Cuban Revolution: An Revolutionary Example of the Past, Present and Future
A Speech By John Waller
John Waller – coordinator of the Pastors for Peace caravan to Cuba – spoke in Victoria in February after a showing of a film about the work of 1500 Cuban doctors who went to Pakistan immediately after the terrible earthquake in November 2005
I want to firstly say a few things about that film. Before those doctors went to Pakistan, Pakistan was one of the few countries that didn’t have diplomatic relations with Cuba. To some extent Pakistan was towing the American line. Pakistan now has diplomatic relations with Cuba. Because of what those doctors did.
I was in England at the time when the earthquake happened. England has a fairly big Pakistani community, so quite a few Pakistanis were involved in raising money and sending aid to their people back in Pakistan. A few doctors from Britain went to help and there was a lot of publicity in the British press about that, but there was no mention of this, which is typical. When Cuba does something like this in the world the press says nothing. This is part of the blockade, an information blockade. The other thing I want to say about the film is that it referred at one point to the Henry Reeve brigade - that’s what those doctors were known as. The Henry Reeve brigade was formed two months beforehand in specific response to hurricane Katrina. When hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Cuba was ready to send 1500 doctors immediately to help. George Bush turned them down. We know what happened in New Orleans.
Cuba: World Health Power
You’re Canadians; you’ve got a Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a Prime Minister before him, Paul Martin who increasingly talk about turning Canada into a world power. By which they mean a world military power and a world economic power. For 25 years Fidel Castro has talked about turning Cuba into a world health power, the first nation ever in the world to try to be a world health power. There are currently something like 25,000 Cuban doctors elsewhere in the world, most of them in Venezuela. A few thousand other health workers, 10,000 other internationalists; teachers, engineers, economists, and not a single one of them is a soldier. What a contrast between your country and my country and the U.S. that when we go in, supposedly, to help somewhere, we send our military.
I’ll give you a few more examples of Cuba’s role. One of the doctors in the film referred to what happened after hurricane Mitch in 1998. Hurricane Mitch devastated Nicaragua and Honduras, Cuba immediately sent a couple of thousand of doctors to do the same kind of work that you saw in this film. Fidel said this is only the short term, what Central America needs is its own doctors. Well trained doctors and also doctors who are going to be prepared to go to the hardest areas, the poorest locations, the worst hit locations. So Cuba set up what’s called the Latin American Medical School, in Havana. We visit it every year; initially they trained 10,000 young people from all the communities in Latin America, and in particular the poorest communities such as the indigenous communities of Bolivia and Guatemala. In 2000, one of my colleagues, was taking a delegation of U.S. congress members, members of the black caucus, to Cuba and they met with Fidel Castro. One of them from the Mississippi delta said to Fidel Castro “there are parts of my district where there are no doctors because the people are poor and in the U.S. doctors don’t want to work for people who are poor”. So he said “can you send some Cuban doctors to Mississippi?”
Fidel’s response was to say “in principal yes, but probably your government will have an objection. So maybe the best answer is actually that we train people from your community.” So that is when the offer began, to enable young people from the U.S., from poor backgrounds, from Black, Latino, Native American and poor white communities to come to Cuba to train for free to become doctors. Pastors for Peace administers that scheme which now has about 100 young Americans who are doing this. One more example of what Cuba is offering, not just to poor nations, but in this case to the world’s richest nation, that isn’t prepared to train enough doctors of its own.
Another thing I want to mention is Operation Miracle, Cuba has developed a very complex health service that can do operations anywhere in the world. One of the things it is most specialized in has been the removal of cataracts. They have a production line process for the removing of cataracts. And they have provided this service for many years to their own people, and in recent years they have started to provide this service on a mass scale to other people. First to Venezuelans. I think now a quarter of a million Venezuelans have had cataracts removed in Cuba for free. Venezuela paid to get them there, for the flight, Cuba puts them in what were tourist hotels, for a few days while they are waiting, they are operated on within a day and they go back home. These are poor Venezuelans for whom flying in an airplane, staying in a hotel, is something they have never imagined doing. And they are getting their eyesight back. For free.
