The large sign on the wall says it all: "One day of the
blockade is equal to 139 urban buses."
There is no doubt that Cuba has suffered at the hands of the USA since the blockade was imposed. Yet despite being starved of essential resources the Cuban people have demonstrated a remarkable resilience and inventiveness. As they say here: "Todo se resuelve." Everything will be solved.
When you walk around the streets of the capital, you can see examples everywhere of this creativity in the face of adversity. Buses are often made from tin boxes put together and then placed on the back of a lorry. Children make scooters from old bike parts. Old cars from pre-1958 trundle along on a wing and a prayer. Yet these old models and lorries belch out choking thick black smoke that pollutes the streets.
It is, however, in the area of medicine and health that the blockade takes its greatest toll. Children suffering from kidney problems are denied basic life saving help in drug treatment. This is only one example. In the early 1990s after the collapse of the subsidies from the Soviet Union in exchange for Cuban sugar, some people suffered from blindness resulting from a vitamin deficiency. This was cured from scarce resources.
Cuba's ability to get by whilst at the same time help others has to be admired and it is an indication that the Cuban revolution is still alive despite all the difficulties it faces. Despite being isolated at the behest of the USA, Cuba has a patient doctor ratio that is the envy of even so-called advanced countries. And while Cuba takes care of its own in terms of health care, it also exports its skills and personnel to other countries.
The Granma newspaper of October 28th reported just one example. The retired Bolivian officer Mario Teran, who fired the fatal shot that killed Che Guevara, was cured of blindness in Bolivia under Operacion Milagro staffed by Cuban doctors. Since 1963 Cuba has sent medical teams to help others even more unfortunate than itself. Some 42,000 Cuban medical staff are active in 102 countries around the world and 53,000 young people are being trained in medicine both in Cuba and in their own countries. 60 million people world wide are benefiting from this medical help and since the programmes began some 300 million have been treated. In Nicaragua alone since Daniel Ortega was elected back in January some 10,000 have received eye treatment and for many it is the first time that they have been able to see. The whole of Misión Barrio Adentro which provides basic primary health care in the poor communities in Venezuela would not have been possible without the 20,000 Cuban doctors and nurses who participate in it.
The vote therefore at the United Nations to call on the USA to end its blockade of the island was welcomed in Cuba. 184 countries voted against the USA blockade and only four in favour of it. The USA was able to muster voting allies in favour of its policy from Israel, the Marshall Islands and Palau. Yet the question that has to be asked is why the blockade has not ended already, since the UN has voted by majority since 1992 against it. On the one hand it is clear that the UN's decisions can be vetoed by powerful members and therefore it is an instrument of the status quo on a world scale, used as a fig leaf when it suits the interests of imperialism, discarded when it goes against them. On the other hand the need is raised for an international campaign based on workers organisations that can truly defend the gains of the Cuban revolution.
Despite the heroic attempts by the Cuban people to carry on under extremely harsh conditions, problems remain. In the capital Havana many buildings are in a state of collapse yet provide homes to many Cubans. Roads are full of potholes and when it rains, they fill up with water that lies stagnant, a breeding ground for mosquitoes. There are regular disinfestations of commercial premises using smoke machines.
The blockade of Cuba has also meant that many traditional industries like sugar have reached the stage of collapse. However, unlike in capitalist countries, all workers from the sugar industry have been either re-employed elsewhere or been given access to full time education.
The sugar workers of Cuba were like the miners in the UK. Thatcher set out deliberately to destroy the mining industry in order to destroy the NUM. The sugar industry here has collapsed due to a combination of the end of subsidised purchases from the Soviet bloc and the collapse of prices in the world market, with the result that the most militant section of the working class has been dispersed.
There are two currencies working side by side; the official
national currency and convertible pesos which are exchanged on par with the US
dollar at a rate of 1:1. The local currency will pay for newspapers, public
transport and is used in some food and clothes shops. Even if you are working
and getting paid in the national currency, most find it very hard to make ends
meet. If you want shoes or many items of clothing, you need convertible pesos.
How do ordinary Cubans get them?
Firstly, there are remittances sent to families by Cubans abroad. Secondly, you work in the growing tourist industry and get tips from foreigners. Thirdly, you hustle. It is called "jineterismo". You are approached all the time by mainly young men, but often young women, who start by asking the time. If you respond, the play continues until you are hooked. And this is a problem. How do you know if a Cuban wants to speak to you because they are interested in what you think or wants to find out where you are from? You don't until gradually the motives become clear. On my second day here 6 young men tried to hustle me. Initially I engaged in conversation and it soon became clear what the main gripe was.
