We are stronger than ever

Winter 2006

The Cuban revolution has never been stronger, but neither has the US ever been as determined to bring it down, says Leonel Gonzalez, International Relations Secretary of the CTC, Cuba’s equivalent of the TUC.

Interview by Stephen Wilkinson in Havana

Leonel Gonzalez Gonzalez is well-known to UK trade unionists as he has been a frequent visitor in his capacity as the International Relations Secretary of the Cuban Worker’s Central , or CTC, the equivalent body of the UK’s TUC. But Leonel is also a member of Cuba’s parliament, the National Assembly, where he represents workers’ interests. Leonel will be among the delegation led by the CTC General Secretary Pedro Ross Leal attending the European Trade Union Solidarity Conference in London in February.

I met Leonel at the CTC HQ in Havana just before the New Year and asked him first of all about the conference and how he sees it.

“We think the conference is an excellent initiative for a various reasons. Firstly, because the union movement is the basis of many of the solidarity movements in the Europe: in the UK, Belgium, France, Portugal and Greece for example. Secondly, because since 2003 there has been a concerted propaganda offensive in the European media to discredit Cuba and this has had an impact within the union movements there. While we have witnessed a recuperation of solidarity with Cuba at a local level in many countries, there are a group of countries where the Central organisation has taken positions that are not a favourable as they were some years ago. I am talking about Italy, France and Belgium for example. In this sense the conference is very timely

“It is also important that the TUC is sponsoring the event because the TUC is one of the most influential Central organisations in the world. Additionally, the fact that the conference will be in London and hosted by Mayor Livingstone will also give it enormous prestige. We are certain it will be successful and have a huge impact. In fact, the two conferences that the CSC has already organised of a bilateral nature in London have already produced results in the sense that unions in other parts of the world have been aware of them and have decided to organise similar initiatives. The European conference will do the same.”

Q. Can you tell us a little about the current situation in Cuba?

“The Cuban economy grew by 11.8% last year. This is not just a statistic. Any visitor to Cuba today will see a country in motion. There is so much building work going on. In 2006 we will finish the renovation of every single medical centre in the country and there are thousands of those. We have already finished the renovation of every primary and secondary school and next year we will complete the renovation of the tertiary sector. This is not just a building renovation but includes the technological re-equipment of the classrooms with computers, videos and televisions etc. Between September 2005 and December 2006 we will complete the construction of 150,000 new houses.

“All this implies an increase in production of cement, steel, furnishings, fittings etc. That means there is work available. This year unemployment dropped to 1.9% which is practically full employment. The truth is that there is work in Cuba and only those who do wish to work are unemployed. In fact, one of the problems we now have is a shortage of building workers.

“In addition, Cuba has had a massive increase in the export of goods and services. The growth last year was mainly as a result of the export of services - mainly Cuban workers going abroad on contracted initiatives. This is evidence of the success of our investment in human capital. Internally, we have improved the inter-city transport system and next year we are going to improve the transport within the major cities. There is an accelerated programme to make the country absolutely self-sufficient in electricity. New plant is being introduced and the government is making energy-saving domestic appliances available to households so that by June 2006 there will be no more power cuts. The nickel industry and the biotech industries are also advancing. Our biotech products are finding more and more markets overseas. We are earning hundreds of millions of dollars from the sale of medicines worldwide.

“So the country is now really moving ahead. Of course, there are still problems. You cannot have 15 years of economic crisis without creating deep problems. There are social effects, in the way in which some people behave. But as the living standards of people improve then you will see a reduction in these negative tendencies. It is a battle in which we are engaged to extend the socialist gains of the revolution. Cuba is still the only country in Latin America without homeless children in the streets and with health and education guaranteed for all. If we could preserve those gains during the crisis imagine what we will achieve now the crisis is over?

“We are developing a society where the priority is not on the production of more and more consumer goods but in which the priority is to satisfy the basic needs of everyone. We wish to make sure that everyone has access to the physical, mental and spiritual things that make life healthy and happy: work, education, food, healthcare, access to sports, culture and recreation etc. We are sure we will succeed.”

Q. What about the decline of the sugar industry? Cuba has closed down more than half of an industry that employed 250,000 workers. This must have had an impact?

“Cuba has gone from being a country that produced little else but sugar to a country that produces a little sugar among everything else! The change has been fast, but it was done in a way that has not been done anywhere else in the world. This was not neo-liberal change. Quite sincerely I can tell you that we had little choice because with the price of oil so high and price of sugar so low it was costing us more to import the oil to produce the sugar than it would for us to simply buy the sugar and import that instead. Taking into account the long term factor of climate change that is affecting yields, we saw that it was no longer viable as an industry.

“So what happened to the workers? Two things: Firstly we found alternative work for some or, in the case of those involved in growing the cane, we switched them to producing other agricultural products. Where there were large numbers of industrial workers without work, they were given retraining on full pay. Of course some workers who had worked in the industry for many years suffered nostalgia, but the process has been remarkably trauma free and has met with general acceptance by the workers.

Q. Even in those communities where the town depended entirely on the sugar mill for work?”

“Yes, this is interesting. There is a programme of regeneration of the communities in those towns. Resources have been directed to create facilities such as education centres, social centres and to regenerate the local economies. New factories are being built in those locations such as pasta mills and other food processing plants that will replace the old sugar mills.”

Q. Finally, a few words about the United States?

“Well, you will have heard the recent announcement by Condoleeza Rice urging the overthrow of the government, and the words of the new US Interests Section chief pledging more support for the dissidents?.

“It is clear the US is going to increase the pressure next year. I can tell you that this Commission for a Free Cuba plan is the first time that any such plan has been fulfilled to the letter by any US administration. They have had many plans against Cuba over the last 45 years. Some have been mostly fulfilled, others partly fulfilled and many have remained just plans, but this plan is being fulfilled to the letter. They are doing exactly what they said they would do: They have stopped US citizens travelling to Cuba. They have stopped educational, scientific and sporting exchanges. They have reduced family remittances. They have cut back visits by Cuban to their families. They have increased the pressure on foreign companies that do business here. They have increased the financing of so-called “dissidents.” In short, they have been more determined than ever to carry out their objectives.

“At the same time it is clear that Cuba has never been more able to defeat them. All they are doing will meet with the will and intelligence of our people. We are stronger now than we have ever been and this is the feeling you will get from the immense majority of the Cuban people. We are militarily invulnerable, we are close to becoming economically invulnerable and we are absolutely politically invulnerable.

“This is the message that not only the US but also Europe must understand. I say Europe because sadly the European countries have done little more than echo the policies of the US towards Cuba. This has been with a great deal of hypocrisy and double standards. The European countries make demands on Cuba that they do not make of any other country in the world. They ask us for concessions that no country with dignity, independence and sovereignty could possibly accept. They have to understand that this is a policy of failure. Cuba will never accept blackmail. For this reason, coming back to the question you asked in the beginning, we think that the forthcoming European Conference of Solidarity in London is going to be of extreme importance.”

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