Saturday, January 17, 2009

Fifty years of the Cuban Revolution

On January 1, 2009, the small island nation of Cuba celebrated the 50th anniversary of a revolution that overthrew a brutal dictatorship and set Cuba on its long and often complicated road towards socialism.

Worldwide, the media reports combined standard distortions and lies on the question of democracy on the island with a focus on the revolution's most obvious symbols: its historical leader Fidel Castro, and the iconic guerrilla army that marched into Havana in the first week of 1959 with Castro and Argentine-born revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara at its head.

At best, this view presents only a partial picture of the Cuban Revolution. It overlooks the hundreds of thousands in the urban underground movement who opposed the murderous US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista who was brought down by the revolution — fighting street-battles, conducting industrial sabotage, and organising general strikes, such as the strike on January 2, 1959, that brought the regime to its knees.

The same view of Cuba also ignores the struggle of workers and other popular sectors that, after Batista fled, transformed the anti-dictatorship struggle into a revolution that overthrew an entire political class — whose corruption and autocracy threatened to betray the Cuban people's aspirations for democracy and social justice. A socialist revolution was begun on the doorstep of the greatest capitalist power on earth.

The survival of the Cuban Revolution for half a century in the face of endless aggression from the most powerful nation on Earth only 90 miles away is an outstanding feat in itself, but the reality of the Cuban Revolution and its achievements deserves much deeper, and fairer, treatment that it gets in the Western media.


Overthrowing dictatorship

During the first half of the 20th century, Cuba was little more than a floating casino, run by the mafia, large landowners and a series of US-backed dictators.

The economy was underdeveloped, heavily dependent on sugar exports to the US. More than a quarter of Cuba's productive land was owned by US companies.

When Fidel Castro, a young lawyer, defended a failed insurrection against the brutal Batista regime in 1953 with the words "history will absolve me", he struck a chord not simply for a population that wanted democracy, but one suffering more than 30% unemployment; where 75% of land was held by a small group of landowners; racism and prostitution were rife; and where US capital controlled business and government while working people lived without access to healthcare or education.

After Batista's overthrow, the revolutionary government began a process of land redistribution and social reform that brought it into direct conflict with US corporate interests.

The US cut off trade relations with Cuba, to which Cuba retaliated with a series of nationalisations of US companies — featuring worker occupation of factories and mass rallies in favour of increasingly radical, pro-poor measures.

The US helped organise an invasion attempt spearheaded by Cuban counter-revolutionaries at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and has continued to fund and organise attempts to overthrow the revolution ever since.

Tactics used by the US have included using tactics as varied as bacteriological warfare (introducing hemorrhagic dengue and swine fevers), sabotage, bombings and assassination attempts on officials. Castro has survived more than 600 CIA-organised assassination attempts.

More than 3478 Cuban people have been killed by the actions of the US and the Cuban-American terrorist groups based there, while five Cubans investigating the activities of these organisations have been imprisoned for more than ten years in US prisons.

Most damaging of all, however, has been the 46-year economic blockade by the US, which has cost Cuba more than US$92 billion. On October 29, the United Nations voted for the 17th consecutive year to demand the US lift its economic blockade of Cuba. A record 185 nations voted for the resolution, while only the US, Israel and the tiny Pacific island of Palau voted against.

Threat of a good example

Despite this constant aggression, Cuba has continued to set an example to the world of what can be achieved if an economy is organised according to people's needs rather than corporate profits.

One of the first tasks of the revolution was to eradicate illiteracy, achieved within a year with the aid of hundreds of thousands of volunteers. Quality, free education is now universally available to all Cubans, and thousands of Cuban teachers are volunteering in dozens of countries around the world.

The story is similar for health care. Before the revolution, the life expectancy of Cubans was only 58 years, the country's 6300 doctors demanded exorbitant fees that placed treatment beyond the reach of most and there was only one hospital in rural Cuba.

Today, world-class healthcare is universally free in Cuba and in 2008, Cuban life expectancy was 78 years — more comparable to developed countries than Cuba's poor neighbours.

In 2008, infant mortality in Cuba reached a new low of 4.7 per thousand births, well below the US rate of 6.4 per thousand, and the world average of 52.

Cuba has more than 70,000 doctors — the most per capita in the world — and tens of thousands of these are volunteering in more than different 80 countries, including Venezuela, Bolivia, the Solomon Islands and in East Timor, where there are currently over 300 Cuban doctors.

Meanwhile thousands of foreign students — including from the US — study medicine for free in Cuban universities. In collaboration with revolutionary Venezuela, Cuba has now restored the eyesight of more than 1 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean as part of "Operation Miracle".

Internationalism

At the heart of Cuba's revolution has been a selfless internationalism and support for national liberation movements around the globe, which has often set them at odds with the Soviet Union — upon whom Cuba relied for decades for most of its resources and trade in the context of the US blockade.

The most famous face of Cuban internationalism was Che Guevara. In his now famous speech to the Tricontinental conference in 1967, Che called for the creation of "Two, three, many Vietnams".

