Cuba: A Frank Response to the President of Berea College

A few days ago, I received a disturbing email blast from Lyle Roelofs, the president of Berea College (where I taught for 40 years). It was about recent “Events in Cuba.” The notice was upsetting because it reflected the one-sided narrative of the U.S. government and its subservient mass media.

This is not to vilify Berea’s president who is sincere and well-intentioned. It is however to demonstrate the effectiveness of U.S. anti-Cuban propaganda that would have even academicians think that “our” government has a leg to stand on in its denunciation of anti-democratic measures anywhere, of intolerance of any dissent, or of police attacks on peaceful protestors.

See for yourself. In his characteristic spirit of compassion, the president had written:

Dear Bereans

Many of you are aware of the ongoing unrest in Cuba as the country struggles with severe blackouts, a food shortage, high prices, lack of access to COVID-19 vaccinations as outbreaks increase, and an unstable economy.  Residents of the island nation have taken to the streets to protest, filming conditions to share with the world. In response, the repressive government shut down the internet.

While we all care about the people of Cuba as our fellow human beings, a number of members of our immediate community have family ties there, as well, so our concern extends particularly to them in this worrisome time.

President Biden addressed the situation on Monday urging Cuban leaders to hear the people and address their needs rather than enriching themselves or trying to repress their human rights.

At Berea College, where one of our eight Great Commitments calls for us to create a democratic society, we align ourselves with the people of Cuba and echo the President’s sentiments. In a democratic society, organizations and the government can cooperate to address the sorts of critical problems currently being faced by Cubans, but which are found to a lesser extent elsewhere as well.  For example, at Berea College our Grow Appalachia program combats food insecurity in Appalachia working to ensure community members have enough to eat and teaching them how to grow their own food.

Globally, the U.S. and Cuba are among the countries that signed the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, a list of 30 rights that every human being is entitled to. The right to free speech and health are most relevant to the current events in Cuba.  It is our hope that tensions will ease soon, the leadership there will work to provide food, access to vaccines, and make improvements to stabilize the country’s economy, and that this crisis will be an opportunity for improved relations with other countries, including our own, allowing urgently needed assistance to flow to the people of Cuba.

In solidarity with Cubans and Cuban-Americans,

Lyle Roelofs

What follows is my response in hopes that it might help Dr. Roelofs and the rest of us to be more cautious in accepting party lines about “official enemiessuch as Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, China, Russia. . .

Dear Lyle,

It was with rather eager anticipation that I opened your recently emailed note entitled “Events in Cuba.” Because of Berea’s commitment black, brown and impoverished communities, I thought your notice would express solidarity with virtually the entire world in its yearly demand that the United States lift the Cuban embargo (Cubans call it a “blockade”) especially in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, I found your comments quite incomplete and misleading. Together they gave the erroneous impression that:

  • All Cubans (“residents of the island nation”) endorse the anti-government street demonstrations
  • That Cuban leadership is ignoring the COVID-19 pandemic
  • That the same leadership is resisting improved relations with other countries including the United States
  • That Cuba should combat the island’s food insecurity by teaching people “how to grow their own food”
  • That Cuba is out-of-step with the United Nations and its “Declaration of Human Rights” by specifically depriving its people of health care
  • That President Biden has satisfactorily “addressed the situation on Monday urging Cuban leaders to hear the people and address their needs rather than enriching themselves or trying to repress their human rights.”

Such commentary appears to simply repeat the U.S. official story about Cuba without even once mentioning:

  • The U.S. economic embargo of more than 60 years
  • The blockade’s intensification under President Trump
  • That the Biden administration has kept all of the restrictions in place despite the pandemic and the president’s campaign promises
  • The resulting devastating effects of those measures
  • Cuba’s world-renowned health care system
  • Its development (unique in the former colonies) of several WHO-approved COVID-19 vaccines
  • The U.S. policy of blockading sale of syringes to Cuba thereby preventing the country from administering its own COVID-19 remedies
  • Cuba’s long-standing attempts to feed its own people by extensive, government sanctioned urban gardening projects and by environmental policies that make it arguably the greenest country in the hemisphere
  • The fact that similar demonstrations are happening all over the world including U.S. allies such as Brazil, South Africa, Haiti, Lebanon, Colombia, India, Ethiopia, Israel, Iraq, and Afghanistan (not to mention Black Lives Matter in the U.S. and the January 6th assault on the Capitol) — without comment on your part or emphasis in the mainstream media at large
  • The allied fact that “a number of members of our immediate community have family ties” in the countries just mentioned.

