Speech on the occasion of Fidel’s 80th birthday
13th August 2006 at Petersham Town Hall, Sydney
by Bob Treasure — Convenor, Promotion of Public Education
Companeras y Companeros, distinguished guests from Cuba and Venezuela, comrades ...
I am not a fan of the cult of personality, and I don’t think that Fidel, despite his high profile in global politics, I don’t think he is either.
But I am a supporter of the alternative society represented by the Cuban people and thus its government and its leader, Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz, whose birthday we are celebrating here tonight. In that context, in the context of who and what Fidel represents to the world, I urge you to celebrate with me:
Comrades, tonight I want to compare two nation states of the world. One has a population of 20 million, is rich in natural resources, is fortunate in that it always had markets for its natural produce (Japan in the 1950s and 60s, China and India today) — a country which, through its dependence on foreign protection and investment (first the UK and now the US), purports to be one of the “richest” states on Earth ...
The other island state has a population of 11 million. It does have limited natural resources (nickel, sugar, tobacco, some oil), but its main resource is its people. Because of its chosen social and economic system, it has been isolated by the major capitalist powers of the world — it has been made an economic pariah by its giant neighbour and as a result has been labelled “poor”.
Indeed, according to an SBS news broadcast immediately after Fidel fell ill two weeks ago, the Cuban economy was simply labelled “DysfunctionalL” and “Unsustainable” ...
I am a teacher. I teach at a secondary school in Sydney’s western suburbs and every year I attend an annual conference of my union, the NSW Teachers’ Federation, to collectively gain improvements in our education system. One of the central demands of our efforts is reduced class sizes. We debate, we pass resolutions, we campaign and hold demonstrations. We lobby politicians and we even pay money for TV ads.
At the moment, in Years 3 to 10 in NSW (and indeed throughout most of Australia), we have class sizes of thirty. “Need not exceed thirty” is the phrase, and in fact many classes do go over thirty, but that is the basis upon which our schools are staffed.
Every year we dream of gaining some reasonable reductions in class sizes in order to keep pace with the demands of modern education. But then, invariably, we are faced with the grim reality: “It’s the budget you see.” “We can’t afford the funds.” “The government cannot find the necessary revenues” etc etc. And, you know, despite the positive feelings always generated by the collective goodwill of our annual conferences, we always tend to emerge with a sub-textual feeling of despair — of beating our heads against a brick wall ...
In Cuba, every Year, every class, in primary and secondary school, every class, in each and every classroom, has a class size of TWENTY. They, apparently, can afford it. For that I say ...
(Incidentally, the overall staff/student ratio in Cuba is 1:10. Australia’s is 50% higher at 1:15)
What’s more, the considerably greater proportion of GDP expenditure on education in Cuba is spread evenly. It is designed to make opportunity the same for all. There is no palpable nor obscene inequality of private schools with abundant resources and public schools with few. The Cuban education system is one built upon social justice, and for that we say:
Do you think our working class students are ignorant of this? Ignorant of the inequality of funding distribution or of educational outcomes, or of the contempt with which our political system holds our youth, our future? Not at all! Resistance to neo-liberal education systems, systems built upon testing and rote and boredom and more testing and blaming youth-as-the-victims and teachers for every ill in society. Resistance to these systems is growing globally — if only in an instinctive way. But we see it in the growing rates of truancy and disruption and non-compliance, indeed, in some instances, growing violence in our schools.
Our kids do understand the inequality and the injustice of it all — yet they’re told that they must learn “values” by our esteemed Prime Minister: values like “honesty”, “tolerance”, “trustworthiness” and “a fair go for all”(!). Yes, it is laughable in it’s brazen duplicity, but our students really do understand the hypocrisy of it all!
Anyone who is awake in Australia is aware of the widespread corruption, waste and inequality evident throughout our hospitals and health delivery services ...
In country areas west of the Divide, and even in western Sydney, we cannot pay doctors enough to serve there. There are desperate shortages throughout Australia.
In fact, in a situation where we are currently poaching doctors and nursing staff from overseas, we have an appalling doctor to population ratio in Australia. At present it is 2.47 doctors for every 1,000 people. In this we are outdone by a country such as Azerbaijan which has 3.55 doctors for every 1,000 people.
