|letter from Pat Wynne:
Eight members of the Freedom Song Network went to Cuba as part of a delegation from the US/Cuba Labor Exchange. It was a trip fully hosted by the CTC (Confederation of Cuban Workers) in order to observe the 18th Cuban Congress. I also wanted to participate in a May Day celebration in which police were not standing by with tear gas, clubs and bullets. I wanted to be part of a real May Day Celebration. I was not disappointed.
We flew by way of Mexico City and all of us arrived at different times from April 24-28. We stayed at the Hotel Girasol, which is owned by the CTC, the Cuban equivalent of our AFL/CIO.
Since our last trip in 1995, a lot had changed. UNESCO had financed the renovation of Havana Viejo (Old Havana). Cuban residents of these buildings were trained in the many construction crafts and were not evicted when the job was done. Our hotel has also been redone sporting clean black and white tile floors and white repainted wall. Every room had a TV and air conditioner as well. We didn't always have hot water or water at all but it was very comfortable. We got breakfast and dinner as part of our package and the food was good. The hotel workers were very carinosa.
There was always a doctor and nurse on call at the hotel and we got free consultations and drugs. I was overwhelmed by this. We all became very fond of Nurse Dora, who wore her revolutionary medals proudly.
On my first day in Havana, Liliana and I took a bicycle taxi ride around old Havana. Our driver, Jose, pedaled for at least 2 hours and told us about every place we passed. He took us to his house and we waved at his mother. We didn't take him up on his invitation to visit their apartment as his mother had not had any warning in advance. Given the Cuban's generous spirit I'm sure she would have welcomed us warmly.
Jose had a dream. He wanted to go and live with his cousin in Las Vegas, Nevada. "Las Vegas", I cried. "Why do you want to go there?" He felt he could get a job and do well. I said," You may make money but you won't find much heart in Las Vegas, Nevada. Just remember that". Isn't life weird. I go to Cuba to be inspired. To be in a society that prioritizes its people - it's children, education, social services, healthcare - and the culture - the music, poetry, dance, art - and here is Jose wanting to move to one of the worst manifestations of our capitalist system. Go understand it!!!!
The FSN had a wonderful reunion with our translator from our 1995 trip, Eddie Brown. Eddie is a dark skinned Cuban. He was a great resource on our last trip. Now in 2001, he seemed more optimistic about the economic picture in Cuba yet he realistically framed the vast difficulties of maintaining this temporary dual peso/dollar economy. On the plus side, dollars of tourists and investors have jump started the Cuban economy. This has meant more money for improving the infra-structure-roads telephones, electricity and also building more houses. When Cuba lost 85% of its economy in the early 90s when the Soviet Union went down, it had never cut back on free education, free medical care, social services and its whole hearted support of culture and cultural workers. Now in old Havana in every restaurant there are musical bands. There is music everywhere and that means jobs for musicians all of whom have been rigorously trained and licensed.
On the side of this dual economy is the fact that those who work for pesos (20 pesos to the dollar) are still making very small salaries. When they contrast that salary with the workers who work in the tourist industry and who are regularly receiving dollars in tips, the contrast can make one feel very demoralized. The Cuban people were consulted about this change and they voted to accept a dual economy. Some of the people working for pesos are the most educated teachers and doctors. They were awarded an increase in salary but their salaries cannot compete with that of waiters, maids, taxi drivers and other hotel workers.
When I say the people were consulted, I mean to describe a very democratic
system that operates from the grass roots up. Cuba is a participatory society.
98% of workers are in labor unions. The District revolutionary councils
are in every neighborhood. All decisions are made on the grass roots level
and then filtered up to the National ministers, The Cubans rejected an
income tax for workers who earn pesos but did approve one for those who
benefit from the dollar economy. There are dollar restaurants and stores
which the average Cuban could never afford to eat or shop in. There are
many things they cannot buy. The government has been trying to make more
things available to the peso wage earners. More restaurants and stores
have been opened which take pesos to try and equalize this discrepancy.
As a result of these discrepancies there have been instances of crime.
There is recognition of the economic equalities, the marginalization of
the poor and their lack of resources. A new brigade of several hundred
social workers has been created. They go to poor, mostly black neighborhoods
to tell people about their entitlements regarding truancy, alcoholism and
We cultural workers had an experience which exemplified for us the participatory nature of the Cuban society. Our Freedom Song Network contingent went down to Cuba to sing, as well as to listen and learn. We sang for Steel Workers and for the president of the CTC, Pedro Ross as well as its highest National delegates. We attended the 18th Cuban Congress as observers were asked to sing during the lunch break.