I am making these observations as a longtime friend of Cuba and (of course) Berea College. I have visited the island many times, never as a tourist, but always as an educator and researcher. In fact, the last course I taught at Berea (Summer 2014) had my wife Peggy and me leading another study tour of Cuba.

I have published many articles on Cuba including here and here about the country’s vaccine research and development. My daughter was treated for appendicitis while visiting Cuba two years ago. After spending five days in the hospital there, she was released virtually free of charge.

With Jose Gomariz (a Cubanist scholar, Jose Marti specialist, and former Berea College professor of Spanish) I once taught a Berea Short Term course at Havana’s Instituto de Historia de Cuba. The course was entitled “The African Diaspora in Cuba.” When I visited Cuba with the Greater Cincinnati Council of World Affairs, I was befriended by a family outspokenly and fearlessly critical of the Castro government. And in my many stints with the Latin American Studies Program of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, we took students to Cuba each semester to meet government officials, opposition forces, and diplomats at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. In all, I’ve been there around a dozen times.

During the Fidel Castro years, I vividly recall a U.S. Interests Section spokeswoman revealingly lamenting the fact that Cuba (as she put it) did not hold presidential elections (thereby demonstrating her misunderstanding of Cuba’s electoral system). “As everybody knows,” she admitted, “he’d win hands down.”

What I’m suggesting is that there is much more to the Cuban story than we’re led to believe by United States propaganda against that beleaguered country.

By simply rehearsing the U.S. official story, Lyle, I suggest that (uncharacteristically) you are not helping the Berea community understand Cuba, its history, and the role of the U.S. in creating misery there, or what our government could do this very day to relieve it – namely lift the embargo and allow the import of syringes into the country.

Respectfully, Mike Rivage-Seul

Under the Radar and at Warp Speed Cuba Leads Latin America Towards Affordable Covid-19 Vaccines

Recently Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” explored “The Case for People’s Vaccines.”

While those interviewed by Ms. Goodman called for early and affordable access to inoculations in the Global South, no mention was made of perhaps the most promising source of such therapies. The neglected source was not only promising, but implicitly revealed the swindle represented by Big Pharma’s anticipated exorbitant prices for Covid-19 vaccines.

It may surprise readers to know that the source in question is Cuba.

Cuba’s Achievement

In fact, Cuba is the first nation in Latin America to receive authorization from the World Health Organization (WHO) to perform officially sanctioned tests of the four vaccines it now has under development. Those trials have already completed their clinical stages. Promising results so far have Cubans looking forward to completing the (cost free) inoculation of its entire population of 12 million by the end of March 2021.

The vaccines under trial are named Soberana 01, Soberana 02, Abdala (CIGB66) and Mambisa (CIGB669). None of them is dependent for its preservation on super-cold temperatures.

Mambisa is worthy of special note, since as a nasal spray, it requires no needles, but responds locally to the specifically respiratory nature of Covid-19.   

Failure to report such developments even on “Democracy Now” illustrates the complicity of our mainstream media in shunning any news from socialist nations like Cuba that might possibly illustrate the superior ability of their economies to deliver high quality, no-cost healthcare to citizens even during a worldwide pandemic. Moreover, absent the profit motive, Cuba will predictably deliver its vaccines to its neighbors at vastly cheaper prices than its capitalist counterparts.  

Cuba’s Vaccine History

This prediction is based on the fact that Cuba has long been a supplier of vaccines and doctors not only to the Global South, but to countries such as Italy during the height of Covid-19’s first wave. Additionally, with its unequaled ratio of doctors to citizens, the island nation’s response to the pandemic has effectively limited documented coronavirus infections despite supply problems caused by the continued U.S. embargo of the island.

All four developments (the superabundance of doctors, the relative control of Covid-19, Cuba’s research capacities, and the export of medical care to other countries) result from the foresight and vision of Fidel Castro, the revered father of his country. In the early 1980s he sparked initiation of a vigorous homegrown biotech sector – largely to cope with the U.S. embargo’s persistent attempts to deprive the island of medical supplies.

