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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 leaders.

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 autism.

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.

Longshore worker

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 care system.

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 Cuban workers.

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 fifty years.

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. government.”

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.