- by Richard Titelius
- The Guardian
- Issue #2046
Since January 1983, dedicated groups of Australian and New Zealand friends of Cuba have made their way to the Caribbean to show their support for the island’s Socialist Revolution, spending three weeks learning about its society, culture, economy, and politics. In return they spend mornings volunteering to undertake agricultural work or other community work.
For the past couple of years, the COVID-19 pandemic put the Brigade to Cuba on hold as the world, including Australia, New Zealand, and Cuba, dealt with the challenges of quarantine, isolation and vaccination. By the end of 2022, however, the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP by its Spanish acronym), in concert with our Australian organisers, were ready to recommence their important internationalist work.
Fourteen Australians made their way from every Australian mainland state and the ACT to be a part of the 38th Southern Cross Brigade. A variety of genders and ages were represented by the cohort, with 50 per cent of participants under the age of 30. The program was a little different this time as the challenges facing Cuba had intensified during the pandemic and the need for international expressions of solidarity had therefore become more important. The two officials from ICAP who guided and organised the Brigade from the Cuban side were Iván and Margarita.
MAINTAINING AND DEEPENING THE REVOLUTION
On the first full day of activities, the brigadistas engaged in a discussion with Professor and Editor of La Tizza magazine, Ernesto Teuma, on the topic of the modern challenges facing the Revolution. Professor Teuma began by stating that Cuba remains a beacon of hope for many people in the world as one of the few socialist projects from the 20th Century that has survived into the 21st Century.
Though the Revolution has brought enormous gains to the people of Cuba, the island’s relative isolation (propelled by the US blockade, discussed further below) continues to incur economic and social costs. A key item of discussion was the ongoing challenge of energising young people to carry on – and deepen – the Revolutionary process; the distance between them and 1959, let alone, the Special Period of the 1990s grows year-by-year.
Professor Teuma outlined how, both through necessity and, to a much lesser extent, policy choice, Cuba was forced to participate in the global economy following the defeat of the Soviet Union and the end of COMECON (socialist trading bloc). The US blockade, in place since 1962 and tightened progressively over time (especially since 1991), is the central hurdle to Cuba’s ongoing participation in this economy; a reality that Cuba and all who wish to do business with it (including Australians) must contend with.
While revolutionary politics is still evident in the world, many have lost the incentive to continue with the revolutionary project as the harsh struggle for the emancipatory reality of actually existing socialism is necessarily heightened by the backlash of capitalist interests, especially the United States. From the perspective of the individual, the long struggle may not weigh positively against perceived short-term prosperity.
The Professor provided colour to the discussion by highlighting how this reality has played out in his own family, noting that his younger brother decided to leave for the US during the COVID period; Ernesto has stayed, his commitment to the Revolution steadfast. Increased access to information through the internet and social media has seen many Cubans, especially younger ones, view – through the distorted lens of the web – while the “realities” of capitalist life, comparing what they see to their material realities in Cuba. For Cubans the socialist project continues to resonate, the realities of life amongst their colonised brothers and sisters in the Caribbean and the rest of Latin America is a stark warning as to what capitalism really is.
Access to education and employment abound in Cuba, even if the incomes are relatively low. Some foodstuffs may be in short supply and/or expensive in the free marketplace, but the reality of the ration system means that no Cuban wants for key nutrients, let alone starves.
Beyond the distance from 1959, however, what else defines the deradicalisation of Cuban youth? Professor Teuma noted that, as the private market has begun to have more of a role in the lives of many, marginalisation has begun to occur as lives are not perpetually integrated into the institutions of the Revolutionary state.
As late as the 1990s, a Cuban citizen could be born into a public health system, study until their mid-twenties in a public education system, be guaranteed employment in a state enterprise and live out their days in a state-allocated home, dying in a public hospital in the care of, perhaps, the same doctor who helped bring them into the world.
Today, many Cubans work in the formalised private sector (small shops, restaurants and limited factories) or the grey market – the state does not play as active a role in their lives as it once did. The social safety net is taken for granted; the low incomes scorned.
The discussion, though touching on the difficult realities of socialism, did not reflect ruptures in the Revolutionary process, but instead the contrary reality: Revolution is about awakening a change for the better, even under conditions of socialism. If the Revolution is to thrive into the 21st Century, it must continue to confront the challenges and contradictions of its reality, awakening a new consciousness amongst a youth that want fulfilling lives.
A VISIT TO MATANZAS
After the traditional New Year trip to the ballet at the State Theatre in Havana the Brigade climbed onto the bus to visit Matanzas province. Here, we would be accommodated at the Korimakao social project in Palpite and see some of the significant social and historical sites in the beautiful Cienaga de Zapata nature preserve.