First we sang for the foreign delegates in the dining hall and that went well although we had no amplification. Then we started to sing in the giant lobby outside the Congress Hall. Once again we had no amplification, but as the Cuban delegates came up from lunch they made a large circle around us. Alex Bagwell began singing, "Soon and Very Soon we are Going to Change this World." We all joined in. Their smiling faces encouraged us to continue. We sang "Under My Feet", stamping our feet for emphasis - "Went down to the rich man's house and took back what he stole from me" They were a great audience. We sang, "We Shall Not Be Moved" with a chorus in Spanish "No No No Nos Moveron", the delegates all joined in. They sang with great spirit. We continued with De Colores and they joined in on that. Dave Welsh sang Rockin' Solidarity and we were all singing "Solidaridad por siempre". The place was rockin'. Then a grey haired man stepped up to us and started leading "Guantanamera" and then "Cuba Que Lindes Cuba" and we sang along. Then they started to chant and started another song, and started dancing and our circle became a writhing, whirling eddy of singing dancing bodies. We were swept up in the most euphoric spirit I have ever experienced. Those delegates sang and danced right back into the conference hall taking Andrea Joyce with them. She had to extricate herself because we were not allowed in there. (We watched the congress on closed circuit TV.)
We were stunned for a long time. We had been the catalyst for a great outpouring of music and emotion. I have rarely felt this degree of elation in my life. We had participated in a truly magic moment - a Cuban moment.
We came back to the conference hall that evening to observe the ending of the 18th Congress. First they installed the elected officers to the CTC National Committee. Pedro Ross was re-elected President. At the end, Fidel Castro spoke. He spoke a lot about the history of the Cuban revolution and about democracy in Cuba. Responding to the many attacks against him which talk about Cuba as a dictatorship, he said that the dictatorship of the proletariat exists in revolutionary situations where the revolution is approved by only 20% of the population. However, in Cuba, the revolution was approved by 80% of the population. A dictatorship implies a small elite group in control. In Cuba that is not the situation, Perhaps they should call it something different like "the people in charge" or something similar. He spoke for 2-1/2 hours, standing up the whole time. I understand that on another day of the Congress he spoke for 7 hours. He writes his own speeches, speaks contemporaneously, and digresses like mad. At the end of it we realized it had been an incredible experience. He is truly a wonderful teacher. He neither speaks like an intellectual nor does he speak down to people. He is an avuncular presence and really wants you to understand what he is saying. We went back to the hotel floating on air.
At the Congress, delegates from all over the world had a chance to hear from the ministers about the accomplishments of the last 5 years and also report and vote on other issues close to their lives and hearts. Women received paid maternity leave for a whole year. A retired can cutter complained that his fellow workers were not receiving pensions. A minister said, "All workers have pensions". A problem was revealed and worked on.
Cuba has the highest literacy rate in all Latin America. Cubans are educated and are great problem solvers. There are no illegitimate children in Cuba. All children are valued equally. They are not afraid to tackle the hard problems like racism, sexism and homophobia. They have made great strides. Cuba is not perfect but they continue to work on their problems. As we walked around, we observed that there were more buses running and more cars on the streets. They have more gasoline and new imported cars - not just the 1950; American cars we had observed in 1995.
At the beach resort of Varadero, I had a room with a balcony overlooking the ocean in our 5 star hotel for $80.00 per night (a Double was $105.) The warm ocean was 4 colors of blue green. I was in heaven and recommend it to everyone. In the evening we took a horse and buggy to a restaurant specializing in crocodile. John and Alex tried it and liked it. Had the consistency of beef they said. I passed but I'm glad they were happy.
A visit to Cuba is like a trip to another planet. All the government's and societies priorities and values are opposite to those in the U.S. As I return to business usual, I think about that worker's society that loves their children and education; provides free medical care, affordable housing and social services; cares about and support sculture and cultural workers and oh the culture! The music and art are everywhere.
I think about the delegates of the 18th Congress - so many women and
dark skinned people. I think about those children reciting poetry, dancing,
marching and singing the praises of their land on May Day. I remember being
carried away in the crown of dancing and singing delegates - and in the
crowd of 600,000 marchers on May Day. With all their economic hardships
they do not lose heart or generosity of spirit. Viva Cuba! Si se puede!