Workers’ delegation from U.S. sees Cuba’s challenges and advances
Published Jun 3, 2009 1:27 PM
The writers attended the 2009 May Day celebration of a half-million Cuban
workers in Havana. Clarence Thomas is former secretary-treasurer of Local 10 of
the International Longshore and Warehouse Workers Union and co-chair of the
Million Worker March Movement. The 21-person U.S. delegation included ILWU past
International President David Arian. The delegation also visited a school, a
museum, attended the 70th Anniversary CTC Conference and met with labor
Coming from the U.S., where youth mortgage their future wages for a
college education and health insurance fails to guarantee coverage for
catastrophic illnesses, the notion that health care and education can be free
really caught our attention. Education and health care are necessary for the
basic human right of each individual to develop to their fullest potential.
Human development, not profit, is Cuba’s national priority.
We saw an example of Cuba’s national priority at the Dora Alonso Special
School in Havana. According to Imilla Cecilia Campos Valdés, director of
the Dora Alonso Special School, only 150 to 170 Cuban children have been
diagnosed with autism, far fewer than the 1 out of 170 reported in the U.S.
This school was founded in 2002 to mark the 40th anniversary of Cuban special
education. Two years later a second school opened in Santiago province. In
other provinces autistic children are incorporated in the general school system
and given special attention, using the best practices researched and developed
at the special autism schools.
The classroom student-teacher ratio in Dora Alonso School is better than an
astounding two to one. That means only four children are with a teacher and
assistant in each room. Specialists in speech therapy, physical education,
music, art, computers and home economics, and transportation aides, a doctor
and a nurse make up the support staff.
Providing early intensive intervention, therapy and family participation are
very important to the good development of these children, the director said.
The school’s goal is returning the autistic students to either the
general schools or special education schools. Socialization, communication and
relations with other children improve their outcome.
Delores Lemon-Thomas, a 33-year education veteran from California, knew of no
such special public school for autism in the U.S. She shared the funding and
staffing challenges that curtail special-education programs in her school
district, where special-needs classrooms have 12 children, including those with
Teachers at Dora Alonzo study for their masters and doctoral degrees
tuition-free. Special education teachers in the U.S. are required to pay high
tuition and fees for their studies.
received heart transplant
U.S. workers today are losing employer-based health care insurance and paying
more even if they still have coverage. Meanwhile, a Cuban port worker
affectionately called “Malanga” told us the story of his 1986 heart
transplant, which didn’t cost him a penny. Like every other Cuban,
Maximiliano Velásquez pays nothing for medications or in-patient hospital
visits required for him every six months.
Alberto Marchante, secretary-general of the Union of Merchant Marines, Ports
& Fisheries, said of Malanga’s surgery, “How can you put a
price on saving the life of a worker?”
Malanga voluntarily returned to work in 1987 but strictly follows his
doctors’ diet and activity recommendations to take care of the gift of a
second life. He knows this gift costs Cuban society a lot, especially with the
U.S. blockade that makes his medicines even more expensive for the Cuban health
Although he retired in 2004, Malanga, now 74, still is a leader in his union at
the port where he started working in 1950 at age 16 to help support his family.
That precarious, irregular, low-wage work at the whim of the port bosses’
profits ended in 1959. The socialist revolution brought permanent jobs and
social security with free education and worker control. Malanga shares these
life experiences with today’s younger port workers.
Meeting with Cuban labor leaders
In a special meeting, Cuban union leaders Alberto Marchante, José
Suárez and Antonio Molina exchanged views with us. Marchante,
secretary-general of the Port, Maritime and Fishers union, discussed the
history of the Cuban labor movement from the arrival of the first Europeans in
1492 to the present. He stressed the key role of unity in achieving
Cuba’s political and economic independence and the social security won by
Marchante debunked the imperialist slanders leveled against the Cuban
revolution, pointing out that poet and political leader José Martí
first advanced the idea of one united party in the 1890s as necessary to the
liberation of Cuba from Spain.
José Suárez, national president of the National Association of
Innovation and Rationalization (ANIR), knew what we were thinking when he
described ANIR’s cost-cutting role in Cuban workplaces. He quickly
pointed out that no Cuban workers lose their jobs in this process.
As early as 1959, U.S. Secretary of State Christian Herter characterized
suppression of the Cuban sugar quota as “economic warfare.” The
U.S. Government Printing Office publication on “Foreign Relations of the
United States, 1958-1960,” shamelessly states its aim to “bring
about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government” and of a socialist
revolution that was popularly supported by the Cuban workers and poor.
In 1961, responding to the U.S. blockade, Che Guevara urged Cuban workers to
use their creativity to make their own tools and parts that could no longer be
imported. That, Suárez said, was the birth of ANIR. Mobilizing worker
creativity through ANIR and an economy based on providing for basic human
needs, not profit, has thwarted the effects of the U.S. economic aggression for
The new unfolding global capitalist crash is hitting U.S. port workers hard.
During the meeting with Marchante, past ILWU International President Dave Arian
said, “Two years ago casual longshore workers earned $45,000 per year.
Today the 10,000 casuals are unemployed. No opportunity to work, no retraining,
no job opportunity. They can’t afford their houses. ... This is just a
small example of what is taking place across the U.S.
“When you go to Detroit the official unemployment is 23 percent, really
more like 40 percent. ... We are talking about a movement that will ensure the
ordinary worker what is already guaranteed in Cuba—housing, food, health
care and education. You have already achieved that. What seemed ideological to
others is now practical.”
In addition to the U.S. blockade and the global economic crisis, Cuba suffered
three terrible hurricanes last year that destroyed more than 500,000 homes.
Marchante acknowledged the international solidarity and assistance received. He
said, “The first thing the government tried to insure was the living
conditions of the people affected. When you visit those areas—where
nothing was left standing after winds of 200 miles per hour in Pinar Del
Río—now the hardest hit area is completely rebuilt. It is with pain
that we Cubans saw what happened in New Orleans and the response of the U.S.
As representatives of U.S. workers, we thanked Cuba for its offer of more than
1,500 fully equipped doctors and other emergency medical specialists to save
lives in New Orleans in 2005, an offer the Bush administration rejected.
A timely visit
The visit to Cuba was most timely. Just a few weeks ago Congresswoman Barbara
Lee led a delegation of the Congressional Black Caucus members, which included
Congresswoman Laura Richardson of southern California, and met with President
Raúl Castro and former president and revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.
President Obama is allowing Cuban Americans to make unlimited transfers of
money and visits to relatives in Cuba.
Arian observed, “The workers of Cuba based on the political and economic
system and the blockade have substituted what is available in Cuba for material
things. We saw kids playing outside in the streets and parks, soccer, baseball;
we saw young people, music, culture; we saw free medical care. We did not see
homelessness, we did not see hunger, and we did not see crime. Cuba is a
totally different culture.”
Who best to speak for workers but workers themselves? This is exactly what
occurred on our visit to Cuba.
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