Being in Cuba this summer, I couldn’t help wondering what we could remold our country into if we learned from the Cuba model, not to copy it, but to learn from them a lesson in possibilities and choices. That would be a revolution, of course – hopefully a non-violent one – but not just the kind where we have the social services they have there, but where we have taken over the ownership and decision-making powers for ourselves. For all of us. As they have.
I invite readers to check out this brief report-back and see if there is anything here that we’d like to see our country learn from.
In my last report, I wrote about our return from our unlicensed trip to Cuba – unlicensed meaning that it was an act of civil disobedience. I wrote at that time that none of us were arrested for breaking the travel ban or even harassed. However, since that time, one of us who delayed her re-entry to visit México for a week was harassed, grilled, her suitcase searched extensively.
We don’t know whether there will be future action taken against us or not.
Who are we? There were thirty-four of us on the thirtieth U.S.-Cuba Friendshipment Caravan, including two Mexicans and one Canadian. Almost half were people of color, and 40% were under 30, including four teenagers. Our youngest was 15; our oldest was 76 (not me; I’m only 71.) All of us risked harassment, with the possibility of arrest. So far, none of us have faced charges.
Though our organization, IFCO/Pastors for Peace, was forced to stop a while ago actually caravaning us through the U.S. (the purchase and repair of the old school buses was costing too much), we are still known and loved throughout Cuba as “the Caravan,” and we as the “caravanistas.” The love for the Caravan was clear in embraces and little gifts in so many of the places we visited.
We arrived in Cuba, having been told that ICAP – Instituto Cubano de Amistad con el Pueblo – is now headed by Fernando González Llort. Which is to say that our host organization, the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the People, is now presided over by one of the Cuban Five.
I did not expect to see him greeting us as we entered the José Martí Airport building. It was a joyous entry.
Fernando joined us for many of our excursions. It was good to see him embraced by Cuban people wherever he went. “Out of the prisons,” I told him, “and into the embrace of your people where you belong.”
We stayed at the Martin Luther King Ecumenical Center, connected with the Ebenezer Baptist Church.
There at the airport, we learned that an activity was being added to our schedule: President Miguel Diaz-Canel wanted to meet with us. Miguel thanked us for ‘taking the time” to meet him and, after starting off by inviting any of us to ask him questions, he told us about how the Cuban people had just rewritten their Constitution.
We went to the municipality of Guanabacoa, one of the Havana neighborhoods hit by the January tornado.
At the meeting place, I was delighted to run into a familiar face, that of Andrés Gómez, a Cuban-born activist/journalist who has been organizing solidarity in Miami for decades, working in the belly of the belly of the beast in spite of death threats. At this meeting, we heard how 5000-plus people were affected by this tornado, but also how a broad mobilization of the Cuban people responded, including evacuating a hospital.
After hearing how over 1000 new built homes were built in five-month period, we went to visit a site of them. I was struck by how lovely the cluster of new houses was, but also by the flat-screen tv in the living room. “Where did that come from,” I asked a mother with her young children.
“The government,” I was answered.
Thoughts of government housing in Watts went through my head; this is what it can look like?
Thoughts of government housing in Watts went through my head; this is what it can look like?
Thoughts of government housing in Watts went through my head; this is what it can look like? And of course, of Katrina.
Among the most exciting events of the trip – for me – was meeting at the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC), and it’s project for combating racial discrimination, La Comisión José Antonio Aponte (CJAP). In this country where Nelson Mandela once said, “Your consistent commitment to the systematic eradication of racism is unparalleled,” and where a white Cuban once told me, “We have outlawed institutionalized racism, but that doesn’t stop my parents from resenting my marrying a Black woman,” we heard of the current struggle against racism.
An AfroCuban wearing a “Las razas no existen, Racism sí” T-shirt told us that Cuban consciousness of discrimination is stronger than ever before. UNEAC proposed thirty-two changes to the Department of Education and everyone of them was accepted. President Miguel had spoken out two months earlier about prejudice in private businesses, the government has sent out fifteen alerts about the issue, and they’re in the process of establishing a new government division to work on it.
