Founded in 1960, the Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos, (The Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples, ICAP) is an NGO established soon after the early successes of the Cuban revolution. Following the overthrow of the US backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, Cuba found itself isolated on the world stage and threatened by an irate military superpower, less than 100 miles off its shores. The purpose of ICAP therefore, was to reach out to the international community and form ties of friendship between Cuba and citizens of other countries who were either sympathetic to, or open minded about, Cuba’s post-revolutionary ambitions. After Batista’s departure, a deluge of anti-Castro propaganda hit the world media, spread by exiles who had benefited under the regime of Batista and supported by a US government displeased at Cuba’s unwillingness to allow foreign companies to exploit its population and natural resources.
Whilst in Cuba, the solidarity delegation of which I was a member had the opportunity to meet with a senior representative of ICAP, Gladys Allyon. Gladys, ICAP’s European Director, explained that the NGO encourages visitors from abroad to come and see the reality of post-revolutionary Cuba for themselves. ICAP works to educate visitors about the real Cuba and challenge a myriad of spurious myths about Cuba that arise from time to time. She later added that ICAP brings people together and shows alternatives.
Since its founding, ICAP has coordinated work brigades comprised of volunteers from around the globe who are eager to learn about the Cuban reality and show solidarity with the Cuban people by engaging in light agricultural work and cultural activities. The work brigades give visitors the opportunity to also interact with ordinary Cubans such as farmers and other workers. Gladys said that a variety of individuals, including a former prime minister of a Scandinavian country, have been on a brigade. ICAP also arranges visits for delegates of international solidarity groups wishing to visit the island to express support for Cuba, demonstrate their opposition to the US imposed economic blockade, and learn about the aims, successes and malfunctions of the Cuban revolution.
There are currently some 850 Cuba solidarity groups in 45 European countries and although Cuba is undergoing major changes, these are often misrepresented in a non-Cuban media, which postulates that Cuba is slowly moving in the direction of a Capitalist state. Cuba is indeed changing but not looking to adopt Capitalism, a strange move at a time when a lot of the world seems to be rejecting it. The present changes are geared towards the interests of the people and were adopted to improve Cuban society and increase efficiency. The aim is to build a bigger and better society. It struck me that the suggestion of creating a Big Society – one where the people are in the driving seat – is very different to the sort of ‘Big Society’ we are seemingly having imposed upon us in Britain.
In response to claims that Cuba is solely in the hands of Fidel or his brother Raul, Gladys commented that many of Cuba’s ministers are young. She describes the legislature as a ‘young parliament’ and says that the confederation of university students in Cuba is very active politically.
In the eyes of many Cubans the revolution did not start in 1959 but rather in 1868, when Cuba first began to fight a war against Spain to gain its independence- Cuba under the leadership of Fidel Castro was simply the continuation of a long process. One thing that stuck me about Cuba is that the revolution is referred to as a evolving process, rather than a distinct event. The revolution seems to be a concept constantly being improved and shaped by the Cuban people in the direction they wish to take it.
With respect to the changes that are happening to Cuba’s economy, which allows for small private business to operate, Gladys pointed out that such phenomena are not new. She stated that beauty parlours, shoe makers and artisans have been around for long time but had not paid taxes. The changes were a way of bringing them into the legal system. Bringing those private workers into the union ensures that they get pensions when they retire. She explained that in the next five years 40% of GDP will come from private sector, includes cooperatives.
Cuba is also becoming a more integral part of the international community, beyond Latin America. More Cubans are travelling abroad to study for higher degrees and more overseas students are coming to study in Cuba. For example, there are currently more than 100 American students studying medicine in Cuba at the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana.
Whereas it has recently become legal to buy and sell property in Cuba, the law forbids anyone to have more than two houses. Foreigners are not allowed to buy property. A former university teacher, now working in the tourism sector, who I met in Cuba, commented that 3,000 houses and 9,000 cars were sold in first two months of this year.
One point that Gladys wished to emphasise was that ‘We (ICAP) don’t want you to talk about Cuba as [if it were] a paradise ‘. Cubans are open to admitting that there are inefficiencies in the current system and change is required, yet they do not wish to forgo their hard won societal achievements. The former academic/tour guide put it succinctly saying that it is natural people want to have greater access to luxury goods but not at the expense of their exemplary health and education systems, nor to the detriment of the society they have created with its low rate of crime and solidarity between individuals.Tags: Latin America
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This post was written by Tomasz Pierscionek