CodePink Delegation to Cuba, February 2015.
(Picture Courtesy of CodePink)
Cuba has always evoked a lot of emotion in US politics [HERE]. During the last 56 years it has been especially so. That is how long the U.S. has imposed sanctions on Cuba in the form of almost a total embargo of the tiny Caribbean Island…..The Cuban people call it a Blockade.
Since 1959 the American people have been fed anti-Castro propaganda that brings up images of Cuba as a police state, political oppression, firing squads, dungeons, enslaved people and desperate attempts by Cubans to escape for freedom to the U.S.A. in leaky and deadly rafts. [HERE]
Of course, there is an element of truth. Yet there is a lot more to the story of Cuba and the Castro Revolution than one finds in the propaganda.
To understand Cuba today, one needs to know what Cuba was like before Fidel Castro and Che Guevara lead the Cuban Revolution of 1959.
The U.S. Backed Batista Dictatorship Era.
From 1952 to 1959 the dictator Fulgencio Batista ruled a repressive government in Cuba with U.S. backing and blessing. Under Batista rule, Cuba was the playground for the Mafia, large land owners, US corporations, Cuban elites and tourists. Cuba was rampant with political corruption, gambling, prostitution, drugs, crime, poverty, illiteracy and racism. Cuban vice was run by US gangsters of the likes of Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and the crime family of Santo Trafficante from Tampa, Florida.
For tourists, Cuba was a place to go to gamble, drink rum, listen to Latin music, sun bath and whore around. One could go to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba or the Tropicana Club and see show girls such as the “Flesh Goddesses” and stars such as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Liberace perform. Other than tourism, Cuba’s main industries were sugar, rum and their famous cigars. [HERE]
To say that Cuba was all bad under Batista is just as much of an exaggeration as to say that Cuba is a worker’s paradise under Castro today. Cuba was a glamorous place that attracted famous people such as Ernest Hemingway.
Cuba had a vibrant and educated upper class that enjoyed a comfortable and even luxurious living standard. This is what many Cuban exiles living in the US remember most and romanticize about today. Many of the exiles are those that lost their country-club lifestyle and fled Cuba. [HERE]
Still with all the glamour of old Cuba it was not a good place to be poor. And most of the people lived in extreme poverty, especially blacks and those living in the countryside.
Illiteracy was high, healthcare was often not available, and employment was at the mercy of the large land owners. Racism was rampant. Political dissent was harshly dealt with by Batista’s torturers and death squads.
Fidel Castro and Revolution
By the mid-1950’s Cuba was ready for a revolution. When Castrol marched his rebels into Havana in 1959 he did so with wide public support and the cheers of millions of Cubans. Batista fled on New Year Day 1959, as unsuspecting tourists gambled, drank and celebrated the night away in Havana’s clubs and casinos.
Castro delivered his victory speech to a cheering crowd in Havana on January 8, 1959. A white dove landed on Fidel Castro’s shoulder during the speech. The crowd saw the dove as a message from God. [Here]
One person who was not impressed was U.S President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The U.S. had been a strong backer of Batista. The U.S. saw Batista as a great ally in Latin America. He was anti-communists, against social reform and welcomed U.S. corporations and gangsters who exploited Cuba’s resources and people. Batista was the kind of brutal right-wing despot that the U.S. liked.
So when one hears propaganda about Fidel Castro, one needs to remember what it is he replaced. One should also keep in mind other Latin American countries that have had strong U.S. support, interference, C.I.A. coups, and U.S. backed right-wing governments and brutal despots over the past 55 years.
Whenever a country is compliant with U.S. neoliberal policies, the U.S. government and main stream media turn a blind eye to human rights abuses. Whenever a country such as Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela are non-compliant to U.S. wishes it doesn’t matter how democratic they are, they are never democratic enough for the U.S. and the main stream media.
