Progress of a revolution

Published : Jan 28, 2005 00:00 IST

The Cuban revolution is a year older and more resilient despite the best-laid-out plans of the sole superpower to undo its achievements.

in Havana

CUBANS celebrated the 46th anniversary of the revolution on January 1, but on a sombre note owing to the tsunami disaster in South and South-east Asia. Cubans are used to havoc caused by the sea. Almost every year, their country is subjected to the wrath of the elements. In 2004 a powerful cyclone hit the country. However, owing to an efficient early warning system and an effective response system evolved by the government, Cuba kept the casualty figures low. The cyclone claimed hundreds of lives in the neighbouring State of Florida in the United States.

It is not just natural calamities that Cubans have to worry about. The re-election of George W. Bush as U.S. President and the repeated threats of senior U.S. officials to bring about a "regime change" in Cuba have made the authorities reinforce their vigilance. The Bush administration has announced a grandiose programme for a "transition to democracy" in Cuba. From the second week of December, the Cuban armed forces and civilian self-defence groups have been involved in a three-week-long, massive exercise. Defence Minster Raul Castro said that successful conclusion of the exercise showed that Cuba was ready for any eventuality.

Jose R. Alvarez, a senior member of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), told this correspondent that the military exercise was the biggest in more than 40 years. He emphasised that Cuba was a "pacifist power" enjoying friendly relations with all countries. He said that the military exercise was in response to the Bush administration's 2004 plan to destabilise the revolution. "Vietnam and Iraq are illustrations. We have to be realistic and prepare for the worst," he said. Alvarez, who has been with President Fidel Castro since the revolution, said that the Bush administration had been busy spreading canards about Cuba, including allegations that it had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and encouraged terrorism and drug-trafficking.

Castro, who has been recovering from a fracture he suffered as a result of a fall, is leading the revolution from the front. In the last two months, he has met with visiting dignitaries, including Chinese President Hu Jintao, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Chavez visited the country in November and again in December. The first time it was a courtesy call immediately after Castro suffered the injury. The trip in the second week of December was an official one.

In the first week of December, Castro made an important speech, his first in more than two months, at the concluding session of the 8th Congress of the Young Communist League. The President, while speaking to the assembled youth and stressing the strong bonds between the PCC and the youth of Cuba, recalled his address to the same organisation in 1998. "I invite you to try and find in any other country in the world a bond as strong as it has existed, exists and shall always exist in this profoundly revolutionary process. Our revolution is reborn each day, because the ideas we stand for, the justice that we defend, the cause we fight for, is today the cause, and there can be no other cause other than that for the billions of people who live on the planet."

Castro praised the young communists for their success in grooming new members for the party. More than 60 per cent of the members of the PCC, who are under the age of 30, are from the Young Communist League. Castro in his speech did not gloss over many of the shortcomings that still afflicted Cuban society. "We will have to continue to wage our hard-fought battle against corruption, social indiscipline, and any surge in drug use," he said.

Castro had emphasised even in 1998 that the country had to be on guard. "We cannot, however, neglect defence for even a minute, because given the unavoidable crises, a change of government, a fascist-like or far-Right party in power, is all that it will take to return the Empire to its adventurist ways of old. We cannot overlook the risk of a military invasion. Today, the real battle is the battle of ideas." His words, spoken two years before George W. Bush became President, have proved prophetic. Castro had told the Young Communist League members that "ideas" are the most important weapon in humanity's fight "for its own salvation".

Castro said that as a result of the "battle of ideas" being waged by the Cuban people, their lives had improved considerably in the past five years. This correspondent was in Cuba nine years ago when the country was going through a painful period. The people were heroically trying to cope with the collapse of socialism in East Europe and the disappearance of their traditional trading partners. Many people were using bicycles as the mode of transportation. The main roads were filled with commuters asking for a lift from car owners. This time there were very few cyclists visible. Although people still do try to hitch rides, their numbers are much smaller now.

The public transport system has improved considerably, though a lot still needs to be done. Car owners and even government officials have been requested to help commuters reach their destinations, as a social gesture. Today, the vintage American cars of the 1950s coexist with brand new cars from many parts of the world, including around 500 Indica cars from India. Mercifully though, there are no traffic jams on the streets of Havana.

