were being taken by the government to clamp down on crime and antisocial behaviour. The 16 brigadistas picked coffee alongside a contingent of pre-university students, visited schools, an orphanage, family doctors and a children's centre and a committee for the defence of the Revolution (CDR). We were offered constant opportunities to meet and discuss with Cubans the realities of their Revolution. We were overwhelmed by the openness, generosity and revolutionary enthusiasm that we found. As one brigadista says, we return 'rearmed' to fight the battles that confront us here in Britain, inspired by the example of Cuba's socialist state.
Last year, Rock around the Blockade raised £5,000 to buy a sound system for Fomento and contribute to discos in Santa Clara and Sancti Spiritus. Over the next year we will continue to work closely with the UJC in Cuba to provide another sound system, this time for the eastern part of the island, and build another brigade. We will also be stepping up our campaign against the illegal US blockade, focusing on our Boycott Bacardi campaign and collecting toys for the UJC's toy library project. To get involved in our work, come to our meetings or fill in the box on this page.
Revolution tightens its grip
Tania Jackson in Havana writes:
I thought it would be a disappointment, coming back to Havana after ten incredible days with the brigade in the province of Sancti Spiritus, where CDRs have 100% membership, towns have no prostitution nor pimping and everyone is united in building and defending socialism.
Havana sometimes seems worlds apart, particularly to visitors who inevitably see the worst aspects of Cuban society - the prostitutes who home in on tourist areas, the pimps, the incessant touts of paladares (family-run restaurants) and hawkers of cigars and rum (see FRFI 145 December 1998/January 1999 Defending socialism - fighting prostitution in Cuba).
Cuba stepped up its fight against crime and antisocial activity towards the end of 1998, closing down nearly all the dollar discos in Havana to combat drug trafficking and prostitution and only reopening them when appropriate controls were in place. Prostitution was almost completely eliminated, with the centre for prostitutes in Havana having received 6,714 women by November 1998. These women received any necessary medical and psychological treatment before being sent home, 59% of them coming from other provinces. A Ministry of the Interior report detailed 219 cases of men being charged with pimping, 190 of whom were sentenced.
On 5 January Fidel Castro addressed Cuba's Revolutionary National Police on the 40th anniversary of their constitution (summarised in Granma International 24 January). He spelled out what the country has been doing to fight illegal and antisocial activity and what they will be doing in 1999. He acknowledged the importance of the police in maintaining internal order throughout the 40 years of the Revolution, without which the gains the country had won in the long and hard battle for socialism would be lost.
A major theme in Fidel's address was international drug trafficking involving Cuba. Cuba's location on the route between drug-producing areas of Latin America and consumption areas in North America and Europe puts it in great danger of being a transit point for drug trafficking, as it was before the Revolution. Recently it was claimed that three tons of high-grade cocaine discovered in Colombia were destined for Cuba. Fidel restated Cuba's willingness to cooperate in the fight against drug trafficking: 'Had we been provided with a bit of information beforehand, and not through the public wire services, given that we have signed co-operation agreements, we could have provided a little more help.' 117 foreigners are currently serving sentences for drug trafficking with 48 more awaiting trial. 279 shipments of drugs were confiscated by November 1998.
Since Fidel's speech there has been an absolute clampdown on illegal and antisocial activity in Havana, welcomed by the majority of ordinary people. Police reinforcements arrive in busloads from other provinces; there are police on every street corner of the formerly crime-prone regions of Vedado, Central and Old Havana. They now check nearly all ID cards to identify those living or working in Havana without permission, who form the majority of those involved in antisocial activities. Havana is almost completely clear of prostitutes, pimps, hawkers and touts. Even car drivers now drive by the book!
The clampdown is being extended to the intermediaries who sell produce without permission in the farmers' markets and have the potential to emerge as a new merchant class. Fidel announced that produce could only be sold by its producers. This led to the paralysis of Havana's markets - indicating the enormity of the problem - with only the odd few producers capable of getting to Havana making a killing, such as one who sold two sack-loads of garlic at inflated prices, on a day when only that and oranges were available. This pronouncement has been relaxed for the time being, until producers are in a position to be able to sell their own produce. The agricultural produce fair held towards the end of every month in Havana's Plaza de la Revolución, so that producers can sell directly and thus more cheaply, was much larger in January, with many more people out to buy. Prices were indeed cheaper, about half those of the regular markets.
Fidel declared that Cuba's fight against illegal and undesirable activities should be won with organisation, discipline and intelligence and without violence. Heavy sentencing exists for crimes such as rape; international drug traffickers can face capital punishment or at least life imprisonment, often with a 30-year minimum, and convicted pimps receive long sentences that can be of 20 years or more. Against prostitution itself, Fidel restated that there should not be penal sanctions. 'It truly hurts a great deal that in a country that has given all boys and girls the opportunity to study; it hurts a great deal that in a country that has done so much to eliminate discrimination against women, although it still has not totally achieved this;…where 65% of the technical workforce is made up by women and where so much has been done to give women dignity, along come foreigners, along come Cubans who trick them, dominate them, corrupt them.'