That program has now been extended to other countries, Bolivia, Panama, many of the Caribbean countries. In principal the offer has been made to U.S. citizens, who can’t afford within the U.S. to have their cataracts removed. Nobody has yet taken up the offer because if they went they would be breaking U.S. law and they would be fined $7,500 dollars by the U.S. government. Lets move on now from health care. Its not just healthcare, Randy spoke earlier about the literacy program. I just want to add in one thing that although most of the work of Cuba has been spreading literacy around the world to other poor countries, it’s not just poor countries. New Zealand’s government has hired Cuban specialists to provide a literacy program for its Maori people.
Cuba Champion of Sustainable Development
And then there is the example of Cuba in agriculture, particularly in organic agriculture. Have any of you seen the film “Power of Community, how Cuba survived peak oil”? It is our world, the economically advanced western world, learning from Cuba about how to undertake organic agriculture, how to develop a country in an environmentally sustainable way.
A few months ago the World Wildlife Fund wrote a report where it said that the only country in the world that has truly sustainable development is Cuba. I want to say a bit more about that report. They measured sustainable development in terms of human development and how you deal with the environment. So because of the human development there are many countries of the advanced world, like the U.S., like Britain, like Canada that are seen as having an advanced level of human development. Based on wealth, based on education, based on healthcare. Cuba is in with them.
Then there is environmental sustainability. We know that the U.S. and Canada, Canada is just as bad as the U.S., have an enormous environmental footprint, as they term it. Our countries waste an awful lot of resources, and consume vast amounts of energy. Most of the countries of the world that consume very little energy are the very poorest countries. But the only country in the world that consumes, relative to its population, very low energy and has a high level of social development is Cuba. The report said that in one line. It said “no country in the world has truly sustainable development, except Cuba”. And said nothing more. Because the World Wildlife Fund was probably thinking of all the money they get from the United States, and they couldn’t alter the facts but they didn’t want to really talk about Cuba as an example, although they had to admit it. One more example of the information blockade, and I could tell many more.
How does the U.S. respond to this? Do they applaud and celebrate? No, they are threatened by this example. Because it highlights what the U.S. does in the world. How with all its wealth it doesn’t aid people. Its usual response to bring peace and development to other countries is to send in the military, and really it is invading other countries to get oil.
Blockade Result of US Fear by Cuban Revolutionary Example
The U.S. for 50 years has been threatened by the Cuban example and has tried to destroy it, tried to overthrow it. But they couldn’t destroy it, so they’ve tried to isolate it, to stop its example from spreading. For 40 years they were quite successful at that, but now with the development of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela that isolation has broken down. Cuba’s example, not an exact copy of Cuba, but Cuba's example, its ideas are spreading to Venezuela, Bolivia, and elsewhere in the Latin American continent. Some of Cuba’s ideas have just spread to some poor people in Pakistan. This makes Cuba even more of a threat. And finally if it couldn’t stop the example from spreading, then the US government is determined to damage Cuba, to weaken it. To make its example less good. To try and make the Cuban people rebel and blame not the U.S. but their own government, to rise up in arms, kick their government out, and if they aren’t going to do that, to leave their country.
The main weapon in the 48 year policy of aggression is a 46 year economic blockade. I haven’t the time to go into all the details of the economic blockade, but I will highlight certain things.