Cuba now produces around 50 per cent of its requirement of oil. The rest is imported, most of it at "friendship rates" of $28 a barrel from Venezuela. Cuba has sent thousands of doctors, nurses and physical training instructors to that country. In the past 10 years Cuba has made further strides in the fields of education and health. According to many Westerners residing in Cuba, the country has achieved First World standards in these areas, despite the severe constraints imposed by the U.S. economic blockade.

"Today, a primary school teacher is responsible for only 20 pupils, something which allows him or her to provide better quality teaching," said Castro in his December 5 speech. Computer education is now given at the pre-school level. Cuba has set up the first School for Autistic Children - a measure most countries have not taken. "Throughout the Battle of Ideas, we have made an old dream come true: the universalisation of higher education, thus making universities accessible to all the young people who graduate from the Revolution's programmes and to workers in general," Castro said in his speech.

Cuba has invested a lot in health care. There are 444 polyclinics spread all over the country, besides 27 hospitals. Every Cuban has access to free medical care virtually at his or her doorstep. Patients who are unable to go to a hospital or a clinic are attended to at home by qualified doctors.

Cuba's medical expertise is being put to good use by many developing countries. There are 23,413 Cuban doctors and health technicians working in 66 countries. Castro calls it "humane missions of solidarity". Cuba has 450 doctors in Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. "The industrialised countries cannot send even 50 doctors to Haiti, for they have finance capital but lack human capital," Castro said.

The biotechnology revolution is another success story. Cuba is the largest exporter of medicine to Latin America. The country is doing business in biotechnology with more than 50 countries, including India and helping to set up factories in many of these countries. The Cubans prefer to call it "South to South" technology transfer. Cuban researchers have been granted more than 100 patents, 26 of them in the U.S. It has developed the world's first meningitis-B vaccine. Cuban researchers have developed a vaccine that stimulates the immune system against lung cancer cells.

Castro had once said that it is "perhaps the most useful of our modest efforts in the struggle for a better world to demonstrate how much can be done with so little when all of society's human and materiel resources are placed at the service of the people". The country registered a 5 per cent economic growth in 2004. Tourism increased by 7.6 per cent in 2004 since the previous year. The government announced that the average income also rose by 15 per cent.

The new year began with Cuba and most of the European Union (E.U.) countries normalising relations. Cuba had decided to put diplomatic links with the E.U. countries, with the sole exception of Belgium, on the back burner because of the open support given by the grouping to the so-called dissidents in the pay of the Bush administration. All cooperation agreements between Cuba and the E.U., were suspended. Former Spanish Prime Minster Jose Maria Aznar had orchestrated the moves against Cuba.

Only in the case of Cuba, the E.U. had decided to adopt a common united stance on issues related to human rights, which in practice meant blindly supporting the U.S. position on Cuba in forums such as the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

The new socialist government in Spain has decided to adopt a more pragmatic approach and convinced other key E.U. members to stop encouraging dissidents by inviting them to their national day receptions. The E.U. has also welcomed the Cuban government's decision to ban the dollar and resort to the euro as the preferred currency in international trade. The Cuban Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs told this correspondent that trade relations with the E.U. would now be less complicated. Most of the tourists visiting Cuba are from E.U. countries.

The banning of the dollar in November 2004 has met with a popular response. Cubans voluntarily deposited all the dollars with them, which were legal tender until then, in the state coffers within a fortnight. The Cuban peso was strengthened by the sudden accumulation of hard currency reserves. "We have regained our monetary sovereignty," said a senior PCC official.

Jorge Lezcano Perez, the Deputy Speaker of the Cuban National Assembly, said that the Bush administration had appointed 20 officials in the State Department just to keep track of the flow of dollars into Cuba while until recently only one official was keeping tab on the money laundering activities of Al Qaeda. Recently, a Spanish bank was penalised by the U.S. government for transferring dollars to Cuba. Perez said that it was the structures built by the revolution that helped the country withstand the multifarious problems thrown up by the U.S. economic blockade.

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