One mans perspective on Cuba today.
‘If a person leaves their country looking for work this is called emigration, if young people travel in search of adventure it’s called backpacking, but when anyone leaves Cuba for any reason, according to the world’s media and television they ‘flee’ or even ‘flee the Castro regime’ So noted Jose Israel Rodriguez Martinez a community development worker from central Havana who spent last week in Galway as the guest of the Galway One World Centre. Jose was invited to Galway to address the ‘Developments Futures’ conference in National University of Ireland Galway last weekend.
During Jose’s visit we had the chance to enquire into the realities of daily life in urban Cuba .In order to offer his personal perspective as an addition or an alternative to more customary sources of information some of the points discussed by Jose are reported here
First of all to locate Jose on the political spectrum he is a committed socialist but maintains that ‘Cuba is not a perfect society- it was made by men and women and men and women are not perfect’. In a description of his position in relation to his work he notes that he is employed by the Government to work for the people.
He is the coordinator of a community centre that has been in operation for over twenty years. Jose interestingly explained to us how, in order to have effect in Havana community development has to operate on three levels- relationships, buildings and activities- this is a much wider scope than the area of work defined as community development in Ireland. Some of the peculiarities of the Cuban system of government and the effects of over forty years of trade sanctions explain the need for this holistic approach.
The centre that Jose manages is situated in a barrio called La Ceiba. La Ceiba has a population of about 8,800 people living there legally and a further 2-3,000 ‘illegals’. These illegals are not emigrants from other countries in fact they are Cubans from rural areas who have migrated to the cities in search of more modern lifestyles than those available in the countryside. The Cuban education system is both free and of a high standard so many rural young people attend universities or vocational training in the urban centres. Jose notes that they are often reluctant to return to their rural homes. The government has invested heavily in projects and co-operatives in the countryside in attempt both to prevent this rural depopulation and to maintain food production at high levels. The backbreaking severity of farm life without tractors or oil-powered technology has meant that their attempts have failed to prevent the influx into the urban areas.
These illegals have difficulty accessing services or obtaining their ‘social welfare’ and therefore mostly work in the black market. In Jose’s area these illegals have exacerbated the overcrowding, which was already causing problems in many families and communities. The crumbling buildings in these barrios demonstrate the high price that years of sanctions have exacted from the people of Cuba. According to our guest, during the 1990’s the collapse of the Russian economy resulted in a huge drop in the amount of aid and material sent to Cuba from there. Resultantly it proved difficult and expensive to obtain building materials and many homes fell into states of disrepair. A high birth rate was exacerbated by the difficulty in obtaining contraceptives due to the sanctions and this combined with the influx of so-called illegals caused severe overcrowding in the barrios of Havana.
The symptoms of these problems are ones that are familiar to us here in Ireland, alcoholism, violence in the home, unemployment and poverty. Jose describes the function of his centre as one of gaining the approval and therefore the finance and permission from the government for various groups to create projects designed to better their situations. Some of those he described include development of state run pizzerias where families or friends could socialise and escape the overcrowding. Others included a highly professional animated musical film designed to instil contempt for violence in the children at who it is aimed. Repair work to buildings is organised by his organisation also, though in this work they are limited by having to use only official workers when many of those skilled in such work prefer to work on the black market. The black market in Cuba, according to our friend, simultaneously undermines the Cuban economy and makes life possible and more comfortable for Cubans.
Much of the work done at the centre would fall under the remit of social work or health in the Irish context, indeed as described by Jose the centre also fulfils the role of Citizens information provider. He wryly states that in Cuba they have laws for everything and for disaffected people to find their way through the bureaucracy can be a monstrous task. In comparison to here however there is a high literacy rate(99%), which at least minimises one obstacle for those accessing services. In conversation Jose only commented in passing on the health service, which in Cuba is famously free, functioning and able to export medical staff to countries where they are needed. This however proved to be because he takes such a service for granted as a basic task of government.
Jose is sure that the gap between rich and poor less severe in Cuba than in Western Europe or Russia where he has also spent time although he maintains that even in Cuba the gap is growing. On some more general points of interest Jose noted that the price of clothes here is a fraction of the cost in Cuba. He did say however that shops such as Bennetton and Addidas have opened in Cuba but they only sell their wares in dollars. Some professions in Cuba legally receive their salaries in dollars and José believes this is a contributing factor to the growing income disparity.
Regarding censorship and access to information Jose made some interesting remarks, he was quite critical of Castro and displayed no worries regarding having his criticisms recorded and posted on the Internet. He contradicted some of the current rhetoric about Fidel’s brother and likely successor Raoul Castro; recently it has been reported that Raoul is open to investment and capitalism and that change is likely once Fidel’s tenure is over. Jose thinks this is totally untrue; that Raoul is more socialist than Fidel. He does not dispute however that capitalism is on its way and he notes that there is already huge foreign investment in Cuba.He considers this an unappealing prospect he perceives the problems with the Cuban economy to result more from sanctions than socialism.
Jose detailed how the country is prevented by the sanctions from having free access to the networks necessary for internet access- for example he has the facility to send and receive e-mails but not surf the net –this he stressed though is not censorship but a method of preserving the access to the internet and indeed the use of electricity for the most important uses. In Cuba mobile phones are available but ‘credit’ can also only be purchased in dollars so they are not common.
Jose was horrified to read that the USA uses Irish airports to send troops to Iraq and he noted that he believes that the US military base in Guantanamo is most likely to be used as a deterrent or threat against other socialist regimes in the area. In the scenario he depicted the Cubans might again become pawns in a game between two much stronger powers. He remarked that many documented arrests and tortures of Cubans who live on the demarcation line have happened over the years and as a result a volunteer army of women now patrol the Cuban side of the zone.
Notwithstanding the lack of easy access to the Internet he recommended the following website http://cubasi.cu/ as a source of information on all things Cuba.