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NUM and SLP Delegations Visit to Cuba
Report by Harpal Brar
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, which overthrew the tyrannical Batista regime and set the Cuban people on the road to independence, freedom, dignity, prosperity and socialism. To coincide with the 40th anniversary celebrations, a British workers' delegations, led by Comrade Frank Cave, Vice-President of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and President of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), went to Cuba for the sole purpose of expressing solidarity and support for the Cuban revolution and further cementing the bonds of solidarity which already exist between the British proletariat and the Cuban people. Of this eight-man delegation, six represented the NUM (Yorkshire and Northumberland), one came from the Merseyside Cuba Solidarity Campaign, and one from the SLP.
During their two-week stay in Cuba, the members of the delegation held meetings with leaders of several trade unions, including the Secretary General of the Cuban Trade Union Movement (CTC) (Central Trabajadores de Cuba), Comrade Pedro Ross Leal, who happens to be a member of the Politbureau of the Communist Party of Cuba, as well as being a member of the Cuban parliament. They also visited the provinces of Matanzas, the centre of Cuban oil production and exploration; Pinar del Rio, in which is located the Matahamre mine; and Santiago de Cuba, which is home to the El Cobre copper mine. Wherever they went, the members of the delegation were greeted with enthusiasm, charm and warmth. Our discussions with the leaders of the Cuban workers were frank, and their answers to our questions disarmingly candid.
The following is a brief report of the delegation's encounters with some of the Cuban trade-union leaders and workers.
Cuban Successes in Education and Health
On the morning of 29 January (the day following our arrival in Havana), we met Comrade Margarita Rodriguez, from the international sections of the Education Union (Sindicato de la Educación). She explained that in January 1959, one million Cubans were illiterate, and another one million semi-literate; 10,000 teachers were without jobs. The new revolutionary government was determined to provide universal education and to ensure that every teacher had a job. With this in mind, it turned 69 military barracks overnight into schools and opened 10,000 new schools. Within a year of the revolution, 97% of the Cuban adults could read and write. In 1961, the government started its campaign for education, with the aim of educating every person up to 6th grade – this being increased to 9th grade a little later. Now it is obligatory for children to attend school up to secondary level.
Forty years of hard, careful and systematic work in the field of education, explained Comrade Rodriguez, have produced tremendous results. Now, not only does every child attend school, but one million workers, representing 30% of the workforce, have a university degree; 90% of the teachers are graduates, and 30,000 teachers are today studying in the universities, at government expense, to improve their qualifications and raise standards.
As to the teacher-student ratio, she explained that in each class there are 25 to 35 children; sometimes, in case of need, there are far fewer children in classes. For example, in one remote area, there was only one child in the class room. Closer investigation revealed that the teacher was the student's mother, being paid by the state to educate her child.
With great pride, Comrade Rodriguez concluded by referring to the International Conference of teachers, which was due to open in Havana on the following day, with delegates from Latin-America, Africa, Europe and other parts of the world. With 6,000 delegates converging on the Cuban capital, this was certainly the biggest such event in Havana – possibly in the world.
In the afternoon, our delegation met a member of the secretariat of the Health Union (Sindicato de la Salud), who informed us about the successes of the Cuban health service, notwithstanding the crippling blockade imposed by imperialism, especially US imperialism. Cuba, she explained, has 64,000 doctors – one doctor for every 174 patients – with a wide network of family doctors, polyclinics and hospitals. The Cuban health service is one of the best in the world – better than that of any other third world country. Whereas before the revolution, child mortality was as high as 40 per thousand, in the very first year after the revolution it had been brought down to 23 per thousand; today it stands at only 7.7 per thousand – in the case of children under the age of one, the figure is 3 per thousand. Amazingly, infant mortality in Cuba is half that of Washington D.C., the capital of the most powerful and richest imperialist country. This single statistic is sufficient to demonstrate the superiority of the socialist system over the blood-thirsty capitalist system, whose sole rationalé for existence is the exploitation of one human being by another.
Undoubtedly, the US-imposed blockade affects adversely all fields of Cuban life including its health programme. Thus there is a shortage of drugs and hospital equipment; the `humanitarian' imperialist hyenas would not let the Cuban government buy even drugs such as those needed for chemo-therapy. For all these shortages and difficulties, Cuban doctors operated on more people in 1998 than in 1997. The Cuban health service continues to administer vaccines of many types to all newly-born children and provide free pre-natal care to women. More than that. Even in these very difficult circumstances, Cuba continues to rise with honour to its proletarian internationalist duties by sending doctors to Africa, especially to South Africa, and to more than ten countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Following the devastation caused in Central America by the recent hurricane, Cuba sent large numbers of doctors and nurses, and donated a large amount of vaccines, to Nicaragua and Honduras. Cuba has a system for looking after the health of its population, of which even people in the imperialist countries could well be envious.
