Sunday, March 9, 2008

Report on ST visit to Exeter University – 5 March 2008

32 students from the geography department at Exeter University are off to Cuba on a field trip in April. Rock around the Blockade was very excited when one of the students contacted us to ask if Yoselin could come and speak to them during the speaking tour. Congratulations to the tutors, Heather, Ian and Keith, who are organising the trip and encouraging and supporting the students in learning about all aspects of Cuba and the Revolution before they go and aiming to set up interesting and varied visits when they get there – we had lots to discuss.

Before we sat down to discuss the project itself, an open meeting had been organised with more people than just the students going to Cuba. Yoselin described the education system in Cuba and the municipalisation of university education in this period, the Battle of Ideas. The incredible opportunities for study that are available to young people in Cuba was very clear, in the context of a poor country under siege from imperialism and the US blockade and yet still able to provide education for free with books, accommodation and living costs covered for all students. Cuba, whose internationalism is well known with doctors, nurses, teachers and engineers abroad, also gives the opportunity to students from abroad, who would never otherwise have had the opportunity to study, to come to Cuba to study for free, currently numbering 25,000. When Cuba was plunged in to the Special Period after the collapse of the USSR and the sudden loss of trade, Yoselin described how one idea floated by students was that families who could afford to pay for university education for their children should do so, after discussion at various levels and in many forums, the national assembly overruled this proposal saying that university education should remain free for everyone.

What a stark contrast to Britain, the fourth richest country in the world, where mounting student debt is preventing many young people from further education and foreign students pay exorbitant fees.

Yoselin discussed the planning of their society in terms of which sectors of society people are needed in and the guarantee of work. She also outlined the representation of young people and students in the process of decision making as delegates to the municipal, provincial and national assemblies. Approximately 25% of delegates elected to the national assembly are under the age of 30 and there are four students among the 31 members elected to the highest collective decision taking body, the Council of State.

Questions raised from the floor included themes of dissidents, democracy, journalism and free speech, US elections and the lifting of the possibility of the lifting of the US blockade, the current situation in Latin America, the effect of tourism and tourists on the ideas of the Revolution, the importance of young people and what Yoselin had learned from being part of the speaking tour.

Yoselin, standing at the front of the lecture theatre, with a banner saying Cuba, socialism into the 21st century in front of her, and under a map of Cuba projected above her, was energetic, enthusiastic and proud in her answers, defending their process of building socialism, aware of the problems they have and the difficulties they face and clear that the majority of Cubans stand together with the aim of solving their problems and improving their society for everyone.

Yoselin described the process of decision making in Cuba, the discussion and debate and therefore the redundancy of critics of Cuba who say there are only three or four newspapers and that is restrictive. She described the farce of the US elections and that the outcome was very unlikely to make any changes towards Cuba and that the US has various plans for destroying the Revolution in Cuba and has only ever conceived of lifting the blockade with unacceptable conditions attached. Cuba will survive, Yoselin assured us. Yoselin spoke of the role of young people in society and the combination of work and study that involves young people and gives them responsibilities and roles to play. There was an extensive discussion about the role of tourism and it is clear that Cuba is aware of the negative aspects of tourism, the role it can play in undermining the process of building socialism and the problem of the dual currency. This is an aspect of the development of Cuban society that Cubans are continuously trying to find ways of addressing while acknowledging that they need hard currency and need to survive.

Yoselin said that visiting Britain had been an incredible experience, saying that in Cuba they see their problems in a different context to us in Britain and to have had the opportunity to listen to people living under capitalism, to see the extremes of wealth and the difficulties for those with less, the have her voice heard by over 2,000 people from all walks of life and from school students to retired people, was an experience she will never forget.

Yoselin rounded off that session by describing the warmth and care between neighbours in Cuba who are forever in dialogue with each other, call out to each other in the street, support each other and live together as a community, versus what she has seen in Britain where some people don’t even know their neighbours and daily life can be a very isolating experience.

Thank you to Exeter University for inviting us down and we look forward to coming back after the field trip to Cuba and to ongoing links with Rock around the Blockade in the future.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Report on ST visit to Farnborough Sixth Form College – 3 March 2008

The biggest sixth form in Britain, close to the British Military Headquarters, teachers from the Film and Media department who have organised trips to Cuba and a very sympathetic principal… exciting stuff for the last few days of the speaking tour and off we went on a train from London to Farnborough in Hampshire, comrades Yoselin Rufin and Jesus Garcia and members of Rock around the Blockade.

