Reportback From Cuba: Washington Retreats, The Revolution Advances
By Ike Nahem
From April 28 – May 5, 2015 representatives of the July 26 Coalition of New York-New Jersey organized a people-to-people program to Cuba with a dozen travelers.
Our delegation included doctors and other health care providers, teachers, trade unionists, and activists against the decades-long U.S. government policy aimed at destroying the Cuban Revolution which triumphed in 1959.
That unchanging anti-Cuba policy – which has included, over the decades, mercenary invasion, economic and travel sanctions, state-sponsored terrorism, sabotage, and even biological warfare, as well as all forms of covert action and subversion – ultimately resulted in the utter and embarrassing isolation of the U.S. government across the Americas and at the United Nations year after year, as well as in public opinion at home, and seems to be finally collapsing in its contemporary form.
On December 17, 2014 President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro agreed to begin a process aiming at the normalization of diplomatic relations and the prospect of mutually beneficial economic and cultural exchanges. Nevertheless, while Washington has clearly retreated politically, the economic embargo remains in place. Furthermore US goals of replacing Cuba’s workers and farmers government and workers state with a capitalist government and state are unchanged. Backing these goals up are the subversive covert programs, copiously funded by the US Congress despite rampant corruption and constant exposure and unraveling by Cuban counter-measures.
Still the emerging majority consensus in the US Establishment is that the forms and methods employed in the past toward these goals had clearly reached a dead end and that the political price for maintaining them had become unsustainable and unacceptable. That is why it is correct to characterize what has taken place as a retreat and a tactical retreat. But it is also true that such a significant change in form creates a new dynamic and puts great pressure on the content of US anti-Cuba policies.
We see this unfolding today.
On May 29, 2015 the US State Department officially removed Cuba from its arbitrary and selective list of nation-states that supposedly sponsor “terrorism.” This was a minimum pre-condition for any progress towards a formal diplomatic normalization that Washington has concluded is now in US interests. Speaker of the US House of Representatives John Boehner ripped the Obama administration after the State Department announcement saying that it had “handed the Castro regime a significant political win in return for nothing.” His obvious demagogy aside, Boehner is basically telling the truth. It is expected that the formal opening of official Embassies in Washington and Havana will take place before the end of 2015.
[Footnote 1: Cuba was originally placed on the State Department “terrorism” list during the revolutionary upsurge in Central America during the 1980s. Cuba at the time was in solidarity with, and provided whatever political and material support it could, to the revolutionary Sandinista government in Nicaragua that had overthrown the US-back Somoza family dictatorship, and to the revolutionary movements of workers and peasants in El Salvador and Guatemala. Those guerrilla movements were battling atrociously brutal and terroristic military regimes, backed to the hilt by the United States government. Washington and the Central American oligarchies ruling by military terror were all panicked by the triumph of the neighboring Nicaraguan Revolution
Cuba’s inclusion on the “list” by Washington is stunning in its in-your-face hypocrisy. At the time the US government was covertly organizing, sustaining, and arming the contras in Nicaragua, whose “military” operations were textbook examples of terrorism in their targeting of peasants and civilians in the Nicaraguan countryside – the large majority — who supported the Sandinista Revolution. The US-backed government in El Salvador presided over a regime where death squads aimed at working people in the cities and countryside murdered some 70,000 civilians. In Guatemala, the military regime, initially brought to power by a 1954 CIA-led coup, and sustained for many years by Washington became so brutal and even genocidal that the US government was forced to take its distance and military support for the regime was farmed out to the government of Israel.]
As part of the further loosening of the travel restrictions implemented by President Obama, our group was able to fly to Havana directly by charter from JFK airport in New York.
[Footnote 2: Legally, US citizens must still travel as part of licensed “people-to-people” groups and not, with the exception of Cuban-Americans, as individuals, families, or simply tourists. But prior approval from the US Treasury Department is not now required.]