The speakers pointed out that the people who have left Cuba over the years have been disproportionately white. They also spoke on discrimination of women.
As the Friendshipment is a project organized by Pastors for Peace, the global project of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO), and as the Cuban sister organization is the MLK Ecumenical Center, the Caravan has been having interfaith gatherings in a church, mosque, or synagogue. This year it was hosted by the Synagogue Beth Shalom, where we learned that there are 1500 Cuban Jews, mostly descended from refugees stopping over on the island in passage to the U.S. – and staying. We heard from speakers of many faiths, but many of us were upset that the Jewish voice of the event denounced criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic. However, both our leader, Gail Walker, and a Jewish caravanista spoke at the open mic in solidarity with Palestinians.
This and the fact of the Muslims sitting in the back two rows together, and a cultural event dominated by a “Hebrew” dance group, showed us that this interfaith movement isn’t there yet. It seems to me, though, that the point that the Jewish community made to us about being “very active and not isolated” implies that they don’t perceive the Cuban government to be anti-Semitic – and yet it is of course highly critical of Israel. I think they’ll eventually get that.
Afterwards, I spoke with a Muslim woman. Yes, she assured me, Zionism is being discussed, and yes, there are debke dancers who will participate next year.
Then on to the University of Havana. Founded in 1728, it is the oldest in Cuba, and among the first founded in the Americas. Here, generations of student revolutionaries have organized uprisings against one dictator after another. Dr. Miriam Nicaro García, both the first Black and first female rector, told us of this being both where Fidel became a revolutionary and where the first flu vaccine was developed. She also told us that recent intensifications of the U.S. travel ban have cut off academics from entering the U.S. to share their research; this year only one out of eighty applications were granted.
At Cenesex, National Center for Sex Education, we learned about their work campaigning for LGBT rights, providing counseling and other services to them, promoting legislation, and doing public education. The new Constitution includes prohibition against homophobic and transphobic discrimination. They successfully got Cuba to do sexual reassignment surgery (40 Cubans so far have had this). The U.S. blockade makes it expensive for Cuba to buy medications to fight AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, yet the surgeries and treatments are free to the Cuban people.
All this from an organization that was initiated by Mariela Castro Espín, the daughter of leading Cuban feminist Vilma Espín and her husband Raúl Castro.
Then we left La Habana for a quick tour of rural areas on the way to Cienfuegos. In a small space in the province of Matanzas, we were introduced to the presidents and coordinators of various agencies and organizations; they were mostly women. Then Cuban veterans spoke to us of their fighting against the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion or against the apartheid forces in Angola. One Cuban veteran told how he almost didn’t go to Angola because his daughter was crying; but he went, and there in Angola he realized how much he wanted to be able to return so he could tell his daughter that he loved her but that he loved Angolans too.
Veterans for Peace members in our delegation greeted them, sharing how differently veterans are treated in the U.S. from the deep respect with which Cubans treat their vets.
In that same room, we were entertained by the Project for Actors in Matanzas. Government supported, they travel and perform even where there is no stage. Their singing and dancing was exhilarating. Yes, there are talented dancers and singers in Los Angeles too, and they can form troupes like this – if they can afford the costs. But this isn’t Los Angeles, nor even Havana. Could this happen, some of us caravanistas wondered, in the Ozarks?
How does this happen in a rural province in the developing world? The answer is found in a poster I photographed somewhere in Havana, which reads, “Sin cultura, no hay libertad posible. (Without culture, no liberty is possible.) Fidel Castro.”
We visited an agricultural cooperative, where they raise cattle and grow crops. All decisions are made by members. They use oxen to plow, not only because petroleum is in short supply for tractors, but also, unlike those machines, oxen feet churn up dirt instead of pressing it down.
When the needs of the 30 families are met, and the necessary income is generated from sales, food is donated to centers in town.
