At the 2022 International Meeting of Solidarity with Cuba, President Miguel Díaz-Canel offered a galvanizing statement to visiting delegates: “Solidarity cannot be blockaded.” If one statement could encapsulate the diverse, moving, sometimes heartbreaking but always inspiring experience of participating in the 28th annual Che Guevara Work Brigade, Díaz-Canel’s assertion of the irrepressible nature of international solidarity would be a prime contender.
The two weeks we spent in Cuba with the Che Brigade—which consisted of voluntary work, educational panels, people-to-people interactions with ordinary Cubans in the cities and countryside, and much more—offered a window into the daily struggles and unwaning resilience of a nation that refuses to forfeit its revolution in the face of perpetual counterrevolutionary pressures from the United States government. The most damaging of these measures is the blockade, a suffocating sixty-year policy of economic strangulation aimed at isolating, weakening, and ultimately toppling Cuba’s revolutionary state.
The continued existence of the Cuban Revolution represents a tremendous victory for the causes of socialism, justice, and Southern liberation from Northern neocolonialism. “From its earliest days,” Nelson Mandela proclaimed on a 1991 visit to Matanzas:
the Cuban Revolution has also been a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people… What other country has such a history of selfless behaviour as Cuba has shown for the people of Africa? How many countries benefit from Cuban health care professionals and educators? How many of these volunteers are now in Africa? What country has ever needed help from Cuba and has not received it?
The many achievements of Cuba’s ongoing revolutionary process have been hard-earned, wrested into reality by a people who have been forced to endure decades of economic warfare, terroristic violence from Florida-based diaspora networks, and sabotage supported by the US government. The 1959 triumph of the revolutionaries was a titanic accomplishment in its own right, but it was a prelude to the even more arduous struggle against US imperialist backlash. Fidel Castro said as much in “The World Half a Century Later,” a retrospective reflection published in January 2010. It was only after the revolutionaries took state power, he explained, “that the main battle started[:] to preserve the independence of Cuba opposite the most powerful empire that ever was.”
Beginning in January 1960, the revolutionary government was determined to empower the impoverished farmers and rural labourers whose sacrifices enabled their success. In Cuba: Anatomy of a Revolution, published immediately after the success of the revolution, Monthly Review co-editors Leo Huberman and Paul M. Sweezy wrote that those who expected the new government to tolerate a neocolonial dynamic with the US “didn’t understand Fidel Castro.”
Much more important, they didn’t understand that the old military machine had been completely and utterly smashed and that the new peasant army on which Fidel’s power rested was a veritable revolutionary dynamo. Previous Latin American revolutionary regimes risked being thrown out by the (old) army if they moved to implement their declared program; Fidel’s regime risked being thrown out by the (new) army if it failed to do so.
On April 27, the Che Brigade visited the recently opened Fidel Castro Center in Havana. Dedicated to the preservation of Castro’s political thought, the center’s second-floor identifies the foremost issues that the revolutionaries tackled in order to resolve the legacy of underdevelopment that haunted their supporters: 1) the problem of foreign ownership of land and industry, 2) poor health in rural areas, 3) unemployment, 4) lack of education for the majority of the population, and 5) homelessness. When the government began to implement genuine changes in these areas, asserting sovereignty over Cuban resources and challenging the predominance of North American capital in the economy, confrontation between Cuba and the US became a fait accompli.
During the brigade’s many interactions with government officials, local administrative organizations, hospital personnel, cooperative farmers, and others, it became clear that the Cuban Revolution remains in the constant state of discussion, revision, repair, and advance that has characterized the country’s political life for over six decades and provoked vindictive attacks from the US aimed at stifling Cuba’s developmental programs. The local and intensely collaborative character of the revolutionary project could be observed in many areas, including ongoing discussions of the country’s proposed Families Code, a more LGBTQ-friendly update of the previous code that has been edited 119 times in nationwide town-hall meetings organized by neighbourhood CDRs (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution) and officials from the Cuban Women’s Federation and People’s Power organizations.
In his speech at the International Meeting of Solidarity, which followed three symposia on the necessity of solidarity with Cuba, the need for global anti-imperialist cooperation, and the significance of Cuba’s response to COVID-19 respectively, President Díaz-Canel spoke openly about the current economic conditions in the country. He outlined the history of the blockade and connected additional coercive measures imposed by the Trump administration and maintained by the Biden government to social disruptions such as the July 11 protests and the ongoing crisis of irregular migration to the US.
