Tomasz Pierscionek: For the past fifty years, Cuba has been the victim of both economic and political aggression. These acts of hostility, carried out by the United States government, are aimed at undermining Cuba’s sovereignty and breaking the socialist island’s resolve. For example, a longstanding trade embargo, implemented by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, has to date cost the Cuban government $93 billion dollars in economic terms, to say nothing of the humanitarian effects of the embargo. Yet despite such continued hostility, since 1959 Cuba has made tremendous advances in areas of health, education, environmental conservation, sport and the arts. Furthermore, Cuba’s record of international solidarity is second to none. How has this tiny island managed to achieve so much in the face of unrelenting antagonism from the world’s most powerful country?
Rob Miller: Cuba’s achievements are all the more remarkable in the face of the ongoing blockade. The 50 years of independent government on the island have seen massive benefits for Cubans in healthcare and education, as you point out. These achievements have only been possible because the revolution is supported by millions of ordinary Cubans.
A much-used Cuban phrase is “we share what we have and not just our leftovers.” Never is this phrase more true than in the case of the 32,000 Cuban doctors volunteering in 72 developing countries to help deliver healthcare. Cuba is committed to training doctors and nurses from the developing world, in marked contrast to the Western nations who actively recruit medical staff from poor countries to work in their own health services. Many UK practitioners have travelled to Havana to find out how Cuba has been able to develop into the envy of many in Latin America and beyond. Yet valuable lessons are too often ignored, swamped by the dead end of blockade policies. Though Cuba is no utopia and the problems there are many, we must recognise the obstacles they face. Western governments who are serious about delivering on the millennium development goals in health could do well to learn from a country that has become adept at delivering healthcare both at home and increasingly internationally.
TP: Hurricances Gustav and Ike hit Cuba in late August and early September this year. Despite the tempests having caused widespread damage to both property and agriculture, only seven deaths were reported. In Haiti, Hurricane Ike caused the deaths of almost 100 people, while back in 2005 the death toll from Hurricane Katrina ran into four figures. However, whenever a Hurricane hits Cuba, few deaths are usually reported. How does this come to be the case?
RM: The Cubans have in place very advanced emergency evacuation procedures. Unfortunately, hurricanes in that part of the world are becoming a yearly occurrence and the Cubans have had to prepare themselves for their arrival. This year over 1.2 million people were evacuated from areas under threat. This represents 12% of the entire Cuban population, or equivalent to evacuating over 7 million people in the UK. Unfortunately a small number of deaths occurred and these were partly as a result of people trying to reconnect or disconnect power supplies before it was safe to do so. Yet, when compared to the terrible loss of life which often occurs in neighbouring islands, in the face of hurricanes it is clear that the Cubans are making an enormous effort to put the safeguarding of human life as the first priority.
The hurricanes this year were the worst to hit Cuba for over 50 years and caused devastation across the island. Crops were heavily hit and over 400,000 homes damaged, with 63,250 being totally destroyed. Reconstruction is already underway and the Cuban government has given assurances that no one will be left homeless.
TP: In June of this year, the EU voted to lift the diplomatic sanctions that it imposed against Cuba in 2003. On the 29th October, for the 17th year running, the UN voted with an overwhelming majority to oppose the US imposed economic embargo. There have been other recent signs of a move towards establishing a more favourable relationship between Cuba and the EU, such as talk of the Spanish Prime Minister and even a senior UK government minister visiting Cuba in the near future. Do you think such events herald the beginning of a new age in EU-Cuban relations and how could such a relationship benefit both parties?
RM: A delegation from the ruling Spanish Socialist Party visited Cuba in November. The Spanish Foreign Minister also visited the island recently. Spain has been a leading light in supporting the move towards better EU-Cuba relations. One example of this is the $33 million the Spanish
government gave Cuba towards hurricane relief efforts.
There is huge potential for a new start in EU-Cuban relations and hopefully the UK government will play a more positive role in this. The UK government has voted, at the United Nations, against the illegal blockade of Cuba since 1996. Yet this is only a starting point. The fact is that UK trade to Cuba declined by around 48% between 2000 and 2006 and the extra-territorial aspects of the US blockade measures are partly responsible for this. CSC has been lobbying the UK government to take action against the extraterritorial application of US law on UK companies. If the UK government wants to treat Cuba fairly, and demonstrate it has an independent foreign policy, it should tell the US that it does not have jurisdiction over British companies. Such a move would benefit the UK and Cuba as it will lead to enhanced trade between the countries, which can only benefit both economies.
