Cuban Resilience

TRNN Replay: As the US officially removes Cuba from the state sponsors of terror lists, Michael Ratner, just returned from Cuba, reflects on the resilience of Cuban people in the face of the harsh decades-long US embargo

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Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. And welcome to this latest edition of the Ratner Report. We’re now joined by Michael Ratner. Michael is the President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, and the chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He’s also a board member at The Real News Network.

Thank you so much for joining us again, Michael.

MICHAEL RATNER, PRESIDENT EMERITUS, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: Good to be with you, Jaisal, and The Real News.

NOOR: So Michael, what else do you have for us this week?

RATNER: You know, I just spent a week in Cuba. Quite exciting and quite interesting, and I want to talk about that a bit. But of course as we’re doing this broadcast we just got the announcement that after many, many years the State Department and Obama have removed Cuba from the list of terrorist countries, which leaves three countries on the list: Iran, Syria, and Sudan.

Of course, Cuba should never have been on that list. Certainly it’s been laughable in the last number of years. People say, why is Cuba on that list? Well of course it’s geopolitics, it’s hostility of the Cuban community. Cuba never committed terrorism. Of course, the revolutions have long been over in the ’80s. The extent the U.S. considered that terrorism, which of course I did not. So let’s go on.

So we’re seeing a real loosening of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, or at least a certain amount of loosening. December 17th of course, Obama announced that he would open up a lot more travel. A lot more trade, at least trade from the United States to Cuba, not vice versa. So we’re seeing a shift some 66 years after the revolution. It’s an important one, and one could say that Cuba has been able to hold out.

I went down this time in much more easy fashion. I flew from Miami, which is something I could rarely if ever have done before. My first trip took place in 1973. I had to go to Mexico. A CIA agent photographed me at the airport. You couldn’t go back to Mexico. I had to fly to Spain, and then back from Spain to New York. So things are changing. My last trip to Cuba was six years ago. I was nervous about going back, in a way, because I know things are changing. And while decisions are made, and the Cuban people will decide what is best for them, from my perspective as an American progressive or a leftists, a lot of it was very inspiring for me in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s and earlier. Cuba in the past was a special example for many of us in the United States, particularly for economic rights, which are not given much lip service if anything in the United States. The right to housing, healthcare, education, et cetera. U.S. works much more on social, civil rights. My right to speak to you as I am here, my right to vote, et cetera.

But in Cuba, the revolution changed that. Healthcare, right to food, right to education , right to housing, differentials in income made much less, a non-capitalist economy, were a very important example for the world, not just for progressives in the United States. Cuba also had an important role and still does of solidarity with oppressed people around the world. I worked particularly on the struggles in the ’80s in Central America, and of course they were very important in those struggles and the effort to finally change the dictatorships that were just rife in both Central America and South America.

I was there in 1976 in Cuba. I was in Revolution Square when I heard Fidel Castro give a speech about Angola. And the Cubans had intervened in the war in Angola on the side of the Liberation Movement, the MPLA. And Fidel stood in front of perhaps 100,000 of us or more, saying there is black blood in every Cuban vein, and we will see the people of Angola liberated. In 1988 the Cubans were back in Angola, and in that they fought what’s considered the decisive battle for both Angolan liberation as well as for the beginning of the end of apartheid. It’s called the battle of Cuito Cuanavale. And as I said, it was decisive.

So Cuba has had this amazingly important role, certainly among progressives and progressive countries in the world, as a beacon for all of us. And it achieved all of this despite the great hostility of particularly the United States. The United States had a huge role in terrorism against Cuba. Bombing things in Cuba. Bombing [airliners], supporting them, the CIA did. And then of course the Bay of Pigs invasion in which it actually tried to overthrow the government. The effort of the United States was to choke off the revolution and kill it.

And you have to remember what Cuba was facing. When the U.S. embargo was imposed between ’61 and ’63, some 85 percent of Cuba’s trade was with the United States. That went to a big zero. Imagine what a country has to do in that case. In that case, it turned to the Soviet Union as the only place that it could get the economic support and trade it needed to the socialist bloc. And then of course in 1991 the socialist bloc fails. USSR is out, and again, 85 percent of Cuba’s trade down to zero. So think about a country and an economy that faces that and yet survived. Since then of course they have received some help, particularly from Venezuelan oil. And of course they’ve given Venezuela great help in the medical field. Cuba has some 25,000 doctors in Venezuela alone. Has one of the best primary healthcare systems in the world. And so those kind of things are very important. But I just want to give the context of Cuba’s survival in this.

