Brigada del 50 anniversario de la Revolucion Cubana!

On 23 April, 18 Rock around the Blockade activists left London on a solidarity brigade to Cuba – ‘Brigada del 50 aniversario de la Revolucion’, organised with the Cuban Union of Young Communists (UJC). The first week was spent in Pinar del Rio, a province devastated by three hurricanes last year; the second week was in Havana. We found an island braced and ready to confront the current global crisis. Celebrating its 50th anniversary, the Cuban Revolution has realised the hopes James Connolly once held for an Irish republic, its name ‘a rallying point for the disaffected, a haven for the oppressed, a point of departure for the socialist, enthusiastic in the cause of human freedom.’

We left Britain on the day that British chancellor Alastair Darling announced a Budget that, in the words of The Guardian newspaper, promised ‘a brutal freeze on public spending’ more severe than that of the Thatcher years. By the time we returned, two weeks later, the expenses scandal had exploded, exposing once again the stinking heap of corruption which is British politics. Throughout the world, the ruling classes are scrambling to resolve the deep economic crisis at the expense of the working class. What a contrast we saw in Cuba, which is solving problems in the interest of all its people, through socialist planning and socialist democracy.

Confronting the crisis
Ten years to the day before the collapse of Lehman Brothers investment bank in September 2008, Fidel Castro warned of the ‘avoidable and deep economic crisis’ threatening a world ‘which has become an enormous casino’. Cuba will not remain immune: the collapse in the price of its main export, nickel, the reduction in tourism from imperialist countries now in recession and restrictions on access to international credit will have a very real effect. On 26 May, Cuban economic commentator Ariel Terrero predicted that Cuba’s foreign income could be reduced by $1bn, while growth figures for 2009 have been revised downwards from 6% to slightly over 2%, and even this may prove over-optimistic. On top of this, last year three hurricanes caused $10bn worth of damage and the impact of the US blockade continues. In Havana our bus passed huge billboards reading: ‘8 hours of the US blockade = repairs to 140 schools’; ‘3 days of the US blockade = 100 tonnes of medicine’.

Nonetheless, unlike in Britain, no-one in Cuba is being thrown out onto the streets while a bank repossesses their home and unemployment remains under 2%. It became clear to us that it is Cuba’s planned economy, with its ability to deploy resources rationally, based on the interests of a creative, conscious people, that will enable it to weather the economic storm.

The challenge in agriculture
Bolstering agricultural production in Cuba is seen as essential to overcoming the crisis, in order to replace imports and raise exports. In 2008, the country spent almost $2.5bn on food purchases from abroad, $907m more than in 2007.

One of the principal challenges is the shortage of labour power. The Cuban masses, through good quality health care and education, have high life expectancy and low birth rates; these great revolutionary achievements, however, exacerbate labour shortages. The rise in living standards for the Cuban masses across the board has raised other problems too. Orlando Borrego, who participated in the Revolution and was deputy to Che Guevara from 1959, explained: ‘The workers in the fields became doctors, artists, lawyers. So in certain agricultural sectors we do not have qualified workers – we thought it would never happen in a socialist country, but it has. And the Revolution has recognised this and can plan: for the past four or five years there has been a reorientation in the universities towards solving this problem.’

Brigadistas witnessed first-hand these attempts. Founded in 1962 by Commandante Fidel, the Centro-Politecnico Villena Revolucion is one of biggest schools of its type in the world, specialising in agronomy and veterinary science and is a ‘national reference’ school for the country. The basis of the entire school is the linking of theory and practice, with school units organised around farms where students work and implement practically what they learn in the classroom.

Rafael Mendez, Villena Revolucion’s vice-principal, spoke of the school as ‘a workshop to form the youth – the people of the future.’ Stopping in front of a large field planted with beetroot, 16-year-old student representative Anais described it as her ‘practical classroom’. She explained that the school was entirely self-sufficient in food, apart from rice, while also producing 300,000 litres of milk and 40 tonnes of meat for the city every year. ‘There are not enough workers to toil the land, so students voluntarily fill the breach. This is not exploitation – it is part of our formation as citizens.’ In their fourth year, students begin work in an enterprise where they are guaranteed a job after graduation. Students emerge imbued with both an academic education and a conscious grasp of the processes of social production and commitment to socialism.