On our plane were many Cuban-Americans who have been traveling to the island freely for several years, renewing family and cultural ties in their country of origin. This registers a sharp turnaround in Cuban-American public opinion in favor of normalization of relations and the crumbling of the long domination of that community by counter-revolutionary exile forces – the defeated Cuban national bourgeoisie and its acolytes –who were committed to the violent overthrow of the Cuban government, in the service of bipartisan – that is, a policy uniting Democrats and Republicans – Washington’s anti-Cuba policy for over five decades.
This is a very important development, but not for the reasons usually presented.
Over the decades, bipartisan Washington used the excuse and cover of the so-called “Miami Lobby” and it’s supposed decisive weight and influence in domestic US politics regarding US anti-Cuba policy, to pursue its counter-revolutionary designs against revolutionary Cuba. The need for Florida’s electoral votes was supposedly blocking normalization of relations. This was always a myth. Washington has never needed a layer of counter-revolutionary exiles to convince them to oppose and fight the Cuban Revolution. And, of course, it was the CIA and other US government agencies that set up these defeated forces – who were generally made up of agents of the overthrown military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista – leadership in business and political influence, and who armed, organized, funded, subsidized, and sustained them and the paramilitary and terrorist outfits they established, such as Alpha 66 and Omega 7, as forces to fight the Cuban revolutionary government.
What is significant is that this shift in Cuban-American opinion and attitudes, and the near-total discrediting and loss of authority of the rightist exile leadership groups combined with the utter, embarrassing isolation of US-policy in the Americas and worldwide facilitated an emerging consensus within the US Establishment and policymakers that the anti-Cuba policies in their traditional form was unsustainable. It was the Obama Administration that took it upon itself to implement this new US ruling-class consensus.
Medical Agreements With New York State
Just before our trip, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo and an entourage including businesspeople, traveled to Havana and met top Cuban officials. Among the agreements inked was a contract between the Roswell Park Cancer Institute of Buffalo, New York, on Tuesday signed an agreement with Cuba’s Center for Molecular Immunology to develop a lung cancer vaccine with a clinical trial in the United States. Another agreement with a New York-based software company was reached on the integration and digitalization of Cuban medical data.
Many US citizens would be surprised to learn that Cuba is a major world medical “power.” The Caribbean island of less than 12 million people recently sent more doctors to fight the Ebola epidemic in West Africa than the rest of the world combined. Cuba has tens of thousands of doctors and other medical personnel working across the globe where medical care of any kind is often rare. This Cuban effort is widely recognized and praised by the United Nations and world medical associations. Special Cuban emergency response teams are regularly dispatched to help in disaster relief efforts, most recently the earthquake in Nepal.
Cuba trains free of charge medical students from around the world, including from the United States who are motivated to become doctors and serve in poor and working-class underserved communities in their home countries. Cuban laboratories and medical institutions and universities are world leaders in preventing and treating the infectious diseases such as dengue fever, that accompany conditions of social oppression and underdevelopment that characterize the so-called “Third World.” Cuba’s biomedical industry is at the cutting edge of the field worldwide.
Santa Clara and the Presence of Che
In Cuba our group spent several days in Havana and at the end of our stay visited the Varadero resort area for two days, with some of the most stunning beaches in the world.
In between we visited the lovely city of Santa Clara, population 240,000, where the decisive battle of the Cuban Revolution was fought.
[Footnote 3: For a riveting account of the Battle of Santa Clara, see Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War by Ernesto Che Guevara, Pathfinder Press, pp. 317-334]
Santa Clara was where an army of hundreds of guerrilla fighters led by Ernesto Che Guevara defeated thousands of demoralized troops of the dictator Fulgencio Batista, a battle which opened the door to the conquest of Havana by Fidel Castro’s revolutionary army. Preserved intact in a Santa Clara park is the famous derailed troop train, sabotaged by pro-Revolution railroad workers, that was key to the guerrilla victory.
Che Guevara was killed in 1967 in Bolivia where he had been trying to organize a continental revolutionary army to fight US-backed Latin American military dictatorships. Since then Che became – and remains more than ever today – a legendary emblem of anti-imperialism and revolutionary struggle worldwide. His image is ubiquitous across Cuba. When Che’s remains were recovered and forensically confirmed in 1997 from a field where they had been dumped by his executors, they were returned to Cuba, along with those of his fellow fighters. A stunning statue of Che overlooks Santa Clara’s Plaza of the Revolution. A museum and mausoleum built in in Che’s memory is part of the complex. Tourists stream into Santa Clara from around the world to see it all. We met visitors from Germany, France, China, Israel, Norway, and several Latin American and African countries.