In Cienfuegos, we visited the Hospital Dr. Gustavo Aldereguía Lima. which is a teaching hospital. There we sat in the front rows, along with hundreds of young people learning to become the doctors that Cuba is famous for. After we heard from a doctor, two students spoke to us, followed by two young female caravanistas who announced that they had decided to return to Cuba to study at the ELAM, Cuba’s tuition-free medical school for international students.
And, of course, one can’t come to Cuba as an internationalist and not meet with the FMC, the Federación de las Mujeres, or the Cuban Women’s Federation. To be eligible to join, a girl has to be at least fourteen. 96.8% of all girls and women fourteen years or older are FMC members. Out of a national population of 11 million, 4 million Cubans are members. The organization was founded by Vilma Espín in the early days of the Revolution. Her brother-in-law, Fidel, called Cuba’s women’s movement, “the Revolution within the Revolution.”
At the Carlos Manuel Céspedes thermal electric plant, we heard that it’s mission is to help supply Cuban energy needs while contributing to the goal of freeing them as much as possible from fossil fuels. Of its 412 workers, 88 are women. The speaker proudly announced that they have been 3300 days (over nine years) without an accident. I wondered if U.S. companies even keep records of that.
The U.S. blockade has caused the plant to lose over a million dollars, as they need to get other countries to buy the needed parts for them, upping both the price of the parts and the costs of the shipping.
However, workers have come up with ideas for millions of dollars worth of savings. (I keep asking myself, “Could this happen in the U.S. under capitalism?”)
The CTC is the Central Trade Union Council, which unites fifteen trade unions. What is the role of trade unions in Cuba? They come up with solutions, assure that workers rights are respected, and mobilize workers to support projects. The woman representing the CTC to us made a point of telling us that there is no mandatory membership. There isn’t in any Cuban organization, of course, but she felt the need to counter capitalist propaganda.
Leaving our hotel in Cienfuegos, we visited the Vilma Espín School for Autistic Children on the way back to Havana. Children there sang for us. And, because “the love of parents makes any child feel blessed,” parents sang for us.
Schools like this are throughout Cuba, we were told. And needing to continue a common theme, they told us that our country’s blockade keeps Cuban schools from obtaining all the school supplies they would like for the children.
Afterwards, caravanistas and children played together on the swing set.
We stopped off to see the Religious Community of Palmira, in Cienfuegos province. In this center of Santería, the Yoruba religious practice smuggled by slave ship from the mother country and practiced clandestinely until the triumph of the Revolution, we witnessed the beauty and energy of this practice in dance, singing and drumming.
It was at the Higher Institute of Foreign Relations in Havana (ISRI) where we met their vice rector, Gerardo Hernández Nordelo. The second of the Cuban Five that we were to meet, Gerardo welcomed us, along with a number of students, future Cuban diplomats. They informed us that when you’re 16, you can vote. People sixteen and up, we heard, participated in rewriting the Constitution. How do Cuban youth register to vote? By waking up on their sixteenth birthday, it is done. Automatically.
We were milling around Gerardo outside when Antonio Guerrero Rodríguez appeared. So we ended up meeting three of the Cuban Five. Antonio, known throughout the “Free the Five” movement as the artist, showed us his portrait of Fidel he had painted in prison, now hanging on the ISRI wall.
I don’t know how many of you readers have had the good fortune of meeting the amazing Esther Cicconi. Well, I needed to speak with Gerardo about her. “I had a friend and neighbor,” I told him, “my second mom, an activist since she was fourteen. She died a few years ago at 95, but when you were in prison, she wrote to you and you wrote back. I just want you to know that that meant so much to her.”
His eyes widened. A few moments passed.
“Where was this?” “Los Angeles.”
Of course I wished I could go home and tell her, so I’ll just tell everyone else instead.
A Committee in Defense of the Revolution (CDR), had a street party for us, with neighbors dancing for us. These were neither professionals nor aspirants, just people of the neighborhood who wanted to perform a dance for us, a group that seemed to me to have no one under fifty.
The CDRs were originally set upon the early days when bombings and other acts of terrorism were rampant; now they are the basic unit of democracy, the organization you join if you want to make your community better by dealing with any problems you see.
