Cuba, 50 years on ... and the same challenge of making a revolution
By Lázaro Barredo Medina
Granma International -- October 30, 2008 -- "The dictatorship has been defeated. The joy is immense. And yet, there still remains much to do. We won’t deceive ourselves by believing that everything will be much easier from now on; perhaps it will be much more difficult." This is what Commander in Chief Fidel Castro told the people on January 8, 1959, the day of his entry into Havana. Many people could never imagine the immense challenge that they would live to experience.
Suffice it to say that just a few days later, Fidel proclaimed the right to self-determination in terms of relations with the United States and immediately, the aggressions, attempts on his life and anger on the part of US politicians began, evidence of which can be seen in speeches and articles of the time, as in an editorial of Time magazine, the mouthpiece of the most conservative sectors, entitled: "Fidel Castro’s neutralism is a challenge for the United States."
But the Cuban people could not be neutral in the face of the United States. The triumph of the Revolution that January 1959 signified for the Cuban nation, for the first time in its history, the real possibility of exercising the right to self-determination. From that moment on, neither the US president, Congress nor its ambassadors could continue making decisions on what could or could not be done in Cuba. The bitter dependence had been brought to an end; a dependence that saw US governors and ambassadors enjoying a degree of power in Cuba that was far greater than the actual power that they had – with respect to decision-making – within the US federal government or in relation to any of the 50 states that make up the USA.
When full national independence was achieved, the Revolution began to exercise that right by immediately applying the program that Fidel had announced during the Moncada trial of 1953 and which is contained in his historic self-defence speech History Will Absolve Me.
Dependence on US ends
Cuba established the economic and social regime that it believed was most just and established a socialist state with participatory democracy, equality and social justice. The country’s economy was characterised by limited industrial development, essentially depending on sugar production and a latifundia agricultural economy, where landowners controlled 75% of the total arable land.
Most of the country’s economic activity and its mineral resources were managed by US capital, which controlled 1.2 million hectares of land (a quarter of the productive territory) and most of the sugar industry, nickel production, oil refineries, the electricity and telephone services and the majority of bank credits. Likewise, the US market controlled approximately 70% of Cuban imports and exports, within a system of highly dependent volumes of exchange: in 1958, Cuba exported products worth 733 million pesos and imported 777 million pesos worth of goods.
The prevailing social picture was characterised by a high unemployment and illiteracy, a precarious healthcare, social welfare and housing system for the vast majority of the population, as well as abysmal differences in living conditions between urban and rural populations. There was a high degree of polarisation and unequal distribution of income; in 1958, 50% of the population earned just 11% of total income, while a 5% minority controlled 26%. Racial and gender discrimination, begging, prostitution and social and administrative corruption were widespread.
Addressing the social and economic problems in Cuban society could no longer be put off and could only be resolved if the Cuban people had control of their own wealth and natural resources. Thus, using the 1940 constitution and in line with international law, Cuba exercised its right to take control of these resources and assumed total responsibility for this action. The island paid compensation to all nationals from third countries (Canada, Spain, Britain, etc.) with the exception of US nationals, given that that government rejected the provisions outright and transformed the Cuban government’s decision into a pretext for unleashing a war unprecedented in the history of bilateral relations between the two nations.
Not only did the Revolution hand over land to campesinos who, up until then, had been subjected to semi-feudal conditions of production and forced to live in extreme poverty, but it also determined that that all the country’s resources should be allocated to national economic development and improving the material and living conditions of the population. To give just one example, in the 1980s alone, approximately 60 billion pesos were allocated to the construction of productive and social facilities.
The process of industrialisation underway paved the way for economic and productive diversification. Under the Revolution and up until the economic crisis which began with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist bloc between 1989 and 1991 – what we in Cuba call the ``Special Period'' – the country’s capacity for producing steel grew 14-fold, fertiliser increased six-fold, the oil-refining industry quadrupled (not counting the new refinery in Cienfuegos), the textile industry grew seven-fold, tourism three-fold, to mention but a few. The state also created complete new industries such as machinery, mechanics, electronics, the production of medical equipment, a pharmaceutical industry, construction materials, a glass industry and ceramics, as well as making investments to increase and upgrade the sugar, food and light industries. In addition to these endeavours, we have the development of biotechnology, genetic engineering and other branches of science.
The country has also made great efforts in terms of improving its infrastructure. Electricity generation has risen eight-fold and water storage capacity has increased 310 times, from 29 million cubic metres in 1958 to nine billion-plus cubic metres today. There has been diversification with respect to roads and freeways and modernisation of ports and other areas. Social needs have been covered fairly well, except for housing, which has been Cuba’s biggest problem.