Korimakao, built during the early Special Period, is a live-in arts school where students hone visual, musical, and theatrical art skills, giving back to the localities in the province through performance and teaching. Schools throughout the region are especially engaged.
On the first morning at Korimakao, brigadistas headed for the coastal town of Guasasa where the artists from Korimakao performed a rendition of “Three Little Pigs” for primary school students. Afterwards, the Brigade gave back to the community by picking up rubbish and painting the office (and therefore home) of the local Family Doctor.
After the work we were given a meal and a swim in the brackish lake or the open sea. On the return to camp, we visited the Museum of Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs) which commemorates the successful defeat of the US invaders in April 1961; 1,400 ex-Cuban mercenaries, supported by the US government led by President John Kennedy, crushed by the Revolutionary Army of newly-liberated Cuba. The Cuban defence was directed by Comandante Fidel Castro from an old sugar refinery headquarters in the Matanzas locality.
The iconic photo of Fidel jumping down from a Russian T-34 tank is from this time. The display at the museum included a 15-minute documentary film of the events at the time which pieced together the events of those 72 hours; capturing the violence and terrorism inflicted by the invaders.
To round out our stay in Matanzas, we visited the well-maintained pre-Revolutionary dwellings of the carboneros; those who made a living making charcoal. The huts are in Sopillar, famous amongst locals as the location of the “First Dinner of the Revolution.”
In 1959, months into the Revolutionary process, Fidel flew by helicopter into this community of hard-working peasants, wanting to see for himself what the Revolution had yet to do in the poorest parts of the country. Over a celebratory feast, Fidel promised that he would bring the benefits of the Revolution to this place: roads, power, running water, and a library following soon after.
Back at Korimakao, the performers who had been treating us to nightly song and dance taught us how to dance, sing, and act the Cuban way; giving us the confidence to perform on the last night, showing that we could perform as well with the right training.
CITY OF CHE AND MARTA ABREU
No Brigade to Cuba is entirely complete without a visit to Santa Clara: the home of the Memorial to Che Guevara and location of the final and decisive battle of the 1959 Revolution. After the visit to the Mausoleum, we were given a presentation by Miguel Angel Gomez, local President of the Association of Combatants of the Cuban Revolution, and by soldiers of the Cuban Revolutionary Forces.
The Association also promotes the independence, sovereignty and defence of the Revolution and it does this through presentations to groups such as us and to various schools and universities in the area. The Association believes it is important to work and celebrate with children and young adults to create a sense of unity and solidarity among the people; a link between those who fought for the Revolution and those who live in it today. Today, this also includes the digitisation of materials to be promulgated via the internet.
In the evening, the Brigade attended a presentation by the founder and organiser of the social project El Mejunje, Ramon Silverio. Founded in a formerly derelict set of buildings in Santa Clara, El Mejunje celebrated 30 years of work during January. The brainchild of Silverio during the Special Period, the space celebrates diversity and promotes a wide array of social movements, especially LGBTI activities.
Ironically, perhaps the most striking example of this open-door ethos was the patron with a penchant for everything US and rock and roll; a virulent anti-communist who had been a part of the 11th July 2021 protests and served three days’ imprisonment for his behaviour.
During the Family Code campaign, El Mejunje became a major player in promoting the aims of the reform amongst the LGBTI community, especially provisions pertaining to same-sex marriage and adoption.
Reflecting the success of the nation-wide education program, the new Family Code was put to a referendum in late 2022 and approved by nearly 70 per cent of Cubans, despite a hard-fought campaign by churches and other conservative forces within and without Cuba – especially in the US. Silverio said that he feels he can rest now as most of what he wanted to achieve for the LGBTI community has been realised.
2022 was a difficult year for Cuba which was struck by three major calamities: the gas explosion in Havana, the major fire of a Matanzas oil supertanker and Hurricane Ian. The people of Santa Clara donated money, food and other supplies to the people affected by those disasters via a fund co-ordinated by El Mejunje.
This reflects the trust placed in the social project as a positive player in the community; even the Catholic Church urged parishioners to donate. When the supplies arrived in Pinar del Rio, the people distributing the supplies delivered them into the hands of the most needy.
The next two days in Santa Clara involved volunteer agricultural work in the morning – once at an agricultural cooperative which supplied fruit and vegetables to the tourist sector and another at the Pedagogical School of Manuel Ascunce Domenech – named after a teacher who was killed by counter revolutionaries in the Cuban literacy campaign of 1961.
At the pedagogical school we were given a tour of the facilities and an explanation of the work of the school. One of the sessions took place in a meeting room in which was placed a large gravel mural of Fidel. This initiated a discussion on the concept of the cult of personality and Fidel’s public opposition to it. The mural, conceived and produced by students at the school, was said to reflect respect for Fidel’s revolutionary vision; a symbol, much like José Martí, of what Cuba must carry on.