May Day in Havana
Another highlight of our trip was our participation in Havana’s May Day parade where one million Cuban workers mobilized in a massive outpouring of dancing, chanting, and singing. It was an almost surreal festival-like celebration organized by the Confederation of Cuban Workers (CTC). While a Cuban jazzy, salsa-esque orchestra blared infectious Caribbean beats, Cuban workers from every trade and industry — from ballet dancers to athletes to medical workers and railroaders –paraded with banners and homemade signs. The parade was led this year by medical personnel who had returned from West Africa fighting the Ebola epidemic.
Our group was on the reviewing platform, along with over 1000 international guests, not far from where Cuban President Raul Castro and other top Cuban leaders waved at the marching and chanting Cuban workers. We met groups of trade unionists and others from Brazil, Chile, Venezuela, Germany, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Italy and many other lands.
Half-way through the parade, which begins gathering in the early morning with the rising sun, a steady, mounting rain began to fall. This seemed only to increase the enthusiasm of the workers who marched and danced. Umbrellas went up and ponchos went on. The orchestra’s musical numbers became more animated, punctured with intensely dramatic blaring and syncopated trumpeting. As the last contingents passed by the band belted out the traditional socialist anthem, “The Internationale:”
Arise ye prisoners of starvation/ Arise ye wretched of the Earth/ For justice thunders condemnation/ A better world’s in birth/ No more tradition’s chain’s shall bind us/ Arise ye slaves, no more in thrall/ The Earth shall rise on new foundations/ We have been naught, we shall be all.
May Day has faded or become a bureaucratic routine in many countries, but in proudly socialist Cuba it is not only a national holiday but a festive — patriotic and internationalist — mass mobilization of the Cuban working class. It is truly a sight to behold – a mile of ordinary and extraordinary Cuban working people and families, waving, dancing, and chanting.
Witnessing May Day 2015 in Havana gives the lie to any notion that Cuban working people do not fiercely identify with their Revolution and the fundamentals of the social relations and system ushered in by the Cuban Revolution.
Having said that, Cubans, far from any bogus stereotype of a cowed, oppressed people, are quite contentious and argumentative in their views on how to move their society forward. They have no Pollyannaish illusions or rose-colored glasses in looking at their grinding economic problems and challenges in labor productivity, technological backwardness, housing shortages, and so on.
They tend, in my observation, to be very engaged in finding solutions. Many expressed the hope that the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba will lead to greater industrial and agricultural development for the country.
Political Relaxation and Mass Participation
Over the decades, Washington’s unremitting efforts to defeat and destroy the Cuban Revolution have led to vigorous measures in self-defense. US -backed counter-revolutionary efforts have necessarily been “repressed.” U.S. Anti-Cuba policies haveincluded violence and terrorist attacks organized illegally from US soil which have killed some 3500 Cuban citizens since the 1959 triumph of the Revolution. Since the defeat of the CIA-organized mercenary invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, Washington has never ceased to this day its countless subversive programs, mostly covert, aimed at weakening the Cuban Revolution. These programs aim at gaining points-of-support inside the country for more direct US intervention to overturn and eradicate the Cuban Revolution.
Such a “siege” from a huge military, economic, and political Colossus like the United States government can produce a “siege mentality” on the part of the recipient and are certainly not conducive to a full flowering of political space and civil liberties. Nevertheless Cuba since the Revolution has always been marked by a genuine mass grass-roots participation in decision-making policies, far from the caricature of a personal one-man dictatorship.
There is in Cuba today undoubtedly a more relaxed political atmosphere and context in which debates and discussions take place among the Cuban people over the new economic and other polices and changes that are being implemented.
