Volume 2, No. 3, March 2020
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Archishman Raju and Nandita Chaturvedi
It seems to be dangerous to write about a country that you have visited for only a few days and don’t speak the language of. Too often this becomes merely an exercise in arrogance. And when the country has been under such intense examination by friends and enemies alike, the task is made even more difficult. What could you possibly find that has not been found a thousand times over already?
And yet we are helped by the fact that the world is constantly changing and your impressions of a place are invariably shaped by your point of view. We also write as representatives of a certain generation that is repulsed by the injustice in the world around us and yet does not quite consciously know how a more humane future can be built. We hence write in the hope that this effort may not be entirely futile.
Our first sight of Havana was the small blue airport building, quite unassuming and reminiscent of a small town in India. Our hearts welled up on seeing this – was this the airport that had dispatched the courageous volunteers, doctors and soldiers to countries in Africa and Asia? It moved us to get our first glimpse of that singular characteristic that seems to define Cubans – the upholding of great moral principles, doing much for humanity, with so very little.
On entering the airport, we met with a surprise: practically every official we encountered, from the immigration officer, to the guards to the health officers, was a young woman. This is surely unusual but bespeaks a larger truth: the Cuban revolution has contributed marvellously to gender equality, and women are given a place in employment created by the state. It is the children, the women and the old who benefit most from a society that is not based on profit.
When the first Algerian Prime Minister Ben Bella had visited Cuba after his trip to the US, he had said, “With what delight we immersed ourselves, as soon as we had boarded the plane, in the warmth of the Cubans. We had just sat down when they served us an excellent cafecito, very strong, very sweet, very fragrant, which was a welcome change from the pale brew they call coffee in the US.” These words capture the warmth one feels on a trip to Cuba and we were treated many times to this very cafecito that he spoke of.
Cuban society today
A person who knew nothing about Cuban history and was to visit the country, could easily miss the fact that Fidel has played a role in the country’s history at all. Pictures and monuments are dedicated to Maceo, Marti, Che and Camillo, but there is no public display of Fidel. This is to respect Fidel’s wish that “once dead, his name and likeness would never be used on institutions, streets, parks or other public sites, and that busts, statues or other forms of tribute would never be erected”. This remarkable self-effacement, comparable to great religious leaders of the past like the Buddha, has been respected in Cuba.
One of the most striking things about our visit was the absence of beggars or homelessness or the huge inequality that has become the hallmark of capitalist societies. Everyone in Cuba looks well nourished, and healthy. There are no obese people, like is common in the US, or malnourishment like is common in India. Even the men driving cycle rickshaws look muscular and healthy, and we were astonished at the contrast with the poor who drive cycle rickshaws in India.
There are no consumer advertisements in Cuba. The Cuban people have made the choice not to accept the products of industry from the west on the west’s terms. They have a relatively poor society, with not much consumer products in the market. It is easy to see how the sanctions have affected the Cuban people – in our five days there we saw a very small variety of vegetables on restaurant menus, and in the market. But in this exchange, they have kept something much more important – their principles. This has produced a people that are resilient, healthy, educated and not dependent on anyone for their survival. In a sense, they have really created a society for the child. Each child has adequate food, education, and time to play without worry. They have chosen their children over their bank accounts.
We were fortunate to visit during Havana’s international book fair. People surged into the book fair in droves, with buses full of people coming one after another the entire day. The main fair was set up in a fort that was used to keep prisoners during the Batista regime, and then for the trials of the revolutionary courts. To see such a sombre place transformed into a home for books, and where children, yelling, crying, laughing and playing, flooded the pathways was a remarkable sight. There were many book stalls for children, with books on Gandhi, Einstein, Lincoln, and other world figures.
The people in attendance looked like the ordinary working citizens of Havana, and having travelled from the US, we were struck by the number of Afro-Cubans in the crowd. Outside the fort a makeshift market with all kinds of food and drink stalls had sprung up. Stalls sold Cuban pastries, coconut-water, hats, balloons. This year, Cuba has made Vietnam a special guest and is celebrating 60 years of its relationship with Vietnam. We were told that the book fair was the most popular yearly event in Havana. The people of Cuba are clearly an educated people – they understand the value of the education of their children, and the importance of ideas.
Cuba’s education system has been a marvel. Cuba provides free education to all its citizens. It hosts students and provides scholarships to students from countries around the world, but particularly from poorer countries. We met over lunch an Angolan student studying law at the University of Havana. He spoke no English and we spoke neither Spanish nor Portuguese, and yet we talked with the help of an automatic translator. We told him we admired Agostinho Neto and Amilcar Cabral. He was impressed and in turn told us that who he admired most was Mahatma Gandhi. A connection was established very easily based on a shared history.