I was recently witness to the way Cuba deals with undesirable activity: while picnicking with friends in Parque Lenin, we were annoyed to see many state-owned trucks being driven straight into the lake to be washed, where children had until then been bathing. A delegation arrived, headed by an elderly gentleman who came round to stop this activity. It turned out to be Ramón Castro, Fidel's elder brother, responsible for environmental protection.
Incredibly, instead of the stern telling off that I expected, and potential arrest of the wrongdoers, Ramón asked the children to explain to the offending adults why their action was wrong: 'You see, if you wash your lorries here, it will kill the fish and damage the environment'. As Ramón later explained to us, when hearing we represented a group of British communists, 'we must combat such vices with persuasion, not aggression. Involving children in educating adults of the error of their ways is important as they are the hope for the future.'
Build one, two and many brigades
Yani Cruz Gutsens, the protocol attaché for UJC International Relations, accompanied the brigade in Fomento. We owe her a deep debt of gratitude for her untiring and invaluable work as our translator, trouble-shooter, comrade and friend. Here she talks to FRFI about the importance of brigades to Cuba.
We learn a lot from brigades, which bring with them first-hand information of what life is like in their country -- often entirely different from what we read in the newspapers of that country. The brigades also need to learn from us, to see what we, the people of Cuba, have gained.
You know that we are a socialist country. We often meet people who think Cuba is a dictatorship and that we have no democracy even though they are doing work to help us. Although they are friendly, they are not politically convinced of our reality, so they need to come to Cuba to see the truth with their own eyes. We are only too happy to show them the gains and the realities of 40 years of Revolution.
We know that it is not easy, living in a capitalist country like Britain, to support the ideals of socialism. Your financial resources are limited and you do not have millions of members, but yet you sustain a national campaign. You do this not only because we are a third world country but because we mean something more than that for you and others. We are like a symbol, an example, for people throughout the world.
We are proud of the work you do. We really need things like the sound systems and we hope that your work continues to grow so that maybe you can bring two brigades a year, with two sound systems. It is so important, not solely for the sound systems, but the political work. You have to teach people's minds, convince them of what we have achieved.
Your government is separated from the people. We know that Rock around the Blockade does not support the Labour Party and we appreciate that, because we know that it is a party that does not represent the working class. Being socialist in a capitalist country is very courageous because there are lots of people who support your government because they benefit from capitalism and we know that. That's why we appreciate so much the work you are doing.
Children of the revolution
Cuba's excellent education system does not stop when the school bell rings at the end of the day. There are 146 Pioneers' centres in Cuba for children aged nine to 15. We visited a Pioneers' Explorer Camp which serves 46 schools in the area. During term-time children stay over the weekend and in the holidays for a whole week. In July and August the centre is in continuous use.
The Pioneers' movement started in 1971 to enable children to enjoy being close to nature and learn to live in the wild. they are taught that the land that nourishes them must always be respected. At least a dozen different ways of making a fire were shown to us and we learned how to roast a bird or a pig on a spit. There was a shelter made from palm leaves where the children could sleep overnight if they wished.
The War of the People hut contained wooden replicas of guns, landmines, grenades and gas masks where children learn that the defence of Cuba's national sovereignty is a duty of all its citizens. We walked over a rope-bridge across a small ravine to the Hall of Heroes which had photos of Che and other revolutionaries who had taken part in the local area's liberation. There is no separation between activities for girls and boys and all of these facilities are free, paid for by the state.
There are also Pioneers' Palaces which help young people choose a vocation. There are areas for engineering, medical, secretarial and agricultural work, teaching and so on. We presented the centre with toys, pencils and artwork for the children to play with in the TV and video room. As we left, I thought of my own country where a boy was stabbed a mile from where I live a few years ago, in a rundown area in London with no youth clubs. The Cuban state is incredibly generous with its young people.
Brigade visits family doctor's clinic
In Cuba, unlike in Britain, people are not ashamed of discussing their health problems with other people. As a result problems are accepted and shared socially within the community. Abortion is not stigmatised, leaving no pressure on teenagers to have children. There were no teenage mothers in the area where we were staying - no young women going through childbirth before their bodies were fully mature nor having responsibility for a child while they could be studying and enjoying their youth.
When asked about waiting for appointments at the family doctor's clinic we visited, the doctors and nurses seemed not to understand what we meant. The doctor explained that it wasn't necessary to make an appointment; if necessary a patient could even be treated in their own home. This was a clinic in a rural area of the municipality of Fomento.
In most third world countries, the standard of health care in rural communities is appalling with virtually no nearby access to doctors or hospitals. For instance, the Cuban doctors who went to Honduras after Hurricane Mitch are operating in areas that haven't seen a doctor for years. This has embarrassed Honduran doctors so much that the president of the Honduran Medical Association recently suggested that 'foreign doctors operating here' should have to apply for licences to practise, a process that takes over three months. He was greeted with widespread condemnation by local people.
It was explained to us that in Cuba, the health system, working on a preventative basis, has enabled them to eradicate diphtheria, tuberculosis, rubella, malaria and meningitis B, which continue causing deaths and disabilities in other third-world and many industrialised countries. This particular clinic boasted 0% maternal and infant mortality rates. Infant mortality for Cuba as a whole in 1998 was 7.1 per 1,000 live births.
