Making history

Print edition : January 30, 2009
in New Delhi

A woman watching the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Cuban Revolution on television at her home in Havana. In the background is a photograph of a young Fidel Castro.-JAVIER GALEANO/AP

ON January 1, the people of Cuba and progressive people all over the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. The feeling of joy is immense, President Raul Castro said on the occasion. Speaking in the city of Santiago, he cautioned his countrymen that the road ahead still remained difficult. Despite the hardships caused by the American economic blockade, the Cuban Revolution remains stronger than ever, he said. In his address to the nation, Raul Castro asserted that Cuba had not yielded a single millimetre in its principles and at the most difficult moments.

The year 2008 saw three hurricanes of immense destructive capacity hit Cuba within a short span. The agricultural, mining and tourist sectors were particularly affected. The government estimates that the damage to the economy will amount to $5 billion.

Very few countries have faced the kind of unremitting and violent hostility from the United States that Cuba has and survived as a sovereign state. Weve had no peace, weve had no calm. The enemy says socialism has failed. Why dont they leave us alone so that we can fight on equal terms? the Cuban President wrote in a letter to his people on the occasion of the anniversary.

His brother and commander in chief of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, sent a brief congratulatory message to the heroic Cuban people on the occasion. Fidel Castro himself has survived 10 American Presidents and countless American-inspired assassination attempts. Raul Castro, in his speech, said that individuals did not make history but there were essential men capable of influencing its course, and Fidel was one such individual. He called on Cubas youth to follow the example set by Fidel Castro. Raul Castro emphasised that it was essential for the revolution not to be separated from the humble workers, farmers and the people in general.

His speech echoed the historic speech Fidel Castro delivered 50 years ago when the revolution overthrew the corrupt American-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. At that time, the countrys economy was under the total domination of the U.S., and Cuba was a playground for the American rich and the mafia. The dictatorship has been defeated. The joy is immense. And yet, there still remains much to do. We wont deceive ourselves by believing that everything will be much easier from now on; perhaps it will be much more difficult, Fidel Castro told the Cuban people on January 8, 1959, after entering the capital Havana with the guerilla army.

The revolution faced one of its biggest challenges in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As much as 85 per cent of Cubas trade was with countries belonging to the socialist bloc. By 1993, the Cuban economy had declined by 39 per cent. But overcoming challenges, however daunting, was something the Cuban Revolution was used to. Revolutionary Cuba had, after all, defeated the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, which had the full backing of the U.S. administration. The government under the leadership of Fidel Castro did not blink during the Cuban Missile Crisis when the John F. Kennedy administration threatened to use nuclear weapons.

Many in the West were actually writing the epitaph of the Cuban Revolution in the mid-1990s. But the Cuban Communist Party, under Fidel Castros leadership and the unwavering support of the people, battled the odds successfully. The international goodwill for the Cuban people and the revolution was manifested by national solidarity organisations that sprang up all over the world, including India. These groups helped ship limited amounts of basic necessities, but the real battle was fought by the Cuban people.

The worst was over by the end of the 1990s. By 2005, the Cuban economy was back to the levels it was in the 1980s. In the past couple of years, Cubas gross domestic product (GDP) went up by 12.5 per cent.

The other good news is that Cuba has ample off-shore reserves of oil and gas; it produces 60,000 barrels of oil a day and has an estimated 21 billion barrels in reserve. Cuba is still dependent on external sources for most of its energy needs. Venezuela supplies 93,000 barrels of oil a day to Cuba. In exchange, Cuba has sent thousands of doctors and nurses to help in the medical missions set up by the government of Venezuela as part of its social programmes.

Fidel Castro with Che Guevara in August 1960. Che, who died fighting for the revolutionary cause in Bolivia in 1967, would have been happy to see the new political landscape of the Latin American region if he were alive today.-DPA FEATURES

Even during the worst period the special period the Cuban government saw to it that the four main priorities of the revolution remained unaffected. They were free health care, free education, social security for all and affordable housing for all. Jean Ziegler, the United Nations independent investigator on the right to food since 2000, has hailed Cuba as a world model in feeding its population. We have not seen even one malnourished person. The right to being fed is the priority, without a doubt, said Ziegler after an 11-day fact-finding mission to Cuba in 2007. He said that Cubas achievement was a rare feat in the region. Despite the American embargo, Ziegler noted, Cuba always invents an answer to ensure that its population did not go hungry.