For 46 years there have been restrictions on the U.S. selling anything to Cuba or Cuba selling anything to the U.S... Prior to 1961 90% of Cuba’s trade was with the United States and to lose that was devastating. Canada does 80% of its trade with the U.S.; imagine if overnight Canada couldn’t buy anything or sell anything with the U.S. it would be devastating for your life. Just as it was devastating for the Cuban life. In 1961 when it lost trade with the U.S. they substituted trade with the Soviet Union. Then the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and they lost 90% of their trade once again. And the U.S. moved in for the kill, in 1992, by bringing in laws that meant that it wasn’t just illegal for any U.S. firm to trade with Cuba. Now any subsidiary of any U.S. firm anywhere in the world was banned from trading with Cuba. So up till that point, although Cuba couldn’t buy foodstuffs from Heinz, it could buy foodstuffs from Heinz Canada. And in 1992 that trade was stopped. Cuba lost $750m million worth of imports of food and medicines overnight. That’s one example.
It has had major implications for the supply of medicines. Although Cuba has a remarkable health service in terms of skilled personnel, it needs things, it needs medicines, it needs equipment, it needs supplies. And a lot of that equipment, medicines and supplies come from the advanced world, and they’re expensive. The very fact that Cuba can’t buy from the U.S., it has to buy things from Europe or China, far away, which means they become even more expensive and Cuba can buy less of them. And in the field of medicines, 50% of the worlds medicines, including many of the most modern, advanced and specialist medicines are only produced by U.S. pharmaceutical companies or their subsidiaries. Cuba cannot legally buy them anywhere. I say legally because they have at times obtained things by a back door route, but I want to give an example of how even that sometimes doesn’t work.
In Britain the health workers union UNISON has a lot of links to its sister union in Cuba. On one occasion the Cuban health workers union requested UNISON in Britain - we need urgently a certain specialist medicine, can you buy it for us from a U.S. subsidiary in Britain?. The union went to do that but they knew they might be asked why the union was buying medicine. So they said “ok we will pretend that we are donating this medicine to a project we are supporting in Honduras”. They went to the pharmaceutical company, the pharmaceutical company smelt a rat and basically said “we want the evidence, we want to talk to the doctors in Honduras who are going to use this medicine, we want the names of the patients in Honduras, and if you don’t give us this then we won’t sell it to you”. Because U.S. pharmaceutical companies are on alert. They are looking out for people who are trying to buy medicines from them for Cuba.
One final example of the way the blockade works, which is a Canadian example. Cuba needs water purification supplies. For Cuba in general but specifically for its hospitals because pure water in hospitals is crucial. Cuba was buying water purification supplies from a small company in Ontario, a small businessman called James Sabzali. His company was taken over by a U.S. company, but he carried on selling supplies to Cuba. He was doing business but he was being naïve. He thought he was legal. The U.S. multi national didn’t pick up on what he was doing. He was promoted to head office in Philadelphia; new life, better wage. He goes to Philadelphia and a few days later he’s arrested because the U.S. treasury knew what he was doing and as far as they were concerned what he was doing was illegal under U.S. laws, even though it is perfectly legal in Canada. The Canadian government made a very token protest about it but really abandoned him. Basically after a lot of publicity and several years of house arrest he was let go free pleading guilty to a minor charge. Just examples of the insidious way the blockade on Cuba works.
Pastor for Peace Caravan to Cuba
My organization Pastors for Peace, comes out of the tradition of the U.S. civil rights movement and the thinking of people like Martin Luther King, the idea that when black people in southern USA couldn’t sit in certain seats reserved for whites, they sat in them and said “we are not moving”. Pastors for Peace director Lucius Walker is a Baptist pastor, a contemporary of Martin. Since 1992 we have taken aid to Cuba and people to Cuba from the U.S. That’s illegal without explicit U.S. government permission. And we are saying to the U.S.; we are not obeying your law, we are obeying our humanity, our values or as Lucius Walker would say, we are obeying a higher authority. And we go to Cuba and we say; what are you going to do about it, U.S. government? We first went in 1992, very respectable, only taking medicines and bibles. And literally priests and pastors were arrested at the U.S. border for trying to take bibles to Cuba. And were very quickly released because it was creating a lot of good publicity, or bad publicity for them.