During my recent stay with a rural community in Guatemala, a 15-day-old baby died in the first week, possibly from the effects of being given a vaccination for a six-month-old baby as the doctor couldn't be bothered to come back at the appropriate time. Later, a 10-year-old boy was found unconscious and feverish. To get him to a doctor's clinic involved hitching in the back of a pick-up truck to the nearest town 45 km away where the doctor forced him to wait for over half an hour before he saw him. In the hospital he was left lying in his own vomit for hours before a nurse cleaned him up.
In comparison with Cuba, the infant mortality figure for Latin America and the Caribbean is 33 on average, with Guatemala being one of the worst. The average for an industrialised country is six; the world average is 59 and the United States has eight infant deaths per 1,000 live births.
The 40th anniversary of the Revolution was unforgettable. In a small rural town in the centre of Cuba, 600 young Cubans queued outside their new disco, 'El Largo', in Fomento. 16 British brigadistas waited excitedly to open the disco and start the celebrations! This was the night we had dreamed of. All the fundraising and political activities had paid off: they had lacked a disco and Rock around the Blockade had provided one. The young people piled in, the lights began to flash, the music started. We must continue this important solidarity work with socialist Cuba, supporting the UJC and raising money for sound systems for Cuban youth and at the same time create a movement against capitalism. Viva Rock around the Blockade!
I had read and heard much about Cuba before visiting, but in Cuba the reality surpasses the rhetoric. The Cuban youth are strong willed, confident and politically aware. When they vote, they know what they are voting for; ignorance is not entertained. Culture and consciousness dance hand in hand. The Jim that left Britain was getting weary. The Jim that returns is reinvigorated as a political revolutionary, ready to fight hard in the battle for hearts and minds. I return rearmed.
The minute we land on Cuban soil, a smile starts to spread across my face, and Nigel says to me later 'I haven't seen you stop smiling since we got here', but I can't stop. There is a feeling around that makes you open wide, that these people who have so little are so generous, that anyone you speak to will answer your questions honestly, they are free and eager to criticise, but also to praise the amazing achievements they themselves have worked towards. People laugh incredulously at our tales of England and our extreme lack of salsa technique. And we all talk about how capitalism can't survive much longer, and when it goes the world will be a lot happier. I get back to this country and see unsmiling faces in town, people grimly and determinedly shopping their Saturdays away, but the smile still hasn't left my face.
The most important aspect of Cuban life I discovered is the role played by the youth in defending the socialist revolution. From as young as eight years old they are taught to organise, defend and most importantly ask questions of the revolution. Free education until the end of university, and beyond. Voluntary agricultural camps, great political awareness and outdoor pursuits, including lessons in civil defence, guarantee a security for Cuba in its fight against imperialist world aggression. The Cuban youth are respected, not exploited. They are strong, forward-thinking and informed. The youth of Cuba are the socialist revolution.
Being on the brigade brought home to me the importance of international solidarity and the critical exchange of revolutionary ideas and experience. Cuba has fought hard to maintain some of the most progressive and effective social policies in the 'Third World', such as free health care and education for all - in the face of the violent and illegal USA blockade.
As a youth worker in Britain I was struck by the amount of time and space given over to young people - localised youth centres with sports, recreational and cultural resources were common. Young people - especially in rural areas - are politically literate, actively involved in their communities, and frequently unionised.
My overriding memory is of a society that works collectively in all areas of life, where the notion of individualism is alien and where capitalist diseases such as racism do not exist. Every visit we made, whether to a school, clinic, daycare centre or orphanage, all demonstrated the way the Cuban people work for the benefit of their country and their Revolution. Such abiding memories of an unselfish collectivism in Cuba strengthen my own determination to take forward the struggle for socialism here in Britain.
Cuba presented many challenges to the complexity of our lives in Britain, our comfort, superficial as it may be, and our 'contentment'. By contrast, I was struck by the simplicity of socialism in action. In a poor country, I found riches greater than mere wealth. In Cuba, socialism is walking the streets without fear, it is dancing before beginning the day's work (honest...I saw it happen!), it is inviting you into its home to meet the folks. In Cuba, socialism puts food on everyone's table but left me hungry...for socialism at home!
Cuba exceeded all my expectations of what a socialist society would be like...Not only because of their phenomenal education and healthcare systems, but also because of their attitude to the problems that they face. The people of Cuba will never capitulate to imperialism: they know what socialism has given them and they know what will happen if they do give in. Socialismo o muerte!
Cuba's greatest strength is its people. Outside Havana nearly everyone you meet wants to tell you about themselves and their love of their country. This is real freedom. Freedom from hunger, poverty and illiteracy. We pass a sign which says '11 million children in the world are homeless, not one of them is Cuban'. When we asked what any building was, Juan Carlos often said: 'Do you want to go in?' and we found ourselves in a nursery school or a discotheque. 'You have to keep dancing for another half hour', they told us here, 'so they can prepare your lunch'. Flexible, principled, inventive, collective, unmaterialistic - how much of that is around in the capitalist West?