But we are sorely embarrassed by the “dysfunctional” and “unsustainable” economy of Cuba which has 5.91 doctors for every 1,000 of its people — one of the highest ratios in the world and indeed sufficient to export doctors to needy places elsewhere — more of which later.
This is something of which the Cuban people are rightly proud, and it is something for which we say:
Is it really so difficult for a “wealthy” country to simply train more doctors and nurses? Or is it rather politically expedient to provide a class system of health delivery that maintains the privileges of a select group and divides a nation between private health insurers and Medicare — between the “haves” and the “have nots”? Or is this merely another case of the “efficiency” of capitalism?
But critics say: “Look, for all this talk about health and education, basic civil rights in Cuba, freedoms that we are accustomed to ... these don’t exist in Cuba. Look at the thousands of dissidents and political prisoners Castro has locked up in gaols ... ”
I had this argument thrown at me at a recent Teachers’ Federation Executive meeting, when we were discussing the occasion of Fidel’s birthday, so I decided to do some hard-nosed statistical checking of this widely quoted “fact” that’s always present in any article or statement on Cuba today.
Currently the Australian rate of imprisonment is 153 for every 100,000 people. On the face of it, this is a pretty good figure, although it must be said that the rate of imprisonment here is growing dramatically.
In Cuba the figure is 297:100,000 people. It is not a good figure, but I want to stress that this is a median (midway) figure for countries in Cuba’s vicinity, in the Caribbean and Central and Latin America. It is something I am sure the Cuban people and Fidel Castro are not happy about, but we should all realise that contrary to the sham hysteria over terrorism created in Australia, Cuba really is under perpetual threat of invasion (as in the “Bay of Pigs” episode), sabotage and organised terrorist attack from the so-called ‘Miami Exiles’ and their ilk in the CIA, who are continually dreaming up ways of disrupting peaceful life in Cuba.
There have been at least 11 documented assassination attempts on the life of Fidel himself, and this does not take into account the dozens of planned attempts that simply never saw the light of day.
This campaign has not dissipated over recent years, in fact it has been ramped up. The US Government recently announced the allocation of some $80m US dollars to “destabilise the Cuban Government”. Can you imagine the reaction if the neighbouring Indonesian Government announced likewise regarding Australia? How many “persons of South-East Asian appearance” would then be rounded up and put in gaols under our newly contrived “Anti-Terrorism” laws?
But what of the main antagonist? The main source of all the breast beating about “human rights” and “open democracy” is of course the United States. Apart from having a totally illegal torture prison on Cuban soil at Guantanamo Bay, the US currently has an imprisonment rate of 724:100,000 people and rising! Let me repeat: 724! The highest rate in the world.
Comrades, that is over 2 million people currently languishing in gaols in the “land of the free”!
The vast bulk of these prisoners are Black and Latino — way beyond their proportion in the overall US population. Can any of the critics I spoke of earlier claim in all seriousness that the vast majority of these prisoners are not “political”? That they are there through poverty and desperation and simply crimes against wealth and property? It is clearly a violent, racist and oppressive judicial system!
One final point on this issue of racist imprisonment — I mentioned earlier the commendable rate of Australian imprisonment, but you are all probably aware that 20% of all Australian prisoners are our own Indigenous population, our Aboriginal people, despite being a mere 2% of our overall population.
Do you know that on the same criteria mentioned earlier, how the Indigenous rate of imprisonment in Australia equates with those other figures?
1,888 per 100,000 people! Surely the worst rate for any identifiable people on Earth!
For a non-racist, participatory, socially just and socially democratic system of law and order, we say:
Next, I want to talk about what Cuba and its leader of 47 years, Fidel Castro, mean to the world, particularly in relation to it’s anti-racist, solidarity record.
This is a state, for all its “dysfunctional”, “unsustainable” economy, that has provided genuinely selfless, appropriate and desperately needed support for all the oppressed peoples of the globe.
We often hear, today, in righteous tones, how terrible the apartheid regime of South Africa was, and how good and sensible it was that it decided to dismantle itself, and yes, Australia supplied some half-hearted economic sanctions and sporting bans to change it ... but ...
