The Cuba I Saw…

Cienfuegos4By Dr. Natalie Benelli

I took a trip to Cuba in July 2013. What I saw was nothing like the Cuba the U.S. and international mainstream media generally depicts. Media coverage of Cuba in the U.S. and Switzerland, my home country, is often misleading, when it is not simply false.

As a result, most people don’t know that Cuba grants its citizens free education and health care as well as affordable housing and food, and that this small Caribbean island is a world model in hurricane disaster prevention and relief — despite the economic, commercial and financial war the U.S. government has waged against Cuba for more than half a century. People also do not know the extent of the damage caused by the blockade, not just to Cuba, but to other countries that try to trade with Cuba.

Furthermore, people do not know, that despite the illegal blockade by the U.S. against Cuba, Cuba has nonetheless provided aid in the most humane and material ways in Latin America, Central America, Asia, Africa and scores of poor countries throughout the world by sending doctors and teachers — eliminating illiteracy. Thus, they are celebrated, applauded and much-respected by most of the countries of the world.

Seeing with my own eyes

In Spring 2010 I had met a volunteer organization dedicated to developing alternative media opportunities at a street fair in Brooklyn while on a research grant at New York University and became a volunteer shortly thereafter.

Both as a volunteer and as a critical sociologist who had lived in different countries, I became increasingly aware of the misleading way the U.S. and international mainstream media represented the economic and social reality of life in Caribbean and Latin American countries such as Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela.

I experienced this once again when Hurricane Sandy hit the Caribbean and the U.S. east coast on October 29, 2012. I was in New York City volunteering at that time, and while the national and international media continued to report on the devastation the hurricane had caused in the U.S. for many weeks, there was an almost complete media blackout in the U.S. press on how it affected Cuba.

Nor has the media since reported on the exemplary rebuilding efforts in the affected areas and cities where the Cuban government has been funding the reconstruction of homes for low-income Cubans.

I wanted to learn more about the reality of life in Cuba, so I decided to visit the country and get first hand information on life in Cuba. Unlike U.S. citizens, Europeans are free to travel to Cuba on a tourist visa. With a Swiss friend, Marion Schild, an engineer and student in media studies who volunteered with me in New York during September 2010, I went on a three-week trip to Cuba in July 2013.

Free meals for children, free health care and affordable housing

Cuba is not a rich country. International commercial restrictions imposed by the U.S. blockade make the development of economic wealth in Cuba next to impossible.

Since 1960, U.S. government policy of “economic embargo” has placed increasingly stringent restrictions on economic relations with Cuba.

These have included the freezing of all Cuban assets in U.S. banks, denial of trade between U.S. and Cuban businesses, restrictions on travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens, and efforts to minimize Cuba’s ability to engage in trade with other countries by denying ships that have docked at a Cuban port from entering a U.S. port for six months, preventing the importing of any goods containing Cuban raw materials into the United States and imposing sanctions on foreign companies that trade with Cuba who also want to engage in U.S. trade.

Yet, from the first day of our trip, it became very clear to us that poverty in Cuba was different from the poverty we had seen in countries in Europe, North America and Latin America.

“Large parts of the poor in Latin America live in slums, with no running water, no electricity and streets covered in garbage,” said Schild who had spent 18 months visiting Latin America. “Children of poor families and orphans live on the street. They have to steal food or search for food in the garbage in order not to starve.”

In contrast, Cuba has no slums and no starving children living on the street. Regardless of their social background or their parents’ economic situation, Cuba’s children have a home and are well nourished and healthy.

Up to the age of seven, they receive four free cups of milk a day from the government, as do the elderly and pregnant women. Children between eight and 13 years receive free soy yoghurt. Children at school receive a daily free meal. Cubans can buy rations of affordable basic supplies such as rice, beans, eggs, coffee, sugar and oil through the government’s food distribution system.

Due to free health care being a constitutional right, Cubans are healthier than poor people in other parts of the world, including the U.S. While, according to the UN Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimates, infant mortality in the U.S. in 2012 during the first year of life was an average of 6.1 for every 1,000 live births, it was 4.3 in Cuba.

Thanks to affordable housing, homelessness is rare in Cuba. Cubans only spend an average of 10-15% of their monthly income on housing, including gas, electricity and water. In the U.S. that figure is greater than 30%.

The constitutional right to free education

Despite the difficult economic situation created by the U.S. blockade, all Cubans benefit from free education. Like free health care, free education is a constitutional right, guaranteed by Article 39 of the Cuban Constitution, stating that “education is a function of the state and is free of charge… The state maintains a broad scholarship system for students and provides the workers with multiple opportunities to study to be able to attain the highest possible levels of knowledge and skills.” The current Constitution of the Republic of Cuba was approved by 97.7% of the electorate by referendum on February 15, 1976. It was adopted on February 24 of the same year.

We met several people on our trip who were going through free professional training.

Hernán, a young man in his twenties who we met in the city of Santiago de Cuba, is an auto mechanic originally trained in repairing cars manufactured between 1972 and 1978. When we met him in July 2013, he had been unemployed for two months. He was being trained to learn additional skills as an auto mechanic working with computer diagnostic tools. He was also taking French classes.

Natalia, an Afro-Cuban woman in her fifties, works as a tourist guide in Havana. As a young woman she went to university and so did her siblings. Natalia is conscious of the fact that it is thanks to the revolution that she and her siblings had access to higher education, regardless of their economic and racial background.