The result was the emergence of 20 research centers and 32 companies employing 20,000 people under the umbrella of the state-run BioCubaFarma Corporation. Recently, spokespersons connected with the corporation tweeted, “The #CubanVaccineCOVID19 is dedicated to the sower of dreams: Fidel. Our tribute to the one who believed in the strength and future of #CubanScience.”  

BioCubaFarma produces 8 of the 12 vaccines Cuba uses to immunize its own population against diseases such as measles and polio. Cuba has also exported hundreds of millions of vaccine doses to more than 40 countries (e.g. to deal with meningitis and hepatitis B).

Conclusion

All of this represents just one more illustration of socialism’s comparative efficiency in the face of crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. Even a poor blockaded country like Cuba can respond to an unprecedented crisis such as the coronavirus without holding sick people hostage to the confiscatory demands of privatized natural monopolies like Big Pharma. The latter’s claims to mammoth profits based upon (largely government-funded) costly research are simply ideological cover for overweening corporate greed that none of us should stand for.     

People’s vaccines can be produced at warp speed and at low cost – despite news blackouts even on “Democracy Now.”

Weaponizing Cuba against Bernie: Childish Thinking and A Family Experience

They’re at it again – red-baiting Bernie Sanders. Because the senator from Vermont has (like President Obama) recognized the educational achievements of the Cuban Revolution, he’s being attacked as an apologist for brutal dictatorships everywhere. The syndrome played out in yesterday’s episode of “The View,” and last night in the South Carolina debate.

It’s all so tiresome – so 20th century, so chauvinistic.

It also contradicts my own personal experience of Cuba over many years of visiting the island, where Fidel Castro remains as revered as George Washington here in the United States. By most on the island, he’s considered the father of his country.  (I remember a U.S. embassy official in Cuba lamenting to my students that if free and fair presidential elections were held there, Castro would win “hands down.”)

However, more recently still, such demonization of Cuba and Fidel Castro flies in the face of an experience my daughter and her husband had of the Cuban healthcare system just two weeks ago. I want to share that story with you. It sheds light not only on Cuba and Castro, but on Medicare for All.

But before I get to it, consider the attacks on Mr. Sanders.

Forbidden Thought

According to the simple-minded received wisdom here in the U.S., no one is allowed to tell the truth about a designated enemy. That is, you can’t say anything good about any government that refuses obedience to U.S. empire. And that’s true even if, like Cuba, the said government provides enviable education and childcare, or if health services are free there for everyone.

Meanwhile, to say anything bad about a “friend” – apartheid Israel for example – is absolutely forbidden. As an international outlaw, Israel can transgress UN resolutions against its illegal occupation of Palestinian territories. It can even kill with abandon peaceful protestors including Palestinian children, the elderly and disabled. However, to criticize it for doing so – to propose boycotting, divesting, or sanctioning Israel’s internationally proscribed occupation of Palestinian territories – is not only unacceptable but actually forbidden by law.

(In case you haven’t noticed: no debate participant has or will ever accuse anyone on stage of supporting a “brutal dictatorship” in Israel – or in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Brazil, Honduras, Hungary, Turkey . . .)

I mean, instead of thinking critically or just recognizing undeniable facts, U.S. citizens and candidates for public office are virtually commanded to see and describe the world in terms of good/bad, black/white, friends/enemies, vendors/customers. To make even unsubtle distinctions in those regards is beyond the pale. In terms of electability, its’ the kiss of death.

To put it kindly, such thinking is not only simple-minded; it is childish. It’s insulting. It dumbs us all down and makes us stupid pawns of publicists and propagandists supporting reflexive U.S. ideology.

As a result of such stupidity, Bernie Sanders had to limit his “defense” of Fidel Castro to acknowledging the virtues of teaching people to read and write.  He could easily have added points about free education through university level and praise for Cuba’s medical system that provides healthcare for everyone on the island – including visitors from other countries. However, to do so would have opened him to attacks alleging that his free college tuition and Medicare for All programs will inevitably lead to the Cubanization of America.

Not even Bernie Sanders has that much courage.

Healthcare in Cuba: A Recent Experience

And that brings me to the personal story I promised earlier. Just two weeks ago, it involved my daughter, Maggie, and her husband, Kerry as they led a weekend excursion to Cuba.