The classroom was full by 7pm with a total of 70 people, 60 of whom were students of the college. What an inspiration to have that many young people willing to go home after a day’s schooling and return to hear about Cuba.

A tribute indeed to the work of Jane Thomas, Film and Media teacher who invited Rock around the Blockade, John Marks, head of Film and Media who initiated the college’s trips to Cuba a few years ago, and John Guy, the principal of the college who has supported these projects.

After an introduction to the work of Rock around the Blockade, the audience was treated to a talk by our Cuban comrades who eloquently described the project and the process of their Revolution and building socialism.

Jesus Garcia addressed the students with a quote from a Russian poet, ‘communism is the youth of humanity’, and went on to describe the importance of young people in the struggle for a better future, quoting Rosa Luxembourg on the fate of humanity, ‘socialism or barbarism’ but adding ‘if we don’t disappear first’. Our tasks are urgent. Jesus Garcia described the Cuban electoral system, with the people at the top, in a way that clarified the issues about the attempts to develop a society where people are involved in making decisions about their society, reminding us that the elected representatives are not paid more than they were and continue to do their jobs. They must regularly update the electorate on their works and can be recalled at any time if they are not performing as their electorate want. It is a mutual relationship in order to continuously improve the society and solve all problems that come up.

Yoselin Rufin spoke of life for young people in Cuba particularly with respect to their education possibilities and the young teachers in Cuba today who continue their studies while teaching in the new projects of the municipalisation of university education. Yoselin put this in the context of the Battle of Ideas which started with the victorious campaign to bring home Elian Gonzalez. Of the 609 delegates to the national assembly, almost one third are under the age of 30 and of the 31 elected members of the council of state, the collective body of the national assembly of which Raul Castro has just been elected president, there are four students.

Questions from the floor were many and varied, including membership of the communist party and whether that was a necessity to be elected, whether it is possible for the elected representatives to not have socialist views, to what extent arts are funded in Cuba, about the youth at the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the missile crisis, how Fidel Castro fits into the electoral system and what his role is now, what the outcome of the US elections will be for Cuba, how Cuba can afford the education system and free university access for all, what people in Cuba think of Raul Castro and finally how we can implement socialism in Britain.

Comrades Jesus and Yoselin answered these questions fully, expanding on the fact that Communist Party membership is not a prerequisite for anyone being nominated, selected or elected at any level of their system. Over the years, of the hundreds of thousands of people who have been elected in Cuba, none has been trying to destroy the Revolution, not because they couldn’t be elected but because they don’t have the social base to back up their candidacy. However, those who are elected are constantly critical of the system in a constructive way of dialogue and debate in order to take their process forward and improve society.

The expansion of art colleges and teachers of arts has been one of the programmes of the Battle of Ideas. Jesus talked of the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the incredible response from the young people with the voluntary brigades and the mobilisation in all sectors of the economy.

Fidel Castro remains an elected member of the municipal assembly, no longer in the Council of State as he didn’t stand, but with the authority of a leader of the Cuban people for over 50 years, loved and respected for his teachings and example and his ability to unite people in struggle. Raul Castro is a leading revolutionary in Cuban society, respected for his role of the last fifty years and elected on this basis, not related to the fact, as our media would have it, that he is Fidel’s brother.

With respect to the US elections and a change of President, only time will tell. We discussed the Cuban 5, imprisoned in the US under a Clinton administration. Cuba however has survived the blockade, the siege that they are under and can and will continue to build their society whatever the imperialists do. This led to a discussion of the planned economy under socialism, how the system of production is driven by the political needs of their society.

The discussion ended with a note of what we can do in Britain and the fact that we all have a role to play, that it is up to us to help raise the level of consciousness about the global situation, that the market cannot provide for the majority of humanity and that the capitalist system itself needs changing. Cuba inspires us because it shows that another world is possible and society can be organised towards the emancipation of human beings, for development to their maximum potential.

Long live the youth of today!
Long live the Cuban Revolution!
Hasta la victoria siempre!

