Having promised my enthusiastic commissioning editor that I would make an effort to get over my blog-phobia, I am taking time to reflect on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. I was fortunate enough to be in Cuba to celebrate this historic occasion. All the hotels and casa particulares were brimming, so I was clearly not alone in thinking there was no better place to see in the New Year than at a street party on the Malecon sea front in Havana. Tens of thousands of Cubans of all colours, ages and sizes, danced defiantly in the street in front of the US Interest Section (basically an embassy). Breaking all international and diplomatic norms, the US displays a red neon message with letters a floor high cutting across the Havana cityscape. On 1 January 2009, the Cubans themselves appeared hardly to notice the provocation. It was lost behind 183 poles with Cuban flags swishing in the warm sea breeze, the message drowned out by salutations and salsa played live by some of Cuba’s best-loved musicians like Van Van and Isaac Delgado. Viva Cuba Libre!
In Cuba, the year always ends with reflection and commemoration. Decisive battles are narrated and analysed by surviving combatants and the nation renders its accounts in days of analysis and debate during the ordinary sessions of the National Assembly – Cuba’s equivalent of a parliament. The current representatives were selected during a six month process of elections for Municipal (borough), Provincial (regional) and National Assemblies between September 2007 and February 2008. The National Assembly is the highest decision making body in Cuba and after the latest elections, 61% of its members are born after the Revolution and 63% are new to national government (and over 43% are women) – a leadership which is both young and new, committed to the political principles of the Revolution and ready to adapt to contemporary challenges and consciousness.
Half of the National Assembly is made up from representatives of grassroots organisations - including economic sectors, trade unions and students. The other half represents their local areas, selected through elections which start at street level. There are no career politicians in Cuba, the Assembly meets for regular short sessions and the rest of the year delegates remain in their place of work. They receive no additional salary and they can be recalled if their electorate deem their work to be inadequate - vital tenets of any real democracy. The Cubans are continuing to analyse and propose improvements to their electoral system, but it is already a fascinating process of participative democracy which is completely dismissed or censored by critiques who equate only the existence of political parties with democracy.
Observing the National Assembly discussions – which are televised daily to the population, I was struck by the spirit of (self) criticism and debate which prevailed. Each ministry has to render accounts of its accomplishments and failings during the year, plans for the future, demands on the national budget and so on. The rest of the Assembly respond. I watched as one young woman spoke extremely critically, not just of deficiencies and failings on the practical level, but also of a lack of honesty on the part of some representatives about these problems. Raul Castro literally applauded her after praising her comments as the most honest, exemplary and significant he had heard during the Assembly. How refreshing. Cubans I know in Britain are totally astonished to see the jeering, mocking, lying and covering up that are routine in our own mother of parliaments. ‘It’s like a school playground’ one of them said in utter astonishment as we watched a live parliamentary debate.
The National Assembly discussions evaluated 2008 as a difficult year for Cuba, because of:
- the fall in world prices of Cuba’s principal exports – nickel, sugar and sea food – and a rise in the cost of importing foodstuffs and fuel
- the world recession
- the devastating impact of three hurricanes which caused $10 billion of destruction, including 530,000 homes damaged.
Despite this, Cuba’s economic growth reached 4.3%, down from the 8% planned, but far superior to the advanced capitalist countries. Most importantly, economic growth in Cuba leads to increased social investments. Recently, transport has been massively improved, new jobs have been created in the state sector and millions of durable goods have been distributed under the Energy Revolution. Current priorities are to raise food production and to make progress in solving Cuba’s outstanding housing problem, which was exacerbated by the hurricanes.
In Cuba, the 50th anniversary did not feel like a watershed moment. There was a celebratory pause and then things carried on as before. In the words of Raul Castro as he closed the National Assembly on 27 December 2008:
‘I conclude wishing you and all of our compatriots, good health and much energy for the year 2009. We shall need them both...We Cuban revolutionaries can look at our past with our heads held high and into the future with the same confidence in our strength and our capacity to resist. Let’s congratulate ourselves on the 50th anniversary of the victory of the Revolution’.