This was more than mere rhetoric — Guevara volunteered to attempt to spread the revolution to the Congo in Africa, and then Bolivia in Latin America, where he eventually met his death.

Less well known are the Cuban engineers who assisted the Vietnamese freedom fighters in their struggle against the US.

In Africa, Cuban troops were also invited to assist in the independence struggles in Guinea-Bissau and in Angola, where Cuban troops inflicted the first major defeat on South Africa's white colonial forces, and hastened apartheid's end.

Speaking in Havana in 1991, Nelson Mandela — just released from prison — called the Cuban-led victory over South African forces in Angola a "milestone in the history of the struggle for southern African liberation".

Cuba's internationalism continues today in the provision of doctors, teachers, engineers and agronomists to over 90 countries around the world, particularly in the emerging Latin American revolutions in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela.

Democratic

Despite the almost fervent need in the Western media to describe Cuba as a "dictatorship", the Cuban Revolution has made unparalleled strides in guaranteeing the democratic and human rights of its citizens.

In fact, Cuban democracy, while far from perfect — hardly surprising for a country under constant siege — is in many ways superior to the countries that criticise it.

While the Communist Party of Cuba remains the only legal party in Cuba, it is forbidden from participating in elections. Members of Cuba's government — from local council to the National Assembly — are elected from local constituencies to whom they remain answerable. Anyone, including the president or ministers, can be recalled from office at any time by their electorate.

Since the last election — held in early 2008 — women now make up over 43% of the National Assembly, an increase of 7%, and the proportion of representatives aged between 18 and 30 has increased from 23% to 36%.

In fact, some of the revolution's greatest gains have been in the areas of women's rights, racism and, in more recent times, gay rights.

In pre-revolutionary Cuba, institutionalised racism against the majority afro-Cuban population was rife. Land redistribution and rent reductions in the '60s, free education and a government campaign have helped eradicate much of the racist oppression faced before the revolution.

Before the revolution, homosexuality was illegal in Cuba and police persecution continued well after 1959, despite changes in the laws.

However, from 1986, a Cuban government campaign against homophobia saw a massive change in attitudes, and the National Assembly is currently considering legislation to allow same-sex unions in Cuba.

Enormous gains have been also achieved for women. Abortion is completely legal and free. Around two-thirds of Cuba's professional and technical workers and university graduates are now women, as are over 70% of its doctors.

While Cuba still struggles to leave behind the macho culture it has inherited, and there are areas that call for improvement, the gains compared to neighbouring Latin American nations are notable.

The Special Period

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba suffered a severe economic crisis, with over half of its food supplies, and 86% of its raw materials, drying up almost overnight.

While Cuba's GDP dropped by 33% between 1990 and 1993, the US tightened the economic blockade and increased funding to counter-revolutionary organisations.

The "Special Period", as this crisis became known, saw the return of inequality and other social problems. Despite the massive shortages, however, Cuba resisted US pressure, and maintained the most important social gains.

Not one school or hospital was closed, and unemployed workers were maintained on 60% of full-time wages.

One unintended benefit of the Special Period was the shortage of chemical pesticides and fertilisers, which led Cuba to develop the organic, environmentally sustainable agricultural practices which now account for over 90% of Cuba's food output.

Cuban cities now produce most of their food in urban farms and permaculture gardens located within the city limits.

Land reforms last year increased agricultural allotment sizes, in order to encourage greater food production. Cuba still depends upon imports for 60-80% of its food.

However, despite the burgeoning urban agricultural sector, productivity is problematically low, with about half of all arable land lying idle.

Cuba has also led the way in the use of solar panels and other renewable energy sources, and a 2007 report by the Worldwide Fund for Nature counted Cuba as the only nation in the world that met its criteria for sustainable development.

With the growth of revolutionary allies in Venezuela and elsewhere, the Cuban economy has bounced back recently, although it slowed in 2008 to 4.3%, affected by high food prices and a sharp drop in the price of its main export, nickel.

Three enormous hurricanes battered Cuba during 2008, causing over $9 billion dollars of damage — equivalent to 20% of GDP — and widespread food shortages, from which Cuba is still recovering. The US blockade continues to impede such efforts.

Pressure is growing on the US to lift the blockade. In July last year, the European Union lifted its political sanctions on Cuba, and — for the first time ever — a majority of Cuban-Americans oppose the blockade. A recent poll by Florida International University found that 55% of Cuban-Americans are now against the blockade.

While some argue that that Cuba will take a "Chinese road" towards capitalist restoration now that Fidel Castro has retired, the wide-ranging debate in Cuba about the direction of the revolution — including reducing bureaucracy, the use of market mechanisms and wage incentives — is aimed at improving, not abandoning, socialism.

In fact, Cuba's achievements have only been possible because the revolution broke the hold of US corporate interests over Cuba, and created instead a planned, worker-run economy that places human need ahead of profit.

In a world where "free market" capitalism has once again gone haywire, and threatens to destroy the entire planet, the example of the Cuban Revolution stands as a beacon of hope and inspiration to millions of people worldwide that a better world really is possible.

First published in Green Left Weekly, January 17, 2009

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