- Created: Thursday, 11 June 2015 15:00
- Written by Cuba Vive 2015
Eyewitness accounts from the Cuba Vive Brigade 2015
With contributions from all the brigadistas, compiled by Sam McGill
Between 20 April and 5 May, Rock around the Blockade (RATB), the Revolutionary Communist Group’s campaign in support of socialist Cuba, sent its 13th solidarity brigade to Havana for two intensive weeks of exchanges and visits. The Cuba Vive 2015 brigade was there to stand in solidarity with Cuban socialism, gain a deeper understanding of the challenges and achievements of 56 years of revolution and explore the implications of recent changes in Cuban-US relations.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of RATB’s foundation and of our first brigade, which visited Ciego de Avila in 1995. That was one of the worst years of the ‘Special Period’, Cuba’s deep economic crisis resulting from the loss of 35% of its GDP and 85% of its trade following the collapse of the Soviet bloc. All of our brigades have been hosted by the Union of Young Communists (UJC).
For many years, RATB raised thousands of pounds to buy and donate sound systems and disco equipment for Cuban youth. The request for entertainment came from the UJC itself, which explained the importance of young people being able to enjoy themselves during a time of shortages and sacrifices, keeping them engaged with the socialist process at a decisive time for the revolution. It is notable that the economic and social crisis did not transform into a political crisis. This year we donated over £1,000 worth of ballet shoes and boxing gloves for youth training schools. We took the boxing equipment to Havana’s ‘Escuela de Boxeo’ (Boxing School) which trains hundreds of youth across the capital and was the training ground for legendary boxers, Teofilo Stevenson and Felix Savon. We took the ballet shoes to the Cuban National Ballet School, which has produced world famous dancers such as Carlos Acosta, under the guidance of Alicia Alonso. The donation was made in recognition of Cuba’s remarkable achievements in promoting and democratising sport and culture.
During the brigade, we met with a broad range of Cuban society: political, social and cultural organisations, community centres, neighbourhood organisations, academics, family doctors, maternity homes, farms and factories, a children’s home. We met representatives of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), the Confederation of Cuban Workers (CTC), the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), and the National Association of Economists and Accountants. We were privileged to meet Fernando Gonzalez, one of the Cuban Five, five Cubans who were incarcerated in the United States since 1998 for defending Cuba from terrorist attacks – Fernando was released after 16 years; Kenia Serrano, President of the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the People (ICAP); and Mariela Castro, LGBT activist and Director of CENESEX. She is the daughter of President Raul Castro and Vilma Espin, revolutionary fighter and founder of the FMC.
RATB fundraised for a year to help cover the cost of sending 16 activists, many of them unemployed and facing the harsh end of austerity, from campaigns across Britain for social housing, against cuts to children’s services, in defence of the right to protest and in support of Palestine. We took a message of resistance and solidarity, sharing our realities of austerity and inequality in imperialist Britain with Cuban youth, holding our banners high in Revolution Square during the May Day celebrations. The Cuba Vive brigade returns with a renewed commitment to building resistance here in Britain. The Cuban revolution shows that socialism – a system that puts human need before private profit – is a real alternative to capitalist austerity and imperialist barbarism. ‘Un mejor mundo es posible’ – a better world is possible!
Socialist Cuba: ‘Revolution is permanent change’
‘I was born after 1962. When I opened my eyes the blockade existed. We have suffered more than 50 years of blockade, of attacks, deaths, injuries, all these tactics to try and destroy us for wanting to be the owners of our destiny. We know what kind of relations we want with the US; Cuba is not gullible. We will not fall into a trap set by the US government. We will continue to defend our independence, our sovereignty, and our control over our own destiny. We will not allow another country to tell us what to do, even if it means 50 years more blockade.’ Gilda Chacon, National Committee, CTC.
The Cuba Vive 2015 brigade arrived in Havana just four months after the historic 17 December announcement of rapprochement between Cuba and the US (see FRFI 243 February/March 2015). We found Cuba preparing to face new challenges.
Cuba-US relations – a new phase of struggle
US President Obama has made it clear that his goal remains overthrowing socialism in Cuba. ‘Engagement’ is a new tactic. There will be no change to the US $20 million ‘invested’ annually in promoting regime change in Cuba. US officials have requested $15 million to be allocated to ‘civil society programmes’ and $5 million for ‘human rights programmes’ for the next financial year. In addition, the State Department has requested more than $6 million to convert the current US-Interests Section in Havana into an embassy and an additional $528,000 for a new ‘Cuba Outreach initiative’.