Díaz-Canel began his truncated history of the blockade by reading from the infamous Mallory memorandum, written by US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Lestor Mallory on April 6, 1960. This document is clear evidence that the majority of Cubans supported the Cuban Revolution and its development program, and proves that the US government quickly attempted to stifle the Castro government’s present and future gains by imposing economic hardship on the island’s population. In part, the Mallory memorandum reads:
The majority of Cubans support Castro (the lowest estimate I have seen is 50 percent)… The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship… it follows that every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba. If such a policy is adopted, it should be the result of a positive decision which would call forth a line of action which, while as adroit and inconspicuous as possible, makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.
This declassified document outlines a blueprint that the US government has replicated against many enemy states in the subsequent years: impose deprivation on the population through economic sanctions, encourage popular unrest, and blame the existence of protests on the cruelty and inefficiency of the targeted state. Díaz-Canel explained that the same logic that underlaid the Mallory memorandum continued through the following decades and sometimes grew harsher, particularly during the Trump presidency.
The Trump administration’s enforcement of 243 new economic sanctions against Cuba, their limiting of remittances from families living abroad, and their addition of Cuba to the US government’s “state sponsors of terrorism” list have worsened the economic life of Cubans considerably. These impositions, maintained under Biden, have led to shortages of food and fuel, a massive decrease in purchasing power, and increased inflation, which have inflamed the precarious conditions that cause some Cubans to migrate via dangerous irregular channels encouraged by the US government.
The human impact of these measures can also be identified in Cuba’s infant mortality rate. In 2016, the infant mortality rate in Cuba was around four deaths per 1,000 births, almost equal with Canada and lower than the United States. In May 2022, the head of Child and Maternal Health at the Arnaldo Milian Castro Hospital in Santa Clara informed me that Cuba’s current infant mortality rate is 6.8, an increase of 2.5 deaths per 1,000 births since the year of Trump’s election.
Prior to the revolution, the Cuban economy was integrated with that of the US in a classic neocolonial relationship: not only were US companies able to extract easy profit from Cuban sugar and agriculture, but American manufacturers also had a guaranteed market for products like cars, trains, and household appliances. In total, US corporations owned 90 percent of telephone and electricity services, over half of the railways, and over 70 percent of the land in Cuba. This land was mainly controlled by US companies whose privileged position was destroyed when the revolutionary government’s agrarian reforms led to the expropriation of their land and its conversion into state farms and peasant-run enterprises.
In his essay “Cubans and the blockade,” Gabriel García Márquez recalled that on the day on which the US implemented the economic blockade against the people of Cuba:
there were in Cuba some 482,550 cars, 343,300 refrigerators, 549,700 radios, 303,500 TV sets, 352,900 electric irons, 288,400 fans, 41,800 washing machines, 3,510,000 wrist watches, 63 locomotives and 12 merchant ships. All of these, except the watches which were Swiss, were made in the United States.
In this neocolonial context, it is no surprise that the US government’s brutal economic retaliation has had such far-reaching effects on ordinary Cubans. In every aspect of their lives, Cubans were ensnared in a web of imperialist dependency that was more difficult to unwind than some presumed.
Within a few years of the US declaring its economic cordon sanitaire of the island, the Cuban government was forced to implement rations for some foods, men’s pants, underwear, and a variety of textiles. The shortages continued in the subsequent decades, but the government was able to limit their worst aspects through favorable trade status with the Soviet Union. The shortages turned truly horrific, however, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the institution of the “Special Period” in the 1990s.
With the Cuban Revolution in a weakened position, the Clinton administration attempted to smother the economy even more by approving the Torricelli Act of 1992 and the Helms-Burton Act of 1996. These sanctions caused enormous decreases in the amount of medicine and food reaching Cuba at a time of rising malnutrition and illness on the island. The tightening of the blockade at such a perilous moment proved debilitating for many Cubans; the average Cuban lost around 20 pounds during the Special Period, while tens of thousands suffered from vision deterioration, deafness, numbness or pain in the extremities, spinal disorders, and loss of bladder control. By November 1995, the World Health Organization reported increases in the amount of people afflicted with neurological diseases caused by acute malnutrition.
Díaz-Canel asserted that “Cuba does not hide its shortages, because they are not the result of the socialist system.” They are caused by the blockade. The current crises facing the Cuban people must be viewed in this context: one of imposed deprivation that the US has been pursuing since the early 1960s and cruelly intensifying at moments of uncertainty on the island, such as the Special Period and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Understanding the brutality of the blockade is essential for anyone seeking to comprehend the gains, losses, and contradictions of Cuba’s ongoing revolutionary process. The very existence of the blockade is reason enough for leftists in the Global North to prioritize solidarity with the Cuban people over any insipid “left critiques” of Cuban government policy. The left’s focus in regard to Cuba should be anti-blockade action, cooperation with the Cuban people, and the study of the social and economic successes that the Cuban Revolution has been able to win even while living under the enervating weight of the blockade, especially in health care, education, agroecology, and medical internationalism.
