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In Cuba, we can glimpse a dream becoming a reality: 

Notes on the Road
to 21st Century Socialism

Issue 2, March 2020

In Cuba, we can glimpse a dream becoming a reality: 

Lessons Learned on the Fiftieth Venceremos Brigade

Introduction

Starting in 1969, the Venceremos Brigade has organized delegations of people from the U.S. to visit Cuba and learn from the Cuban people. Over five decades, a total of about 10,000 people have participated, helping to seed the core of a solidarity movement in the U.S.  In the words of Atilio Borón, “…under the worst imaginable conditions Cuba began to build socialism, and to this day continues the task with exemplary tenacity. The sabotage of the U.S. government has been persistent, growing and brutal. Democrats and Republicans have alternated in the White House, but all have coincided in their sickly obsession with crushing the Cuban Revolution and wiping off the face of the earth an example that shows that even under the ‘broad spectrum’ attack of the largest superpower on the planet, a country on the periphery can guarantee health, education, food, social security and an austere but dignified life for the entire population.” 

The fiftieth Venceremos delegation took place during the commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the revolution itself, during the summer of 2019.  The Brigade mobilized a record number of over 160 people from across the U.S. The delegation was remarkable for its ethnic, geographical and generational diversity; ranging from a 14-year-old, to two elders who had been on the first delegation in 1969. As a result of conscious effort, now many of the leaders (“responsables”) of the brigade are young Black women and people of color, working alongside veterans of the 60s generation, including an 80-year-old leader of the Third World Strike at SF State.  Seven LeftRoots members from across the country– along with two younger LeftRoots family members — participated in the 50th Brigade.  In this reflection on our experiences, we share key lessons that the Cuban Revolutionary project holds for U.S. leftists.  In addition, we emphasize the importance for U.S. leftists to provide solidarity and support to Cuba.  Our goals were to deepen our understanding of actually existing socialism; to gain insight on how to build revolutionary movement, and correct course when errors are made; and to understand the impact of U.S. attacks on Cuba and how we could contribute to building a solidarity movement to end the blockade. The trip was a transformative experience for us, and we urge others to participate in Venceremos’ annual brigades. The Brigade’s first week was spent near Havana at a camp built for international delegations. There we visited co-ops and did three half-days of agricultural work with Cubans. The second week we toured south-central Cuba.  We spent the third week in Santiago, the most heavily Afro-Cuban region of the country, Fidel’s birthplace, and a seat of the revolution.

As our trip approached, the Trump administration was clamping down hard on Cuba, ramping up the 59-year-old U.S. blockade.  Each passing week reverses progress toward U.S.-Cuban relations and threatens the well-being of Cuban people.  The clamp-down included:

  • Cessation of licensed people-to-people travel, keeping out some 800,000 people per year who had been arriving on cruise ships from the United States.  U.S. travelers need to use work-arounds that were necessary before the partial thaw under Obama, and direct flights between the U.S. and Cuba are limited to Havana only; 
  • New restrictions on family remittances;
  • New sanctions on cargo ships, including blocking badly needed oil shipments and thereby reducing electrical service.

A Present Based on History–Remembering History is Remembering Resistance 

One of the strongest feelings we came away with was this: “In Cuba, history is everywhere at all times, and it isn’t even past.” The 60th anniversary of the revolution was celebrated with the words, “Years of principles, unity and history.” This revolutionary maxim was evident on every stop of our trip. Leaders recounted the stories of how their locality had contributed to the long struggle for national liberation and socialism in heartfelt ways that felt like precious family history being passed down.  Afterwards, there was always a song or a poem, often by a young person. Often these ceremonies would end with the solemn laying of flowers by each of the Brigadistas. 

One of the great achievements of the Cuban revolution is its ability to cultivate tens of thousands of new leaders, and to execute a transition from the historic generation that made the revolution, to a new generation of leaders.  We got a glimpse of how the Young Communists provides leadership development for very large numbers of youth through their magazines, projects, committees at every school, and campaigns. Revolutionary history is a lived experience that both honors the past and prepares future generations to build on victories.