On this trip, you could see–as I have even sometimes in the past. But on this trip, live is difficult. There’s still very little. It’s not a rich country. They still have guarantees around food and healthcare, education. But many people rely on payments they get from relatives in Miami, or in the tourist industry where they are paid in dollar equivalents, which is really what allows a lot of people to survive in a manner that at least is decent. Survival in this hemisphere under these conditions I consider to have been a miracle. But of course it was the strength of the Cuban people that did that.

In that context, one of the meetings I had was with a man named Gerardo Hernandez. I’m sure many of the viewers are familiar with Gerardo. Gerardo was one of the Cuban Five. The Cuban Five were the five political prisoners held by the United States who had been sent here by Cuba to try and stop terrorism against their country. The United States arrested them, put them in jail, and actually in Gerardo’s case sentenced him to two life sentences, plus I think another 15 or 20 years on top of it. So he was serving life imprisonment, along with others of the Cuban Five who’d gotten very long sentences. As part of the agreement on December 17th, Gerardo was freed from that prison and allowed to come back to Cuba where he got to be with his wife. And I had lunch with him and his wife Adriana.

And one of the miracles, it’s called the miracle baby, is Adriana was pregnant and recently had a child. And the semen for that was smuggled or taken out of the prison and into Cuba, and she became pregnant. So it’s a miracle baby story. But when you see Gerardo’s strength, and he said the 16 years he spent in American prison was terribly cruel, he was put in what they call the SHU, the Special Housing Unit, a number of times, which is essentially solitary. He said extremely difficult. But his strength was undiminished. He’s a hero in Cuba. He walks the streets like everyone else, but he does walk with someone else who–not there to protect him. He’s not in any danger. But the crowds around Gerardo are incredible. So we see that kind of victory, that kind of stick-to-it-iveness of the Cuban people.

Now of course is the beginning of the opening with the United States. As I said, it’s a victory for the steadfastness of the Cuban people and the Cuban system that they were able to withstand this 67-year embargo. On the other hand, and here’s something I think, I remember hearing Noam Chomsky talk about Vietnam. He said what the U.S. didn’t want Vietnam to be was an example for other countries of the world. And so while yes, Vietnam won the war against the United States, the country was devastated both economically as well as its population. And that, the U.S. made its point. And one could also perhaps make some of that argument about Cuba. That Cuba as the shining example that I started with, of economic rights, of solidarity with oppressed people everywhere, yes they still have that. But it’s become a much poorer country than it would have but for the U.S. oppression and the embargo of Cuba.

And so in some way some people might say, well, the example of Cuba has been to a certain extent destroyed. I don’t think so, because those fundamentals to me, of solidarity with oppressed and economic rights, are crucial in any society.

But the U.S. opening has given many people fears. Particularly those outside of Cuba, who say what’s going to happen now, is the U.S. just going to come in, and capitalism take over, and we’re going to see huge buildings on the Malecón, which is the main street along the ocean in the north part of Cuba by Havana. And the U.S. capitalism will swamp a revolution that has a strong belief in social and economic justice.

And of course, I was worried. What would become of the Cuba I knew, of the Cuba that, when I went to schools and saw building new schools all over the country, and saw children doing agriculture during the summer, integrating all jobs, et cetera, and the hopes and promises of a revolution. And wasn’t this, was going to be obviously very different. There’s no socialist bloc anymore. There’s not the same revolutionary movements in the world. And the country, as I said, was buffeted economically by the embargo and by the two collapses of its economy from the U.S. and the USSR.

On that issue I took away after long discussions with many people, although one would need to spend a very long time in Cuba to have a real sense of what’s going on, I took away a number of lessons. One was that the Cuban people are not going to easily give up their guarantees of economic and social security that they’re used to. They understand the role of governments and the role of rights in a very different way than people around other parts of the world in capitalist countries understand. That ideology and practice will not disappear easily or at all. Perhaps there’ll be a struggle around it. But I’m confident that those economic safety net guarantees will remain. The IMF will not be coming into Cuba with austerity packages that throw thousands or millions of people out of work and into poverty. That’s one lesson.

The second lesson I believe is that unlike in Eastern Europe, where all the state enterprises were sold off to private people who became the oligarchs of the new societies in those countries, and Russia, the major enterprises in Cuba will remain in government hands. And others, perhaps [bought] farms to small businesses, will not be sold off to private people. They’ll be run by collectives or cooperatives. And the cooperatives and collectives are viewed as encompassing much of the ideology and practices of Cuba over the last 66 years.

Third, Cuba will not become a U.S. neocolony. Even among those more toward the right in Cuba and outside, the people don’t want the U.S. running their country. There’s strong nationalism in Cuba. There’s strong belief in what their values are. And there’s a very strong fear of the United States.