In 1993 we came back again, and this time with some Canadian support, and it came from Goods for Cuba here in Victoria. In 1993 we were taking a little yellow school bus to Cuba. The U.S. government said “you can’t take this yellow school bus to Cuba, it could be used as a military vehicle, to attack the United States” They literally said that. People on board said “we are not getting off until this bus goes to Cuba”. It was taken to a customs compound and they went on a hunger strike for 23 days, there was a sympathy hunger strike in Cuba and then Clinton once again backed down and let it go.
1996 they stopped us again, they seized a consignment of old computers, they were already 7 years old in 1996, this was pre-windows. They were going to be used to run an email network in the Cuban health service. They seized them again saying “these computers could be used to fire missiles at the United States”. You laugh, and it is laughable, but they really do say this. So 5 members of the caravan, including Lucis Walker went on a hunger strike, just taking honey and water, for 90 days. Which is very serious, close to irreversible body damage. They took the hunger strike to D.C. to a Methodist Church very close to the White House. They put tents on the lawn and went on a hunger strike and they started lobbying Congress. And for the first time some members of congress, mainly black congressional members, started saying “this is crazy, we should not carry on with this policy”. 60 members of congress signed the letter to Clinton saying let the computers go, and after 90 days he did.
Clinton and Bush, Same Policy , Different Face
After that for many years Clinton and Bush adopted a different tactic, to deny us publicity, they said “ok we know you are breaking the law, but you can break it and we’re not going to stop you”. In the last couple of years Bush has started to move to a harder position. In 2005 they seized some of the computers we were trying to take. We made a long protest, while the rest of the aid went. Eventually those computers were released, some we donated to reconstruction in New Orleans the rest we took last year. Last year they didn’t try to stop us. They are always thinking, what is the publicity going to be like if we try to stop this from going?
In the last 3 years they have been trying to take action against individual caravanistas. The U.S. caravanistas are the ones who are breaking the law. Every year for the past 3 years when we have returned they have tried to interrogate those individuals, demand that they fill in long questionnaires that would be self incriminating, and when they refuse and assert their rights under the U.S. constitution they send them the same questionnaire and a letter threatening a fine of $7,500 dollars. People continue to refuse. Once again they have backed off. We can’t be sure that that will remain the case, but for now they have not dared prosecute any of our caravanistas, because of the publicity it will create.
In July of 2006 we were there in Cuba and the Bush government released another report from “the commission for assistance to a free Cuba”, version 2. It was more dirty tricks, more money to the Miami Cuban Mafia, more money to dissidents in Cuba, more money to Radio and TV Marti which is basically a US military plane flying around Cuba trying to beam in radio and TV signals. Not TV and radio that’s heard in the U.S., it’s not for a U.S. audience, it’s for a Cuban audience. In fact it’s totally illegal under international law and they try and beam it in but Cuba blocks the transmissions. They are trying to generate dissidence and subversion in Cuba. It is completely explicit what they are trying to do, but there is also in this report a secret annex and when this report was publicized a White House spokesperson was asked “what’s in the secret annex?” and of course the White House spokesperson said “it’s a secret, we’re not telling you”. We can only speculate, is it a plan for a military invasion? Is it there to make people think it could be a plan for invasion to frighten people? We don’t know.
What we do know is that Florida is 90 miles from Cuba. The flight time for a cruise missile from Florida to Cuba is about 3 minutes. It would be very easy to bring, what Donald Rumsfield said, “Shock and awe” to Cuba. It’s not so easy for them, as they discovered in Iraq, to subdue a people, to take over a country. I’m sure if George Bush was to ask the saner of his generals “how many troops do we need to take on Cuba?” Well I guess they might say 250,000. And they haven’t got them at the moment. So we are not predicting an invasion of Cuba in the foreseeable future. But we have to be aware that in their dreams, in their fantasies, this is what they would like to do. .