These policies are thrashed out in continuous mass forums in workplaces and neighborhoods as well as in the trade unions and grass-roots mass organizations of women, private and co-operative farmers, students, artists and intellectuals, and within the Cuban Communist Party. This is the actual dynamic that frames and guides policymaking decisions and legislation. And the fruits are already apparent in legal and other positive changes on questions ranging from expanded travel rights to ending all legal discrimination and vastly opening up social and cultural space for LGBT Cuban citizens. Any objective observer visiting the island – without malice or prejudice in their brain and heart – cannot but note the desire and ability of average Cuban working people to engage in no-holds-barred discussions on all the questions and challenges facing Cuba today, and debating the policies to overcome them.
The relative political weakening of Washington’s anti-Cuba policy, combined with the mounting changes in the political dynamics among Cuban-Americans, has paved the way for significant shifts in the political orientation and policies of the Cuban government. The Raul Castro-led government feels more confident in politically engaging with the “Cuban Diaspora,” including in its South Florida heart, and at the same time is less inclined to carry out legal prosecutions and punitive measures against those who collaborate and consort with US government agencies and their subversive schemes in obvious violations of Cuban law. The overhaul in Cuban travel regulations is one example. The release of all “dissidents,” some 75 in all, convicted and imprisoned following increased threats to Cuba in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, is another. Today, Amnesty International and the Cuban Catholic Church, who have both, to varying degrees, advocated in favor of these US-connected “dissidents” have declared that there are no more, as they term it, “political prisoners” in Cuba.
Emerging Out of the “Special Period”
Cuba is emerging from an extended period of economic crisis and contraction following the overnight collapse of its economic relations with defunct Soviet-bloc governments in the early 1990s. It’s slow, steady recovery was further interrupted by a series of devastating hurricanes a few years back. The effects of what the Cubans call the “Special Period” are still widely apparent but are more clearly being overcome.
Cuba’s economy had become tied to the Soviet bloc to the point where 85% of its economic exchange was with it. Almost overnight these relations collapsed. Cuba’s economic output fell 35%. Factories shut down for lack of parts. Produce rotted in fields as farm equipment could not move. Oxen replaced tractors. Surgeries were performed in the open sun for lack of electricity. Blackouts were the norm. Those dog days from the early-to-late 1990s were known as the “Special Period.”
It was precisely at this time that the US embargo and sanctions were deepened and intensified. Bipartisan Washington hoped that once and for all, it could be rid of the “pestilence” of the Cuban Revolution, its example and outsized political resonance and influence in the Americas and the world. It was inconceivable to the US government that the “Castro” Revolution could survive these blows. Washington passed legislation, the Torricelli and Helms-Burton “Acts,” that tightened the US embargo and attempted to “internationalize” it into a de facto blockade by pressuring and threatening with penalties other countries or enterprises that independently traded with Cuba.
Cuba began to climb out from the “Special Period” at the turn of the 20th Century. Key to this was new economic and political relations with Venezuela, Brazil, and other Latin American countries prepared to stand up to Washington’s pressure, as well as increased economic ties with China. At this time Latin America was undergoing major political shifts with mass resistance growing to the so-called “neo-liberal Washington Consensus” policies of austerity and assaults on working people. In particular the Bolivarian government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela forged a close alliance with revolutionary Cuba, that included providing oil and energy needs to the island, while Cuba provided the Bolivarian government thousands of doctors and teachers that greatly boosted the access of Venezuelan working people to quality medical care and education. Over time, in this period, all Latin American governments united to oppose Washington’s attempts to isolate and overturn the Cuban government and Revolution.
Inside Cuba there was a significant revival of the tourism industry which brought in urgently needed foreign exchange to maintain the basic conquests of the Revolution in free, top-notch medical care and education. Some three million foreign visitors come to the island and experience its charms and beauty each year. Cuban officials are bracing and preparing for a major expansion of the tourist industry if and when US travel restrictions – loosened but still in place – are finally abolished. Recent surveys indicate that some 30% of US citizens have a desire to visit Cuba.
Today the effects of the “Special Period” are still widely apparent. But to this observer, having visited Cuba many times from the worst depths of the Special Period, and most recently two years ago, it is also apparent that the Special Period is steadily receding into the past and being overcome at an accelerated pace. Along the famed Malecon seafront, many classic old structures and buildings have been rebuilt and repainted and new buildings put up. Old Havana, already a United Nations Heritage site, is renewing its status as an architectural gem.