We very much hope that new thinking in Europe, and a new administration in Washington, will lead to positive developments. Already 200,000 UK citizens travel on holiday to Cuba each year. Now we want UK business, culture, science and sport to develop projects, trade and better relationships with the island. Clearly the role of the UK Government will be crucial in this.
TP: In 2003, the news that 75 ‘dissidents’ had been arrested in Cuba was met with international condemnation. Whilst some viewed this event as evidence of a clampdown against free speech, the Cuban government maintained that the ‘dissidents’ had been receiving money from the US special interests section in Havana and were, according to Ricardo Alarcon the head of Cuba’s parliament, ‘serving the interests of a foreign government’. What comment can you make on this matter and how does this situation compare to the arrest of the Miami Five in Florida, whom the US authorities accused of spying for Cuban government?
RM: Any country has the right to defend itself and Cuba should be no exception. If individuals in the UK, for instance, were receiving funds from a foreign power to undermine the UK government, they wouldn’t be labelled as dissidents but as agents of a foreign power. The same is true of the situation in Cuba. Under the Helms-Burton Act passed by the US in 1996, huge funds were made available to pay agents in Cuba. The Cubans responded by passing a law in 1999 making such payments illegal and those arrested in 2003 were charged under this law – (ie: receiving money from a foreign Government).
The case of the Miami Five is entirely different. These five Cubans were sent to the US by the Cuban government to gather information on right-wing anti-Cuban groups who were plotting terrorist attacks against the island. The terrorist threat against Cuba is a real one and an estimated 3000 Cubans have died as a result of terrorist actions against the island. which have included military attacks, airline bombings and attacks on tourist facilities. The Miami 5, via the Cuban Government, handed the information they had uncovered to the US authorities. Rather than taking the terrorists into custody, the FBI turned around and arrested the five Cubans. At the trial, expert witnesses testified that the Cubans had not sought, or gained access to, information relating to the national security of the US. They had only uncovered information relating to proposed plots against Cuba. Their only ‘crime’ was defending Cuba and its right to self-determination and independence.
TP: Barack Obama has said that he would like to lift restrictions on American citizens travelling to Cuba and has even been amenable to the idea of initiating a dialogue with Raul Castro. Do you think his election as US President will lead to a radical rethink of America’s foreign policy towards Cuba?
The election of a new US President ought to be a welcome break from the antagonistic anti-Cuban policies of the Bush administration. Whether a radical departure from the previous administration’s policies takes place remains to be seen. Obama has gone on record to say that he will lift travel restrictions for Cuban Americans along with some of the restrictions on the sending of remittances to relatives on the island. However, on the central issue of the illegal blockade the policy is the same. Despite a record vote in the UN of 185-3 condemning the blockade, Obama has not stated that he will do away with the vindictive US attempt to strangle Cuba. If Barack Obama is serious about change, rather than just empty words, one of his first acts as US President should be to end the blockade against Cuba.
TP: Finally, could you talk a little about the aims of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, the work that is does, and why progressives should consider becoming members of the CSC?
RM: The Cuba Solidarity Campaign works in the UK to raise awareness of the illegal US blockade of Cuba and, defends the Cuban people’s right to self-determination. CSC organises public events, study tours and work brigades to Cuba, lobbies MPs and the British government and provides information explaining the reality of the situation in Cuba, which is rarely reported in the media.
CSC is a non-party political, not-for-profit, organisation that depends entirely upon subscriptions, events, sales and donations. Through our national campaigning work and network of local groups we have achieved the support of over 200 MPs, 24 national trade unions and thousands of individuals and community groups. Now more than ever, support for Cuba is needed. Progressives should join CSC because not only is Cuba a progressive country, but it is also an independent country that should be defended against what is in effect imperialist aggression.
In terms of healthcare, education, culture and many other areas, Cuba is proving that another world is possible. 2009 marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution. Now is the time to support and defend the achievements of Cuba over the course of the past five decades.
Rob Miller is the director of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign
The Cuba Solidarity Campaign has launched a hurricane relief fund to help assist with rebuilding work. Details can be found by going to the CSC website at
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This post was written by Tomasz Pierscionek