The Cubans we met were clear: the establishment of relations is a diplomatic process, requiring the opening of embassies, authorisation of various banking mechanisms, and co-operation on issues such as narco-trafficking and environmental protection. However, normalising relations will only be possible with the lifting of the US blockade, an end to the occupation of Guantanamo Bay and termination of the US strategy to destroy Cuban socialism. As Yusam Palacios, President of the Jose Marti youth movement, told us: ‘We have demanded that the normalisation of relations has at its base our principles. We declare that Cuba will never betray the socio-economic model chosen by its people. We defend our independence, self-determination and sovereignty, our socialist character. It is this that has allowed the Cuban revolution to survive for over 50 years…we will never negotiate these essential principles’.
We met with Carlos Akira de la Puente, specialist at the Centre for Hemispheric and United States Studies at the University of Havana, who identified the challenges facing Cuba in dealing with these new conditions: ‘The most important factor is the impact on the consciousness of Cuban people. The majority of Cuban people support the socialist model. But if one million US tourists come to Cuba every year they will influence the country by increasing the possibilities for the self-employed and private enterprise. It is a reality that the US will try to increase the income of those sectors that receive remittances or work in the non-state sector as part of a new strategy with the old objective of creating an “opposition”. But I think the political culture of Cuba is a very important force to understand. Yes, new relations create opportunities for certain sectors, but the Cuban government continues to protect all and continues to uphold socialist values while rebuilding the economy.’
For Cuba, increasing democratic participation in the process of updating the economy is key to safeguarding the achievements of, and popular support for, the socialist revolution. The brigade’s exchanges with workers, PCC cadre and Cuban academics gave us a panorama of the discussions and processes underway as Cuba faces this new challenge.
Defending Cuba’s achievements
Cuba spends 62% of its state budget on social spending, 10% on education alone, more than any other nation in the world. Cuba has achieved an infant mortality rate of 4.2 per 1,000 live births. In 2014 Cienfuegos province achieved a rate 3 per thousand, among the lowest in the world. Thanks to free education and a commitment to preventive care, Cuba has an average of one doctor per 130 residents (in Britain it is 1:369). The World Bank has recognised Cuba’s free universal education system as the best in Latin America and the Caribbean, with a high school graduation rate of 99.1% and full literacy. Cuba’s ‘yo si puedo’ literacy campaign has taught over eight million people to write worldwide. Cuba currently has over 50,000 medical staff working in 60 countries, sent the largest delegation to fight Ebola in West Africa and has performed over three million free cataract operations in 33 countries. This record is despite the legacy of the Special Period and 55 years of a harsh US blockade, which has cost Cuba more than $1.1 trillion.
These remarkable gains have been won through the socialist revolution. However, Cuba urgently needs to increase production and productivity in order to maintain its social expenditure, improve the material standard of living and ensure the survival of Cuban socialism against the backdrop of the global capitalist crisis and unceasing imperialist aggression. With life expectancy of 78.5 years, an average age of 39 years, and a falling birth rate, Cuba has a dependency ratio (number of 60+ year olds to the total population) of 19.0%. Estimates are that by 2026 there will be more deaths than births in Cuba, requiring one worker to produce sufficient resources to feed three people. Wealth must be created before it can be redistributed; Cuba needs a 7% GDP growth rate each year to repair the damage of the Special Period. As an economy primarily reliant upon the export of nickel, tobacco, sugar and coffee alongside tourism, Cuba needs to export more while reducing its imports. Increasing productivity is essential.
In discussions with journalists, factory workers, union representatives, health care workers and farmers, we found out about the challenges Cuba faces and the contradictions involved in the process of implementing recent economic and social policy changes. These measures, designed to enable long-term sustainable socialist development, include the handing over of idle land in usufruct (the granting of rent-free usage) to farmers and co-operatives, the transfer of workers from the state to the non-state sector, new labour codes, new tax codes, the creation of experimental non-agricultural co-operatives (see FRFI 244, April/May 2015) and new forms of self-employment.