Friday 29 February, meeting report, University of Glasgow, Boyd Orr building

Over 100 people braved driving wind and rain to come along and hear three generations of Cuban revolutionaries speak at the University of Glasgow following a packed meeting in central Glasgow the previous evening.

The atmosphere in the hall was relaxed as the crowd of young people, students, university staff and a class of pupils and teachers from a southside secondary school listened to Yoselin Rufin speak. Relating from her own experience as a young student, teacher and political activist, Yoselin explained the Cuban conception of education, based on the centrality of the individual student, not only as a pupil but as a complex social being with many problems and relationships which every teacher had a responsibility to understand and care about. Her speech carried extra resonance in a city where many tens of thousands of working-class children grow up in conditions of poverty, deprivation and abuse and university remains largely the preserve of the wealthy.

Following warm applause, Jesus Garcia spoke about the nature of Cuban democracy, or rather the system of representation developed by the revolutionary Cuban people since 1959. He explained how basic principles of Cuba’s socialist system such as the right of recall together with the 2,000-odd mass organisations ranging from the Federation of Cuban Woman right down to associations of canary breeders (!) meant that the Cubans were practically implementing the concept of the “withering away” of the workers’ state as explained in the theory of Marx, Engels and Lenin.

Orlando Borrego took the floor to laughter and applause as he told the audience of the many different topics RATB comrades kept asking him to talk about before the very many meetings he had addressed in cities and towns throughout the country, from the economic ideas of Che Guevara to the development of Cuban socialism and now in Glasgow University about Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan Revolution. He drew parallels between the life of Simon Bolivar, the “liberator” of Latin America and the admiration held for him by Jose Marti, the apostle of Cuban independence, and the relationship between Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. Borrego shared the extraordinary pride he felt in being able to work alongside Chavez after being personally invited by him to discuss Che’s ideas on socialist construction and appear on the president’s TV programme “Alo Presidente!” He finished by giving his thoughts on the developing Venezuelan revolution and some of the dangers it faced.

In the discussion that followed, the Cuban comrades were very impressed by the level of political interest shown by the secondary school pupils, who asked questions on the causes of the collapse of the socialist countries in Eastern Europe and any advice the Cuban revolutionaries could offer to the socialist movement in Scotland. In response to the latter, Jesus Garcia said that he was not familiar enough with the situation in Scotland to give any concrete advice, but the key points from his own revolutionary experience were to firmly place socialism in the culture and history of one’s own people, consistently practice internationalism and to study everyday the works of thinkers like Marx Engels, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Gramsci. Borrego moved the audience with some touching anecdotes about Che Guevara that highlighted the humanity of the great communist.

Barely a sole left as the wind outside shook the university tower and the meeting was extended half an hour to accommodate extra questions. At the end, people stuck around to discuss with RATB comrades and join the campaign, and students from Spain, Bolivia, Argentina and India mingled with Scottish school students and teachers, everyone inspired by a great meeting.

Thursday 28 February, meeting report, Glasgow, Central Hotel

Over 350 Glaswegians cheered when Orlando Borrego declared that this was the largest audience so far in the Cuba: Socialism into the 21st Century speaking tour organised by Rock around the Blockade. The meeting began at 7:30pm on Thursday 28 February and by 10pm most of the audience remained listening intently as Borrego and the other Cuban speaker Jesus Garcia answered their questions, which ranged from agricultural organisation to freedom of expression for artists and the relationship between Cuba and Venezuela .

The meeting began with the RATB speaker Hannah Caller, who outlined the need to build solidarity with Cuba here in Glasgow . Outlining the privatisation of the health and education systems, the growing prison population, attacks on immigrants, increasing inequality and poverty in Britain , she pointed out the link between defending our own rights and defending the gains of the socialist revolution in Cuba.

Jesus Garcia pointed out how the word ‘democracy’ has been abused and manipulated by the political enemies of the world’s poor and oppressed and said he would describe Cuba’s participatory and representative electoral system so that the audience could judge it for themselves. Reading from this week’s issue of Socialist Worker, newspaper of the Socialist Workers’ Party, he exposed how they had distorted the truth about the Cuban power structure in claiming that it was a top down system. If this is the case, explained Jesus, it should be understood that at the top of the hierarchy in Cuba is the Cuban people – the entire population. He went on to explain how they directly elect representatives from their communities and the organisations of the masses. There are 2,000 social groups in Cuba – despite the claims of the Revolution’s enemies who claim there is no ‘civil society’.