The Literacy Campaign
One of the first things Castro did was to start a literacy program to wipe out illiteracy in Cuba. Over 250,000 young people were inspired to join Cuba’s National Literacy Campaign and to go into the countryside to teach rural peasants how to read and write.
Over half of the volunteers were women. It was dangerous work because of C.I.A. Operation Mongoose that had infiltrated terrorists into Cuba who tried to kill the program by assassinating the literacy volunteers. [HERE] and [HERE]
Today Cuba has a virtual 100% literacy rate. That is why one of the biggest annual events in Cuba is the International Book Fair. During the annual book fair tens-of-thousands of Cubans attend every day and millions of books are sold to the public at subsidized prices. Venders sell hot Cuban sandwiches, cold soft drinks and ice cream, as well as books. [HERE]
Cuba’s healthcare system has also been a big success. Everyone gets free primary, preventive and prenatal healthcare. Infant mortality is a low 7 deaths per 1,000 live births and better than in the U.S. Life expectancy is a high 77 years even though the use of tobacco products is still very high in Cuba. There are 500 neighborhood clinics and 33,000 family physicians providing healthcare to virtually 100% of Cuba’s 11.5 million people.
According to the World Health Organization: “The average clinic offers 22 services, including rehabilitation, X-ray, ultrasound, optometry, endoscopy, thrombolysis, emergency services, traumatology, clinical laboratory, family planning, emergency dentistry, maternal–child care, immunization, and diabetic and elderly care. Various other specialties – including dermatology, psychiatry and cardiology – are available too, in addition to family and internal medicine, paediatrics, and obstetrics and gynaecology.” [HERE]
Cuba also provides 20,000 family physicians along with nurses and medical technicians as foreign aid to Africa and Latin America. When the U.S. and Western Europe became hysterical about Ebola, Cuba did something about it. Cuba led the fight against Ebola by sending 461 doctors to Sierra Leone to treat those infected and to stem the spread of the epidemic. [HERE]
In addition to providing doctors abroad, Cuba also has one of the largest in the world of international medical schools. Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine trains foreign students from poor parts of the world such as in Africa, Asia and Latin America to become doctors and serve their communities. The enrollment is approximately 20,000 students from 110 countries, including some from the U.S.A. The tuition, room and board is completely free to students. [Andrea Mitchell interview U.S. students 2012] and [HERE] and [HERE].
Race relations are another area where Cuba has made huge strides forward. The Cuban Revolution brought desegregation to Cuba. Two months after Fidel Castro and his revolutionary army marched into Havana, Castro said in a speech:
“It should not be necessary to dictate a law against an absurd prejudice. That which should be dictated is the public condemnation against any people so filled with old vices and prejudices that they would discriminate against Cubans over questions of lighter or darker skin….We are a mixed race from Africa and Spain. No one should consider themselves a pure race, much less a superior race…..We are going to put an end to this odious and repugnant system…” [HERE].
Before the revolution there was a system of strict racial segregation, much like existed in the U.S. Cuba’s racial segregation was a result of US influences such as during the Spanish-American War in 1898, later U.S. military occupations of Cuba and the hay-days of Cuba being the U.S. playground before the Cuban revolution. [HERE]
Hotels, casinos, restaurants, housing, neighborhoods, employment, schools, swimming pools and even the beaches and parks were segregated, just as they were then in the U.S. before integration.
When African American performers such as Nat King Cole performed in Cuba they were not allowed to stay in white-only hotels such as the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Even Cuba’s dictator Fulgencio Batista was not permitted to the exclusive Cuban country clubs because he was black. [HERE]
Cuba today also takes other progressive ideals seriously. One of them is organic farming using natural fertilizers and crop rotation. Initially, organic farming was grown out of necessity because of the U.S. embargo of pesticides and fertilizers. Now Cubans take organic farming very seriously for health and environmental reasons.
Sex Education Program.