During one of our tours, we walked along a mile-and-a-half-long concrete trail that had been built by local farmers to commemorate the 82 revolutionaries who waded to shore from their small boat, the Granma, on the southeast coast of Cuba in 1956. The trail was built through what seemed to be an utterly impassable mangrove swamp.  The revolutionaries’ goal was to trek up to the Sierra Maestra to establish a mountain base area for the guerrilla war against the dictator Batista.  Retracing the steps of the Granma fighters gave us a visceral sense of the nearly superhuman effort required when the revolutionaries disembarked, hacked their way through the swamp carrying heavy backpacks of weapons and supplies, broke into small groups to hide Batista’s airplanes circling overhead, and starving, asked local farmers for food. Out of the 82 people who disembarked, only 15 made it to the rendezvous point in the Sierra, with the rest killed in ambushes, imprisoned, betrayed or separated. But from the strong seed and fierce commitment of the Granma revolutionaries and the movement’s bold mass organizing, the Cuban revolution was born.  A quote from Fidel conveys the determination of the revolutionaries: “If we leave, we arrive; if we arrive, we enter; if we enter, we will win.” 

The experience of our physically retracing these footsteps teaches us that if we are to build the powerful movement that we need, we will need to incorporate rituals and practices that root us in history. This is essential to help millions of people understand themselves as part of changing history. It is doubly important in a white settler colony like the United States where historical amnesia provided the rationale for the occupation across the “empty” continent.   Some examples of Cuban practice that might help to advance U.S. leftists include:

  • Making sure that poetry, songs or other cultural offerings are shared, for example by including “culture as a weapon” on every agenda;
  • Building on the Cuban practice of emphasizing youth involvement in performance within our movements;
  • Renaming our streets, schools and conference rooms to commemorate our revolutionary s/heroes. Such renaming actions make revolutionary history part of our everyday experience. 

Practical lessons about collectivity and cadrefication

There is much to learn from Cuba about how to build collective engagement in the life of the revolution.

On one of our first days at the Julio Antonio Mella International Camp, there was a special introduction to all of the staff of the camp.  This took nearly an hour and was a very deliberate and a celebratory introduction of the staff. The director of the camp introduced the kitchen staff, the maintenance staff, the medical staff, and the administrative staff, totaling around 50 workers.  The point was clearly made that the revolution doesn’t continue without everyone playing their own particular role, and that all roles are needed.  The contrast with the almost colonial vibe of hotels in Miami was stark. 

We witnessed similar collectivity at a local 26 de Julio celebration honoring the anniversary of the guerrilla attack on the Moncada Barracks. This action and Fidel’s subsequent imprisonment and trial brought him to prominence as a visionary leader.  The annual event highlighted the collective and ongoing revolution behind Fidel’s leadership.  It was sponsored by a Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) in a village near our international camp. Two hundred people of all ages gathered to socialize and celebrate, in honor of their history. After a cultural presentation of dance and song at the plaza, small groups of Brigadistas were invited to visit homes.  A typical family ritual—coming out to see the kids perform—was merged with an affirmation of the revolution and a demonstration of Cuban’s solidarity with Brigadistas from the U.S.

The practice of creating massive engagement is something that some of us in U.S. social and environmental justice movements have been part of in terms of mass actions, art build activities, and the like. Yet, the collectivity lived in Cuba is not always prominent in these settings. U.S. capitalist individualism is also a challenge for folks from the U.S. who travel to Cuba. Too often we are trained to think only of ourselves, to act in our own interests, to focus on the quantity and value of things, rather than on the qualities of human relationships manifested in joy and connection.

We felt a tremendous sense of solidarity and warmth from Cuban people. For example, one comrade who is a wheelchair user said, “OK, the access issues in Cuba are very difficult—anything that depends on construction materials is so impacted by the blockade.  But what shines like a diamond is the consistent caring practice of the Cuban people around disability—we saw this everywhere.  Never for an instant did I feel like an annoyance or a burden, which I feel frequently in the U.S.” 

