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Issue #1770      March 22, 2017

Southern Cross Brigade 34

The times they are a changin’

When the previous US President Barack Obama released the Cuban Five and announced a policy of constructive engagement with the Cuban government on December 17, 2014, many people believed this also meant the lifting of the US Blockade on Cuba.

Brigade members and ICAP staff moving nutrient rich soil into raised plant beds at agricultural cooperative near Caimito, Cuba.

The Blockade was not lifted in December 2014, it did not happen in March 2015 when President Obama visited Cuba, was not lifted prior to his leaving of office in January 2017 and is unlikely to be lifted during the Presidency of Donald Trump.

After the announcement of the various diplomatic manoeuvres by the US government many people started to say they wanted to travel to Cuba before it changed too much, that somehow the old cars would disappear from the streets, Havana and other Cuban cities would lose their old world charm, foreign consumer franchises such as McDonald’s, Lindt Café, Target and Walmart would spring up and the socialist revolution would lose its appeal amongst the Cuban people.

Those changes haven’t happened and most visitors would be unlikely to notice the changes occurring in Cuban society as a normal tourist on organised tours, staying in comfortable hotels and knocking around with fellow foreign tourists. One would most likely notice the changes if one came on a friendship brigade such as those organised by the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the People (ICAP). This past brigade being my fifth visit and third Southern Cross Brigade I was confident the changes if they were occurring, would be revealed at all levels of Cuban society through my participation in the Brigade and the exposure to the Cuban people afforded by this approach.

The Brigade this year was made up of 30 participants led by Communist Party of Australia National President, and State President of the CFMEU, Vinicio Molina, and included three New Zealanders with ages ranging from 23 to 75 years, of which slightly more than half were females with the Australian contingent hailing from most of the mainland states – NSW, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia.

For this Brigade ICAP put on an interesting program for the three plus weeks that included informative presentations on Cuban social, cultural, political and economic life interspersed with agricultural work and maintenance work on the International Camp of Julio Antonio Mella (CIJAM) at Caimito, 50 kilometres west of Havana.

As part of Cuba’s No Violence Campaign a billboard which shows the hands of a man making a representation of the eyes of a woman over the face of a woman with the words, “Don’t allow him to construct your reality. YOU ARE more than the way he sees you.”

Martyrs of Artemisa

On the second day of the Brigade we paid the customary visit to the Mausoleum of the Martyrs of Artemisa in the town of that name which included a tour and explanation of the heroic deeds of those young men who rallied to Fidel Castro’s call to rise up against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista at the Moncada Barracks in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba.

At the question and answer session following the tour, one of the Brigadistas asked the manager of the Mausoleum – who until then had been composed and professional in her presentation – when was the last time Fidel Castro had visited the Mausoleum, she replied on the July 26, 2010, but she soon lost her composure and started to weep and apologised as the mention of their leader who had passed away so recently on November 25, 2016, was still fresh in her mind and saddened her.

The Brigade was to encounter similar expressions of sadness and heartfelt feeling throughout the visit by the Brigade from the Cuban people as the Cubans would recall variously how sad Fidel’s passing had been; that he was like a father to them and that there was almost disbelief that he had passed away.

In the next few days we were treated to a gala performance of the Nutcracker Suite by the National Ballet of Cuba at the newly restored Gran Teatro de Habana. There was a presentation of a prize named after the grand dame of Cuban Ballet, Alicia Alonso, before the performance.

As an indication of how important access to the arts is to ordinary people and how valuable the tickets were to non-Cubans, our tickets cost 1 Cuban Convertible Peso and US tourists were willing to pay US$100 to buy the tickets from us – or 100 times their value!

The performance that night was dedicated to the Commander in Chief Fidel Castro and was as colourful, spectacular and well performed as any performances I had seen there.

Three nights later the Brigade were treated to a fine performance of Cuban music and dance at the Habana Café of the Hotel Melia Cohiba (which was an extra which the Brigadistas paid for). It was also an opportunity to see tourists from around the world – from nearby US to distant China – who were now visiting Cuba in increasing numbers since the partial thaw of relations between Cuba and the US.