“Coming from a poor Afro-Cuban family, going to university would not have been possible for me and my siblings under Batista,” said Natalia.

Free education in Cuba includes free schoolbooks, pens, pencils, notebooks — everything a person at school needs, from kindergarten to university. Because the state guarantees free education to every child regardless of their social and economic background, children from poor families have much better chances to succeed in school in Cuba than poor children have in the U.S. or Europe.

Hurricane disaster prevention and relief

Cuba provides a world model in hurricane disaster prevention and relief. Before Hurricane Sandy hit the city of Santiago de Cuba in the eastern part of the island during the early hours of October 25, 2012, rescue squads were dispatched to the endangered area prior to the storm to evacuate 340,000 people with transportation provided by the government.  They could take all their belongings with them, including pets.

Eleven people died during the storm. 170,000 buildings were affected by Sandy; 16,000 housing units were completely destroyed, some additional 22,000 units were left only partially habitable.

Rebuilding efforts by the army, emergency management services and volunteers started right after the storm. In an act of international solidarity, countries including Venezuela, Russia, China and Vietnam sent medical supplies, food and building materials to the affected areas. The Cuban government supports people whose homes were affected by Sandy by granting a 50% allowance on building materials needed for restoration.

When we visited Santiago in July 2013, reconstruction was still under way: young palm trees were being planted, churches were being restored, public housing was being reconstructed. Contrary to what has happened in New York City in the aftermath of Sandy, Cuba has been rebuilding public housing for low-income workers at an affordable price in the affected areas.

One newly built housing complex we saw in Santiago de Cuba was donated to the people of Cuba by the government of Venezuela. The apartments in this housing complex are rented out to low-income workers for approximately 15% of their income. After ten years, the residents of these apartments will own their homes and will only have to pay for gas, electricity, and water.

International solidarity

Despite its own difficult economic situation, Cuba’s international solidarity with other poor countries is -outstanding. Every year, thousands of youths from poor areas of the world such as Haiti get free medical training in Cuba. Cuba has even made this free medical education available to people from the U.S. According to a Cuban doctor I had the chance to meet with in Switzerland, 
Nélido González, the Vice-Director of the National Cancer Center in Havana and the Vice-President of the Cuban Society of Oncology, 40,000 Cuban doctors are currently practicing outside of Cuba in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Everyone in Cuba knows a person who went abroad, at some point, on an international mission. In Havana, we met a young female doctor who went to Venezuela for three years to practice medicine. The cousin of a woman we met in Cienfuegos had been to Venezuela as a dentist. Cuban doctors went to Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake. In 2013, 2,400 Cuban medical doctors were practicing in the most remote parts of Brazil.

Learning about the history and politics of Cuba

My preparations for this trip included studying some of the history and politics of Cuba.

Since the late 1860s, Cubans had been fighting to end Spanish colonial rule. Efforts for national sovereignty were crushed when U.S. troops occupied Cuba in 1898 to defend U.S. business interests on the island in the wake of the explosion of a U.S. warship stationed in the port of Havana. That same year, Spain officially handed Cuba over to the U.S.

In 1901, the U.S. Congress imposed the Platt Amendment on the Cuban constitution, establishing Washington’s “right” to intervene in Cuba whenever the U.S. government deemed necessary. Between 1901 and 1958, Cuba had a series of governments responsive to U.S. political and commercial interests. The last was headed by Fulgencio Batista who staged a U.S.-backed military coup on March 10, 1952. Under Batista, whose dictatorship lasted until 1958, U.S. companies and ruling families continued plundering the riches produced by Cuba’s peasants, plantation workers, petty commodity producers and a growing urban working class. In the 1950s, 75% of Cuba’s cultivated land, 80% of public utilities (electricity, gas, telephone services) and 90% of all mineral wealth were U.S.-owned. The sugar industry was largely controlled by the U.S.

Meanwhile, large portions of the population, especially the rural population, lived in great poverty. One-fourth to one-third of the Cuban work force was unemployed or underemployed. Illiteracy was widespread. In 1953, one million adult Cubans in a population of 6 million couldn’t read and write. 45% of school-age children had never attended one day of school, while 10,000 teachers were unemployed. Rural medical care was close to nonexistent. Infant mortality was over 60 for every 1,000 live births and life expectancy was under 65 years.

The Cuban revolution and the U.S. blockade

A revolutionary movement broadly supported by the oppressed rural population as well as large segments of the student and labor movement in the island’s main cities overthrew Batista in December 1958. The new revolutionary government soon started implementing ongoing social reforms, taking necessary measures to fight and ultimately end unemployment, poverty and illiteracy, build functioning schools and a health care system accessible to the whole population. U.S.-owned businesses were nationalized, so that profits made from the resources of Cuba benefited the Cuban people. Large landholdings were split up and farmland was given over to the peasants who cultivated it.

The U.S. government reacted to Cuba’s ending U.S. domination on the island by imposing a commercial, financial and economic blockade on Cuba which lasts to this day. Using hunger and shortages of every kind produced by these economic measures as a weapon, the declared goal of the blockade is to push Cuba’s population into actively overthrowing their revolution — a revolution urgently needed to eliminate the poverty and social injustice that had characterized all earlier periods in which the country was under the political and economic -control of the U.S.  However, over 97% of Cuba’s population is in agreement with their system of government and are passing laws to adjust to the ever-changing economic world situation.

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