Their dream has become that after Fidel everything will collapse. I was back in England when it was announced that Fidel was stepping down temporarily. That night the BBC was speculating - will shops be open the next morning? Will the people rise up in the streets? Will they get in boats to go to Florida? And I knew it was all nonsense. 6 months on they are saying “ah well when he actually dies, that is when it will happen”. I have this image of tens of thousands of Cubans with boats in their back yards, turning the radio on every day saying “is he dead yet?” More nonsense.
I’m not going to say a lot about Fidel because I’m sure that some of you are going to ask me what happens after Fidel. But I will say that all the evidence is that after a difficult operation, probably where he had part of his intestines removed, and a difficult recovery, he is improving. Is he going to come back to be president? Well he is not going to come back to be president as in the past, he’s not going to be the workaholic again, his doctors wont let him. He could come back to be president but in a less demanding schedule, he could come back to be the advisor behind the scenes, because I’m sure that for as long as Fidel Castro lives his brain, his strategic wisdom, is going to be available to the Cuban revolution, the Cuban government and to anyone else who wants to listen. Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales certainly do. He may die this year, he is 80 years old, he will die sometime.
Cuba faces many economic challenges. It’s not totally due to the blockade, but a big part is because of the blockade. But that’s the challenge for the current and future Cuban government and the Cuban people. I have the confidence that they can handle that, if they are left alone to their own devices. And it’s our role in the solidarity movement to stop the United States prevailing in whatever way they try, particularly if they dare think of an invasion.
And we think that little by little there will be a change in the mood in the U.S. Congress, mainly because of the resilience and the strength of the Cuban people and the Cuban revolution. They have been trying to overthrow the revolution for 48 years and they have failed. More and more they recognize that.
For many members of congress are starting to say Fidel’s handed over power and nothing has happened, our policies are not working, what do we do? Some people in congress who represent farming states, or who are linked to the oil industry or the tourist industry or the pharmaceutical industry are saying “other people are doing business with Cuba, so should we – lets make some profits now”. That’s an important lobby in congress because money talks in congress. One of the congressional leaders making the moves to get the blockade lifted or partly lifted is a man named Jeff Blake from Arizona. He argues explicitly that the way to overthrow the Cuban revolution is to hug it to death with love. We think he’s wrong, George Bush thinks he’s wrong - that’s why the U.S. government has never adopted that policy. But if he is going to vote to end the blockade for that reason then I welcome his vote. There are other members in congress who, without his conviction, are thinking that the blockade policy isn’t working so we have to do something different. There well may be a vote in congress this year in favor of lifting the travel ban. Bush we can expect to veto it. So we are not expecting any immediate change, certainly not until 2009 and we don’t know even then.
Join Caravan to Cuba: We Must Work and Fight
But the pressure is building, we carry on doing what we do with the caravan, with a very clear policy of we want the total lifting of the blockade, we want it unconditionally and we want it now! We call this a People to People foreign policy. But we welcome any move within congress that is unconditional, that partially moves in that direction. So we are encouraging our supporters to lobby their congressional representatives, as we say that it helps keep Bush on the defensive at a time when he wants to be making the case for an intervention in Cuba at some point.
We are preparing for our next caravan. In the July 2006 report it said that the people who organize travel to Cuba, not the people who participate, but the people who organize it, could now be subject to criminal charges. They haven’t done anything about that yet, we’re not expecting them to. But they are making the threat. It also said that they have had enough of aid being sent to Cuban churches. There used to be some travel between U.S. churches and Cuban churches and they have largely eliminated that. We take aid which is distributed by an ecumenical distribution committee. Which goes to hospitals, health clinics and schools but the church groups distribute it. And they say in their report that they are going to stop that kind of aid. Whether or not they are going to try this year and stop all the aid, just some of the aid, or once again just let us go, we don’t know. We plan for every possibility. If we make it through we say we have broken the blockade, and if they try and stop us we make a lot of publicity. Either way we are going to win.
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