The economic challenge
Cuba is seeking $8bn a year in foreign investment to kick start economic growth. Foreign investment is geared towards boosting Cuban exports and producing goods for domestic consumption. To this end, in 2014, the Mariel Port and Special Economic Development Zone was inaugurated and a new foreign investment law approved (see FRFI 240, August/September 2014). Cuba has received more than 300 applications to invest in Mariel from companies based in Spain, Italy, China, Russia, France, Vietnam, Brazil, Mexico, the Netherlands and Canada. To date, only six companies have been approved.
Spain’s Hotelsa was among the first and it will build a factory producing food and drinks products for the tourist industry, reducing the amount the Cuba needs to import. Similarly, Mexico’s Richmeat has a deal to process and package meat in the zone. Increasing food production is crucial. Cuba imports 60% of its food, and is estimated to spend $2.2bn in 2015 on food imports, a figure that rises each year due to global price rises.
Foreign investment has already had an impact on food production. With credit from Brazil, Venezuela and China, Cuba has bought new equipment and formed 14 rice production brigades. Loans from the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development have stimulated production in Eastern Cuba, providing 125 tractors and 157 harvesters, mills, dryers, processing plants and silos. Rice, maize and meat production have increased, substituting for imports. Pork production is now sufficient to replace imports and Cuba was even able to export pork last year. New investments are being made to explore the use of pig waste as fuel and natural fertiliser, with processing plants now operational in Havana and Villa Clara.
Agricultural co-operatives are promoting this production. 66% of all agricultural workers are organised through co-operatives. Similarly there are now over 500 non-agricultural co-operatives, many converted from previously unproductive and inefficient areas of the state sector, organising previously unemployed or socially unproductive workers into a more social form of organisation. Meanwhile new areas of self-employment have been legalised, bringing more workers into the formal economy, with union representation, rights and responsibilities.
These developments are not without their contradictions. As Jesus Garcia from the Institute of Philosophy explained when we met him, co-operatives are not a model of economic organisation inherently closer to socialist development; they can exist under capitalism. He told us: ‘Co-operatives are not more socialist than state property. If we do not have a real socialist state we will not reproduce socialism. We must consider the role of the state as an institution and the role of the state as popular power. Two years ago we had a visitor here from Poland – a counter-revolutionary. He began his talk by saying: “In Cuba you are doing the same thing as us. My advice is that you need to know at the outset where it is you want to get to. We knew this – we wanted capitalism”. My response was that it was true that we needed to know our goal, but that our goal was to maintain socialism. Socialism is not only GDP, it is a sense of human life.’
Equally, foreign investment must be carefully kept in check. When we met with Noel Carrillo, an official from the Central Committee of the PCC, he explained that some companies are particularly interested in investing in Cuba’s communication sector because they regard it as a means to inject counter-revolutionary ideas. Telecommunications investments require the provision of telecommunication codes to the investors and this is not something Cuba will simply hand over, especially not to the US. He stressed: ‘We have to be very careful, security interests can outweigh economic ones.’ Cuba is prioritising investment from Latin America, promoting regional integration. Foreign employers must respect the new labour code and hire workers through a Cuban state employment agency. A board of the Council of State considers each investment proposal, ensuring they are conducive to Cuba’s economic and political priorities. Crucially, Carrillo emphasised ‘one thing we don’t do is sell land. We will never sell land. Whatever the investment is, wherever the investment is, the land below belongs to Cuba. You can build a factory here or there to invest, but Cuba owns the land that it’s built on’.
Trade union leader Gilda Chacon described to us the mass consultation which took place around the new labour code. In 2012 a draft was submitted for popular consultation around the country. This was discussed in nearly 7,000 local meetings by more than two million workers and their families, with special attention paid to workers’ rights in the Mariel Special Economic Development Zone, resulting in nearly 1,720,000 proposed amendments. The code was then discussed at a convention of the CTC before its final approval in December 2013 by the National Assembly (Cuba’s highest decision-making body made up of representatives of every sector and locality in the country). 101 articles were modified as a result of the consultations. Chacon told us: ‘Before these changes the CTC was only responsible for working with state sector workers. We are now coming to understand the needs of non-state sector workers. All employers must respect the conditions of the labour code. We debated with the Minister of Labour for six months because we did not approve of every aspect of the new labour code. We stated that the code could not be approved until every worker in Cuba had analysed it.’ 3.4 million workers are members of the CTC, representing 95% of Cuban workers. They are divided into three sectors: state, non-state and retired workers. 71% non-state sector workers are affiliated to the CTC, a figure on the rise.