The Cuban Revolution continues to be a beacon of hope for the people of the developing world because of its great achievements in many fields. Illiteracy was eradicated within a year. From the beginning of the revolution, education has been free from the primary school level to the PhD level. Cuba today has more teachers per capita than any other country. One out of 11 Cubans today is a graduate. Education has been seen as an important tool to achieve social equality.

Womens empowerment has been another great achievement. Women today constitute 40 per cent of the Cuban labour force. Nearly 66 per cent of the technical workforce consists of women and 36 per cent of the legislators elected to the Cuban National Assembly are women.

The revolution has taken steps to combat homophobia and recognise gay and transgender rights. On June 14, 2008, Cuba launched an HIV/AIDS awareness movement and is planning to legalise same sex unions in 2009. Socialism should be a society that should not exclude anybody, said Ricardo Alarcon, the President of Cubas National Assembly.

Before the revolution, racial prejudice was ingrained in Cuban society. The revolutionary government banned slavery. This and the radical land reforms and easier access to housing, introduced soon after the revolution, gave the marginalised black population security and dignity. The health and education sector became open to all, regardless of race. In the years immediately after the revolution, Fidel made it a point to delve regularly on the issue of race. One of the first acts of the Cuban Communist Party was to launch an ideological campaign against racism.

President Raul Castro. Speaking in Santiago during the 50th anniversary celebrations, he said that the road ahead remained difficult.-ISMAEL FRANCISCO/PRENSA LATINA/AP

A testament to the Cuban Revolutions abiding commitment to end racism is the role it played to end colonialism in Africa. In the 1970s and 1980s, Cubas help for liberation movements and progressive governments on the African continent was significant. In fact, revolutionary Cubas foreign policy gave high priority to the African continent from the very outset. In 1963, Cuba gave military aid to newly independent Algeria, which was facing aggression from neighbouring Morocco. Cuban help proved crucial in ending the short-lived war and the withdrawal of Moroccan troops from the western borders of the country.

After the murder of the popular leader Patrice Lumumba in a plot backed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Cuba lent a helping hand to the Congolese people who were fighting to regain control over their destiny. Che Guevara fought alongside Congolese resistance forces trying to overthrow the Western-backed regime of Mobutu Sese Seko. In the Horn of Africa, Cuba stood solidly behind the progressive governments that were in power there during the height of the Cold War.

Cuban support was crucial to the victory of the Ethiopian army in the war with Somalia over the disputed Ogaden territory in 1977. In the liberation struggles that led to the independence of countries such as Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau and Namibia, Cubas assistance proved invaluable. In the foreign policy arena, Cuba always punched beyond its weight. Though a small country, it was guided by an ideology that gave the concept of revolutionary international solidarity the highest priority.

Cubas key role in ending apartheid in South Africa and hastening the decolonisation process is acknowledged even by Western historians. It was the historic battle of Cueto Cuenavale in 1988 that turned the tide in favour of the progressive forces in southern Africa. The 20th anniversary of the historic battle was celebrated last year. In a full-scale battle, Cuban combatants fighting alongside their Angolan comrades routed the South African Defence Forces (SADF), the most powerful army on the continent. The apartheid regimes army was forced to withdraw from Angola and eventually concede independence to Namibia.

Fidel Castro said at that time that the history of Africa will be written as before and after Cueto Cuenavale. It was no surprise that the loudest cheer on the occasion of the swearing in of democratic South Africas first President, Nelson Mandela, was reserved for Fidel Castro. Mandela publicly acknowledged his countrys debt of gratitude to Cuba. Cueto Cuanavale, he asserted, was the turning point for the liberation of our continent and of my people from the scourge of apartheid.

The future of our homeland necessarily must be a future of people of science, people of ideas, Fidel Castro said on January 15, 1960. Cubas health care system has been acknowledged by U.N. agencies as among the best in the world. Health care for all Cubans is free from the cradle to the grave.