Cuba's Progress in the field of Energy
On 30-31 January, our delegation visited the city of Matanzas (capital of the province by the same name) and its sister town of Cárdenas, a major centre of oil exploration and production. There we met leaders of the petroleum workers' union and the director of the enterprise, Marcos Aguilera Gueton. Comrade Gueton outlined briefly the history of oil exploration in Cuba, saying that the first oil well was dug in Cuba by the Spanish colonialists at the end of the last century. Nothing much happened between then and 1959. In 1938, of the little oil production in Cuba, 80% was in the hands of foreign concessionaires. With the price of oil being at $2 a barrel, they had no incentive in developing the oil industry, instead wanting merely to hold on to `their' reserves.
After the revolution, these foreign companies refused to pay taxes. Three months after this refusal, the Cuban government cancelled these concessions and set itself the task of developing the Cuban oil industry. With the help of the Soviet Union, Cuba made a detailed study of her oil reserves, sent students to the Soviet Union and other countries to acquire the necessary knowledge and technique for the development of the oil industry.
Up to now, said Comrade Gueton, 68 oil wells have been dug in the region and 10 million tonnes of oil extracted. The area has 350 million tonnes of reserves. The collapse of the Soviet Union, he went on, obliged Cuba to embark on the road for business dealings with foreign companies – not as concessionaires but on the basis of share contracts. The Cuban state has the first option to buy their products. Canadian companies, in defiance of the US blockade, are in the forefront in this area. As a result of Cuba's endeavours, oil production in the region has risen from half-a-million tonnes a year in 1959 to one-and-a-quarter million tonnes a year now. The country as a whole produces 2 million tonnes a year, satisfying only 30% of Cuba's oil needs.
The main consumers of Matanzas' oil are the cement and electricity generation industries, with 35% of the fuel used for the generation of electricity coming from the Matanzas oil fields. This month, Cuba will begin to use gas, which hitherto was simply burned off, for the production of electricity sufficient to satisfy 10% of the needs of the area.
The main mission of the enterprise, continued the director, was to get the country to be self-sufficient in oil.
He then went on to explain the wages and conditions of living of the workers of the enterprise. Since 1989, their salary had gone up by 25%. 40% of the salary is dependent on fulfilment, i.e., on such factors as production targets, absence of damage and absenteeism. A worker can receive in dollars up to $17 over and above his salary if he fulfils the agreed targets.
Absenteeism accounts for only 2.5% of the workforce, out of which 2.3% is due to genuine illness. The Matanzas enterprise has a housing programme, its present stock standing at 650. Every year it adds 25 – 40 new houses. The workers pay 10% of their salary towards the house and after 20 years they become the owners of the house. If, however, a worker leaves before that, he has to give up his house, but he gets back the money that he/she has paid towards it.
As a result of these measure, Cuba's oil production has doubled since 1989 from 1 million tonnes to 2 million tonnes a year, leaving it to import 6.5 million tonnes. Continuing along the present path, it would not be at all surprising if Cuba achieves self-sufficiency in the field of energy in the not too distant future.
On the morning of 8 February, our delegation met Comrade Pedro Ross Leal, the Secretary General of CTC. Greeting our delegation, Comrade Pedro thanked the NUM for its material and moral support and solidarity during the difficult special period which Cuba has been undergoing. Globalisation, he said, affects Cuba seriously; as world imperialism, especially US imperialism, wants to take over the world and determine the shape and type of government of every country. We, on the other hand, he continued, have the right, willingness and ability to defend ourselves – something we have been doing these 40 years.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist camp, "which was our economic partner, has affected us seriously. Our production fell by 35% - in some sectors even by 50%. Resources for health and education, especially as these are extensive and free for our people, suffered badly. All this took place during 1991 and 1994. In 1994, although our economy grew by a meagre 0.4%, its significance lay in the fact that we had stopped shrinking and started growing again.
"The special period has obliged us to undertake joint ventures, to enact new financial legislation, a new investment law, introduce a market in agricultural goods, legalise the circulation of the dollar, open the country to tourism; lease vast tracts of state-owned land to farmers as tenants. Although in Cuba there has always been a private sector, e.g., farmers, artists, craftsmen, drivers, the scope of the latest measures is much broader. The country has been opened for investments, which in turn has obliged the trade-union movement to adapt to the new situation. With the blockade continuing, these measures have helped us to gain some oxygen and give us a breathing space. As a result, our economy grew by 0.4% in '94; by 2.5% in '95; by 6.7% in '96; by2.4% in '97, and 1.3% in '98."
Comrade Pedro went on to explain the disappointing growth for 1998 by reference to the following circumstances:
(a) Bad weather and two hurricanes which destroyed tens of thousands of Cuban homes and caused devastation to 75% of the crops, resulting in the halving of sugar production in 1998 – from 8 million tonnes a year it fell to 3.5 million tonnes in 1998.