Cuba is also making strides to end discrimination against its LBGT community. Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban president Raul Castro, spearheads Cuba’s sex education program and is an outspoken promoter of gay rights in Cuba. [HERE]
The U.S. Blockade and Terrorism
Cuba still faces challenging problems. Many of them are caused by the U.S. embargo of Cuba. The United Nations has voted 23 times in favor of the U.S. lifting the embargo. The only countries voting against it have been the U.S. and Israel. [HERE]
The U.S. embargo has not only caused an unnecessary hardship on the Cuban people, but it has also been a cause of shame for U.S. foreign policy throughout Latin America and Africa. [HERE]
To make matters even worse, the U.S. still has Cuba on the U.S. list of state-sponsored terrorist. Cuba is one of only four countries that the U.S. has on the list. The other three are Iran, Syria and Sudan.
The Cuban people feel that it is hypocritical for the U.S. to have them on the list of state-sponsored terrorist, since they feel that it is the U.S. that is sponsoring terrorist and has supported acts of terrorism against Cuba by the Cuban exile community. The U.S. has an admitted program of regime change towards Cuba. [HERE]
Much of the U.S. “democracy promotion” in Cuba has included sponsoring, supporting and harboring terrorists in the U.S. who have bombed hotels, restaurants and nightclubs in Cuba, strafed Cuban tourist beaches with machine guns from speedboats, spread agricultural diseases and blown up airliners. [HERE]
In 2014 it was exposed that the U.S. Agency for International Development had spread a fake Twitter network in Cuba to try and foment regime change. [HERE]
The U.S. embargo and keeping Cuba on the state-sponsored terrorist list does great harm to the Cuban economy. It also makes it difficult, if not impossible, to import life-saving pharmaceuticals, medical supplies, nutritional needs, and diagnostic and medical equipment.
The U.S. needs reminding that regime change is against all international norms, protocols and law. It is also a violation of the United Nations Charter. U.S. exceptionalism is no excuse for violating the rule of law.
U.S. Military Occupation of Guantanamo Bay.
Cuba also wants the return of Guantanamo Bay. The U.S. tried to colonize Cuba after it occupied the island in 1901, following the Spanish-American War. The Cuban people put up a fierce rebellion that resulted in the withdrawal of the U.S. military occupation of Cuba. However, before leaving the U.S. extracted its “pound of flesh” from Cuba by passing the Platt Amendment in Congress requiring the Cuban government to agree, among other things, to lease Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. indefinitely for “coaling and a naval station”. [HERE]
Cuba feels that the continued occupation by the U.S. of Guantanamo Bay is a violation of their national sovereignty, violates international law and is a grave insult to their pride. Cuba is especially distressed that Guantanamo is being used by the U.S. as a prison and torture site.
“CodePink” Historic Trip to Cuba.
In February 2015, Medea Benjamin and Jodie Evans, the co-founders of the women’s peace activist group CodePink [HERE], lead a people-to-people delegation to Cuba.
I was among the 150 participants in the CodePink group. It was the largest U.S. delegation to Cuba since President Obama’s announcement December 17, 2014 that he intended to normalize relations with Cuba. [HERE]
One would be terribly naïve to think that the Cuban government did not try to present its best image to the CodePink delegation. Still we saw with our own eyes and heard with our own ears the tremendous progress Cuba has achieved. We saw the good, the bad and the ugly.
The “good” is the Cuban people’s high level of education and literacy; Cuba’s free healthcare system and medical schools; their success against racism and growing struggle to overcome sexism and discrimination against sexual orientation; and the elimination of extreme poverty and achieving more economic equality.
Cuba’s “good” is its highly educated and civilized population and the friendly way that they welcome tourists. Tourists have no fear of getting off the bus or wondering from their hotel to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Cuba. As an American, I felt extremely welcome. All of Havana was abuzz about the 150 of us from the CodePink delegation.
The “bad” is Cuba’s deteriorating buildings and lack of adequate housing. It is not unusual for two and three generations to be living together in a small apartment. Construction of new housing and renovation of old buildings has been slow. Not much of the old city of Havana has been painted in the past 50 years.
