Sun, sand and socialism Tommy Sheridan's Cuban diary

July 24, 2002

VARADERO, Cuba — "The most beautiful land the human eye has beheld" was how Christopher Columbus described Cuba when he "discovered" it on behalf of the Spanish royals in October 1492. Despite several hundred years of Spanish colonisation and US domination, Cuba still deserves that description.

My wife Gail and I have returned to holiday in Cuba. We are in love with her — her people, her beaches, her sunshine, her spirit of resistance and defiance. For me, Cuba provides a form of socialist rejuvenation — a small country that has refused to join the free market casino economy that prioritises profits over people but manages to construct a health service and education system that are universally free and the envy of increasing numbers of countries, in both the so-called First and Third Worlds.

For Gail, the attraction is less political. After more than 17 years in the airline industry she has sampled holiday resorts in many of the most talked-about regions of the world. Varadero here in Cuba tops them all and for the last three years she has insisted on returning to the Beaches Hotel in Cuba's tourist capital. This is where the political merges with the social.

Cuba has been subjected to an illegal and extremely damaging economic, commercial and financial blockade by the US for 40 years, designed to cause hunger and shortages of essential materials and thus social disorder.

It has failed miserably in relation to hunger and social disorder but shortages of essential materials such as oil, cement, glass and bricks are an everyday reality. It is very difficult to secure foreign currencies when so many countries are frightened to trade with Cuba for fear of incurring the wrath of the mighty US.

That is why the Cuban government has invested so heavily in its tourist sector. Countries may not trade but people who decide to visit bring much-needed currencies, including US dollars. But these dollars are not brought in by Americans as it is illegal for US citizens to holiday and spend money in Cuba.

So Gail is able to rave about the vast beaches from paradise and the clear water that reminds her of a soothing bath while still contributing towards the maintenance of the socialist dream in Cuba. The country has 300 beaches. In Varadero, the government is determined to double the number of hotels to 70 and provide 50,000 beds. Tourism is now second only to agriculture as the biggest industry in Cuba but the intention is to make it number one. By December, almost 2 million people will have visited this year, and most will return.

Unfortunately, not everyone in Scotland can afford an overseas holiday — but many who can choose Cuba. We met Isabel and Elizabeth, who work for the Glasgow City Council housing department. Although we discussed the wholesale sell-off of Glasgow's housing stock, mostly we enjoyed the sun, sea, sand and shows. They declared Cuba their best holiday ever and vowed to come back.

Several couples have travelled to be married in this resort and it reminds me of how much of a sucker I was when Gail promised me a wedding here when I proposed to her in Cuba back in 1996. Four years later, she organised the whole affair for Glasgow and I had to be content with just our honeymoon here.

For me, Cuba is not only politically inspiring and worthy of solidarity but politically fascinating and worthy of study. The vision of an independent socialist republic in Scotland that I carry in my heart is different from that of Cuba. Not only do we lack sunshine — we also have distinctly different political histories and cultures.

The Cuban Revolution was based on a guerrilla struggle waged against a brutal dictator, Fulgencio Batista, and the unfolding of revolution is a story rich in inspiration and tales of courage. Of the 82 fighters who left Mexico to land in Cuba and begin the revolution in November 1956, only 10 survived. Among the 10 were Che Guevara, Raul Castro and Fidel Castro.

After checking the group had uniforms, rifles and bullets, Fidel said: "Ahora si gana-mos la guerra", roughly translated as: "Now we have won the war". With only 10 men about to take on Batista's army of thousands, such a declaration could have been dismissed as the rantings of a mad man. Not for the first time — nor, I'm sure, the last — Fidel proved his critics wrong.

Just over two years later, on January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara rode into Havana as the victorious leaders of the Cuban Revolution. They inherited an undeveloped, poverty-stricken nation, where most people were illiterate and had a life expectancy of around 50 years.

But by prioritising Cuba's limited resources in the most important areas of health and education, they transformed their small country of 11 million inhabitants. Life expectancy in Cuba, at 78, is now higher than that in most of Scotland; its health service is completely free and studied with envy by many, including the British Labour government; education is also completely free, including school meals; and there are now more trained nurses, doctors and teachers per head of the population than in the UK.

Will socialist Cuba survive after Castro dies? Undoubtedly he has been an inspirational and vital leader. He has seen off nine US presidents who were committed to his removal, and hopefully he will see off Bush junior as well.

The Cuban Revolution, however, is not just about Castro. It is about the 11 million Cubans who will not submit to US domination and who are determined to defend the gains of their revolution and extend them when possible. Even the chair of the World Bank was forced to congratulate Cuba last year for developing such an advanced health and education system "without a single penny of foreign aid".

In the space of 18 months between 1989 and 1991, Cuba lost 85% of its foreign trade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The country faced a huge economic crisis. The US further strengthened the trade and investment blockade and the Cuban government introduced the "special period" involving food rationing and other emergency measures. When I first visited in 1996, electricity blackouts occurred daily and the revolution was definitely in danger.

Some 10 years on, the power cuts are gone and there is enough food for everyone. The economy is growing. Throughout the "special period" not one school or hospital was closed and today 65% of the country's budget is devoted to education, health and social security.

Cuba has many problems and does not necessarily represent a model for socialists in Scotland, but it is a beacon of resistance to the globalisation process that promotes maximum private profit while exploiting workers throughout the world.

Unlike Cuba, Scotland is not poor. If we were to socialise and democratise our wealth and raw materials, we could raise everyone's quality and standard of life. Cuba provides a glimpse of the vast progress possible if only we have the vision to realise our potential as an independent socialist country.

[Tommy Sheridan is a member of the Scottish Socialist Party and a member of the Scottish Parliament.]

From Green Left Weekly, July 24, 2002.
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