Recently, Judi and I had the opportunity of spending seven days in Cuba. I happen to be a student of history. So, when I look at the reality of Cuba today, I also look at how that reality developed over the past 500 years. Looking at Cuba today from the perspective of this history, for me, tells a truly inspiring story.
The Tainos populated most of Cuba when the Spanish landed on the island. European settlement in the Western Hemisphere caused perhaps the largest holocaust in human history. Of the approximately one-hundred million native people in the Western Hemisphere about 90% or more died of European imported diseases. Most of those who survived died as a result of European colonization.
In Cuba, almost the entire population died under Spanish colonization. Much of the heritage we have of these people has been lost. However, there are three common words that have origins from the native people of the Caribbean. These are the words: canoe, hurricane, and barbecue.
Following the money
When we look at the wealth that exists in the world today, we generally think of the banking establishment. The only way for banks to have their wealth is because of investments made in the past. The beginnings of the accumulation of capitalist wealth started with the mining of gold and silver in places like Bolivia, Peru, and Mexico. Native Americans were the ones who mined the gold and silver under horrendous conditions.
Ships under the Spanish flag took this gold and silver to Spain. A large quantity also went to China. The Spanish invested in the port of Havana so ships would have a place to dock in their journeys to and from the Americas. In those days, pirates from various European nations had the ability to overcome these Spanish ships and take the riches held on board.
The Spanish built forts in Havana, Cuba and San Juan, Puerto Rico in order to protect the wealth they had stolen from the Americas. The Spanish also cut down the indigenous forests of Cuba to build Spanish ships to transport this wealth. The Spanish armaments only had limited success. Part of the wealth of Europe can be traced to the gold and silver stolen by pirates who attacked Spanish warships.
After the deposits of gold and silver began to decline, a relatively new commodity became immensely popular. This was sugar. Sugar cane, cut by slave labor, became the primary way of making money in the world for about two-hundred years.
The most profitable place for growing sugar was the French colony that today has the name of Haiti. Then, a slave revolution erupted. The new Haitian government was the first in the Western Hemisphere to outlaw slavery. This new government also declared independence from France.
Many Black Haitians left their homeland to escape the violence on the island. Most of these Haitians travelled to the eastern section of Cuba, known as the province of Oriente. This is the area of Cuba that has the largest Black population.
The European powers as well as the government in Washington didn’t like the Haitian revolution. All these powers derived immense profits from slave labor. The politicians in these countries viewed the outlawing of slavery in Haiti to be a threat to the slave labor camps of those days. These attitudes caused Europe and Washington to declare an economic boycott against Haiti. This state of affairs allowed Cuba to become the largest sugar producer in the world.
Spain would rule Cuba for about 400 years. During those years nearly all the wealth of Cuba went to Spain. The Spanish used this immense wealth from the Americas to purchase commodities manufactured in other countries. So, while the rest of Europe experienced a manufacturing boom, Spain merely transported wealth from one place to another.
This state of affairs explains why Spain used enormous resources to suppress the Cuban armed forces that demanded independence and an end to slavery. After about thirty years of horrendous war, the Spanish were on the verge of defeat. During most of these years, the U.S. government supported the Spanish effort to suppress the struggle for independence.
Washington runs Cuba until 1959
Then, the government in Washington decided to make their move. This government had just completed their hundred years war against the first nations of this country. Now Washington wanted the Spanish colonies in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.
After the Spanish surrendered to the United States military, the armed forces of this country continued their war against the Philippine independence movement. In all about 250,000 Philippinos lost their lives to the invaders from the United States.
About half of the Cuban independence armed forces were made up of Afro-Cubans. These Cubans had a double incentive to achieve both independence and an end to slavery. Chinese Cubans also played a prominent role in the revolution.
After the U.S. victory over Spain, Washington worked to make Cuba resemble the United States where legalized discrimination was the law. President McKinley appointed Fitzhugh Lee to be his consul general in Havana. Lee was the nephew of general Robert E. Lee who was the commanding officer of the Confederate Army. Fitzhugh Lee also served as an officer in the Confederate Army that was dedicated to defending the system of chattel slavery.
We might keep in mind that during the Civil War Black soldiers became indispensable to a Union victory. This was President Abraham Lincoln’s primary motivation in signing the Emancipation Proclamation.
After the Civil War Black people began to attain basic civil rights during the period of radical reconstruction. Then in the year 1877 radical reconstruction was pushed aside and the Ku Klux Klan effectively took control of the state governments in the former Confederate states. The federal government fully supported these changes.
In Cuba, the discrimination against Black people came directly from the United States. While affluent Cubans went along with this discrimination, a majority of Cubans appreciated the contributions Black people made to their country.