The Cuban health care system is a model for what humans can achieve under the most stressful and deprived conditions. Cuba’s enviably high ratio of doctors to patients, significantly larger than even the most developed Global North countries, is well-known, as is the country’s long history of medical internationalism and its biomedical achievements in the field of vaccination. In short, what the health care system lacks in material resources, it aims to rectify with accessibility, quality of care, and innovation.
National pride in the health care system is pervasive in Cuba. During the International Worker’s Day parade in Havana on May 1, health care workers led the march, holding a massive banner that bore the day’s slogan, Cuba vive y trabaja (Cuba lives and works).
Despite these medical feats, blockade-imposed limitations are everywhere. At a 24-hour pharmacy in Jibacoa, a town of about 4,000 in the rural Escambray mountains, shelves were nearly empty. The director at the Arnaldo Milian Castro hospital explained that the blockade impacts every aspect of Cuban health care, which has nevertheless managed to retain its universality. “In Cuba,” he says, “we say that health care is like the sun”—it reaches everyone, no matter their race or income. However, when asked how the blockade impacts the hospital’s services, he explained that they endure shortages of every device used in surgical procedures as well as artificial components for patients like prosthetic limbs and pacemakers. As for the importation and maintenance of ambulances, he told us that “everything is blockaded except the wheels.”
The lead doctor at the Jibacoa polyclinic showed us a chart in the emergency room’s lobby that listed some commonly prescribed drugs and their value in Cuban pesos. This chart, he explained, was meant to show patients the cost of the treatment they received and, presumably, to inculcate a deeper understanding and appreciation for the government’s continued prioritization of preventative care. In fact, well over 50 percent of Cuban government expenditures go toward maintaining the integrity and quality of the country’s universal health care, education, and social programs. One of our guides, Javier, estimated that the government spends around 65 percent of its revenues on health care and education alone.
The Cuban government’s decision to maintain the universality of health care and education is evidence of its commitment to the prolongation and enrichment of the lives of their citizens, even in the face of external pressures designed to attack the very possibility of a long and socially rich life in Cuba. Nevertheless, the sense of solidarity and unity among the Cuban population was clear for all of us to see.
Decades ago, Gabriel García Márquez wrote that despite the effects of the blockade, “scarcities imposed by the enemy were boosting social morale,” leading to increases in production and national unity. That sense of shared purpose still runs deep. When a gas leak caused an explosion at the Hotel Saratoga in Havana on May 6, killing dozens of Cubans and injuring almost 100, several of our brigade members offered to donate blood for the injured, only to learn that blood banks were already filled to capacity with donations. One of our guides teared up while telling us about the massive donations of blood received by hospitals in Havana—a moment that became even more powerful when we learned that a friend of his remained trapped in the hotel’s basement.
In addition to the accessibility and innovations of Cuba’s health care and education systems, the country is leaps and bounds ahead of the “developed” world in its environmental policies. In 2006, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) stated that Cuba was the only country in the world to have achieved “sustainable development,” meaning that human development indicators in the country were increasing despite the Cuban economy’s low ecological footprint. “No region, nor the world as a whole,” reads the report, “met both criteria for sustainable development [high human development indicators alongside low ecological footprint]. Cuba alone did, based on the data it reports to the United Nations.” Meanwhile, Cuba scholar Helen Yaffe’s recent documentary, Cuba’s Life Task, explains how Cuba is instituting a 100-year whole-of-government response to climate change—a far more serious program than any produced in Global North countries, most of which continue to invest in environmentally destructive industries even as the world’s climate outlook grows grimmer by the year.
One important aspect of Cuba’s sustainable approach to development and environmental protection can be seen in the country’s ecological approach to agriculture. It is true that one aspect of the agroecological transition was necessity—during the Special Period, Cubans simply did not have access to the industrial means on which they had previously relied—but as Helen Yaffe pointed out in a recent interview with Revolutionary Left Radio, necessity is only one factor in transition. The other is capacity. For instance, a country could be facing an existential threat for which the solution is obvious but fail to act due to a lack of institutional will or capacity to implement the necessary changes. Again, see Global North inaction around the possibility of climate apocalypse.