By contrast, individualism was not hard to find among our brigade.  A clear example of the lack of consciousness in our U.S. delegation occurred in the middle of our visit, when bottled water ran short. Although the Cuban water system is excellent, its flora are unfamiliar to people from the United States, so our hosts had us drink bottled water. Instead of recognizing the bottled water shortage as a collective challenge to be dealt with in an organized way, we simply stumbled through, with each person scrambling to borrow water and figure it out for themselves until the new shipment arrived. 

Facing Revolutionary Contradictions

Prior to the trip, Brigade members studied an article by Richard Levins called “How to Visit a Socialist Country.” Levins cautions people from rich countries not to show up in Cuba carrying a mental clipboard, ready to score the Cuban revolution against our own checklists. In this section, we grapple with this challenge by focusing on the difficult decisions Cuban revolutionaries have made to maintain the revolution in the face of anti-socialist geopolitics. These are very brief initial thoughts about complex topics.

  1. Development, or Capitalist Creep? 

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba has had to make hard decisions about how they would make up for an 80% loss of foreign trade revenue. After losing support from the Soviet Union, Cuba underwent several years of extreme hardship, including petroleum and food shortage known as the Special Period.  People lost an average of 20 pounds and the ubiquitous Cuban music seemed to go quiet.  Cuba fought its way out of the Special Period with a number of breakthrough innovations such as very large-scale organic farming, which we got a taste of during our workdays. In the 1990s, the government also made the decision to turn to international tourism to bring in much needed revenue.

Since the decision was made to build that sector, international tourism continues to rise. We saw a clear economic investment in renovating destinations such as Old Havana. At the same time, we saw housing for Cuban people that was in dire need of repair. In a discussion with the Brigade, Johana Tablada, deputy director of U.S. affairs in the Cuban Foreign Ministry, highlighted that housing is perhaps the biggest social problem in Cuba, owing largely to a severe shortage of materials caused by the U.S. blockade. While no one is homeless and housing is enshrined as a human right, Cuba is still struggling to find the resources to ensure all people have adequate housing—so that for example, young adults will be able to launch themselves to independent living when they come of age. 

This investment in tourism is more possible due to the constitutional changes that were voted on last year, after a three-month consultation process including some 135,000 public meetings. Cubans explained that the country was simply not able to continue to provide government employment for the entire population—the country needed to develop a cooperative sector and to allow a tightly regulated private sector in non-critical areas of the economy such as restaurants, hair salons and bed and breakfasts. When this decision was taken, it was not difficult to see an outsized and therefore expensive public sector. For example, during an earlier trip to Cuba in 2013, one of us noticed that there seemed to be more employees than passengers during a day spent at the Havana International Airport.  It is now possible to own private property, and foreign investment is being more strongly encouraged. Specifically, the language in the new constitution states that one form of property is: “Private Ownership: that which is exercised over specific means of production by natural or legal persons, Cubans or foreigners; with a complementary role in the economy.”1 Some small businesses and coops can now be used to generate income for the owners, under conditions of strict regulation and with a prohibition on hiring non-family workers. However, even with strict regulation, tourism introduces distortions. For example, the sector has qualitatively better wages than other crucial sectors such as teaching or the health professions. Some of us met an Afro-Cuban who had been a fourth grade teacher, but was now running a tiny micro-restaurant on two card tables in his living room, so that he could better support his aging mother.  The newest national budget tries to adjust for this.

We also learned about the role that remittances play in the Cuban economy. While they are currently rolled back as a part of the Trump administration’s attacks against Cuba, these transfers still play a significant role in the economy. Most of these remittances are coming from Cubans who left after the revolution, mainly wealthy white Cubans who headed for Miami. These families send money back to their families in Cuba, also mainly white. While in some ways this generates employment and resources for the Cuban economy, on the other hand it widens the divide between Cubans along class and racial lines. White Cubans are then more likely to open restaurants (paladares), bed and breakfasts (casa particulares), or repair or expand their homes; on the other hand, more typical Cubans, including many Afro-Cubans, have long waits for government resources to become available. 