(b) With the tumbling prices of nickel, copper and sugar, while Cuba's export earnings in these areas fell sharply, her import bill went up as the prices of such goods as grain, cereals, milk and fertilisers, which Cuba imports on a large scale have risen.
In addition, the US blockade continues unabated. Continuing, Comrade Pedro said: "We can't purchase goods in the US, or from those companies in which there is US capital. The United Kingdom and European countries are forbidden by the US to sell goods to, or invest in, Cuba. Only those companies which are strong and solid are capably of defying the blockade. For example, Canadian companies are defying the blockade. In all, 346 foreign enterprises are operating in Cuba, in fields which give Cuba access to foreign capital, technology and markets – not in fields where we are self-sufficient".
Comrade Pedro went on to stress: "We are not complying with the IMF-type demands. Our joint enterprises are bilateral. We are not selling out our enterprises. Tourism is one such area of joint ventures. We have hundreds of miles of lovely beaches, warm people and total security, which helps to bring in tourists and tourist investment. Tourism has grown at the rate of 20% each year for the last 5 years. All our sectors, with the sole exception of agriculture, have been growing very well".
Turning to the labour movement in Cuba, Comrade Pedro stated that this year witnesses the 60th anniversary of our trade-union movement, which was the outcome of the struggle of the workers for unity. The orthodox, liberal, socialist and communist trends united on the basis of the following principles:
1.) Each workplace to have only one trade union, decided on by the workers of that place;
2.) The workers of each workplace to choose their leadership in a secret ballot;
3.) In order to have a job, it is not necessary for a worker to belong to a trade union, for the right to a job is guaranteed in our constitution;
4.) The union dues not to be deducted from a worker's salary – the worker pays these dues after receiving his/her salary;
5.) The union to be composed of both manual and intellectual workers.
Cuba, he went on, has 19 unions, two of which have been created in the last 2 years, namely, the union of scientific workers and that which is concerned with the tourist industry. In addition there is a 400,000-strong organisation of innovators, inventors and rationalisers. Those who are retired can either belong to the association for retired people or continue to belong to their erstwhile union.
Comrade Pedro concluded by saying that the CTC holds its Congress every 5 years; it has a journal, which was daily, but now comes out once a week due to economic difficulties; it runs a national school for trade-union leaders – these schools being replicated at provincial and municipal level, as well as in many an industry. Last year, 250,000 workers and trade-union leaders attended such schools.
In reply, the leader of our delegation, Comrade Frank Cave, extending greetings from Arthur Scargill, (President of the NUM), the Executive Committee and the membership of the NUM, said: "I thank Comrade Pedro Ross for sparing the time to be with us today. The NUM has been friendly with Cuba for a number of years. Cuba is famous for its education and health system – a third world country with an education and health programme as good as that of first world countries. You ought to be proud of this. I was in Cuba in 1991 and noticed the effects on Cuba of the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the change since then has been remarkable. No other country, including Britain, could have survived if it had lost 85% of its import/export trade. We in Britain" said Comrade Cave, in conclusion, "would continue to argue the case for the lifting of the embargo".
During the question and answer session following the opening statements, Comrade Pedro made a number of points which bear repetition. He was keen to emphasise that the US was not merely involved in an embargo against Cuba; as a matter of fact it was subjecting Cuba to a blockade, which prevents Cuba's access to food and life-saving medicines. "We are", he said, "the only country prevented from having access to international finance and commerce, to be subjected to economic warfare. We are constantly bombarded with aggressive broadcasting by the US and our entire population continues to suffer the rigours of its blockade. The US authorities won't let us even buy food and the drugs for curing leukaemia, unless the US companies selling these items furnish proof to their government that they will not be used by the members of the Cuban armed forces."
He went on to say that the Cuban medical scientists had produced vaccine against meningitis, which had been recognised by the World Health Organisation, many western health organisations, and won the Gold medal of the Organisation on Intellectual Property Rights. Nevertheless, due to the blockade, Cuba was prevented from marketing the drug on an international scale.
Answering a question on the benefits of union membership, Comrade Pedro said that it is the job of the union "to represent workers against their employers and the government, to represent them at tribunals and internationally. Being 60 years old, the CTC has tremendous prestige in the country so as to be able to propose laws and any law, before being passed by the Cuban parliament, has to be discussed with the CTC. 32 of our members are also members of the Cuban parliament. Thus the CTC is able to make representation on behalf of its members at the highest level" and influence decisions.
In reply to questions concerning the agricultural sector, he stated that while the state-owned farms accounted for 24% of the agricultural land, co-operative farms accounted for 51%, and small private farms 25%.