The new economic policies being led and implemented by the Raul Castro-led government seem to be accumulating steady progress.
We observed an expansion and greater visibility for privately owned restaurants, called paladores, where we took in a number of fine meals, which are emerging from a quasi-underground existence, more visible with nice signs and lighting.
The New Economic Policies
In recent years new economic policies are being debated and implemented nationwide. They are aimed at increasing labor productivity and efficiency; technologically modernizing and refitting industrial plant and infrastructure; boosting food production by offering land and other state support and subsidies to private family farmers and farming cooperatives; reducing the state and government bureaucracy; and encouraging private wholesale and retail operations, especially in services. While these policies seem to be kicking in, qualitative progress is contingent on attracting capital for investment. Much of this is coming from China, other Latin American countries, and Canada. Soon a major port at Mariel Harbor will be opened, largely developed in partnership with Brazilian capital.
These new economic policies debated and being implemented by the Raul Castro-led government have three main components:
1. An increase in labor productivity and economic efficiency. This is tied to a radical reduction of the state and government bureaucracy and the retraining of these released officials into industrial and agricultural jobs, or self-employment. For this drive to be successful it will require investment capital directed towards new technologies and management skills as infrastructure is built and modernized. As this happens, the social consequence will be an increase in the size and social weight of the industrial working class in Cuba.
2. An increase in food production and the size of the population engaged in agriculture, whether in the form of private farming or cooperatives. These suffered big blows during the Special Period. Food imports had to be increased radically (at great expense for limited foreign exchange funds urgently needed for health care, education, infrastructure, and so on) as agricultural productions virtually collapsed and young people fled farms for work in tourism and in the cities. After the Cuban Revolution radical land reform massively distributed farm land monopolized by a handful of Cuban and US landlords, to peasant families. There was never in the Cuban Revolution any forced collectivization of agriculture as was disastrously and murderously undertaken in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. The Cuban government today is offering major incentives and subsidies for Cuban families that choose to return to farming and my definite impression was that this is registering a steady, if still moderate, success. Food production is up and food imports are down. Improved living standards, if not yet prosperity, are characterizing the Cuban countryside.
3. The expansion of self-employment. In the late 1960s – under tremendous political pressure and security threats – the Cuban government made the decision to nationalize and operate many small businesses and services. This is widely viewed today as either an outright mistake or an obsolete policy necessitated by the adverse conditions of a different period and its now transcended pressures. In any case, an important feature of these new economic policies has been to expand a layer – through state incentives and subsidies – of small business owners, mainly in wholesale and retail operations and services, and steadily move the workers state out of these economic functions and categories. This is the aspect of the new economic policies that have attracted the most attention in the US media, practically reducing the entirety of the new policies to this third component. Nevertheless, while important, especially in raising the quantity and quality of services and the availability of consumer items, this is wholly subordinate to and, to reach its full fruition, counts on the success of the first and second components, that is: raising labor productivity; industrial modernization; technological transformation; infrastructure expansion and maintenance; increased food production; and the expansion of private and cooperative farming.
Cost and Vulnerability
Cuba has certainly scored a historic political victory in forcing a clear retreat in Washington. But it is also an objective fact that the decades of US aggression, economic sanctions, and extraterritorial attempts at an asphyxiating blockade, have had a deleterious effect and impact on Cuban economic development and prosperity in particular and on the full flowering of Cuban civic institutions. The Cuban communist leadership is the first to recognize this objective and subjective reality which creates certain vulnerabilities and points of attack for the major capitalist powers, especially the US and European Union (EU). The bourgeois EU institutions – currently in the throes of a sharpening economic, social, and political crisis amid mounting mass resistance to anti-working class “austerity” policies – are in no way less committed than their NATO allies in Washington, to the full restoration in Cuba of a dependent capitalist government and the domination of capitalist property and social relations, The European capitalist classes, and their, for now, still-dominant conservative and social-democratic political faces, have long understood, ahead of their US allies-competitors, that the policy of direct aggression and visceral antagonism toward revolutionary Cuba would never work and never advance their common goals.