All levels of Cuban society are involved in this process. In the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), Comrade Marsan explained that ‘Members of the Central Committee do voluntary labour on the farms, once a month; they are very tough conditions to work in. With the heat in the fields at 10am it is hard work. By 2pm I cannot wait to get on the bus and end my shift!’ In Pinar del Rio, brigadistas visited a massive state farm. Heavily damaged by hurricanes the previous year, labour brigades had been drafted in from around Cuba to help repair crop damage, and the farm had also received EU relief aid. Many of these large-scale socialist state farms were broken up after the Soviet Union collapsed. However, for the brigadistas it felt like the paradigm of socialist agriculture. The workers, trade unionists and Communist Party members were the most committed and politically conscious we met. They totally identified social production with ownership of the Revolution. They proudly displayed certificates received from the leadership, motivated by moral as much as material incentives.

The real success story of Cuban agriculture in recent years, however, has been in much smaller scale production – the urban organic farming movement. In the past 12 years, urban farming has created 350,000 productive new jobs. Production of vegetables and fresh herbs jumped a thousandfold from 1994 to 2005: from 4,000 tons to 4.2 million tons.

Brigadistas worked alongside Cubans on several organiponicos. The units are linked with science centres and universities and the workers helped to implement new technology such as semi-protected cultivation and wormeries. In contrast to the state farm, the profits of these co-operatives directly determine incentive payments, and most are profitable, selling some product at fixed state prices to schools and hospitals while some is sold in private markets at higher prices. Since last summer the government has parcelled out idle land in usufruct, a rent-free short term loan, to 60,000 families, which will significantly increase agricultural production.

Che Guevara recognised that this form of production can introduce contradictions into socialism, as workers identify more with their unit’s interests than with national production. However, comrade Marsan made the key point:

‘Our objective is to increase food. There is not a change in policy. It is just that in this economic situation it is necessary to have different farms. We sometimes have to take one step back before we can take two steps forward. The biggest areas of wealth are in the state farms. There is no process of privatisation.’

The Special Period, state planning and socialism
Through our meetings and discussions, we came to reaslise that national independence, the Revolution and the planned socialist economy provide the framework within which all policies and processes are debated. When the entire Soviet camp disappeared in 1991, US imperialism appeared triumphant, the ‘end of history’ was declared and living standards plummeted, the Cuban people fought to defend their achievements. Yani Cruz, a long-standing Cuban friend of RATB, declared passionately: ‘You cannot imagine the hardships. It truly was a terrible time for our people. But we fought to defend socialism; it is socialism through which we achieved all the gains of our revolution. The choice was between defending socialism and returning to capitalism. We chose socialism. There is no third way.’

Ephraim Ecchevaria, an economist at a Marxist research institute in Pinar del Rio, recalled speaking at an international meeting where an Italian communist stood up and accused the Cubans of betraying the principles of socialism by introducing the economic measures they had. ‘He didn’t understand what was necessary: above all else, we had to save the Revolution.’

Throughout the Special Period, not a single school, not a single maternity ward, hospital or sports facility was closed down; quite the opposite. ‘At all times,’ according to Ephraim, ‘the economy was to be subordinated to social objectives’. Cuban research economist at Havana University, Elda Molina, wrote about the strategy of the revolutionary leadership in this period. ‘A significant element of the Cuban economic reform was that state property prevailed in most key sectors. The main goals of the strategy were: to preserve the country’s independence; to keep and improve socialism; and to create the economic and social basis to relaunch a development programme once the crisis was over.’ 

Proletarian democracy
On 29 April, we met with a constitutional law teacher at a school in Pinar del Rio. ‘Bourgeois liberal parties in the west are in crisis, people don’t trust them,’ he explained – nine days before the Daily Telegraph began publishing details of British MPs’ expense accounts. What he understood clearly was the difference between bourgeois and proletarian democracy. ‘In Britain, there is the supremacy of the political class. In Cuba the people do not surrender their power.’ When brigadistas returned to Britain, popular fury at the ‘political class’ was spilling over. But the blatant corruption and greed of these politicians is an expression, not the cause, of the bankruptcy and lack of accountability of bourgeois democracy itself.

As brigadistas saw in practice, the Cuban Revolution has developed a real socialist democracy throughout all levels of society, where politics is not confined to the voting booth. The law teacher explained: ‘Where does accountability come from? The answer is in the direct mass participation of people, mass organisations and the electoral process, not the party or state.’ All representatives of the state in Cuba are nominated by the people, firstly in the barrios, and voted on through universal, secret ballot. The institutions through which this process is conducted are the Assemblies of People Power, existing at local, provincial and national level. Delegates of these people’s assemblies must be in constant communication with people, there must be a constant rendering of accounts and the assemblies must hold referendums and consultations with the people. If people are not happy with the work of their elected delegates, they can be recalled by constitutional law. ‘So the Cuban constitution guarantees the sovereignty of the people, of popular power. The people don’t delegate responsibility to an elected member; they don’t give away their power.’