On the question of the average wage in Cuba, he said that a Cuban worker earns on average 200 pesos a month – the equivalent of $10 a month. This figure misleads many foreign observers into asking: how can one live on a mere $10 a month? Such a question ignores the fact that a Cuban worker needs only 6% of his salary for his accommodation, 10 pesos a month for electricity and 6 pesos a month for gas; that his and his family's health and education needs are looked after by the state free of charge; that after 12 years of paying 6% of his salary, a Cuban worker becomes the owner of his house; and that 85% of the Cuban workers own their own apartments.
At the close of the meeting, Comrade Frank Cave, on behalf of the Yorkshire miners, presented to Comrade Pedro a miner's lamp and a rare badge, which used to be given to NUM members after 25 years membership.
During our meeting (on 7 February) with Comrade Juan Carbò, Secretary General of the Chemical, Mining and Energy Workers Union (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Quimica Mineria y Energética), we were told that 3 million Cuban workers belonged to the CTC, representing a union density of 98.9% - the largest unions being the sugar workers' union (nearly 300,000 strong), agricultural workers', health workers' and education workers' unions (each of these being 200,00 strong).
Answering a question on the relationship between the Cuban government and trade unions, comrade Carbò said that "our revolution is only for the benefit of our workers. Out government represents the aspirations and interests of our people. So, the CTC works closely with the government. Cuban workers know that the government fulfils all its commitments to the workers. This relationship of close co-operation between the government and the CTC is beneficial for all of us".
In reply to a question from one delegate on the persistent problem of prostitution, comrade Carbò stated that there used to be widespread prostitution in Cuba before the revolution, which the revolutionary regime had managed to eliminate through the provision of employment and mass education. However, he frankly admitted, the resort to mass tourism by the Cuban authorities following the collapse of the USSR, has had the incidental effect of reviving this evil. "Some young people want to live above their means, better than others. This problem is more prevalent among those young people who are either orphans, or come from single-parent families, or from families in which parents do not devote sufficient time to their children", he said. He added that "the only cure is for us to strengthen our economy and to do educational and social work through mass organisations, such as the trade unions, women's federation, the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, and the youth organisations".
He went on to say that, in terms of percentage, women involved in prostitution were truly insignificant, and that this kind of anti-social activity was mostly confined to five big cities such as Havana, Matanzas and Santiago de Cuba, which are the major centres of tourism and totally unrepresentative of the country as a whole on this account.
Comrade Carbò concluded by saying that the Cuban authorities are busy tackling this problem by education work among the young women resorting to prostitution combined with the very harsh treatment to which pimps are subjected.
Solidarity with Cuba
Before closing this long, yet brief, report on our visit to Cuba, it is impossible for me not to mention two memorable social occasions. First, the lunch hosted by the petroleum workers of Cardenas (Matanzas) in their social club; and second, the evening spent with some of the miners of El Cobre and their families. The warm hospitality and the cheerfulness with which our delegation was greeted shall for ever remain ingrained in our memory. In comparison with workers in Britain and other imperialist countries, those in Cuba have far less in the way of food and material possessions. However, they are far more able and willing to share with others whatever they have. Another aspect of life that struck us was the absence of racism. Workers of different racial backgrounds, with varying complexions of colour, work happily together in true comradeship. The closeness among their families and children has to be seen to be believed.
During our visit to the El Cobre mine, the following declaration was signed between the Ellington mineworkers of Northumberland and the El Cobre mineworkers of Santiago de Cuba:
The Ellington mineworkers in Northumberland, Great Britain and the El Cobre mineworkers in Santiago de Cuba unite in a bond of solidarity, comradeship and friendship to support each other as citizens of the world.
We declare that we shall use all our political strength to protect each other's freedom of association, political liberties and right to self-determination.
We shall fight against the ravages of capitalism and imperialism from wherever it comes, and no matter how it is disguised.
We are united in our desire to protect Socialism in Cuba, extend it to Britain and to nurture its growth wherever there is capitalist exploitation.
In our endeavour to express our unity, we shall provide each other with material aid.
We extend our hands across the sea as Socialists to seal this historic Declaration.
Long Live the Cuban Revolution.
Long Live International Solidarity
A similar twinning arrangement already exists between the Yorkshire miners and those of Matahambre in Pinar Del Rio province. Our delegation had taken some material aid and gifts which were handed over to the appropriate intended recipients such as hospitals and schools.
Our delegation returned with increased determination to work for the lifting of the inhuman blockade of Cuba by world imperialism, especially by US imperialism, as well as to gather more material aid for the heroic Cuban people who have for so long valiantly defied imperialism and defended the gains of the Cuban Revolution.
Anyone wanting to donate money or material aid to Cuba is invited to get in touch with Lalkar. We shall make sure that your contributions reach the people of Cuba through the appropriate channels.
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