The progressive growth and diversification of productive potential and the application of a widespread social program has allowed the nation to confront the problem of unemployment. In 1958, with a population of 6 million inhabitants, approximately one third of the economically active population was unemployed. Of this figure, 45% of the unemployed lived in rural areas while, out of 200,000 women in work, 70% were employed as domestic servants. Today, with 11 million inhabitants, the number of people in work is in excess of 4.5 million. More than 40% of workers are women and today they represent more than 60% of the nation’s technical and professional sectors.
In 1958, the number of illiterate and semi-illiterate people in Cuba stood at 2 million. The average academic level of 15-plus-year-olds was third grade, more than 600,000 children did not attend school and 58% of teachers were unemployed. Just 45.9% of school-age children were enrolled and half of them did not attend classes. Only 6% of those enrolled finished elementary education. Universities were available to just 20,000 students.
The education sector received immediate attention from the revolutionary government. Its first task was to develop a mass literacy campaign with the participation of the population. An extensive network of schools was constructed throughout the country and more than 300,000 teachers and professors were in full-time employment in this sector. The average academic level for 15-plus-year-olds rose to ninth grade. One-hundred per cent of school-age children are enrolled in schools, some 98% complete elementary education and 91% complete junior high. One in every 11 citizens is a university graduate and one in eight has technical-professional qualifications. There are 650,000 students in the country’s universities today and all education is free of charge. Education and vocational skills are also guaranteed for 100% of children with physical or mental disabilities, who attend special schools.
The precarious situation in 1958 with respect to public health was characterised by an infant mortality rate of 60 per 1000 live births and a maternal mortality rate of 118 per 10,000. The mortality rate for those suffering from gastroenteritis was 41.2 per 100,000, and from tuberculosis, 15.9 per 100,000. In rural areas, 36% of the population suffered from intestinal parasites, 31% from malaria, 14% from tuberculosis and 13% from typhoid. Life expectancy at birth was estimated at 58.8 years.
Around 61% of hospital beds and 65% of the nation’s 6500 doctors were concentrated in the capital. In the other provinces, medical coverage was one doctor for every 2378 inhabitants and there was just one hospital for all the country’s rural areas.
Today, healthcare is free of charge and Cuba has more than 70,000 doctors, providing coverage of one for every 194 inhabitants. Almost 30,000 of them are providing services in more than 60 different countries. A national network of more than 700 hospitals and polyclinics has been created. Thanks to a widespread vaccination campaign (every child currently receives vaccines against 13 different illnesses) diseases such as polio, diphtheria, measles, whooping cough, tetanus, rubella, mumps and hepatitis B have been almost entirely eradicated. The infant mortality rate is now 5.3 for every 1000 live births and life expectancy exceeds 77 years.
There is also a series of advanced medical services that are not considered as "basic" in the international arena, and are provided completely free of charge, such as intensive care units in pediatric and general hospitals, cardiovascular surgery, transplant services, special perinatal care, treatment for chronic renal failure, and special services for occupational and physical rehabilitation.
The revolutionary state did not focus its attention solely on economic and social measures. It also embarked on efforts to establish an internal legal system to facilitate the right to self-determination via the population’s direct participation in discussions, analyses and the passing of the country’s principal laws. The most notable of these was the 1976 constitution, supported by 97% of Cubans aged 16 and over through a referendum, as well as other momentous laws like the Penal Code, the Civil Code, the Family Code, the Children and Young People’s Code, the Labour and Social Security Code and many others.
Likewise, the self-determination of the Cuban people is expressed through the right to defend the nation against foreign aggression. Today, more than four million Cubans – workers, campesinos and university students – are organised in militia groups have access to weapons in their campuses, factories and in rural areas.
However, since 1959, Cuba has had to confront the hostility of ten US administrations that have attempted to limit its right to national self-determination through the use of aggression and the unilateral imposition of a criminal economic, commercial and financial blockade.
One of the universally accepted principles of international law is that state cannot be allowed to coerce another in order to deny it the right to exercise its sovereign rights. Article 24 of the UN Charter states that, in the context of international relations, nations must refrain from using threats or force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.
Over the past 45 years, the United States has prohibited any trade with Cuba, including foodstuffs and medicines; it cancelled the Cuban sugar quota; prohibited its citizens from travelling to Cuba via the imposition of heavy sanctions; prohibited the re-export of US products or items containing US components or technology to Cuba from third countries; prescribed that banks in third countries should maintain Cuban bank accounts in US dollars or use that currency in their transactions with Cuba; has systematically intervened to prevent or hinder trade with or financial assistance to Cuba on the part of governments, institutions and citizens from other countries and international organisations.
In the 1960s these reprisals forced Cuba to structurally reconstitute its economic relations and establish its essential markets in countries in the former East European bloc – specifically in the Soviet Union – which meant that the country had to embark on an almost total re-conversion of its industrial technology, means of transport, and provisions, etc.
