From May Day In Havana To The Cradle Of The Revolution
Thirty-three members of the Preston and Fylde CSC Group Study Tour shared in Havana’s May Day Rally together with 1.2 million Cubans for an experience of a lifetime. Complete with the Union Jack held aloft by London cabbie Tony Caccavone and a banner calling for an end to the US blockade the small group caught the attention of Cuban TV.
Applause and shouts of “Viva” punctuated the hour-long speech of President Fidel Castro in defence of the political, civil, social and human rights of the Cuban people who had recently suffered a narrow but honourable defeat at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva.
Co-sponsored, promoted and supported by several Latin American countries headed by Uruguay an anti-Cuban resolution drafted in the US had been passed by just 23 votes to 21 in a further attempt to justify the continuing blockade of forty years.
Yet, as Fidel pointed out, not one of those countries could match Cuba in terms of achieving the educational, cultural and social rates that are essential for a healthy, decent and just life of their citizens.
While the illiteracy rate for Latin America as a whole was 11.7% Cuba could claim 0.2%. Infant mortality per thousand live births stood at 32 in Latin America whereas in Cuba the figure was 6.2. When it came to life expectancy Cubans could expect to reach the age of 76 while Latin Americans could only hope for 70 years.
Of course not everything is perfect in Cuba and Cubans themselves would be the first to agree. Some young people have become divorced from the revolutionary process and turned to prostitution and hustling as an easy way to make money out of the increasing number of tourists.
Members of the group visited a newly-opened social workers college in the eastern city of Holguin where students spend ten months preparing to work alongside those who are neither studying nor working. The idea is to motivate them and encourage them to join one of seventy remunerated development programmes as a way of reintegrating them into society.
By way of contrast the children at the Raul Gomez Garcia Vocational School of Art needed no encouragement to display their talents as they entertained us to bravura performances both at the school and in the foyer of our hotel. A donation of a trumpet, trombone and guitar had been entrusted to us for delivery and was received with rapt enthusiasm.
The downturn in the world economy reinforced by the events of September 11th and the effects of Hurricane Michelle last November have all taken their toll on Cuba’s modest economic recovery. Yet with a reduced growth rate of 3% last year and a corresponding drop in both the number of tourists and prices for exported goods 65% of its budget for 2002 has been devoted to education, health and social welfare.
A meeting with the Chamber of Commerce in Santiago revealed that there are 400 joint ventures with foreign capital operating in Cuba with plenty of opportunity locally for small businesses to invest in the manufacture of clothes and furniture.
Participants in the tour who included local councillors, trade unionists, teachers, nurses, and solidarity activists from across the labour movement were encouraged to promote a major trade fair in June on their return home.
Although no-one needs reminding of the designs of the US on Cuba dating back 200 years a visit to the hill overlooking the illegally occupied naval base at Guantanamo is a salutary experience.
Covering two sides of the bay and fenced off with intermittent watch-towers there are apparently more civilians than military personnel on the base and the only ship in sight was a rusty Cuban tanker heading for its home port.
With the help of a telescope the miserable cages of the Taleban and Al Queida prisoners were visible under the inhospitable glare of the noonday sun together with the rows of green tents housing their military captors.
The highlight of the visit to Cuba’s “cradle of the revolution” was a street party thrown in our honour by a local CDR (Committee for the Defence of the Revolution) in one of Santiago’s poorest areas. While the young people entertained the group with a traditional display of Afro-Cuban culture, salsa and even a local form of rap older residents welcomed us with impassioned speeches confirming that these basic units of Cuban democracy were truly the backbone of the Revolution.
Photos were shown contrasting the area before the Revolution with the way it is now. Whereas there used to be an open sewer running through the middle of the street and the people lived in shanty houses the neighbourhood now boasts all the amenities of your average urban street with a decent home for all.
Of course the US blockade continues to do its worst with the local hospital in Pilon west of Santiago delighted to receive a donation of 10,000 paracetomol tablets from the group when it was down to its last 200 tablets. Elsewhere schools were desperate for cleaning materials and the usual supply of pens and paper.
Despite all this even the smallest school with just twenty children had a computer laboratory and a television set in each classroom in common with every other school throughout the country. Where electricity was unavailable in the more remote areas solar panels on the roof provided the power.
Visits were also made to Preston and Fylde CSC’s adopted primary school in Old Havana where the children entertained the group with singing and dancing and to the Cardiological Institute in Vedado when £300 of heart medicines was handed over to Dr Jose Santos Gracia.
President Carter’s “goodwill visit” to Havana on the last day of the study tour was overshadowed by the US administration’s accusation that Cuba was producing biological weapons and sharing its secrets with other “rogue states”. By including Cuba in President Bush’s “axis of evil” the ground was laid for widening the so-called “war on terror”.
The irony is not lost on ordinary Cubans who are calling for the release of the Miami Five unjustly imprisoned in the US on charges of spying when in reality they were defending their homeland from terrorist attacks originating in Florida with the complicity of Washington.
A special meeting was arranged with the wives and mothers of these political prisoners on Mothers Day at ICAP’s Friendship House in Havana which was covered by the national media. Ricardo Alarcon, the President of Cuba’s National Assembly, made an unexpected appearance and presented the families with large bouquets to mark the occasion.
Geoff Bottoms and his mother Marjorie also presented gifts from Preston and Fylde CSC that included a specially designed t-shirt, a silver plaque and a folder containing the correspondence received from the five men in response to messages of solidarity from the group. Cards made specially by the children of St Monica’s, Blackpool were included in the presentation.
Antonio Guerrero’s sister handed Marjorie a poem he had composed specially for Mothers Day called “The Purest Love” in which he spoke of the “tenderness which has no limits and opens all doors; there is no equal to a mother’s tenderness”.
Olga Salanueva, the wife of Rene Gonzalez, described how she had been recently denied a visa to visit her husband who had only seen his four-year-old daughter Ivette twice since her birth and even then he was handcuffed to a chair.
Gerardo Hernandez, who had received two life sentences, was allowed 40 visiting points a month representing an hour per point in the week and half an hour at weekends. A recent visit by his mother and sister had been cut short when he ran out of points.
The meeting also heard how Fernando Gonzalez received so much mail from around the world that his guards had remarked on it only to be told that he had a lot of friends while Ramon Labanino had not known a day when a letter did not arrive from Britain.
Yet the cry “Volveran” goes out across the whole of Cuba expressing the confident hope that these five new Heroes of the Republic will return home. As the family lawyer so eloquently puts it, “It will be as a result of the solidarity of people like you”.