Fourth, food is a serious problem in Cuba. Eighty percent of the food in what should be a very rich agricultural country is imported. How did that come about? Well, it came about in part because when Cuba needed the USSR, what the USSR needed was large amounts of sugarcane, and Cuba was made to be essentially a farm for sugarcane for the Soviet Union. They bought it at a high price, they traded it at a high price, so it allowed Cuba to continue to exist. But of course local farming efforts were not what was given the heightened interest. After the USSR left, Cuba was stuck. They made an effort to start to grow their own agriculture. And they did it in the urban farms, on terraces, on roofs.. It was all organic, they had to develop organic because they had no money to buy phosphates or fertilizer. And at one point, and still today, 50 percent of Cuban agriculture in the city of Havana is grown locally. But that doesn’t mean that chickens, milk, meat can be grown in Cuba right now. It can’t be. It’s imported.

So there’s still this huge problem, and the huge problem that farms outside of Havana have been abandoned. Tens of thousands of acres which are not, which do not have anything grown on them. And part–as I said, that was because of the reliance on the USSR. And in part because people, just like in the United States, are generally, don’t want to live in rural districts on farms. And particularly in Cuba where there’s no real system of transportation. There’s no real train system, very few people can afford cars, so you don’t want to live isolated out on a farm.

But now Cuba’s making an effort to come back, and bring people back to the farms. You get 30 free acres if you go farm it, as long as it’s productive. And I visited one of those farms in the countryside. They’re growing organic food, they’re growing food that hasn’t been grown in Cuba for a long time, and they’re cooperating with the farms in the area to become essentially cooperative farms.

So I’m hopeful about that. It’s a slow process. And of course, one of the fears are that places like Cargill, the big grain companies will come in. They’ll say to Cuba, we can supply you with all this cheap corn, or whatever. I don’t think Cuba will go for it, but the model of the cooperatives, the model of the small farms is still the model. But of course there’s no answer right now to how that is going to come out.

We will need to see what unfolds. The Cuban people will choose the path that is best for them. They’ve been strong for decade after decade. I’m confident that despite the big neighbor, the big bear to the north, the Cuban people will remain strong, and strong in the values that made that revolution so important for the last six decades.

NOOR: And Michael, having just returned from Cuba, I wanted to get your response. On the right many attack Cuba. And a lot of this can be linked to the policies they’ve taken and the positions they’ve taken, which often are in extreme opposition to U.S. policy. But one of the criticisms leveled against Cuba is that the Cuban government clamps down on opponents of their political party. What’s your–just being returned from their, how do you respond to such critics?

RATNER: I always respond to that through generations of my visiting Cuba with saying it would be great if you could have both. If you can have both economic rights and economic safety net, and the right to really speak and speak freely and widely. When I come out, and come out of this, my whole life, is that what I want to see is children well fed, well educated, having housing, having schooling, and having their fundamental economic rights guaranteed. I also think it’s important, obviously, to have free speech rights as well. But my bottom line is with economic rights. And that’s what Cuba gave to begin with.

And the speech rights, they have a special problem, or had a special problem. Because you have the big bear to the north, the United States, trying to break into their society, create other parties that are alternative, really funded by the CIA and others. So they have that problem, or had that problem. Do I think that’s shifting at all? Yes I do. I went, for example, to the art museum, and there I saw three works of art by Cuban artists. One, a map of–a basket made out of Cuba. Out of reeds, rather, but in the shape of Cuba, made out of sticks and stuff, called The Cage. In other words–could mean it either way. Cuba’s caging its people in, or Cuba’s being caged by others. Another one was a map called Boomerang, a work of art, in which it talks about artists being like boomerangs. Artists for a long time have been able to make money, do art, and leave the country and come back. So it talks about artists as boomerangs, leaving the country, boomeranging back.

So you see a fair amount of robust discussion of what’s going on. But I should also say on free speech, when you talk about Cubans this is not a top-down decision policy government, which many people think, oh, Fidel, or now Raul, makes the decisions. In fact, policies are discussed very much on the local level, on the block level. They go up to the next level and then eventually go all the way up to the popular assembly, and then perhaps even the central committee, or the politburo, where they’re voted on. Central committee. But it’s not as if there’s not huge opportunities within that context to voice your opinions.

Is it the same as the United States? No. but is the United States the same as one that guarantees a free education for everybody through college? No. So you have to say to yourself, sure. Would I like both? Yes. But do I start from not having a kid in the gutter, begging with his arm out? That’s where I start from.

NOOR: Well, Michael, thank you so much for that report and that reflection. We appreciate it.

RATNER: Thank you for having me on The Real News, Jaisal.

NOOR: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.

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