During the Special Period, Cuba had both the necessity and the capacity to implement the agroecological transition. Lacking fuel, farmers abandoned tractors and resorted to hand tools and beasts of burden. Lacking agricultural inputs, every piece of open land in the cities was converted into urban farms, or organopónicos, which now produce and feed surrounding neighborhoods. Organopónicos and other agroecological adaptations have proven to be successful for restoring the disturbing drops in nutrition levels suffered during the 1990s, as well as for securing gains in Cuba’s fight to achieve food sovereignty.
Some sources claim that 90 percent of the food that is consumed in Havana is grown within the city’s urban gardens or at nearby farms. While it is common to hear Canadian tourists at Cuban resorts complain about the quality of the food, the fact is that most of what Cubans eat is grown within Cuba, by Cuban farmers, with limited to no use of pesticides or genetically modified organisms. Surely this is a more natural foods system than the highly processed, highly globalized, and highly exploitative networks of production that underlie food consumption in the Global North.
In many ways, Cuban agriculture presents a model that environment-minded individuals should seek to emulate. The country is, as Max Ajl puts it in his 2021 book A People’s Green New Deal, “the beacon of agroecology” which “shows the possibility of high human development with incredibly low environmental impact.” The contrast between Cuba’s agricultural methods and those of many Global North countries can be clearly seen in the field of beekeeping. While bee populations are declining in Canada and elsewhere, calling into question the future existence of the species in some regions, Cuban bee populations actually increase each year. A cooperative farmer in rural Artemisa province attributed this growth to the total lack of pesticide use in Cuba’s honey production process.
The Cuban agricultural process is not perfect, and many Cubans still do not have access to sufficient nutritional intakes. As with the imposed shortages in the medical field, this lack of food security is a feature of the blockade, as outlined in internal US documents such as the Mallory memorandum.
While Cuban agriculture, health care, and education are admirable in so many respects, the impacts of the blockade are visible everywhere, in the lack of medical supplies and the inability of universities to provide optimal lessons in a variety of subjects. During a visit to the Central University “Marta Abreu” of Las Villas, we learned that the blockade has stalled progress in a number of practical research areas, namely technology research and food sovereignty.
Cuba’s biomedical sector is world-class, as evidenced by the country’s ability to produce several successful COVID-19 vaccines on its own, but even there, one can see how the blockade has stifled the natural development process; when Cuba began its vaccination campaign, the government was unable to import the necessary syringes, and doctors were forced to manufacture their own ventilators after the blockade prevented their acquisition. These shortages did not stop Cuba from sending medical brigades around the world to assist ill-equipped countries in their struggle against the pandemic, or from exporting hundreds of thousands of vaccines to Venezuela, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Iran, and other countries that were having a difficult time accessing vaccines produced in North America and Europe.
It is tragic to imagine what the Cuban people could achieve for themselves and the world if the natural development of their revolution was not forcibly stalled by US imperialism. Since 1960, the blockade has caused $150 billion in damage to the Cuban economy, “almost one trillion dollars when the depreciation of the dollar against the value of gold in the international market is taken into account.” This is a huge sum for any country, but especially an underdeveloped nation like Cuba that has proven its capacity to wring considerable advancements out of minimal resources.
On the Che Brigade, members were encouraged to bring donations that Cubans had a difficult time accessing in global markets: medical supplies, vitamins, cold and flu medicine, contraceptives, female hygiene products, and much more. After voluntary work at a cooperative farm, we left our handheld rakes and trowels behind for the farmers to use in the future. One of our guides, Iram, held up a trowel and explained another cruel dimension of the blockade: any products crossing into Cuba cannot contain over 10 percent US parts or they will be denied entry. Furthermore, companies such as Mitsubishi must prove that their products contain no Cuban nickel or they will be locked out of US markets, meaning that almost no industrial tools can enter Cuba and almost no profit can be made from exported products. “If it’s this hard to get gardening tools,” Iram said, trowel in hand, “imagine how difficult it is to get a car or a tractor.”
Canadians have so much to learn from Cuba, but every day the country’s revolutionary process is demeaned by our government officials and mainstream media. It is evidence of the moral and intellectual backwardness of our political culture that a country which presents a leading example in so many urgent policy areas is routinely ridiculed for its supposed shortcomings. Meanwhile, “developed” G7 countries like Canada are currently exacerbating existential issues such as climate change, imperialism, and militarism while patting themselves on the back for mouthing the correct platitudes.
For those interested in real, sustainable, counterhegemonic change, Cuba is a great place to raise one’s level of education and global consciousness. We should take Díaz-Canel’s statement to heart and refuse to allow the US blockade to stymy our solidarity with the Cuban Revolution.
Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. He is primarily interested in applying theories of imperialism, neocolonialism, and underdevelopment to global capitalism and Canada’s role therein. Visit his website at www.owenschalk.com.