In the afternoon we received a presentation on the society, economy, and environment of the province of Villa Clara which included a discussion on what measures are being taken to limit the effects of climate change. This included a basic recycling system (basic due to the excessive cost of extensive programs in a blockaded state), development restrictions on coastal land and developing renewables in the form of wind and solar.
Along a similar vein of technological development and constraints, we also visited the largest teaching hospital in the city (2,248 employees, including 977 doctors and 555 nurses). Unions and the Communist Party participate in the smooth running of the hospital and 100 per cent of the staff are union members (a significant increase on figures in previous decades).
The Brigade was given a presentation on the organisation of the hospital which included the acknowledgement that a unitary system of public healthcare is considerably more advantageous than the private-public systems found in countries such as Australia; coordination and pooling of resources is significantly more effective across a system that supports people from birth until death.
The Brigadistas from Australia knew what he meant and reflected on the waste and expense of having a private-public model. We also saw that in the hospital they had a section for alternative medicine which is considered a science and is used when appropriate and to remove the stigma from a holistic approach to healthcare.
While in Santa Clara we also visited the University of Marta Abreu which is one of the largest in the country with 12 faculties and 15 research centres including one which has gained international attention for its development of a cement which is cheaper to produce, stronger than conventional cement, and produces a fraction of the emissions in production.
The cement is produced not with the conventional clinker, but waste from other mining processes, particularly bauxite. Australia was offered the opportunity to participate in trials but declined the invitation across the industry. Its application in China is growing rapidly, however.
THE MALLORY DECLARATION
Back in Havana we visited the Fidel Castro Centre, a new library/interactive museum centre dedicated to the life, works and ideas of Comandante Fidel Castro, which was opened on 25th November 2021, and includes an amphitheatre, nine exhibition rooms, a library and audio-visual presentations, including on significant events such as Playa Giron.
Back at camp, we were provided with a final lecture by the esteemed Dr Ernesto Dominguez-Lopez of the University of Havana. Discussing US-Cuba relations, Dominguez outlined a 400-year history of temporary collaboration but constant US antagonism described as “When you have a global power, they have an agenda of civilising those smaller players and help countries like Cuba to become ‘free’ according to the way the US would like to see the world.”
This led the US to invade Cuba when it looked like Cuba would be able to defeat Spain and become an independent sovereign nation. This did not suit US interests and through a series of forced interventions the US maintained a presence on the island till 1959 when the Revolution led by Fidel, Che, Raul, Camilo, and thousands of revolutionaries succeeded in gaining freedom for the Cuban people and developing a socialist republic – much to the annoyance of the capitalist USA.
So concerned were US government officials of the popularity of the socialist government of Cuba they developed a policy that was enshrined in the Mallory Declaration of April 1960, named after a Lestor Mallory, a State Department official.
The declaration is only a page long and can be distilled down to two aims. 1.) To prevent the popularity of the Cuban socialist model among other countries in the world and 2.) “Weaken the economic life of Cuba by denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation, and overthrow of government.” Though US administrations have come and gone over the years since and a few have adopted different tactics, they have not relented on the end goal which is still to bring about the end of the socialist revolution of Cuba which they consider anathema to US capitalism and hegemony.
Most recently during the COVID pandemic, the administrations of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden saw an opportunity to topple the Cuban government by tightening the financial and economic blockade on Cuba when it was at its most vulnerable with a diminishing of trade and tourism during this period of enforced isolation.
There was also a reintroduction of the accusation of State Sponsoring of Terrorism label which even a group of 160 US lawyers petitioned the Biden government to repeal, saying that under the State Department’s own criteria, Cuba does not meet the standards for sponsoring terrorism. (Guardian #2042, 27th February 2023 page 12).
This was the essential message that the organisers of the brigade wished to impress upon us for our return to Australia to spread the word of peace, friendship, unity and solidarity with the Cuban people. That contrary to Western mass media reports, Cuba is a free sovereign country and its people are also free to stay or leave if they so wish.
The US may wish to create pathways for people to enter the US from their southern border to “escape” difficult economic conditions of their own making (via the blockade). The US could solve this issue overnight, yet uses its power in the world to tighten its measures, year-by-year, to fulfil the Mallory aims: to obliterate a liberatory example in the US’s backyard.
ICAP is currently promoting the next two Brigades to encourage people to see the Cuban socialist revolution/project and society for themselves. The next 39th Brigade in the summer of 2023/24 will celebrate 40 years of the Brigade and and the following one in 2024/25 will be the 40th Brigade.
People wanting to go on a Brigade to Cuba “to be more than a tourist” are encouraged to contact firstname.lastname@example.org, the Australian Cuban Friendship Society in their respective region or ICAP.