The junket was the payoff of a fund-raising project for our local Montessori school in Wilton, CT which our daughter’s five children have attended. At an auction held for its benefit, Maggie and Kerry had “sold” the trip to several parental teams. That was last fall.

So come early February, everyone went off to Cuba, even though Maggie was feeling poorly from the outset.

By the time the group arrived in Havana, our daughter was experiencing severe stomach pain that literally brought her to her knees. The next thing she knew, she was being whisked off in a cramped taxi to the Clinica Central Cira Garcia, Havana’s “hospital for tourists.”

There, admissions officials checked very carefully to see that Maggie and Kerry had the required health “insurance” which is included in the purchase price of airline tickets to the island. Then, following an x-ray, our daughter was informed that she was having an appendicitis attack and that an immediate operation was imperative.

The long and short of it is that the laparoscopic appendectomy took place, that hospital care was excellent, and that it cost her and her husband not a dime for the operation or for her five days in the hospital. (They were however charged $50 for each of the two nights Kerry stayed overnight there, and a few dollars for laundry.) In other words, the operation had been paid for by the airline ticket “insurance” which was really a tax on all travelers pooled to meet the cost of health emergencies like the one I just described.

The same procedure in the United States would have cost on average $33,000.

Conclusion

The point here is twofold. The first is that “Americans” need to exit the 20th century once and for all.

Cuba is not our enemy. In fact, it never was until U.S. policy (intolerant of people-friendly socialism) made it so. Moreover, Fidel Castro remains a hero to most Cubans and to most informed people in the Global South. His “repressive” policies were absolutely necessary to protect his country from actual U.S. invasion (e.g. the Bay of Pigs in 1961), from numerous CIA attempts to assassinate him, and from a 60-year long embargo intended to undermine Cuba’s economy, including its health and education programs.

To understand that point, think about our own country’s response to 9/11. Think about the Patriot Act, about resulting restrictions on travel, about Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, imprisonment without trial, torture of suspected terrorists, and extra-judicial drone killings even of U.S. citizens. Think about the panopticon surveillance systems uncovered by Edward Snowden. Think about encouragement to inform on neighbors and others.

Were those responses to 9/11 brutal and repressive? No doubt, they appeared that way to their victims. But undeniably it’s what governments do under threat from external enemies and their internal agents. In that regard, the U.S. is no different from Cuba. George W. Bush, Trump – or Obama for that matter – are no different from Castro, except in their wider swath of brutality.

The second point is that Cuba’s social system as experienced by our daughter is unprecedented in the impoverished world of former colonies. No other victim of colonialism has been as committed to caring for its people, its children, or its environment as Cuba. But instead of being rewarded for such achievements, it is consistently vilified by U.S. politicians and a mainstream media stuck in Cold War thinking.

Thank God that the Sanders revolution invites us to leave all of that behind. His opponents should follow suit.  

Fidel & Religion: in His Own Words

fidel-on-rel

“I don’t understand why Fidel doesn’t allow free elections in Cuba. After all, he’d win hands down every time.”

I remember how astonished I was when the young spokesperson at the U.S. Intersection in Havana pronounced those words about 20 years ago. But I had heard her correctly. Despite being a U.S. diplomat, she was admitting that Fidel Castro was extremely popular with Cubans. Her concession contradicted the official U.S. position repeated incessantly since 1959 – and regurgitated mindlessly by U.S. commentators last weekend on the announcement of the comandante’s passing.

The young diplomat’s recognition of Fidel’s popularity was confirmed for me again and again as I visited Cuba repeatedly since 1997. That was the year of my first trip there with the Greater Cincinnati Council of World Affairs. Two years later, I and a colleague led a group of Berea College students to the island for a month-long January Short Term study of the African Diaspora in Cuba. Subsequently, while teaching in a Latin American Studies program sponsored by the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, I visited the island perhaps eight times as the term-abroad program for U.S. students brought them there each fall and spring. Then three years ago, I returned to Cuba to teach a Berea College summer term there. I’ll return with a similar program next May.

All that experience has given me a love for Cuba and Cubans – and a deep appreciation for the Fidel Castro as one of the most important political figures of the 20th century. Few (outside the United States) would disagree with that evaluation.

