`The solidarity with Cuba is stronger than ever'

Print edition : February 10, 2006

V. GANESAN

Born in Havana in 1939, Sergio Corrieri Hernandez, president, Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos (ICAP-Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples) is a multi-faceted personality. He joined the Communist Party of Cuba in 1973, and since 1980 has been a member of its central committee. He is a member of the Cuban Parliament since 1976. However, Hernandez entered politics through an unconventional route - theatre. Indeed, his politics is embellished by the substantial contributions he has made in the field of performing arts. He is regarded as one of the founders of the modern theatre movement in Cuba. Hernandez has also acted in 14 films, including Memories of Underdevelopment (Tomas Alea Guttirez, 1968) and the classic, I am Cuba (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964).

Hernandez started his career in theatre in 1957 because that was "my first passion". He was 19-years-old when the Cuban revolution commenced and, like most youth, was attracted to the guerrillas led by Fidel Castro. In 1958, he joined some other prominent actors and founded the Theatre Studio, which went on to play a pioneering role in the development of theatre in post-revolution Cuba. Said Hernandez: "It was the mother of the theatre movement. Out of it came many famous Cuban actors and directors. I worked there for 10 years. Cuban cinema was born during this time and from the beginning I actively collaborated with people in Cuban cinema."

In 1968, he went to the Escambray, a backward mountainous region in central Cuba. The peasants of the Escambray were backward culturally and their political consciousness was also low. "Of course," said Hernandez, "there was no theatre there." For the next 18 years he lived there among the peasants and founded the theatre group, Theatre Escambray. It came up with many innovations and went on to influence the theatre movement in not only the rest of Cuba, but all of Latin America.

Escambray, said Hernandez, was not the Sierra Maestra. The peasants in the Sierra Maestra were influenced by Fidel Castro. Politically, they were at the vanguard in the fight to overthrow the Batista regime. However, in the fight against Batista, the peasants of the Escambray were divided into three groups, including one led by the Communists. Hernandez said the peasants were very confused. One of Che Guevara's tasks was to restore order in the Escambray. He achieved this because he was very much respected by everybody. Hernandez was recently awarded the Cuban National Theatre Prize for 2006.

Commenting on his long years in the Escambray, Hernandez said he had "an artistic calling". He pointed out that he had "found unexpected compensation" in working for the ICAP. "Solidarity work," he said, "gives you an opportunity to meet extraordinary human beings, who enrich you." Hernandez was one of the founders of the popular militia, meant to defend the revolution.

Recently in Chennai to participate in the Third Asia-Pacific Regional Cuba Solidarity Conference, he spoke to V. Sridhar. Excerpts:

Has Cuba emerged from the crisis Of the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union? How was the challenge met and what problems remain?

We are still coming out the crisis - we are not completely out of it yet. We still have serious problems to solve. But the situation is much better now than it was 10 years ago. It was terrible then. The most important thing is that in terms of morale, not just in material terms, people now see light at the end of the tunnel. We have serious problems in housing. During the last session of the Cuban Parliament, the government announced that it would build 100,000 houses every year in the next five years. That ought to solve the housing problem.

Another major problem is transportation. Cuba has entered into some important agreements with China to address this problem. We have received the first dozen locomotives from China. Cuba is a narrow but long island. This makes rail transportation ideal for Cuba. We are also acquiring the technical expertise to repair locomotives and other rolling stock. Apart from this, we are also buying 1,000 buses from China to help people travel to and from the provinces.

We are also likely to solve the energy problem, but in a cleaner, cheaper and more efficient way, by using our gas resources. Until now, we have not used the gas that comes out along with our oil. Cuban oil production is enough to meet one-third of our needs; another one-third is imported from Venezuela, with which we have an agreement; the remaining portion of our needs is imported from the world market. But we also expect to find oil in the Cuban part of the Gulf of Mexico. But the investment required is quite substantial. We have, therefore, entered into agreements with companies from several countries including Canada, Spain, Venezuela, India and Norway. Cuba also has the second highest reserve of nickel in the world, apart from substantial reserves of cobalt. China is investing in nickel mines in Cuba. The prices of the two minerals have also been high in recent times.

Cuba was for a long time dependent on sugar exports. How important is it now?