Cuba’s role in Africa in general and Angola in particular was truly extraordinary. The Angolans, fighting for their independence, were attacked by apartheid South Africa. The South Africans sent white mercenaries, backed unsurprisingly by the US, who lynched and tortured black Africans. Cuba sent more than 30,000 troops into Angola and broke the back of the racist South African army. This played a significant role in the end of apartheid in South Africa. The early expeditions in the Congo were led by Che and saw a big participation of the Afro-Cubans. Cuba would help many countries and liberation struggles in Africa in different ways ranging from military aid to doctors and teachers.
However it was in Angola that Cuba made the greatest contribution and sacrifice. Fidel would later say: “Because together, I repeat, we wrote one of the most beautiful pages of internationalism. I try to remember whether in the history of humanity there has been any other similar page, and I cannot find one.”
On our Sunday in Cuba, we visited the closest beach to Havana, Santa Maria del Mar. There is an affordable, well maintained bus that drives there every 40 minutes from the centre of Havana. The beach was beautiful, the sea was full of strong waves and one of the saltiest we have been in. The sands were clean, there was little trash and a security man patrolled the beach, not protecting the property from the people, but the people themselves.
We were moved once again, to see ordinary people be able to spend their time in the luxury of this beach. Children ran back and forth on the sand, and a rumba beat played in the distance. Before the revolution, this beach was probably one in the string of private beaches in Cuba that made it the playground of the US elite. We remembered the scenes of decadence that we had read described in descriptions of pre-revolutionary Cuba – prostitution, gambling, drugs, and whatever else the US rich fancied. Now, this beauty and nature are open and maintained for the people.
Cuba: a centre of culture
Cuba has been transformed into a centre for culture in Latin America. The art is quite uniquely Cuban but derives from a variety of influences, among which Soviet, African and Mexican could immediately be seen. A refreshing change from the post-modernist and hopelessly abstract art that adorns galleries in New York, the art continues to try to convey a message and serve a purpose. The art of Servando Moreno stood out for us, particularly his Los heros bajo el sol (The heroes under the sun) and Milicias Campesinas (peasant militias). Some of the art explores much longer history. One art exhibition we saw at The National Museum of Fine Arts tried to examine the long history of Cuba, titled the “Isle of Sugar”.
Wifredo Lam, Cañas, 1955
Walking around Havana, you can see different centres for education for the masses of people. We came across an ornithology centre, a centre for Simon Bolivar and a centre for Victor Hugo on our walks. Most of these centres are either free or heavily subsidised for Cuban residents. Their availability to the people is in contrast with the grand Spanish colonial architecture that houses them. In no other society have we seen the beauty of such art and architecture made available for the people. In other places, we saw grand old Spanish mansions that housed schools. We looked on in awe as the sounds of children rang out in the high ceilinged hallways, and men and women bustled around in front of the ornately decorated walls to pick up their children.
Havana is a city full of music. Walking on the streets at night on a weekend, one house on each block plays music with the identifiable rumba beat. This beat points to the African roots of much of Cuban music and dance. It is yet possible to hear some bebop Jazz in Cuba and we were treated on one occasion to a Cuban saxophonist playing Clifford Brown’s version of Cherokee.
It seemed to us as if the street was part of the household in Havana, with each home spilling out into the community. Almost all doors seemed to be open at all times, and you could peek at people going about their daily routine through the windows – brushing their teeth, watching TV, a group of older women sitting down for a conversation, someone cooking. There are people standing around always on the street talking, and children playing unsupervised.
In the evenings, people sit on the embankments of the Malecon, enjoying the sea breeze and listening to the sounds of the ocean. Older cars whiz past on the accompanying highway, but their sounds are comforting, unlike the aggressive highways of the US. Sometimes a hawker comes by, offering peanuts to young couples.
We also had the privilege of seeing the Cuban National Ballet perform. The Cuban ballet is one of the best in the world. Ballet is an art form that originated in Italy and is hence part of the classical European tradition. The Cuban school has its own uniqueness, which derives from Spanish and African influences and from the unique personalities who shaped it. It received great support from the revolutionary government.
The ballet performance we witnessed was dedicated to the great Alicia Alonso. She was to found the Cuban School of Ballet in 1948 after having received her training first in Cuba and then in the US. On the advent of the revolution she was, in her own words, “offered a blank cheque’ by the US to defect from the revolution and come to the US. She informed the Americans that not everything could be bought for money and certainly not her principles, a devotion to Cuba and all of humanity.