Nothing is ever quite so facile. The true turning point of anti-apartheid struggle occurred at “Africa’s Stalingrad”, at a place called “Cuito Carnivale” in Angola where a combined force of Cubans and Angolan comrades in arms fought and halted the northward advance of CIA sponsored South African and UNITA troops.
This inspirational victory spelled the beginning of the end of racist Southern Africa — from that point onward the apartheid regime realised that ANC guerrilla confidence and support would grow and ultimately win. The invincible face of white South Africa had been torn away, and the dismantling of apartheid proceeded apace.
To quote Nelson Mandela:
If today all South Africans enjoy the rights of democracy, if they are able to at last address the grinding poverty of a system that denied them the most basic amenities of life, it is also because of Cuba’s selfless support of the struggle to free all of South Africa’s people and the countries of our region from the inhumane and destructive system of Apartheid.
For that, we thank the Cuban people from the bottom of our heart.
In 1998 a neighbouring leader, Jamaican President P. J. Patterson said:
... When the history is written of how the walls of apartheid were finally shattered, the name Fidel Castro will be etched in letters of gold ...
For that we say:
Cuba’s solidarity with Africa remains unstinted: there are still 2,000 doctors serving in South Africa, in Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Mali — serving in parts of the world where they are desperately needed, fighting the spread of AIDS and a multitude of other diseases arising from poverty, neglect, and the indifference of First World, “wealthy” states.
And what of East Timor? That area of “special importance” to Australia — important enough to dispatch thousands of troops and police to dismantle it’s legitimate government? Well, we donate millions of dollars, which, compared to the revenues now available from Timor oil amount to a drop in the bucket.
What about doctors? Well, Cuba currently supplies 250 doctors to East Timor, and they are training the East Timorese themselves to manage their medicinal needs, but without them, now, the East Timorese health system simply would not function.
Australian doctors? Maybe one, or two, or half a dozen charitable workers — you see, we cannot afford them. We leave that service to a “dysfunctional” and “unsustainable” economy!
I commenced this speech referring to education, and I think most of us are aware of Cuba’s success in eradicating illiteracy in the very early years of the revolution. But not many of us are aware of the miracle in education currently developing in Venezuala ...
For the previous decades prior to the Bolivarian revolution, various neo-liberal governments addressed the massive illiteracy in Venezuela in the familiar way: a few programs here, a few million dollars there, testing, testing, testing, blaming teachers, allowing private schools and elitism to flourish ... “tinkering with the edges”.
Predictably, they got nowhere. Now, the Chávez Government, through it’s “Missions Robinson” programs, have attacked the problem in a revolutionary way: they have spent billions of petro-dollars as an investment, not a “cost”, they have mobilised the whole community, they have invited Cuban specialists to demonstrate and implement simple and effective programs, and they have successfully made previously poor and hopeless children and adults Literate! They have empowered those people as never before! That is “education”, that is social democracy!
“VIVA CHÁVEZ!” “VIVA FIDEL!”
Through the new partnerships now building in Latin America and the Caribbean, the US blockade of Cuba is being prised open — over the past 12 months the “dysfunctional”, “unsustainable” economy of Cuba has grown by 10%.
Cuba and Fidel Castro’s commitment to the original priorities of the Cuban revolution are now bearing fruit: medical and educational knowledge is now being exchanged for commodities such as oil and capital equipment ...
There is now a burgeoning movement of massive social, economic and political change in Latin America, and it is mainly due to those who held on to the principles and practice of socialism: to the people and leadership of Cuba ...
Tonight we salute those people and that leadership who over the past 47 years have endured ceaseless struggle, who have overcome innumerable obstacles, vicious and desperately violent opposition, the collapse of friendly states in Eastern Europe, isolation, invasion, sabotage, baseless attacks, distortions, lies and insults, yet they have endured, and remain an inspiration to those of us in the world who seek an alternative, humanitarian society ...
In saluting those people and their indefatigable leader, on his 80th birthday, we say ...
“VIVA FIDEL!” “VIVA FIDEL!” “VIVA FIDEL!”
“CUBA SI! YANQUI NO!” “CUBA SI! YANQUI NO!” “CUBA SI! YANQUI NO!”