Earlier in the predawn light of January 2, Brigade members joined the call of the Cuban government to rally in homage to the recently deceased leader of the Cuban Revolution. January 2 also marks the 60th anniversary of the landing of the Granma yacht, considered the beginning of the guerrilla war against dictator Fulgencio Batista. It was a military parade in honour of Fidel as well as an opportunity for ordinary Cuban people to show their support to the Revolution.

“Exporting” Cuban medical

No Brigade would be complete without visiting at least one of the institutions of Cuba’s medical system and on this Brigade we visited firstly the Unidad Central de Cooperacion Medica (Central Unit of Medical Cooperation or UCCM), which helps to organise specialist medical brigades to countries around the world ranging from Asia to Africa, Latin America, Pacific Islands and the Caribbean.

One of these Pacific islands caught the attention of the Brigadistas as it is often not far from the minds of peoples’ consciousness in Australia, and that was the island of Nauru.

The UCCM sent a small specialist medical team to Nauru which included a microbiologist and pregnancy medical staff to examine groups considered at risk from environmental hazards on the island – including primary school aged children and pregnant mothers – as there is a high rate of infant mortality and premature births on the island.

In the exhaustive Q&A which usually follows such a forum a number of Brigadistas asked UCCM leaders if they were troubled by the cruel and inhumane treatment accorded to refugees on the island. A director replied that while they recognised the inhumanity and injustice of what was happening, their best chance of having any effect on the island was through the example of the good work they were doing.

The other major health visit afforded to the Brigade was to the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) which has since 1999 helped to train over 27,000 doctors from various countries in the world. In past Brigades we have met up with foreign medical students in regional centres in Manzanillo and Santa Clara. These opportunities to learn about the Cuban program of training foreign medical students is engaging as well as confronting.

It is confronting as Australian and New Zealanders come face to face with medical students from the Pacific Islands and Timor Leste where our foreign policy role as a deputy sheriff of US imperial interests is laid out before us. As part of the declaration by the Brigade of the Southern Cross we called on the Australian government to help fund the travel costs and pay for the stipends of medical students from a few of our nearer Pacific Islands (see Guardian Issue 1763).

Part of the philosophy of ELAM which was initiated by Fidel Castro in 1999 was to train doctors from the far flung corners of the globe so that instead of a Cuban mission only going temporarily to a place to fix problems caused by a natural and/or man-made disasters, Cuba would train doctors from those regions and they would go back to their country and look after and be available to help the poorest and most disadvantaged, from provision of primary and preventative health measures.

Sancti Espiritu and Trinidad

On this 34th Brigade we visited the cities of Sancti Espiritu and Trinidad. Along the way we had brief stop-overs in Santa Clara to see the Monument to Che and talk to the veterans from the Revolutionary struggle in Cuba and later struggles of liberation in Angola and Congo, a stop over in Yaguajay to see the impressive monument to the Third Commander of the Revolutionary struggle, Camillo Cienfuegos, and finally Cienfuegos, to be greeted by ICAP staff of that city.

After a sombre and compelling visit to the monument to Che Guevara in Santa Clara we received notice that Cuban music star Silvio Rodriguez would be giving a free concert in the main plaza of the city. The concert was attended by over 3,000 Santa Clarans of all ages, from young children to grandmothers, many of whom knew the words to Rodriguez’s beautiful and progressively minded songs. Considerable expense was outlaid as the concert featured a full sound and light show which was greatly appreciated by people of all ages, from youngsters with their parents to grandparents.

The monument and museum of Camillo Cienfuegos was enlightening and we were treated to many an interesting story about his colourful and revolutionary life including with the other two commanders, Che and Fidel. Camillo was a talented tailor before he became a revolutionary and there is a brilliant coat on display which he made. He spent more than a year living in the US, most of it illegally and he was the very last person to join the Granma expedition from Mexico to Cuba. He was known for his skilled and convincing oratory and an old microphone used by Camillo to convince some of the Dictatorship soldiers to surrender their arms and join with the winning side is on display.