Alicia Alonso was to perform in India on the celebration of the 100th centenary of Rabindranath Tagore in 1961. Her performance took place on a makeshift stage and organisers worried that the quality of the stage was unsuitable for her performance and the Indian crowd unused to ballet. However, she not only performed but received a standing ovation on the conclusion of her dance. Alicia Alonso danced all her life even though an injury in the early stages of her career left her practically blind. She passed away recently and the ballet theatre is named in her honour.
The theme of the first performance was her training of the young, and giving the wisdom of her experience and training to a new generation so they may carry to greater heights what she had started. This theme stretched from the Ballet performance to the question that stands before Cuban society today.
Coming out of the special period: a history of Cuba
This year Havana is celebrating its 500th year. The history of Havana is inextricably linked to the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the “new world” and the Caribbean in particular. Cuba was to Spain what Haiti was to France, “an isle of sugar”. African slaves were brought into Cuba to set up plantations by the Spaniards. The Haitian revolution in the late 18th century led by Toussaint Louverture greatly worried the Spaniards about the fate of Cuba but they hoped to replace Haiti as the centre of the sugar empire.
Jacob Lawrence, ‘The Opener’
And yet this was the same period in which the Venezuelan Simon Bolivar led the first conscious nationalist revolt against Spain from inside Latin America. On being exiled, Bolivar was to find protection and arms in the newly independent Haitian republic under its then president Alexandre Petion and he was to never forget the magnanimity of the Haitians. This link between Bolivar and Toussaint, the nationalist sentiment of Latin America in which white and black participated alike and the revolt of plantation labour in Haiti, plays an important role in understanding Cuba.
The first Cuban nationalist sentiment was expressed by Carlos Cespedes in 1868 who freed his slaves and declared war against the Spaniards. Of particular note in the eventual wars of independence against Spain were the efforts of “The Titan”, a black man, Antonio Maceo, whose guerilla army was to find victory against the better armed Spaniards. Fidel was to refer to Maceo many times saying on one occasion that it was Maceo, the most courageous combatant of our independence, who taught us: “He who tries to take over Cuba will see the dust of its soil drenched in blood, if he doesn’t perish in the attempt.” It was to “The Apostle”, Jose Marti, and “The Titan”, Antonio Maceo, that the Cuban revolutionaries looked for inspiration.
‘Planning the Cuban revolution in New York’
Jose Marti is a national hero in Cuba and an extraordinary poet. He lived in New York in exile for several years of his life and got an opportunity to see the reality of North American society, which he would warn was not worth emulating. He would say that “this great land is devoid of spirit”, warning against a society whose defining purpose would be the pursuit of wealth.
It is in this tradition, along with that of Marx and Lenin, that emerged the great Cuban leadership of the revolution in 1959. We met an old member of the Communist Party, Jose Altshuler, who was about 30 years old at the time of the revolution. He told us of the many sacrifices that went into it. What he emphasised was the character of the Cuban leadership, who forever would aim to be truthful, to partake and become close to the ordinary masses of people and commit themselves to a life of sacrifice. This leadership was inspired by the people and in turn inspired them to commit greater and higher revolutionary tasks.
As one young Cuban told us, the youth of Cuba know hardship, for they have been born into the special period that commenced after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which devastated the Cuban economy. It is they who will have to understand the extraordinary importance of Cuba.
Though the term means something specific in Cuba, in a sense young people around the world have been born in a special period after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the assertion of US dominance of the world, which meant that you were inevitably exposed to a certain narrative.
This narrative was essentially an extension of McCarthyism in the US and it asserted that socialism was authoritarian, inefficient and corrupt, while the future of the world was in the twin poles of liberal democracy and capitalism. Even those who had been erstwhile members of the world communist movement or had sympathy with it were more interested in the faults and failures than the actual achievements of socialist societies.
It was in this period that Fidel was to affirm that the correctness of a path is not decided by its success or failure. He asked us to have a sense of morality beyond the simple logic of power and politics. His words take on a special meaning today as the imperial world order is slowly unravelling. We must be able to imagine a more just society in the future. The future however, cannot be built without an understanding of the past, and a study of Cuba with unprejudiced eyes has much to teach the young about the choices that a society can make.
Cuban society has challenges in the future. It will have to deal with the sceptics and the entrepreneurs. But history must mark the extraordinary role that Cuba has played in the world in the 20th century. The people of this small island nation have made a tremendous contribution to humanity, and particularly to that basic majority, which is yellow, brown and black.
Courtesy The Citizen