This new reality meant that there would be systematic discrimination against Black people in Cuba until the eruption of the revolution in 1959. Although the Cuban music had its roots in African musical styles, Black people were prohibited from playing their music in the hotels for tourists. Even playing the congas or bongos with one’s hands was against the law.
The mechanization of sugar production meant that about 500,000 workers in this industry only had jobs for about three months per year. For the rest of the year these workers needed to find ways to survive. Under these conditions health care and education were unknown to large numbers of Cubans.
The Cuban revolution
Then, the revolution erupted in 1959 and there was a complete transformation in the Cuban reality. One of the first measures of the revolutionary government was to teach everyone on the island to read. Then, there was a major drive to train doctors in order to begin to provide health care to everyone on the island.
The powerful economic forces in the United States didn’t like the Cuban revolution. The U.S. government worked with corporations as well as the Mafia to over-through Cuba’s new government. These efforts provoked the Cubans to nationalize U.S. holdings on the island. Without these nationalizations, none of the advances of revolutionary Cuba would have been possible.
The Cuban leadership also understood the international importance of the revolution. This meant that tens of thousands of Cuban medical personnel have been treating patients in some of the poorest parts of the world. The Cuban military served in Angola to defend that nation against an invasion from the apartheid government of South Africa.
Seven days in Cuba
This brings me to our seven days in Cuba. Our tour was licensed as a people to people visit to the island. These people to people tours are approved by the U.S. government. While the Cubans have no problem with tourists from this country visiting the island, the U.S. government requires special licenses for those who choose to visit Cuba.
Our tour centered on the arts. We visited several art galleries. We saw performances of Cuban music as well as a talk on the history of the music. During that talk we learned how Cuban music has been influencing the music in this country for over 100 years.
Something I learned in this tour concerned the immense creativity of the Cuban people. This creativity flowered because of the revolution. All the artists we met had been educated in the Cuban educational system. Cuban education became a right for people on the island because of the revolution.
The best summary of the arts in Cuba can be seen at the Cuban Museum of Art. Here we saw every style of art going back over 100 years. All the artists in this museum appeared to be Cuban. This museum, in my opinion was as good as any I have ever seen.
Cuban challenges today
Saying all of this we must also say that today Cuba has its share of problems. Upon exiting our hotel in Havana, we immediately smelled the smog. This is because Cuba simply can not afford the pollution control equipment that would make the air cleaner.
We saw how many Cubans live in dwellings that many people in this country would not like to reside in. There is a housing shortage. The transportation system has severe problems. There is rationing of food.
One of Cuba’s biggest problems is in agriculture. In the past, Cuba devoted large areas of land to the cultivation of sugar. With the loss of trade with the Soviet Union, Cuba closed many of the sugar producing farms. In order to continue producing sugar with the old equipment on these farms, Cuban sugar would have been priced higher than the international market price.
This is a problem faced by all nations in the so-called developing world. The agricultural machinery used in developed countries like the United States has a clear impact on the people of the world. Food grown in the U.S. can be sold all over the world at prices that are less expensive than farmers can sell food without access to this machinery. This state of affairs benefits the agribusiness corporations in the U.S., but punishes farmers throughout the world.
During our stay in Cuba we listened to a Cuban economist who argued that the Cuban regulations on corporations from other countries need to be relaxed. Certainly this is a question the Cuban government will have to deal with.
One of the considerations that comes to mind can be found in a recent column by the so-called political pundit George Will. Will accepted President Obama’s recent initiatives to begin to change U.S. policy towards Cuba. However, Will also argued that he feels the cornerstone of U.S. policy towards Cuba needs to continue to be regime change.
The kind of regime change Washington has wanted in Cuba would make that nation similar to the nations throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In other words, Washington and Wall Street would like a Cuba where the majority of the population lives in abject poverty once again.
The answers to Cuba’s current problems aren’t always clear. Certainly the Cuban people will resist any effort to reconstruct the island on the pre-1959 model. On the other hand, there are many Cubans who would like an improvement in their standard of living. An example of this problem is that a hotel worker’s salary is greater than the salary of a doctor.
On the other hand, Cuban doctors live in the same community as their patients. I explained to a hotel worker where doctors and their patients in the United States live. Here doctors commonly commute from suburbs to the city and patients also need to commute to see the doctor. The hotel worker I spoke to felt that this system appears to be a bit strange.
As the economy in the United States continues to decline, my opinion is that the Cuban example will become more and more compelling. Why support a political economic system that allows a tiny minority to live in opulence, while the majority struggles to survive? Isn’t it more rational to support a government that dedicates itself to the idea that human needs are more important than profits?