El Museo de Denuncia is full of interactive screens. In this modern museum, you can learn about the French ship La Coubre exploding from planted bombs in the harbor of Havana, killing around 100 people and injuring around 200, or about the Cuban civilian plane being bombed with all 73 people killed, including 24 teenagers. And, of course, the U.S.- sponsored invasion at Playa Girón in the Bay of Pigs is denounced there. But you would also learn about Operation Peter Pan, in which the right wing, aided unfortunately by the Cuban Catholic Church, fabricated rumors that the new revolutionary government was going to send their children to the Soviet Union, so parents panicked and sent 14,000 unaccompanied children to the United States, 10% of whom were never reunited with their parents. Considering how strong is the love of Cubans for all their children (remember Elián?), it is clear why this is denounced at the Museum of Denouncement along with so many other acts of terrorism.
And of course we visited the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM), where students from 85 countries study the same kind of health care – focused more on keeping the community healthy than on treating individuals after they get sick or injured – that Cuban students study in medical schools throughout the island. And, of course, since there is no such thing as tuition fees in Cuba, they graduate debt-free so they can return to practice in medically underserved communities.
We had a chance to mill around with U.S. students who had not yet left for vacation in their home communities, a handful of the 75 studying there this year. I asked their rector about halal food that I had heard was available in their cafeteria. Yes, he told me, since they have Muslim students. And he added, perhaps noting the Palestinian beaded flag bracelet around my wrist, that President Mahmoud Abbas visited last year and met with the Palestinian students.
What I had not realized in spite of working to recruit students from South and East L.A., that being as ELAM was founded in 1999, next year will see the graduation of the twentieth anniversary class. They plan to celebrate big time, as well they should, for they have had 29,000 doctors graduating in these twenty years, to return to underserved communities.
Next we went to the Capitolio to meet with representatives of the National Parliament – the National Assembly of People’s Power – a fact that would shock those who have been fed exclusively on the anti-communist and anti-socialist propaganda which most of us grew up on. Yes, they have an elected national parliament as well as municipal and provincial ones. In fact, the more I learn about Cuban democracy – in its electorial as well as its grassroots organizational form – the more I feel they are light years ahead of the U.S. Yes, elections that forbid private monies produce outstanding outcomes, with an average Cuban turnout for being 86.19% (according to www.electionguide.org/countries/id/56).
One young legal adviser and a few elected diputados (deputies, or representatives) spoke to us, including a 24-year-old Afrocuban woman who spoke of being a student as well, and of the role of youth in the revolution. There are 605 members, nearly half women. They are not paid for their governmental duties but live on their regular work as teachers, musicians, ministers, or whatever.
“ln Cuba, sovereignty rests with the people. If they don’t like their elected leaders, they can remove them.”
Then, unnanounced, the president of the Parliament, Esteban Lazo Hernández, arrived. “Our concept of solidarity,” he told us, “is not that we give what we have left over but that we share the little we have.” He was asked about changes in the new Constitution. There were 80,000 proposals made, which the people studied through media presentations and discussed in their organizations for nearly a year, leading to significant changes.
Their previous Constitution, by the way, was one the people had formed through the same process in 1976.
Finally, after a press conference about our experience, we caravanistas had a discussion about our re-entry: what to expect when we came back to the States and answered the question about where we had been. When we answered “Cuba and México,” what might happen? We would commit perjury if we did not say this, and besides, the whole point of going without a license is to challenge the blockade. Wearing our Friendshipment T-shirts was optional, but I knew I would wear mine. We were told not volunteer any extra information nor answer extra questions. The worst they could do at the time of re-entry would be to make us miss a connecting flight.
Most of us, it turned out, would get through easily, but it was good that our leadership prepared us well.
Our last night was a party, with food and live music, our final chance to hang around with our new caravanista friends before rising very early. Along with partying, I’m sure we all had those thoughts: thoughts of returning to capitalism’s citadel, land of so many people impoverished and kept ignorant. Thoughts of educating, organizing slide shows and writing articles.