Cuba is a poor country with limited natural resources. Cuba has some oil and nickel. “Cuba imports some 60 percent of the food it consumes at a cost of around $2 billion annually, mainly bulk cereals and grains such as rice, corn, soy and beans, as well as other items such as powdered milk and chicken” [HERE]” .
Cuba says that it is investing in its human capital. Ironically, this has led to one of its problems of providing economic opportunities for its highly educated, motivated and younger population. Cuba has produced large numbers of medical doctors but because the pay is low some of them turn to working in the tourist industry where they can earn a higher salary. Economic opportunity is often the motivation for young Cubans to go into exile to the U.S.
Another of Cuba’s “bad” is the lack of political diversity. The only officially recognized political party in Cuba is the Communist Party. As U.S. propaganda reminds everyone, ad nauseam, Cuba is not a democracy in the sense of the meaning of that word to the U.S. government, the U.S. main stream media and most Americans.
When it comes to the “ugly” it is the U.S. imposed economic embargo and the unnecessary hardship it imposes. The Cuban people call it a U.S. blockade for good reason.
The blockade prevents not only U.S. and Cuban trade, but also trade with other countries. Anything manufactured even in another country that contains over 10% Cuban content is banned from import to the U.S. and vice versa. Further, any ship that docks in Cuba is banned from U.S. water for six months. U.S. banks and financial institutions are forbidden to settle Cuban transaction under threat of being accused of laundering money for terrorists. Often many corporations, financial institutions and countries avoid transactions with Cuba just out of fear that they may run afoul of the U.S.
After my experience of visiting Cuba with CodePink, I have formed two general impressions:
ONE: I now understand why the U.S. is afraid to let Americans visit Cuba. The U.S. government does not want people to see the truth instead of all the negative propaganda about Cuba. For Americans to see Cuba with their own eyes would call the U.S. government’s credibility and unfounded fear and loathing of Cuba into question. Cuba is not the scary police state, and economic and political disaster, that the U.S. wants the American people to think that Cuba is.
TWO: If the U.S. were so secure in its beliefs in its own democracy and economic system it would not fear an economic experiment in socialism in a tiny island nation of just 11.5 million people. Capitalism is supposed to welcome competition. The world needs competition in economic systems too. If one believes in the superiority of the U.S. capitalistic and political system then one could be patient while the world beats a path to its doorsteps.
If the U.S. has to use ham-handed military, terrorist and financial warfare to persuade people to its economic and political model, then what does that tell the world about the model? That is precisely the message that the U.S. blockade of Cuba is giving to all of Latin America and Africa. It sure makes the U.S. look silly and worse. It makes the U.S. look like a giant bully that is afraid of a harmless mouse.
End the U.S. Blockade of Cuba and Take Cuba Off the Terrorist List.
The U.S. blockade of Cuba has been a disastrous policy from all points of view. It has created an unnecessary hardship for the very same Cuban people that the U.S. says that it cares so deeply about.
The U.S. blockade of Cuba is a deep embarrassment and stain on the U.S. image in Latin America and Africa. The U.S. blockade is financial warfare against a tiny island nation of 11.5 million people. U.S. policies towards Cuba of terrorism, subversion and regime change are against international law and the United Nations Charter.
The U.S. should end the blockade of Cuba, restore normal diplomatic relations, permit travel to Cuba, close GITMO prison and torture site, return Guantanamo Bay to its rightful owner Cuba and take Cuba off the list of state-sponsored terrorist countries.
See RT three part series on Cuba.
The news organization RT followed along with the CodePink delegation to Cuba. From what we saw and heard they produced a three-part series of our trip. You can see it at the following links:
Cuba Part I: Revolution, Sabotage & Un-Normal Relations. [HERE]
Cuba Part II: Cuba Part II: Ebola Solidarity & Castro’s Daughter on Gay Rights. [HERE]
Cuba Part III: The Evolution of Revolution. [HERE]