The scale of participation in the consultation around the labour code is yet another illustration of Cuban democracy. Updating the economy is a slow experimental process, with mass consultations at every turn. Noel Carrillo told us: ‘We have to build without exploiting any other third world country or ourselves. It takes time. The ideological work of the Cuban Communist Party is more important than ever, we have to analyse and evaluate the process of updating, pinpointing how the economic changes are affecting society, so we can have clear ideas of the work that needs to be done… The PCC congress next year needs to prepare the political future of the country.’
Wages and consciousness
One immediate challenge is reducing wage disparity. The average Cuban wage is 584 CUP a month and rising (up from 471 in 2013). Some non-agricultural co-operative workers are now earning up to 7,000 CUP a month, whilst workers in agricultural co-operatives earn up to 3,000 CUP a month. It is important to understand that the socialist state meets the basic needs of all Cubans. Heavily subsidised food, medicine, transport, utilities and services, free healthcare and education, very low and capped rents and cheap or free access to culture and sport, all mean that wage differentials do not translate into inequality in the same way they do in capitalist countries. However, to tackle the disparity, the government has introduced a progressive taxation system based on earnings, requiring co-operatives to pay a 10% tax on sales and a social security contribution for each worker. Cubans are not used to being taxed. Imported luxury items such as mobile phones and cars for personal use are heavily taxed, subsidising the provision of basic necessities for the rest of the population. The state now sells construction materials at higher prices for private use and the revenue has provided one billion CUP for investment in new social housing. With these taxes, the government has increased wages in healthcare and education; for example a doctor’s wage is now around 1,500 CUP a month. Full-time political workers, or cadre, are among the last to receive pay increases. As an employee of the Central Committee of the PCC, Noel Carrillo receives just 380 CUP. This demonstrates both the principled stance of the PCC in preventing careerism and corruption and the ideological commitment of political cadre.
Intrinsic to the economic challenge is increasing political consciousness. Jesus Garcia told the brigade: ‘Socialist emulation is a central concept in the role of trade unions, in the development of a new kind of worker. The role of trade unions is not just to work to increase production, to produce more – their role is to produce a new worker and produce more for society. If we produce more at any social cost, then we could lose socialism. As Che and Fidel insisted, socialism is essentially an ideological process.’
The brigade saw inspiring examples of this socialist emulation in practice. During our visit to La Rosita state farm, run by the UJC, we met the farm’s worker-elected management committee. Whilst workers could seek higher wages in a nearby co-operative, the farm plays an important ideological role, producing food for the UJC, with any surplus produce going to local hospitals and schools. Though co-operative farms have to sell a portion of their produce to the state, they can sell the surplus at farmers’ markets and do not have so many social obligations, allowing for greater private accumulation and less social product. In contrast, La Rosita encourages voluntary labour days and accepts placements from agricultural students, contributing to the scientific development of farming and ecology in Cuba. The farm offers cheap holidays for workers, provides food for pregnant women on low incomes and offers therapeutic work for children and adults with learning difficulties. In this way, the production of food is combined with social consciousness. As Ramon Brunet, head of auditing, pointed out ‘40% of the economic guidelines approved in 2011 relate to food. Food production is very important, because food is subsidised for schools, old people’s homes and ration books.’
The brigade also visited the Internacional Cubana de Tabacos mechanised tobacco factory, a joint venture initiated by the TABACUBA state enterprise and Spain’s Promocigar, now owned by the British Imperial Tobacco Group which distributes Cuban cigars in 147 countries. The president of the joint venture is Cuban and a PCC member and while the vice president is Spanish all of the other workers are Cuban, with five CTC members on the management committee. The factory is recognised as a vanguard enterprise for its high rates of productivity, consistently surpassing targets. As at the UJC farm we visited, most workers participate in voluntary labour on two Saturdays every month.