When Cuba lost its natural markets in Eastern Europe, the US government intensified its blockade via the 1992 Torricelli Act, which used the pretext of "democracy and human rights" to prohibit US subsidiaries located in third countries and subject to the laws of those nations from engaging in commercial or financial operations with Cuba (particularly in respect to food and medicines), and punishing these by prohibiting the entry into US ports for 180 days of vessels transporting goods to or from Cuba or on behalf of Cuba, measures that – given their extraterritorial nature – do not just prejudice Cuba but also harm the sovereignty of other nations and the international freedom of transportation.
On March 12, 1996, the US government passed the Helms-Burton Act, further aggravating relations between the two countries and assuming the right to sanction citizens of third countries in US courts, as well as determining their expulsion or denying them and their families entry visas into the United States, with the aim of hindering Cuba’s efforts to recover its economy and hampering its possibilities of securing a greater insertion in the international market. That was also a way of attempting to pressure the Cuban people into relinquishing their efforts of self-determination.
More recently, it has adopted the Bush Plan, an attempt to transform Cuba into a colony through an annexationist program and the intention to intervene via a pretext of "transition", a scenario in which the US State Department would entrust one of its leaders as "governor", when the Cuban revolutionary state disappears. This plan, with which US President George W. Bush decided "to precipitate the day when Cuba becomes a free country", has intensified the blockade and pressure on the Cuban people by repressing family relations between Cubans resident in the United States and their families on the island; grants million-dollar resources to terrorist groups in Miami, as well as to mercenary subordinates in the US Interests Sections in Havana; and promotes formulas to destabilise the country and redouble international pressure on the island.
That hostility on the part of the US has included other notorious manifestations of aggression, ranging from the military aggression through the Bay of Pigs in 1961, the dirty war carried out by counterrevolutionary gangs heavily supplied by the US CIA, bacteriological warfare on agricultural crops (sugar, tobacco and citric fruits), animals (swine fever) and humans (hemorrhagic dengue), to sabotage plans, bombings using pirate planes and assassination attempts on the country’s principal leaders.
The actions of terrorist organisations executing military attacks on Cuba from US territory are notorious, and are publicised and fomented by the Miami media. Groups are constantly recruiting adventurers who are willing to head off to Cuba as agents and saboteurs, who openly declare that they have no fear whatsoever of being brought to justice in US courts.
That is why Cuban patriots have had to leave aside their personal interests to serve those of the nation, even sacrificing their family relationships, in order to infiltrate the ranks of those terrorist groups in order to discover their activities and, with this information, prevent the bloodshed of Cuban and US people. They are willing to pay the price of the political irrationality of the US government, as is the case of the five Cuban heroes unjustly incarcerated in US jails for combating terrorism.
The above is compounded by the heavy military mechanism created by the United States around Cuba and its constant tension-generating activities, as well as the illegal occupation of the Guantánamo Naval Base on Cuban territory (today converted into a horrific prison camp), a part of Cuba rented out by force to the United States in the early 20th century and which the US government refuses to return.
In the early 1990s, with the disappearance of the Soviet Union, isolated and reviled by the international reaction, Cuba absorbed the terrible blow of losing the bulk of its markets in a matter of months and an abrupt descent in its gross domestic product. But the island confirmed that it shone with its own light and that it had never been a satellite of anyone, given that it was able to face that juncture on account of the extraordinary resistance of the majority of Cubans, who have acted on the basis of authentic motivations, values and ethical principles.
Challenges of the revolution
The Cuban people have made a conscious decision to support the country’s leadership, not only because they identify the system with their own interests, but also because of the responsible manner in which the state took on the crisis, reorganised its forces and designed a recovery strategy, despite the US blockade and conditions imposed by its European allies.
The sacrifices provoked by that situation have been hard, but it has been possible to endure them because of the undisputed social advances attained, because of the confidence deposited in the country’s leading institutions and because of people’s appreciation that their government is not a decadent one or one that is in management crisis or lacking in strategies, but has confirmed that the population has remained at the centre of all its work, even in the most difficult circumstances.
Fifty years have gone by and the liberation process has reached this point following the same direction indicated that night, 50 years ago, when Fidel, speaking to the huge crowd awaiting him in what was the dictatorship’s headquarters, affirmed that everything could be more difficult in the future, because we would have to fight to make the Revolution.
That is the challenge of the struggle currently underway to eradicate vices and exalt virtues, with Fidel as a soldier of ideas serving as a compass in the fight for freedom and independence.
Cuba’s enemies are backing their all on the opposite of that. In this world, where politics is a caricature, they cannot comprehend that, in its thinking and action, this revolution is a process of continuity, and that Fidel will continue to be the leader of the Revolution of today and tomorrow, because, beyond responsibilities and titles, he will continue to be the counsellor of ideas to which we will always have recourse.