- Created: Friday, 15 February 2019 16:29
- Written by Will Harney
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 268 February/March 2019
1 January 2019 marked 60 years since the triumph of the Cuban revolution, when on New Year’s Day 1959 the dictator Fulgencio Batista fled from Cuba after the battle of Santa Clara, and the forces of revolution declared victory. This was the beginning of the end for US imperialist control, and the start of a process to transform society that, from the outset, has methodically improved the lives of people within and outside Cuba. As Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara declared: ‘The victory of the Cuban Revolution will be a tangible demonstration that peoples are capable of rising up, that they can rise up by themselves right under the very fangs of the monster.’ The US has never forgiven Cuba for showing the world an alternative to capitalism. In this time of growing reaction against Latin America’s anti-imperialist movements and governments, we have a duty to celebrate the enduring achievements of Cuban socialism. Will Harney reports.
Providing for the needs of the working class
Before the revolution, Cuban industry was geared almost entirely towards the needs of US capital. US sugar companies controlled 75% of arable land, and left half of it fallow. Unemployment was a structural feature of the economy as half a million Cuban seasonal workers struggled to survive between sugar harvests. This state of affairs was maintained through US interference, corruption and, when necessary, dictatorship. The revolution has allowed the people of Cuba to shrug off the yoke of imperialism and direct the island’s economy towards the needs of everyone. Socialist central planning, state ownership of industry and a welfare-based model put power in the hands of the workers. Cuba now directs 51% of its state budget towards education and healthcare and is recognised by the World Wildlife Fund as the only country in the world that is developing sustainably within the carrying capacity of its ecosystem.
Cuba’s achievements have not come easy but are the result of determined class struggle guided by the Cuban Communist Party (CCP). The USSR had been a key ally and supporter of Cuba, and during the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the 1990s Cuba lost 35% of its GDP and 85% of its trade. The Cuban people survived this ‘Special Period’ of intense hardship through careful planning, as well as commitment to their revolution under terrible circumstances. Today Cuba continues to take the necessary steps to sustain growth and maintain its socialist system, but unlike in capitalist countries the costs of the global economic crisis are not shifted onto the poorest through cruel neoliberal ‘shock therapy’, austerity or unemployment. A programme of restructuring the economic and political system of Cuba has been underway since the 2000s, approved by the CCP’s 6th Congress in 2011 following debates involving nine million (out of 11.2 million) Cubans. The constitution is now being updated to reflect these changes. In a process of mass democracy in which the vast majority of Cubans have participated, through local meetings, debates and referenda, the people are agreeing upon the changes needed to continue the revolution (see FRFI 265).
In pre-revolutionary 1950s Cuba, 60% of the population lacked access to schools and 41.7% were illiterate. Only 1% of Cubans had attended university. To eliminate the class divisions of Cuban society, it was necessary to revolutionise access to education. 37 schools were built in the first year of the revolution. The 1960 literacy campaign recruited 300,000 volunteers and eliminated illiteracy within a year; Cuba now has a higher literacy rate than the US, and education is provided free up to university level. Cuba’s ‘Yo si puedo’ (‘Yes, I can’) literacy model has also been emulated successfully in 29 countries with the supervision of Cuban educators, allowing six million people to develop basic literacy. According to the World Bank, Cuba dedicates more of its budget to education than any other country, at around 13% of GDP.
Cuba is famous for its world-class health system. There are now more doctors per capita in Cuba than any other country on Earth, around seven per 1,000 (the figure for Britain is about 2.2 per 1,000). Cuba’s infant mortality rate has consistently fallen, and 2018 was the second consecutive year with a rate lower than 4.0 per 1,000 live births; it has the lowest infant mortality rate in the Americas, lower than Brazil, Canada or the US, despite being a relatively poor Caribbean nation and despite the US blockading Cuba and restricting access to life-saving medical supplies and drugs. What is also striking is equality of provision – in Cuba the rates of infant mortality are fairly equal across all regions, while in Canada, for example, infant mortality is much higher among indigenous communities and in inner-city areas. Cuba has some of the lowest rates of HIV in the region, lower than the US, and in 2015 was the first country to eliminate mother-to-child HIV and syphilis transmission. Cuba’s biotech industry is responsible for many important advances in medicine, including the world’s first effective meningitis B vaccine, various cancer treatments and the first synthetic vaccine for the prevention of pneumonia.
Linked to Cuba’s achievements in healthcare and education are the advances in women’s liberation that have occurred as a result of socialism. From 1953 to 1959 women like Vilma Espin and Celia Sanchez took leading roles in the revolutionary armed struggle against Batista, and today women occupy the highest levels of political leadership in the country. After Rwanda, Cuba is the country with the highest number of women MPs, making up 53.2% of the National Assembly of People’s Power, and 48.3% of the Council of State are women. Since 1965, abortion has been available free, safe and on-demand, almost unique in Latin America. Equal pay for men and women is enforced by the state, and the employment rate for women in 2017 was above 97% – compared to 14% in 1953.