Revolutionary Cuba’s essential challenge – the basic contradiction it faces in this new stage of its confrontation with Washington – is that while they have essentially defeated the decades-long policy of US imperialism and forced a significant retreat by Washington at this moment and hold a strong political position and the moral high ground, their economic and financial situation, while improving and relatively stable, remains very difficult and allows a certain vulnerability and points of attack for the capitalist powers, including among friends in the so-called Third World.
Cuba needs capital, that is concentrated long term investment in land, means of production, and services, which, at this time, and for the foreseeable future, must come, decisively, from outside the country. Cuba, of course, can and will develop a certain, limited amount of capital out of its own internal measures. But this will be short of what is needed for qualitative advances in industrial and agricultural development.
Foreign investment is imperative for the Cuban workers state to carry out its plans for industrialization, technological modernization, and the growth of labor productivity, as well as the reduction of government and state bureaucracy, the numerical expansion of the industrial working class, the rapid growth of agricultural productivity and food production, and the numerical expansion of private and co-operative family farmers.
The challenge and contradiction will be how Cuba’s leadership and mobilized people carry this out. Incoming capital flows will have to be guaranteed a sufficient rate of return but the Cuban workers state maintains a monopoly of foreign trade and labor contracts. Policies regarding the terms, mechanisms, and legal framework for majority ownership of joint enterprises with foreign, private business entities, are being debated and codified.
Private, foreign capital will naturally want to expand the parameters within which it operates, including independent ownership. Foreign capitalists will naturally push their political prerogatives through methods open and covert, using the power of cash to influence within Cuban law and corrupt outside it. But, in any case, the harsh truth is that they have much of the technology, skills, know-how, and management expertise that the Cuban workers state and revolutionaries need. This is the highly contradictory framework around which events will now unfold over the next period.
Cuba might be considered “poor” by “middle-class” US standards. But it is a strange “poverty.” You see no destitution of desperate drug-ravaged, “gang”-infested communities (hello West Baltimore!) that are widespread in every Latin American and Caribbean country, including the US. Street crime, begging, and homelessness are virtually non-existent. Police presence in the streets is barely noticeable and the police are not viewed as antagonistic forces of repression and social containment.
Every Cuban child is in school getting a first-rate, totally free education. Technical schools, Vocational colleges, universities, and graduate schools are all free of charge. The health-care system – with a focus on prevention — is a marvel of community-based organization and compassion, with clinics in every neighborhood. It is all free of charge, from checkups, vaccinations, and medications through heart and transgender surgery. With limited resources, and often antiquated equipment and technology (the US economic embargo has prevented Cuba from buying medical products with US-manufactured components) Cuba’s medical system has nevertheless produced life-expectancy levels equal to the US and infant-mortality rates among the world’s lowest.
Activists in the movement to end all US sanctions against Cuba and to establish normalized relations between our two countries are today seeing the fruits of these long struggles.
In rationalizing their retreat, those Establishment forces promoting the normalization of US-Cuban relations, argue that doing this will remove outdated policies that have become obstacles for the unchanging US goal of overturning the Cuban Revolution. They argue that US policies give the Cuban government an “excuse” for repression. They argue that US travelers – who they still restrict legally – will bring to the “oppressed and suffering” Cuban people the ideas and values of “democracy,” “liberty,” and “enterprise.” In truth, they are, and need to be, worried, that US visitors to Cuba will be impacted by Cuba’s ideas and values of working-class and human solidarity, internationalism, and power.
Having visited and led many delegations to Cuba in years past, I am often told that what strikes people the most is the gap – chasm really – between the relentless anti-Cuba propaganda that paints the “communist” island as a totalitarian hell of oppressed, cowering people and the actual Cuban social and political reality, with all its problems, challenges, and contradictions.
Above all a trip to Cuba combines stunning beauty, a fantastic music and art scene, and a history that has truly helped define, and continues to impact, the world. Finally all of this appears to be opening up to US citizens. Take advantage of this change.