Fidel castro with Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg on September 2, 2001. Mandela publicly acknowledged his country's debt of gratitude to Cuba in liberating it from the apartheid regime.-YOAV LEMMER/AFP

The average life expectancy in Cuba today is 78 years. Before the Revolution, it was only 58 years. The infant mortality rate in Cuba is 5.9 deaths per 1,000 live births. In 1959, the infant mortality rate was 10 times that. In most Latin American countries, the infant mortality rates are still 10 times higher than that in Cuba. Because of the great emphasis the revolution put on health, Cuba today has 5.91 doctors per 1,000 people the highest ratio in the world. In comparison, the U.S. has 2.56 doctors per 1,000 people. Advanced medical services such as cardiovascular surgery, treatment for chronic renal failure, and transplant services are also free in Cuba. Very few countries in the world have been able to offer this kind of services free of charge.

Cubas health care internationalism was started 45 years ago when a medical brigade was dispatched to Algeria. In 1998, Fidel Castro formulated the Comprehensive Health Programme (CHP) to give free medical assistance to Latin American and Caribbean countries. The programme was later extended to African and Asian countries. Cuban Minister for Public Health Jos Cabrera recently said that the Cuban programme had saved the lives of two million people in the developing world in the past 10 years. The CHP reaches out to the neediest in the most inaccessible parts of the world.

Today, one can find Cuban doctors helping out the underprivileged in different parts of the world. As many as 36,500 Cuban doctors are working in 81 developing countries to provide care to people who otherwise would not have received it. Cuban doctors working in Third World countries far outnumber the doctors sent by international agencies and rich Western countries. More than a million people in Latin America have got their eyesight restored through a programme called Operation Miracle.

Whenever natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis occur, Cuba is invariably the first country to despatch medical help for disaster relief. Cuban doctors and nurses worked tirelessly for more than a year in the remote mountainous areas of Pakistan after the killer earthquake of 2004.

The recent consolidation of progressive forces in Latin America is an illustration of the impact the Cuban Revolution has had over the region. Che Guevara, who died fighting for the revolutionary cause in Bolivia in 1967, would have no doubt been happy to see the new political landscape of the region if he were alive today. Recent developments have provided further proof that the efforts of American Presidents since Dwight Eisenhower to isolate and destabilise Cuba have failed miserably.

On the contrary, it is the U.S. that stands isolated in Latin America. The U.S. was not even invited for the summit of Latin American and Caribbean countries held in Brazil in December. This is the first time that the U.S. was excluded from a summit of this importance. The summit, attended by 33 heads of state, called for an immediate end of the U.S. economic blockade. President Evo Morales of Bolivia even suggested that Latin American countries expel American ambassadors if the incoming Barack Obama administration did not lift the blockade.

At the height of the Cold War, Cuba was expelled from the Organisation of American States at the behest of the U.S. Today, Cuba once again occupies its rightful place in Latin America. Even leaders such as Mexicos Felipe Calderon and Colombias Alviro Uribe, who are viewed as being close to Washington, are now standing behind Cuba squarely on the blockade issue.

The attempt by Washington to strangulate the country economically in the past five decades has led to Cuba being denied many of its sovereign rights. The Cuban economy has lost billions of dollars and many sectors of its economy have been adversely affected because of the illegal blockade, which is condemned year after year in the U.N. According to Cuban estimates, the countrys loss as a result of the blockade is $224.6 billion in todays terms.

The blockade was further intensified in the eight years of the Bush presidency. George W. Bush, whose disputed electoral victory was facilitated by the notorious right-wing Cuban Americans in Florida, went to the extent of freezing remittances and stopping family visits by Cuban expatriates. In July 2006, the Bush administration released a report, Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which proposed a plan to transform Cuba once again into a virtual U.S. protectorate. Under the plan, all properties would be returned to their former owners, including all the homes: this means millions of families would be dislodged in less than a year under the supervision and control of a U.S. Commission for the Restitution of Property Rights. This is one of the clearest indications of Washingtons intentions to roll back the gains of the revolution.

Cuba has endured and survived several American-inspired destabilisation plans, including terror attacks and biological warfare. A Cuban passenger plane was blown up in midair over Barbados way back in 1976, killing all 73 passengers on board. Posada Carriles, the man responsible for planting the bomb on the plane, is living a peaceful retired life in Florida, despite being a wanted man in many Latin American countries for terrorist acts. CIA-supervised bacteriological warfare also affected citrus, sugar and tobacco crops in the 1990s. But nothing could deter the spirit of the revolution.

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