But there’s another dimension of Fidel’s person that strikes me as important in these days of widespread religious fundamentalism. As a theologian, I have come to see him as the era’s most theologically sensitive political leader. (My evaluation includes people like Jimmy Carter. Of the two, Fidel was far better informed.) As such he calls friends of revolution everywhere to take theology seriously as an instrument of human liberation from narrow Christian supremacist understandings of faith.

That particular observation is based on a close reading of Dominican Friar, Frei Betto’s book Fidel and Religion (F&R) published in 1987. The volume was a product of interviews between Betto and Fidel carried on over a period of 23 hours in the 1980s. On its publication, F&R sold more copies in Cuba than any previous publication.

In Betto’s work, Fidel highlights the convergence of communism and Christian doctrine. He also expresses his appreciation of liberation theology, and explains the superiority of Cuban democracy to that practiced in the United States. His observations give the lie to our young diplomat’s claim that Cuba lacks free and democratic elections.

Fidel on Communism & Christianity

Read for yourself what the comandante says about coincidences between communism and Christianity. (All page references are to Frei Betto’s F&R. New York: Simon and Shuster, Inc. 1987).

  • “There are 10,000 times more coincidences between Christianity and communism than between Christianity and capitalism” (33).
  • “I believe that Karl Marx could have subscribed to the Sermon on the Mount” (271).
  • “. . . (F)rom the political point of view, religion is not, in itself, an opiate or a miraculous remedy. It may become an opiate or a wonderful cure if it is used or applied to defend oppressors and exploiters or the oppressed and the exploited, depending on the approach adopted toward the political, social or material problems of the human beings who, aside from theology or religious belief, are born and must live in this world” (276).
  • “. . . (I)f (the Catholic bishops) organized a state in accord with Christian precepts, they’d create one similar to ours. . . All those things we’ve fought against, all those problems we’ve solved, are the same ones the Church would try to solve if it were to organize a civil state in keeping with its Christian precepts” (225).
  • (Referring to Catholic nuns) “The things they do are the things we want Communists to do. When they take care of people with leprosy, tuberculosis and other communicable diseases, they are doing what we want Communists to do. . . In fact, I’ve said it quite publicly. . . that the nuns were model Communists. . . I think they have all the qualities we’d like our Party members to have” (227-8).

Fidel on Liberation Theology

  • “I now have almost all of Boff’s and Gutierrez’s works” (214).
  • “I could define the Liberation Church, or Liberation Theology, as Christianity’s going back to its roots, its most beautiful, attractive, heroic and glorious history.” (245)
  • “It’s so important that it forces all of the Latin American left to take notice of it as one of the most important events of our time” (245).
  • “We can describe it as such because it can deprive the exploiters, the conquerors, the oppressors, the interventionists, the plunderers of our peoples, and those who keep us in ignorance, illness, and poverty of the most important tool they have for confusing, deceiving and alienating the masses and continuing to exploit them” (245).
  • “He who betrays the poor betrays Christ” (274).

Fidel on Cuban Democracy

  • (Referring to the U.S. system) “I think that all that alleged democracy is nothing but a fraud, and I mean this literally” (289).
  • “It cannot be said of the so highly praised Western governments that they are generally backed by the majority of the people. . . Let’s take Reagan, for example. In his first election, only about fifty percent of the voters cast their votes. There were three candidates, and with the votes of less than 30 percent of the total number of U.S. voters, Reagan won the election. Half the people didn’t even vote. They don’t believe in it” (289).
  • “An election every four years! The people who elected Reagan . . . had no other say in U.S. policy . . . He could cause a world war without consulting with the people who voted for him, just by making one-man decisions” (290).
  • “In this country . . . the delegates who are elected at the grass-roots level are practically slaves of the people, because they have to work long, hard hours without receiving any pay except the wages they get from their regular jobs” (290).
  • “Every six months they have to report back to their voters on what they’ve done during that period. Any official in the country may be removed from office at any time by the people who elected him” (291).
  • “All this implies having the backing of most of the people. If the Revolution didn’t have the support of most of the people, revolutionary power couldn’t endure” (291).
  • “In other words, I believe – I’m being perfectly frank with you – that our system is a thousand times more democratic than the capitalist, imperialist system of the developed capitalist countries. . . really much fairer . . .” (292).
  • “I’m sorry if I’ve offended anybody, but you force me to speak clearly and sincerely” (292).