People also get by selling sandwiches on street stalls or by
directly begging, especially the old.
The worst aspect of all of this is that on almost every street corner in the tourist centre of Havana there are pimps and prostitutes, while on opposite corners there are one or two police, some with dogs and some without, stopping and checking the IDs of anyone they want to stop. Yet prostitution is illegal and severely punished.
There is also a growing problem of street thefts using physical violence, something that previously did not exist. But people have to survive by any means possible.
On every street corner and in every doorway there are groups of young people, especially men, with nothing to do. Some of them might be receiving money from relatives abroad so they can live without working. Poverty is evident in terms of diet and clothing. Sections of society have become marginalised and therefore many seek a solution to their problems not in collective action but as individuals against the system
Almost every building has one or two guards in case
someone tries to steal something. I walked past a very small organic garden in
the old part of the city and there was a guard with a dog. He explained that it
was his job to ensure that no plants were stolen!
This fear of theft reflects a growing unease and malaise. People have to survive and will find any and every method in order to do so.
While these problems exist in Cuba, they are nothing
compared with the situation of poverty, destitution and crime one finds in any
Latin American country and by comparison living standards (in terms of health
care, access to education, living expectancy, etc) are still much higher in
The other thing that strikes you is the growing level of disbelief between government pronouncements and the reality at street level. The papers are full of targets that have been met in different areas of the economy, but many basic needs remain unmet at street level. Even the TV voices occasional criticisms where for example a theatre has been closed for 6 months for minor repairs that should only have taken a few weeks, yet when wood was needed to effect the repairs it was not available.
People in the street realise that many of the shortages are due to the blockade, yet they are also beginning to realise that the way society is organised also has a lot to do with it.
On the one hand the planned and state owned economy has
to enjoy free education, free health care, very cheap housing and public
transport that is so cheap it is practically free. Yet on the other hand there
is almost no opportunity for ordinary Cubans to participate in the running of
society. Socialism needs the oxygen of a workers' democracy with all citizens
having the right to decide on policy at all levels.
The growing discussion here is therefore, where is Cuba going and what part can everyone play in that discussion? What you don't often hear is a desire to emulate the model of capitalist development that took place in the old Soviet bloc countries, but China is growing in influence here with 3 TV stations that all Cubans can access. Is this a sign that certain sections of the bureaucracy are looking at the Chinese model of capitalist development controlled by a "Communist Party" as a way out of the impasse?
In this context the recent visit of Hugo Chavez provoked some very interesting reactions. In his speech that was televised live he declared that he was a Trotskyist. When the speech was retransmitted that part was edited out and the press also said nothing of it. Yet millions heard it. It was just like the old photo of Lenin on a wooden podium with Trotsky standing on the steps that was airbrushed under Stalinism.
The effect here was electric. On the one hand those who are looking for a revolutionary Marxist way out of the crisis based on defence of the planned economy but seeing the need to extend the revolution to other countries as well as fighting for a genuine workers democracy were emboldened. Those who had perhaps only heard of Trotsky but knew nothing of him were then asking how they could get hold of his writings. Chavez is a hero here, so if he is a Trotskyist then they should be too! Even elements within the military are reading Leon Trotsky in their search for a solution.
There is an opening. Fidel released a speech that was published in Granma, official organ of the Cuban CP, on October 27th. The occasion was the 48th anniversary of the death of a leading revolutionary, Camilo Cienfuegos. Fidel quoted the famous words of Abraham Lincoln: "You can fool some of the people all of the time, or all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time." The words were directed at the USA but could equally be directed at sections of the bureaucracy here, which have been criticised by Fidel in the past.
What epitomised what is happening was a meeting that I went to on October 31st. It had been billed as a discussion on October 1917. The actual title was the influence of different socialist ideas on the Cuban CP up to 1953. Out of the three speakers on the platform, two of them mentioned the importance of Leon Trotsky and his writings, with one specifically saying that the development of the Cuban Communist Party cannot be understood without people having read the ideas of Leon Trotsky. There were about 70 people at the meeting.
These are early days here. There has been a small opening that is pushed wider by events, such as the visit of Chavez. There is a thirst for ideas at all levels of society. Ideas that will defend the gains of the Cuban revolution, will not mean a return to capitalism, but will mean a growing influence of the ideas of Trotsky. The concept of Socialism in one country has proved to be a fallacy as has the theory of the two stage revolution. Only the idea of the permanent revolution of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky will provide the answer to the Cuban revolution.
November 1st 2007