7 Jun

Cuba notes

Filed under: Journalism

Tele Sur, the satellite channel, launched in Caracas with the support of Cuba and Bolivia, may turn out to be the most significant event in Latin America.

I watched Tele Sur programmes on TV in Cuba last week and wondered how Cuban people felt about it. Hitherto they have only had Cuban TV or imported programmes or, more recently, access to CNN and Sky world channels.

The view that they all put is of material gain and advantage; high pressure conspicuous consumption being presented to a society with very different values.

Tele Sur, the Latin American version of Al Jazeera in some ways means that the world of news has changed forever.

CNN and Sky present Bolivia’s oil nationalisation as a grab of resources by the government. Tele Sur explains that only the public ownership of the assets can give any hope to the people of Bolivia to overcome poverty and hunger by the use of their most precious natural resource. It has meant that the conformity of the western media is constantly challenged. Al Jazeera has changed the way the world looks at the Middle East. It is clear that Tele Sur will change the outlook of Latin America and its image in the world.

From the Cuban point of view the feeling of isolation is reduced markedly.

Cuba is coming out of a very hard period. From the late 1980s the support from the Soviet Union reduced, and then by 1991 had almost disappeared. The “special period” of over 10 years was when all the analysts in the USA and Europe expected the country to collapse, and the rich pickings fall into the hands of those who have plotted against Cuba. It didn’t, and despite all the hardships the country survived.

The scale of the changes that Cuba has had to cope with are enormous; in the lifetime of an elderly Cuban the country has gone from being a military dictatorship under Batista with all the accompanying repression and poverty, to the Revolution of 1959 with all the hope it brought. As part of COMECON, Cuba relied heavily on imported goods from the Soviet Union and Central Europe, and in return it provided sugar and other basic exports. The collapse of the Soviet system left Cuba vulnerable and forced to change very rapidly to produce more of its own food and find new exports. Tourism is vital but the other success is the revolution itself. Without the revolution of 1959 Cuba would not have become a leading centre for medical care, biotechnology and medical training.

But mere survival is not enough; the Revolution of 1959 was about the emancipation of people, rights for women, the end of racism and opportunities for all. Even with the fairest wind, any of these things would be difficult to achieve, and it is easy for outsiders to forget the blockade by the USA. It is now 56 years since it was imposed, and the effects are obvious: a huge level of military spending to defend against the USA, and shortages of everything coupled with the absurdity of being unable to trade with the nearest neighbour.

The transport system is generally seen as quaint; spotting the US gas guzzlers of the 1950s cruising around Cuba is evocative, as are the odd British cars of the 1960s such as the long forgotten Hillman Minx. Soviet cars seem to have fared less well, with mainly Ladas being used as Taxis. Train travel is a special adventure, with doors that cannot close, and windows that are either permanently open or have steel sheets welded over them to compensate for a shortage of glass. I found myself looking at the bearing manufacturers to see if the bogies were from Argentina or Romania.

In Havana there is a large mural on a wall, consisting of pieces of a puzzle of light and dark shades. The light ones are all chaotic and jumbled and labelled NEO LIBERALISMO; the darker contrasting pieces neatly fit together as SOCIALISMO.

The experts in the USA who imminently predict Cuba’s collapse forget that despite the faded charm of the cities, the empty roads and far from luxurious housing, there is something quite unique.

No other country in the entire continent has totally free education from nursery to university, equally free health care, and a system that ensures everyone is at least housed and has the opportunity to work. Basic food prices are protected by the rationing system and the national currency.

The contrast with Jamaica, independent since 1962, or any Central American country are enormous. The obvious gaps between the rich and poor throughout the region are accompanied by very high crime rates and personal violence.

Nicaragua, whose 1979 Revolution was dashed after 10 years, is now the poorest country in mainland Latin America, with a poverty level only worsened by Haiti is an example of what US “liberation” brings.

However, it is precisely the image of “choice” and consumerism that younger Cubans are confronted with in youth culture. The siren voices in Miami that call for change in Cuba never talk about the real effects of market economies: markets raise food prices, charge for health and education, and bring the insecurity so apparent everywhere else.

I was able to meet people in the more remote rural areas of Cuba and was struck by how hard they worked at farming and fishing, as well as the very practical and ambitious young people. In the house of a horse driver I met his granddaughters who proudly told me about their school and the older girl’s ambition to be an agronomist. The family were poor in many ways, as was their whole community, still trying to recover from the hurricane. One had lived in Miami but come back as he felt more secure. I couldn’t help thinking about this – swapping car-ridden Miami for a horse and cart in Pinar del Rio.

For all the anger of the US political leadership towards Cuba, there is a very pro American attitude in Cuba. Baseball is a national obsession as are American films.

Later this year Cuba hosts the Non Aligned Movement Conference in Havana. I hope the Conference is able to discuss the unique trade agreement entered into by Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia which allows for exchanges of goods and services such as education and medicine, but also requires the systematic elimination of poverty and use of oil revenues to achieve it. Beyond the economic and political issues that the Movement will discuss, the unipolar world of the USA can be challenged by example.

The hatred of the USA towards Cuba was never anything to do with a military threat. It is an obsession dating back to wanting Cuba as a colony from the 19th century onwards; it is now the threat of example. If Cuba can achieve free education and health care, why not Nicaragua or Guatemala?

Written on June 7 2006 and is filed under Journalism. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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