Borrego spoke about the need to build political consciousness in the struggle for socialism – and pointed out the role of Rock around the Blockade in this ideological battle for a better future for humanity. He ridiculed a comment often heard about Cuba ; that the people don’t have enough food and pointed out that this is part of a conscious campaign to undermine the Cuban Revolution.

At the end of the event, it was clear it had had a profound impact on the audience; one woman said it was the most inspirational meeting she had ever attended. Dozens of people joined the campaign Rock around the Blockade, committing to building a Scottish socialist movement in solidarity with Cuba . As soon as the meeting finished a Glasgow Irish folk group struck up with songs of international resistance and people stayed enjoying themselves, and continuing informal discussions until 1am.

Socialism into the 21st century – dayschool at London School of Economics (LSE) – 1 March 2008

Socialism into the 21st century – dayschool at London School of Economics (LSE) – 1 March 2008

Following ten days of meetings around the country, the Rock around the Blockade (RATB) 2008 Cuban speaking tour came back to London for a dayschool of workshops and discussion. The event was hosted by the LSE Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! Society and attended by 150-200 people. Hassan Javid, the chair of the society, introduced the speakers at the first session, following which Helen Yaffe spoke on behalf of RATB and Yoselin Rufin, Orlando Borrego and Jesus Garcia all made introductory speeches prior to the meeting breaking into workshops to discuss the topics in greater detail.

Orlando Borrego told the audience how impressed he had been during the tour with the level of questions and the detailed knowledge some young people in Britain have about Cuba. He had been especially struck by a group of school students who had come to the Glasgow meeting. And he was also very pleased to see the level of interest in Che, not just as a guerrilla fighter depicted on a T-shirt, but as a serious political thinker.

The meeting then split into three workshops and in the final plenary session of the day three comrades reported back from these discussions.

Young People and Education in Cuba (Yoselin Rufin)
Annie from North-East FRFI reported that Yoselin had spoken about the role of mass organisations in Cuba in the development of young people from the earliest age. The discussion covered literacy, classroom sizes, lack of bullying in Cuban schools and the contrast between the visible thirst for knowledge in Cuba and lack of interest in education imperialist countries. In Cuba education is focussed on the whole person. Everyone can go to higher education and realise their full potential. At the same time it is recognised that people have different intellectual abilities and classes in schools are multi-ability with more able pupils assisting the less able, in stark contrast to schooling in Britain which divides in order to discard the less able pupils and make them feel worthless.

Democracy and popular participation in Cuba (Jesus Garcia)
Sam from London RATB reported that the workshop had discussed race and equality, the role of mass organisations, the relationship between the Communist Party of Cuba and the state, and the problems of bureacratisation (burocratismo). While the title of the discussion referred to ‘democracy’ it is a term Jesus prefers to avoid as it has been abused. A contributor to the workshop pointed out that when imperialists talk about democracy, what they mean is democracy for the ruling class.

The legacy of Che Guevara (Orlando Borrego)
Helen from RATB reported that Borrego had spoken about Che’s early life in Argentina, his travels through Latin America, his meeting with Fidel and Raul Castro and participation in the Granma expedition. He then went on to describe Che the economist, who developed the Budgetary Finance System for Cuban industry after the revolution. Che was adamant that leaders must not be separated from the people and that all leaders and managers must do voluntary productive manual labour. As a result he would work in the mines despite suffering from acute asthma.

The full meeting then had further discussion on these and other topics, including the press attacks on Cuba in Britain, the relationship between the Cuban state and other countries, including Iran and the former Soviet Union and how Cuba is tackling racism. Contributions were made by members of the Revolutionary Communist Group, Communist League and North London CSC and by comrades from Iran, West Africa and the Caribbean. Some speakers made comments about the role of the Soviet Union in supporting Cuba in the time after the revolution, stating that the USSR did not really care about developing socialism in Cuba but was only acting in its own interests. Comrade Borrego responded to by saying that Cuba was never ‘a satellite’, that after the Missile Crisis, when the USSR had wanted Cuba to accept an inspection of the island, Cuba had refused, and that the relationship was not one-sided as the USSR had also needed Cuba’s support against attempts to isolate it.