Conclusion

But what about Fidel’s nearly 50-year reign as President of Cuba? And what about the puzzle of my diplomat-friend? If he’s so popular, why didn’t Castro run for president the way U.S. candidates do?

I asked my friend Dr. Cliff Durand about that when he recently visited our home. Cliff is emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Morgan State University, and the founder of the Center for Global Justice in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. He has been leading trips to Cuba every year for the last twenty years, and holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Havana. He’s the most informed USian I know about things Cuban.

Here’s what Cliff said:

  • The diplomat was correct: Castro was extremely popular with the majority of Cubans. He was regarded as the father of his country – like George Washington.
  • More accurately, he’s like Franklin Roosevelt who was elected four times here in the U.S.
  • Who can say how many times Roosevelt would have been re-elected had he not died, but had come to power as Castro did at 33 years of age?
  • Moreover, (as noted above) the U.S. electoral system doesn’t work so well. Most people don’t even vote. Campaigns are interminable and extremely costly and wasteful. And (as indicated by the recent U.S. election) their results often don’t even reflect the will of the majority of voters.
  • Cuba’s conclusion: there’s got to be a better way.
  • Cuba’s way (like that of Great Britain – and of the U.S. for that matter) is not to elect the head of state directly, but to have electors make the choice.
  • So elected members of parliament appoint Cuba’s president.
  • And (as my diplomat-friend indicated), they (election cycle after election cycle) chose their equivalent of Franklin Roosevelt.

My own conclusion is that Fidel Castro was one of the greatest figures of the 20th century. He was an insightful (atheist) theologian of liberation. As a true Communist, he was more Christian than many popes. He was more democratic than most USians can begin to understand.

Off to Cuba: Won’t Be Blogging till End of May

cubaembargo

All of us are stoked. Peggy and I and 14 Berea College students are leaving for three weeks in Cuba beginning on Monday (May 5th). We’ll return on the 25th. So I probably won’t be writing here till then.

Last Wednesday night, Thursday evening, as well as Friday morning and afternoon, Dr. Cliff Durand — the co-founder of the Center for Global Justice in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico — helped us all understand what we’re getting into. Cliff has been leading delegations to Cuba for the last 25 years. He’s an honorary member of the faculty at the University of Havana.

Here are some of the salient ideas he shared:

1. One cannot understand Cuba’s revolution without understanding neo-colonialism. Neo-colonialism refers to the dynamics of control whereby “former” colonies continue to be governed by their colonial masters even after “independence.” The control remains because the now-liberated colony continues its economic relationships with its “mother country.” Of necessity, these relationships foster a dependency similar to that which characterized the original colonial relationship.

2. In other words, former colonies find it impossible to break free from domination by their colonial masters unless they also break free from the capitalist system which of necessity has local governors placing the interests of their international partners ahead of their own citizens. Put otherwise, there is an indissoluble link between revolution, independence, and capitalism’s alternative, socialism.

3. Cuba is the first country in the world to engage in a revolution as a neo-colonial state. Although after 1902 it had freed itself from the domination of Spain, it did so only to become an economic appendage of the United States. Dependency and control by the United States was the form neo-colonialism took in Cuba.

4. The Cuban Revolution of 1959, led by a trained lawyer (Fidel Castro) and a medical doctor (Che Guevara) opened the way to a new experiment in human dignity and social justice. The experiment’s adoption of socialism promised to free Cuba from the dependency international capitalism uniformly imposed on former colonies.

5. Cuba has proven resilient in the face of a 50 year economic embargo imposed by its former neo-colonial “mother country”–the United States. The economic support of the former Soviet Union made it possible for Cubans to enjoy a “middle class” way of life that made Cuba the envy of the Third World.

6. Though characterized in the U.S. as “subsidies,” the Soviet contributions to the Cuban economy were seen in Cuba as “fair trade.” Economic relationships indexed the prices of Cuban raw materials (sugar, tobacco, nickel . . .) to those of the finished products (tractors, refrigerators, spare parts . . .). In fact, this represented an implementation of the New International Economic Order (NIEO) petitioned in 1973 by the entire former colonial world in reparation for the exploitation experienced under colonialism. (Nations of the Global South also demanded transfer of capital and technology — also provided by the USSR to Cuba.)