Trinidad was founded in 1514 by the Spanish colonialists and the history of slavery is intricately bound up in the city and the rich agricultural land which surrounds Trinidad.

The visit to Trinidad commenced a few kilometres at the large colonial Iznaga House adjacent to the seven-story Manaca Tower built in 1816 to monitor the slaves on the large land holdings used to grow sugar.

Cuban agriculture

On our return to CIJAM we had a little more agricultural work to undertake including at a nearby agricultural cooperative.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990 and Cuba lost much of its economic support, the impact on Cuban society was severe and caused what became known as the Special Period for the next 15 years.

The sector hit the hardest was the growing of food which relied heavily on mechanised farm machinery petro-chemical based fertiliser.

One day we went to a nearby rural co-operative where we were given a lesson in how the enterprise worked before we contributed our labour to its efforts.

We were shown hives of native Cuban bees (which do not have a sting) which are smaller than the conventional hives of European bees and the honey of which is richer in taste in comparison to honey I have tasted anywhere. The lids of the hives were lifted and we were given straws with which we could suck up the honey.

The cooperative stands on land given by the government on the proviso it is used to produce food. The cooperative members can obtain credits for the purchase of any plant or machinery which they require. It also has a truck purchased in this way which was used to pick us up from the camp.

The cooperative members plant their crops – in this case salads, onions, chives, tomatoes, carrots, bananas, capsicums, yucca, boniato (sweet potato) and Cuban vegetables not found in Australia. The government buys about 70 percent of the crop at a guaranteed (though low) price, the rest is sold on at markets and donated to schools, retirement homes and kindergartens.

Brigade member drinking honey from a hive at an agricultural cooperative near Caimito.

Renewable energy, internet, tourism

Cuba currently has only 4% of its energy use coming from renewable energy though the government recently announced a target of 24% renewables by 2030, to be achieved through the use of wind, solar and biogas from burning sugar cane waste. Australia derives 14% of its electricity from renewables according to the 2016 report by the Office of the Chief Economist.

There is access to the internet in most parts of Cuba, however one has to buy internet use with a card for 2 CUC much like one buys a phone card – though many people, especially the youth in Cuba, have a mobile phone. Though internet access is restricted to certain WiFi hotspots there are always many people at these WiFi hotspots throughout Cuba where the people keep in touch with their friends here and overseas.

There has been a significant increase in tourists from all over the world but especially from the US since US President Obama eased restrictions in December 2014. It has created some distortions in the economy including increasing the prices of accommodation and making it difficult and more costly to buy a Cuban Bucanero or Cristal beer, while the country is flooded with cheap imported beer.

After the Brigade I stayed a few more days with a Cuban family and talked with friends and many other Cubans in the street and it was evident that most people supported the Revolution as they feared the alternative of capitalism. But people are becoming frustrated with the low incomes they receive, especially as 70 percent of Cubans are still employed in the public system and receive monthly salaries of less than US$30.

There is a private (Cuenta propia) system and although initially starting out well, it seems there are also complaints emerging of overwork and it is not clear if unions are also as active in the private system as they are in the public system. There are also people employed in co-operatives as part of the other 30 percent not employed by the government.

Unemployment is officially 7% according to the Cuban economist who gave a talk at the International Camp, which is comparable to the unemployment rate in Australia which is officially 5.7%, but with a steep growth in the past year in part time employment, decrease in full time employment and an otherwise stagnant labour market.

After another Brigade which exposed me to Cuban society and Cuban socialism I found myself asking if I still think that Cuba is a model that the rest of the world and in particular Australia could learn from.

The answer is yes, Cuba is still a society that we could learn from as they have a system that encourages people to think critically and in so doing it also makes them a happier people.

Vive la Revolucion Socialista Cubana. – Venceremos!

At the entrance to the ICAP office in Sancti Espiritu of the “Qualities of Our Fidel”.

Next article – Colombia – Deadly coal mine expands

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