Sugar is not the business to be in. There is no future in it. The price of sugar in the international market is lower than its cost of production. It is only viable in countries where growers are subsidised. The European Union pays 24 cents a pound to its sugar farmers but sugar in the world market sugar is traded for five to six cents a pound.

But what about farmers who used to grow sugar in Cuba earlier? How are they coping?

The decision to move out of exporting sugar was a planned move. It did not happen suddenly. We rehabilitated sugarcane growers by providing them other avenues. Many hundreds of them went to study. I can assure you that nobody is on the streets without work. Of course, Cuba still produces some sugar for its needs (including industrial needs such as alcohol). But sugarcane is not very important now. In rural Cuba, cattle rearing is a very important occupation. Growing fruits and vegetables is also a very important source of livelihood.

We also have a massive plan - we call it "Agriculture in the Cities" - to use every piece of land available in the urban areas. This gives employment to thousands of people. Agriculture in Cuba has been difficult in recent times. We had dry weather for many years and in 2005 we were hit by three hurricanes.

How was the transition effected in the face of the aggressive embargo against Cuba?

It took a lot of work to implement the new strategy. We needed to find new ways to source our raw materials and to export finished products. We had to do this gradually. Our major exports are now services, not sugar. Biotechnology products, including medicines, are a major source of revenue. We export biotechnology products and services to countries in West Asia, China, India and Malaysia. This is where the future is for Cuba because we are rich in human capital. There are now half a million students pursuing higher education in Cuba. There are about 67,000 doctors; 30,000 more are in the medical schools. For a small country like Cuba this is very good, comparable to the U.S., Germany or Japan. Of course, this cannot be reduced to a mere comparison of numbers. It is more a question of the values that these doctors have, the way they think and what they expect from life.

How has Cuba managed to help so many countries, not only in Latin America but across the world, despite its own difficulties? What makes a young doctor, engineer, paramedic or technician go around the world helping people?

Education is what makes this happen. Three generations of Cubans have learnt the value of the word solidarity. After all, we received so much solidarity from people all over the world. The solidarity conference taking place here in Chennai is an expression of it. I think it is a way of paying back for all that we have received from people all over the world. And, it goes back a long time. The U.S. embargo is 46 years old, but the history of international solidarity with Cuba is even older. I think the solidarity with Cuba is stronger than ever. It is also normal for Cubans to have a sense of solidarity with other people. At this moment it will be difficult to find a single Cuban family in which at least one member has not gone on a solidarity mission as a teacher, doctor, soldier or technician. Nobody is surprised if a friend says that he/she is going to Mali or Botswana as a doctor or a technician. It is completely normal.

Is this because of political motivation?

Of course, politics is at the base of everything. But it is not political in the sense that we choose to help countries for political reasons. We help because these countries need help. But when our doctors go to these countries they do not ask the people they treat about their political affiliations or whether they believe in God. A sick patient needs attention. That is all we try and give.

Cuba has gone through a major crisis in the last decade. How did the country manage to sustain investment in the social sectors, particularly health and education?

It has been difficult. In many fields we have been unable to invest. For instance, for many years we lacked medicines. Some of the needs were met by donations from people all over the world. We had the pharmaceutical factories but we did not have access to raw materials for producing drugs. But gradually we managed to revive these units. During the past year the pharmaceutical industry has grown 26 per cent. We are now self-sufficient to the extent of 80 per cent of our needs of pharmaceuticals. But because of the blockade, importing the drugs we need is sometimes very difficult. The situation is improving slowly but you must not imagine that all the problems have been solved in Cuba. There are still many problems and some aspects of daily life in Cuba are very difficult.

Let me try and explain the situation in Cuba while comparing it with other countries. Many things that are extraordinary in other countries are quite ordinary in Cuba; but there are also some things which are quite common in other countries but are extraordinary in Cuba. For example, a heart operation which costs $200,000 in other countries is completely free for all Cubans. The son of an ordinary worker can attend the best ballet school in Cuba and if he has the talent he could go on to become the best dancer of the company he represents. There is no discrimination on the basis of race or sex in Cuba. You do not have to belong to a rich or famous family to do these things in Cuba. But we also have problems with many necessities of daily life. In many countries transportation is not a problem at all. But in Cuba people may have to wait for a long time to get a bus. This may appear to be paradoxical and difficult for our friends from other countries to understand.

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