What does it mean to recognize private means of production in a country that is building socialism? What does it mean for a country fighting for socialism to open to investors from capitalist countries? In many other former colonies, managerial or party elites have morphed into big capitalists.  In an earlier visit to Cuba, some of us heard presentations by Cuban economists and Communist Party leaders who were wrestling with these contradictions in an on-going and deeply revolutionary manner. 

ii. Struggling Against Racism

The Brigade was honored to have a presentation and discussion with four Afro-Cuban intellectuals, including Esteban Morales Domínguez, a Cuban Communist Party leader who over many decades has led a struggle over racism within the revolution. The issue is complex because de jure racism was ended very quickly after the victory in 1959. Since then, the revolution has made epic advances in ending the generations-long exclusion of Afro-Cubans (itself a complex term), and in literacy, access to education, housing, health care and human solidarity. The contradiction is that de facto racism persists in other ways–Afro-Cubans still struggle for recognition and equal treatment. Attitudes, social preferences, access to the well-paid tourist sector and remittances from Miami, disproportionate numbers of white faces in leadership positions from the local restaurant to the National Assembly–are real issues.  While the national consciousness of Cubans is not rooted in a racial logic but instead a national logic, color still matters.

Morales said: “If color is not mentioned or deconstructed in the context of white hegemony, then we are educating our youth to be white. This is wrong. It creates a dangerous split between official reality and reality on the streets, as people experience racism.” Morales pointed out that many heroes and martyrs who were Afro-Cuban, such as Maceo, a top commander of the army of independence in the war against Spain and slavery, have been “white-ified by omission.” This flies in the face of estimates that 75-85% of the 1868-98 wave of struggle were Afro-Cubans. 

Morales said: “If color is not mentioned or deconstructed in the context of white hegemony, then we are educating our youth to be white. This is wrong. It creates a dangerous split between official reality and reality on the streets, as people experience racism.” Morales pointed out that many heroes and martyrs who were Afro-Cuban, such as Maceo, a top commander of the army of independence in the war against Spain and slavery, have been “white-ified by omission.” This flies in the face of estimates that 75-85% of the 1868-98 wave of struggle were Afro-Cubans. 

Of course, four centuries of racism could not be completely uprooted in sixty years.  Said Morales, “Racism can be found everywhere, but it is not the same as in the U.S.” In Cuba we do not see structural or institutional racism. It is better described as prejudice. At a very personal level, Morales related the story of a census worker urging his own son not to identify himself as an Afro-Cuban, inviting him to “identify upwards” from a status still stigmatized in the minds of many.

Morales reiterated that framing the issue as “equal rights before the law” silences discussion of the issues, and silencing is the worst condition for change. Progress has been more rapid when the persistence of racism has been acknowledged and confronted head on.  Most recently the Cubans have organized a National Program against Racism and Racial Discrimination, chaired by President Miguel Díaz-Canel.  The goals of the initiative include “identifying the causes of racial discrimination; diagnosing possible actions to be taken by territory, locality, branch of the economy and society; disseminating the historical and cultural legacy of Africa, of indigenous peoples and other non-white peoples as part of Cuba’s cultural diversity; and promoting organized public debate on racial issues within political, mass and social organizations, as well as their presence in the media.”

We also had the great honor of meeting with Victor Dreke, an elder Afro-Cuban commander who had fought with Che Guevara in all five theaters that Che led.  With its bedrock internationalism, Cuba played a crucial role in breaking the back of white supremacy in Southern Africa, helping to defeat the South African army at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale.   

iii. Confronting Male Supremacy

Patriarchy is a system that is well over five thousand years old, and overturning it of course takes concerted struggle over time. We learned that in Cuba today—again, after intensive effort–53% of the Cuban National Assembly is women. Despite being a heavily Catholic country, Cuba had the first decriminalization and then legalization of abortion and may have the best access to quality abortion care of any country in the world. We visited a regional polyclinic that was almost entirely led by women.  Amazingly, degrading or hypersexualized images of women are virtually absent, and commercial advertising is non-existent.  At the same time, we could not help but notice that the narratives about the heroes and martyrs of the revolution mainly focused on men.  As an example, during a full day of visits in Granma province, the name “Celia Sanchez” was never mentioned, although she was a foremost organizer of the province and went on to become a major leader of the revolution. The only noting of her role was that our bus passed a billboard with her photo and the words “Celia, Siempre Celia.” Similarly, murals and other artwork on the heroes of the revolution were very heavily male.