Covered in political posters of revolutionary trade unionists and inspirational slogans promoting socialist emulation, the tobacco factory successfully combines material and moral incentives. Workers’ wages recently trebled to 735 CUP a month but voluntary labour continues, motivated by moral incentives and awards: the 70th anniversary banner of the CTC and the CTC’s highest honour, the Proeza Laboral. The consciousness of the workers was notable, the average age of the 80% female workforce is 30 years, and 82% are UJC members. Haimara Pompa, factory floor operative and General Secretary of the factory’s UJC branch declared that ‘today, the youth has a very important responsibility because we are the future. The young people defend the revolution and are very involved in this process.’ Whilst Stephanie Perez, marketing specialist maintained ‘Increasing production is important, because we want to develop the economy of our country, to create exports and improve the conditions of life for everyone…we have the same goal in the factory and in society. If we exceed our targets we generate more income for the country, this means we can buy more fertilisers, we can produce more food and it benefits all of us. The tobacco industry supports medicines, supports food production, this is our goal as workers, it is political.’
This sense of unity was on full display on 1 May, International Workers’ Day, when over one million Cubans gathered in the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana, despite the pouring rain, dancing and cheering through the streets, carrying homemade placards and workplace banners. Cuban and Venezuelan flags filled the square as Cuban workers proclaimed ‘Venezuela no esta sola’ – Venezuela is not alone. President of the Council of the State, Raul Castro, stood side by side with the President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, emphasising Cuba’s unwavering solidarity with Venezuela in the face of US sanctions and threats.
Led by the Cuban Five and their families, alongside doctors returning from Ebola missions in West Africa, the march underscored two key pillars of the revolution – unity in defence of Cuban socialism, and an unending commitment to international solidarity. The Cuban revolution is united and prepared for a new era of struggle. As UJC activist Yusdaguy Larduet Lopez told us, the words of Che Guevara from more than 50 years ago are more relevant than ever:
‘In the face of all the dangers, the threats and aggressions, the blockades, the sabotage, all those powers who try to restrain us, we must show once more our people’s capacity to make their own history. We must all be united, compañeros, firm in our faith, firmer than ever today, though perhaps not so firm as we shall be tomorrow, to go forward always with our eyes on the future, with our feet on the ground, building each step, and making sure of each step we take, so that we will never give up one inch of what we have won, of what we have built, of what is ours: socialism!’
Equality for all
The brigade met with representatives from CENESEX, including its Director, Mariela Castro, who informed us of their efforts to bolster this democratic process through their work. CENESEX works not only to provide sex education to the Cuban population, but also to educate to prevent discrimination against diverse sexualities – bisexuality, homosexuality and asexuality – and transgender people. Whilst the Cuban state does not discriminate against individuals, as demonstrated by the representation of women in the Cuban state, it is important to recognise that sexism and transphobia exist on a social level. This can play a part in curtailing participation. As Mayelin Gonzalez Rodriguez, of CENESEX’s international relations department, highlighted: ‘We live in a chauvinist society’.
This social prejudice is compounded by the US blockade. A transition operation is very expensive and Cuba cannot gain access to all the necessary materials very easily. Despite this, Cuba has been able to provide the operation to over 25 people for free. At present, CENESEX works directly with five social community networks: the Youth Network for Health and Sexual Rights, Transgender People Network (TransCuba), Network of Lesbian and Bisexual Women, Humans for Diversity and the Network of Lawyers for Sexual Rights. The centre organises events to promote acceptance of diversity in Cuban society. During our visit CENESEX was preparing for Cuba’s Eighth National Day against Homophobia and Transphobia, kick-starting a month of activities around 17 May international day against homophobia. The work of CENESEX, and organisations like it, is integral to ensuring an inclusive, participative democracy.
Women: in the vanguard of the Cuban revolution
Women in Cuba are:
66.3% of professionals and technicians;
60.9% of doctors;
64.2% of Cubans on international health missions;
70% of judges and prosecutors;
48.9% of the deputies to the National Assembly;
60.3% of university graduates;
42% of the members of the Council of the State;
74.3% of the trade union leadership;
48% of the workforce.
Watch the videos and read more about the Cuba Vive 2015 brigade at www.ratb.org.uk
Thank you to: Barbara Cantero Isasi, Yanniel Ortiz and Dayris Rabaza Roque (from the UJC), Fernando Gonzalez, Mariela Castro, Jorge Luis Fajardo, Jesus Garcia, Kenia Serrano, Noel Carrillo, Angel Arcos, Martin the bus driver, and to all the institutions, workplaces and centres we visited. Thank you to those who donated and contributed material aid towards the brigade, including RMT London branches.
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 245 June/July 2015