The final contribution from the platform was from David Yaffe, who said:

‘Cuba represents the vanguard in the long struggle ahead to create “another world” – to build socialism. Cuba is in the vanguard of the world fightback against imperialism, having withstood the mightiest empire the world has ever seen for the past 50 years. That is why all real socialists and progressive people throughout the world give their solidarity and support to the Cuban revolution.

‘In imperialist Britain we can best consolidate our support for the Cuban revolution by beginning the process of building a new socialist movement here.’

He then spoke about the vicious and dishonest coverage in the British press that followed Fidel Castro’s announcement he would not stand for election as president, and how, that sections of the British left repeated the same lies showed the absolute urgency of building this movement. Such a movement cannot be built without breaking from the Labour Party, whose leaders ‘personify parasitic capitalism’.

‘Opposing the war in Iraq and Afghanistan means totally breaking with the Labour Party. Opposing racist immigration laws and defending asylum seekers means totally breaking with the Labour Party. Opposing the increasing privatisation and fragmentation of the NHS and state education means totally breaking with the Labour Party. To build a socialist movement in Britain we must stand in solidarity with all those throughout the world resisting imperialism. To build a socialist movement in Britain we must stand in solidarity with socialist Cuba and the developing revolutionary democratic states in Latin America.

‘We must start now and build a new tradition that breaks with the sectarian attitudes in the British labour and left movement. It is no longer acceptable that some who call for solidarity with Cuba can, at the same time, call for a boycott of this speaking tour. Bob Crow, General Secretary of the RMT, made the point when he said he felt sorry for those who hadn’t got involved in it because they said it was some kind of sectarian enterprise, because it is they who are the sectarians and who are missing out.

‘The latest global financial crisis, triggered by the downturn in the US housing market, threatens to halt the relentless expansion of credit that has been the driving force behind economic growth in the major capitalist countries over the last 60 years. This will have serious social consequences. In Britain the reactionary Labour government is preparing for this outcome by attacking the working class. Labour is tightening further its ‘welfare to work’ regime and cutting the wages of public sector workers. Attacks on democratic rights to protest and organise will be strengthened. Increased surveillance and police powers will become the norm.

‘The decision to build a new movement cannot be delayed. From the Cubans we know another world is possible – a socialist one.

‘If you’re not in RATB join it today. If you’re in RATB and not in a socialist organisation, begin to work with the RCG today. Read and write for Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!, a newspaper that stands on the side of those fighting for socialism and against imperialism throughout the world.’

Viva Cuba socialista!
Viva socialism!
Let us build a new socialist movement in this country!

Cubans speak in Leeds, Monday 25 February, 2008

On Monday 25th February 2008, 120 mainly young people packed the Wade Suit of the Merrion Hotel, Leeds to hear Orlando Borrego speak about Cuban socialism.

Borrego was greeted with much warmth and enthusiasm. The meeting began with him asking for a show of hands by those who had ever visited Cuba; he was pleasantly surprised by the number who had. Orlando then went on to speak about Che Guevara as a person using a number of anecdotes to illustrate his character and his personality. He spoke for about 90 minutes before taking three questions:

The degree of mass involvement in the Cuban revolution;

Che’s concept of the ‘new man’ under socialism

The role of students in the revolution.

Answering the first, Borrego gave an account of how a peasant farmer helped Fidel when he was hiding in the mountains with two other comrades by bringing food and water; Orlando told us that the son of that peasant farmer, then illiterate, had subsequently gone to university after the revolution and was now one of the most important men in Cuba. This showed that the Cuban Revolution was not one made by a tiny group of middle class people who landed on a beach in a battered boat one night - but a massive revolution by the poor and oppressed.

On the second, Borrego explained that Che's ideas for building socialism depended fundamentally on developing a socialist consciousness which would be represented by the ‘new’ man or woman. Che’s view was that it was not possible to build socialism using capitalist techniques. Although it was crucial to develop the forces of production to produce material goods with high productivity, quality and variety, this needed to be done alongside a massive improvement in the educational, intellectual and cultural development of the people. This would be also expressed in selflessness and self-sacrifice – for instance, through the development of internationalism.

The last question Borrego liked very much: it enabled him to explain his admiration for the young and how they naturally represented the future. He was particularly insistent however on the need for young people today study in general and Che Guevara in particular, and to see him as an example to follow.