7. Cuban Democracy: Cuba has a parliamentary system with no political parties, which are seen as divisive. The Communist party is not an electoral organization; it sponsors no candidates. Rather it is the depository of the ideals of the Cuban revolution. In the Cuban form of democracy, elections are held at the municipal, provincial and national levels. At the national level, “Mass Organizations” (five federations of (1) workers, (2) women, (3) small farmers, (4) students, and (5) Committees for the Defense of the Revolution) nominate candidates. (Mass organizations are like 5 political parties sharing commitment to cooperation rather than competition.) All the organizations enjoy equal representation in the Cuban parliament. Forty-seven percent of the delegates there are women. The National Assembly (parliament) elects a Council of State, which then elects a president and vice-president. According to frequent independent polls, well over 80% of the Cuban population supports this system.

8. The Cuban Revolution has passed through five identifiable stages:

o 1960s Revolutionary Fervor: Here the revolutionary government implemented land reform, nationalization of industries and virtually the entire Cuban economy. The U.S. economic embargo (specifically intended to produce hunger, sickness, and social chaos) necessitated alliance with the Soviet Union. During this early period moral incentives worked to unite the people in a common social project. Che and Fidel enjoyed great trust on the part of Cubans.

o 1970s Adoption of Soviet-Style Central Planning: Here Cuba followed the example of the Soviet Union, the only model of socialism available. More specifically, it adopted the agricultural methods of the Green Revolution with its heavy dependence on chemical pesticides and fertilizers. The entire agricultural system was organized into state farms. (This was later admitted to have been a major mistake).

o 1985 Rectification: In the face of excessive bureaucracy and inefficiencies, the entire Cuban population participated in a national dialog to suggest remedies. The process was interrupted by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Overnight Cuba lost 80% of its trading partners. A decade-long period mirroring the experiences of the world’s “Great Depression” (1929-’45) set in for Cuba.

o 1990s “Special Period”: Contrary to the experience following the collapse of socialism throughout Eastern Europe, and despite the extreme hardships of its Great Depression, Cuba did not experience an uprising aimed at regime change. Neither did the government eliminate social programs to deal with the crisis. Instead it strengthened its social safety net and set a goal of “equal distribution of scarcity. “ In the face of extreme impoverishment, the government introduced reforms including:

§ First moving to a dollarization of the Cuban economy and then to the establishment of a convertible currency (CUC)

§ Opening the country to foreign investment

§ Opening itself to trade on the world market

__________

§ Meanwhile ordinary Cubans coped by increasingly living off remittances from relatives the United States.

§ Stealing from government sources and selling the stolen goods on the black market.

§ Engaging in jineterismo (prostitution) – which had been eliminated by the Revolution.

__________

§ U.S. response to the Cuban crisis was its attempt to intensify its catastrophe by aggravating scarcities to induce desperation on the part of ordinary people. The Torricelli and Helms-Burton Acts sought to punish U.S. trading partners for any commerce with Cuba. These responses transformed the Trade Embargo of 1961 into a virtual blockade of Cuba.

o 2007- 2022 Renovation of Socialism: In this process of nation-wide and on-going consultation, more than 163,000 meetings involving 9 million participants (in a population of 11 million) have produced millions of proposals which have been reduced to 313 policy guidelines aimed at reduction of state payrolls, increasing opportunities for self-employment, and rooting out corruption.

o The most important reform is the establishment of urban co-operatives in 2012. With this new economic structure, the emphasis in decision making changed from a “top down” model to one of local participation. Co-operatives get their start-up money from Cuban banks, contributions of members, and remittances. The co-ops must:

o Have at least 3 members with each member having one vote

o Be self-governing independent of the state

o Respond to market dynamics

o Do business with state and private entities

In summary, Dr. Durand observed that socialism is not as good as capitalism at producing consumer goods that inflate gross national product statistics. However, socialism is far better at producing social goods shared by all (not primarily by the wealthy). These social benefits include extended life spans, low infant mortality, universal health care, free education from pre-school through the university, and happiness in general (as measured in identical polls taken in Cuba and the United States).

As you can see, Dr. Durand’s presentations were informative, stimulating and challenging. We’re all looking forward to finding out more during our coming three week trip to Cuba.

I’ll report back at the end of May.