We witnessed the power of the Cuban people on International Workers’ Day, 1 May, in Havana, where over half a million people streamed by under the banner ‘United, productive and efficient!’, carrying Cuban flags and homemade placards declaring ‘Socialism or death!’ A special moment of international solidarity was when a Palestinian delegation marched by, taking up the brigadistas’ chants of ‘Viva Palestina!’, raising the V sign for victory.

Communities at the base
At the base of these massive mobilisations is the local community. In Havana City, comrades spent a day working with the ‘Principe Neighbourhood Development Workshop’ (money had been raised for this project by RATB in Britain). Dating back to community projects established in 1992 to enhance social integration and extended across the city, the mission of the Principe Workshop is to engage the community in ‘transforming the physical, social and spiritual reality of the neighbourhood’. Studies of problems in the community are carried out by neighbours, work centre representatives and political organisations such as the PCC, UJC, Cuban Women’s Federation (FMC) and the Committees to Defend the Revolution (CDR). Plans are formulated through popular consultation. 100 community leaders run 20 craft workshops which offer training in dance, theatre, painting, tailoring and doll-making; an acclaimed popular Cuban music project with professional musicians works with local people of all ages, organising shows which have been taken to the streets, theatres and workplaces of Havana; there are also classes in local cultural history. RATB brigadistas saw all of this in action and helped in clearing out an old garage which will be the new base for the workshop. We asked some of the local members what they thought the differences were between Cuba and Britain. One man answered:

‘Socialism gives opportunity to everyone independently of the economic resources you have, whereas in Britain only people with more money have the opportunities…Imagine what Cuba could achieve if it had the resources of Britain! And if Britain had the politics of Cuba, imagine what problems it could solve!’

Among the brigade’s most inspiring activities was our visit to a CDR in Pinar del Rio. We arrived in the evening to join the local people who were already dancing in the streets at a street party organised by the CDR. A foundation stone of the Revolution, the CDRs are grassroots institutions through which people organise their own communities, collectively dealing with domestic problems, local issues and neighbourhood security; Cuba’s is a participative socialism, built for and by its people and the CDRs are at the heart of this. That evening, one CDR member spoke movingly of an occasion, 30 years ago, when his CDR had responded, after a terrible earthquake devastated Peru, by mobilising volunteers who donated 70,000 pints of blood to support medical care in stricken areas.

RATB brigadistas did not go to Cuba as neutral observers but as committed activists in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution. Our two weeks of work immeasurably deepened our understanding of the richness of the process of socialist construction and the creative ability of the workers and cadre on which it is based. It has given us the sense of urgency necessary to build a communist movement in this country, confident that a better world is possible. One that is right now demonstrating its superiority to capitalism in hugely difficult circumstances. As one brigadista told a reportback meeting after her return, ‘The Cubans are clear about one thing; a new world order of communism is necessary for the survival of the human species’.

Jesus Garcia, who works in the Institute of Philosophy in the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment, told us:  ‘A revolutionary situation doesn’t arise just because of contradictions in the ruling class. The working class needs to understand that it is not just a mismanagement of capitalism. It needs to understand what power has to be defeated at any moment, overcoming division. If we don’t steer through this crisis then it will mean a hundred year regression or the end of humanity. We need to end capitalism.’           

Rock around the Blockade sends heartfelt thanks and solidarity: to the International Relations Department of the UJC; to our guide and translator, Lien Rodriguez; to the UJC in Pinar del Rio, including Juan Carlos, Alejandro, Arial and Liosbel for their translations and engaging political discussions; to Orlando the bus driver and Angola veteran; to the International Relations Department of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, especially to European Coordinator, Marsan, for his excellent overview of recent developments; to Kenia Serrano, who toured Britain with RATB in 2002 and is now President of ICAP (Cuban friendship organisation), and Yani Cruz for very political meetings; to Orlando Borrego, Che Guevara’s deputy from 1959, who assured us that ‘capitalism is condemned to disappear’ and urged us to study Marx; to Angel Arcos Bergnes, another comrade of Che, who spoke about leading by example; to Jesus Garcia who explained how Cuban democracy functions; and to Aleida Guevara, a revolutionary communist and daughter of Che Guevara, who welcomed us to the Che Guevara Study Centre in Havana. Venceremos!

FRFI 209 June / July 2009