Cuba’s Current Challenge: The U.S. blockade is “The most hostile in history”

Cuba’s internal contradictions are made all the more difficult by the pressure created in their economy by the U.S. blockade. Since 2018 alone, the Cuban economy has lost nearly $4.5 billion across all sectors as a result of the Trump Administration’s ramping up of a blockade.  Johana Tablada told the Venceremos Brigade that although the U.S. sanctions that were imposed in 1960 always imperiled the Cuban Revolution, the most recent attacks launched by the Trump Administration “rank as the most hostile in history.”

For the past 28 years, the Cuban government has introduced a resolution to the United Nations General Assembly which reads, in part: “The economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed by the government of the United States of America on Cuba for nearly six decades is the most unjust, severe, and prolonged system of unilateral sanctions ever levied on any country.” In 2019 the UN resolution calling for an end to the blockade once again passed overwhelmingly, with only three votes against it. We need to understand the blockade as an aggressive imperialist attack.

The solidarity movement must educate people in the U.S. to understand that the blockade has negative impact not only on Cuba, but also on people in the United States. Because the U.S. does not trade with Cuba, people in the U.S. cannot benefit from Cuban medical research and the development of breakthrough Cuban medicines that treat diabetes (preventing 80% of diabetic amputations), control hypertension, and prevent lung cancer recurrences.   Because of the grip of capitalist health care in the US, we are blocked from emulating exemplary features of the Cuban health system. We learned that Cuba manufactures most of their primary care medicines, which are provided to the population completely free. Also, using 3D printing, Cuba manufactures hearing aids that sell for $2.50 in U.S. dollars, compared to $1500 hearing aids at Costco. There are also important lessons that could be learned from the organization of Cuban primary care, which is deeply community-based and has achieved outcomes in life expectancy and maternal mortality that put the U.S. to shame. 

Tablada underscored several things that people in the U.S. can do to support Cuba. She urged us to support existing legislation in Congress to repeal the travel ban.  As of summer 2019, 46% of the Senate was committed to lifting the ban.  We can also insert challenges to the blockade into the presidential and Congressional elections. Tablada said that people in the U.S. should raise the issue of farmers in the Midwest who want to trade with Cuba; we should also push for academic and scientific collaborations. We should campaign hard against right-wing efforts to put Cuba back on a list of “terrorist nations” to satisfy Trump’s wish to appease the right-wing Cuban exile community and win Florida. Above all, Tablada encouraged people in the U.S. to spread the word that Cuba welcomes travelers from around the world so we can see with our own eyes the falsehood of the lies we have been told about Cuba.  

She pointed out that there is very little support in the U.S. for an aggressive anti-Cuba policy, but at the same time opposing the policy is “no one’s priority,” so the hostile U.S. stance is not vigorously confronted.   In recent years and especially since the partial thaw under Obama, Cuba has been much less visible on college campuses, delegations from community organizations, and certainly in terms of public pressure campaigns on the U.S. government. Meetings are being organized to shift this reality.

Closing

It was transformative to be in a place where the revolution is so alive—we would reach for words and then say something like, “I just feel like I can breathe here.”

The lessons learned on the trip were deeply inspiring and viscerally shaped our understanding of how to work towards socialism in the United States.  To be able to dream and vision what it actually means to run a socialist country; to see first-hand the contradictions, the continued struggles; to see that Cuba is not a utopia, but is still full of tangible examples of socialist practices we seek here.  While Cuba is a much smaller country than the United States, its success in continuing to build socialism in the backyard of the biggest imperialist country in the world, makes it feel huge. The task of creating a socialist government and economy in the U.S. was made more possible by the Cuban revolution, if still a long road to walk. For U.S. leftists, a central commitment must be our active work to end the blockade and lift the travel ban–in solidarity, and in the spirit of revolutionary internationalism.


Notes:

  1. In addition, they also name another form of property: “Personal property: that which is exercised over one’s belongings that, without constituting means of production, contribute to the satisfaction of the material and spiritual necessities of the owner.”
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