Cuba has been a constant supporter of national liberation movements resisting imperialism. In 1979 Cuba supported the Sandinista revolutionaries in Nicaragua, financially and politically, to overthrow the US-backed Somoza dictatorship. In a direct challenge to imperialism, the Sandinista government undertook a programme of nationalisations, health, literacy, education and land reform, resulting in significant reductions in poverty. In 1976 and again in 1988, Cuba provided military assistance to the Angolan People’s Liberation Movement to beat back invasion by the apartheid forces of South Africa and Zaire. Cuba has consistently spoken out at the United Nations against Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
Cuba remains a key ally of progressive anti-imperialist movements and governments in Latin America. It has been a crucial component of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), founded in 2004 by Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Fidel Castro. ALBA promotes regional development independent of the US through south-south cooperation and state-led social programmes. It is an alternative to neoliberal free-trade policies promoted by the US and its allies, which ultimately benefit international corporations and US imperialism. ALBA has also successfully pushed for the removal of US military personnel from several Latin American countries such as Ecuador and Bolivia.
Not only has Cuba supported armed struggles for liberation in countries resisting imperialism, it has also led the way in medical internationalism. Britain, like the US, uses special immigration privileges to import doctors from countries in the global south, creating a brain drain and using those nations to pay for their training. At the same time, Britain exports weapons which are used to kill people in poor nations (see Yemen: who are the Houthis?). In contrast, Cuba trains doctors from around the world in order to fulfil its international commitments and sends its doctors to other countries to save countless lives of the poorest people. 35,613 health professionals from 138 countries have been trained in Cuba at no cost.
Operation Miracle, a programme of ALBA, saw Cuba and Venezuela provide free treatment for eye problems in the two countries and in 34 others. Similarly, the ‘Mais Medicos’ (More Doctors) mission in Brazil was initiated in August 2013 by then-president Dilma Rousseff to place doctors in the more remote and impoverished settlements around the country. The More Doctors programme included thousands of Cuban medical professionals – some 20,000 had participated since 2013, and at the end of November there were 8,471 working in Brazil. They had assisted 113,590,000 patients in more than 3,600 municipalities, accounting for 80% of the doctors in the programme and providing health coverage for 60 million Brazilians. More than 700 municipalities were able to benefit from having a doctor for the first time ever. They worked in areas where Brazilian doctors typically do not want to work, including the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Salvador de Bahia and the 34 Special Indigenous Districts.
In November 2018, Cuba was forced to order doctors to withdraw from their international mission in Brazil. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has declared his hostility to the programme and questioned the qualifications of Cuban medical professionals. At the same time, he has encouraged Cuban medical professionals to desert their country and become Brazilian citizens, an echo of the ‘parole programme’ set up by US President George W Bush in 2006 to give special immigration rights to Cuban health personnel working in third countries as an incentive to abandon their mission and emigrate to the US. On 14 January 2019, 2,500 Cuban medics leaving Brazil were welcomed to Venezuela, where up to 28,000 Cuban medics have been providing free medical provision at any one time since the early 2000s.
The revolution must be defended
The US has relentlessly sought to undermine the Cuban revolution through invasion, assassination attempts, political interference, terrorist attacks, the spreading of propaganda (see ‘As Cuba goes online, US plans subversion’ on our website), and of course the blockade, which has deprived the country of an accumulated $933bn of development capital over almost 60 years, the longest blockade in history.
On 16 January 2019 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the Trump administration was conducting a review of Title III of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, a piece of US legislation which strengthened the blockade of Cuba. Title III allows US nationals (most importantly, exiled Cuban bourgeoisie) whose assets were confiscated by the Cuban state to sue persons that may be ‘trafficking’ in those assets. Successive US Presidents since 1996 have constantly suspended Title III for six months at a time, preventing such lawsuits from being filed. This policy is the result of a non-binding agreement between the US and EU in April 1997 intended to smooth relations between the two imperialist powers, as EU companies and individuals could have faced legal action from US nationals for trading with Cuba if Title III was allowed to operate.
The Trump administration’s decision to review Title III for 45 days instead of suspending it for six months is a sign of the escalating inter-imperialist rivalry between the US and EU; once the review period is up, companies and individuals outside the US (including here in Britain) could be placed under intense legal and financial pressure to comply with the blockade and starve Cuba of investment. This would be a dramatic broadening of the current US administration’s hostile policy towards Cuba, which has been marked by spurious accusations in 2017 of ‘sonic attacks’ on US diplomats providing a pretext for cutting diplomatic ties, and the announcement of new sanctions against Cuba by Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton on 1 November 2018.
In threatening to activate Title III, the US State Department cited Cuba’s ‘indefensible support for increasingly authoritarian and corrupt regimes in Venezuela and Nicaragua’. The US empire is attempting to sink its fangs deeper into Latin America and infest the continent with right-wing reaction and fascism, so as to remove all barriers to profitable investment. Imperialist Britain will inevitably lend its support to this terror. Socialists in Britain must, with growing urgency, publicly defend the achievements of Cuban socialism.
Long live the Cuban revolution!