On November 17th 2005, President Fidel Castro pronounced a dramatic speech at the University of Havana, in which he pointed out that the Revolution could not be defeated from abroad, but the people in Cuba could, if measures were not implemented to correct failures, shortcomings and corruption that had encroached into the process and became part of many of the government apparatus. He further said Revolution is precisely that, the ability to “Change Everything that must be changed”.
Shortly after, he suffered a severe intestinal ailment that led him to relinquish his post and transfer authority to his brother Army General Raul Castro. During the 26 of July commemoration in Bayamo this year, Raul reiterated his frustration with widespread apathy, administrative mismanagement and hinted to the need of opening a profound dialogue among the population, to search for and find structural solutions for these entrenched problems.
Propelled by a plethora of news, rumors and speculations following these important developments, I embarked on a visit through the Caribbean that lead me to Haiti, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Barbados, Dominica, Saint Lucia and Antigua. Previously, I had visited Jamaica, Bahamas and Trinidad and Tobago. It was my hope, that the empirical observation and analysis of the different experiences and approach used by these countries to solve many of their social problems that are common to our nations with a shared cultural, historical and geographical background, could help me decipher the origins, root cause and corrective measures, for many of the intractable, irritating and woeful lack of material goods, that have plagued the Cuban society for decades.
With a partial exception of those territories under the jurisdiction of the United States, the first and most striking example of what Cuba stands for hits you like a tidal wave when you ask the average person on the street, in a market, restaurant or driving a taxi, what he/she thinks about Cuba and if they know of any Cuban working in their country.
Then suddenly, it becomes difficult to change the subject, as you are bombarded with expressions of gratitude for having tens of Cuban doctors working in remote regions of their country, where for the first time in their lives, peasants are having access to a physician, or for those physicians staffing public hospitals in towns and villages, who brought with them specialized diagnostic or treatments procedures that were previously unknown in their country, which may have prolonged or saved the lives of their loved ones.
Similar sentiments are expressed for those assisting in the development of agricultural projects, water purification systems, road building, construction, restoring industrial capabilities, sports trainers or by learning to save energy under the guidance of young social workers.
Still, teaching the locals to read and write, restoring the eye sight of thousands and training their children as physicians, nurses, educators or computer science and a myriad of other educational skills free of charge in Cuba, seems to have created the greatest sense of respect and gratitude in the general population.
But knowing at the same time, that this incredible human endeavor is not afforded only to people and countries with whom Cuba has a respectful and friendly relation, confers upon it, an even greater significance. When an earthquake devastated Peru in the 70‘s, Cuba had no diplomatic relations with that country yet, hundreds of healthcare professionals offered their expertise, while hundreds of construction workers built roads, hospitals and schools.
When hurricane Mitch nearly wiped Honduras off the map, Cuba had no diplomatic relations with that country, still hundreds of Cuban healthcare personnel were sent to help and are still there, many years after.
Recently, Pakistan was ravished by a monstrous earthquake that killed and wounded tens of thousands of its citizens. Hundreds of Cuban healthcare professionals who came to their assistance were greeted by the most hostile geographical environment they had ever seen, with freezing temperature and a near insurmountable language barrier, only to excel and earn the respect and gratitude of that nation.
In the year 2004 and with the financial support of the Bolivarian Government of Venezuela, Cuba started a massive eye surgery project throughout the Caribbean and Latin America known as Operation Miracle. So far, over 900,000 people have had their eye sight restored, of a goal of millions through 2016.
Among the thousands of Bolivian citizens who have benefited from this project is Andres Teran, a retired sub-officer with the Bolivian Army who was blind, living in abject poverty and hiding a horrendous personal history. While acting under the instruction of Felix Rodriguez, a Cuban-American CIA operative in charge of hunting down guerilla leader Ernesto Che Guevara, who was ambushed, wounded in battle, captured and held prisoner in a school in la Higuera, Bolivia, where Teran was ordered to murder him in cold blood, by riddling his body with bullets.
These examples, which are less than the tip of the iceberg of Cuba’s 45 plus years of giving, helping everyone in need, irrespective of their geographical location, race, religion, ethnicity, political or social orientation, would pre-suppose coming from a wealthy country, in which, all of its people basic needs were addressed.
For decades, the Cuban people endured all sorts of unsatisfied material and social needs, while they found solace in their enormous sense of giving, volunteering for the most difficult tasks, the furthest assignment from home and even the riskiest of chores. In so doing, many suffered physical harm or paid the ultimate price. A diploma, a certificate, a medal or a public acknowledgement, was all that was expected. Money or any other personal material reward was out of the question.
Those were the beautiful, honest, idealistic and altruistic years of 60 and 70s, full of Revolutionary fervor, when milk crates and bread bags were left before dawn in front of the grocery store and no one dared to touch it.
Those were the years when the first 2100 university students from across the country receiving scholarships, moved into three, twenty story apartment buildings with no locks on the doors or closets…. and nothing ever got lost.
Those were the years when most professors at the University would hand out their exams, ask if there was any question that was not clear, would leave students by themselves, return three hours after at the end of the allotted time, pick up all exams, knowing, that no one had dared to cheat.
Those were the years when passengers at all bus stops, asked for the last in line, would not enter through the back door, but if they felt compelled to do so, they would kindly ask those on board to pass on their coin and drop it into the collection bin.
Those were the days, when every administrator having to distribute an insufficient amount of a given item among his workers, had to be prepared for a heated discussion among workers, trying to determine those who needed it most.
That was then. Further on, I will speculate a bit and give my own assessment of how we got to where we are today.
To be continued…..