“In the first three years of the revolution, 1959-61, all measures were taken to disarticulate the capitalist system at its base.” This is how Zuleica Romay Guerra – Director of Afroamerican Studies at Casa de las Américas – began her explanation of the Cuban housing system. It was the first full day of activities for the brigade to Cuba attended by myself and four other TANC comrades, along with about 150 other tenant organizers, labor organizers, and left activists from all over the US. The aim of the brigade was to educate and inspire action against the US government’s homicidal sanctions regime against Cuba (known as “the blockade”), which has cost the country over $1 trillion and an unknown number of deaths due to denial of access to medicine and other needed supplies.
She continued, explaining that an important part of this “disarticulation” was the Urban Reform process. The revolution took the property of the large landlords, allowing them to keep one property in the city and one in the country or beach. The rest were given to the people of Cuba. “Many of the landlords left the country, trusting that the revolutionary government would not last long and leaving their properties in the care of their cook, gardener, or maid.” She continued, to a huge applause, “In some cases that person ended up being the owner of the house”.
Today, 80% of Cubans own their homes. The vast majority of the rest are in a contract with the state to buy their home over time, with monthly payments of 10% of household income. Eviction simply does not exist in Cuba.
This is not to say things are perfect. The Cubans are quick to discuss the shortcomings of their revolution. They still have a deficit of about 900,000 homes, with many staying in dilapidated or overcrowded housing at present as a result. Improving housing “is a debt we have to our people”, said Abel Prieto, former Minister of Culture. In the US, the housing shortage is an inevitable consequence of the uncontested capitalist structure of the housing market, and the state impotently sides with developers who cannot produce housing for the vast majority or homeowners. In Cuba it is understood by the state as a debt to the people.
In a short space such as this, one obviously can’t convey anything close to the full sense of a country. (If you want to know more you should come to our report-back event, currently scheduled for June 23rd.) I limit my aim to conveying something of the seeds from which the Cuban revolution has grown, a bit about the current soil conditions, and maybe a few snapshots of its flowers, in the hopes that you can imagine the rest of the garden.
The Cuban constitution quotes José Martí – poet, essayist, author of Cuba’s unofficial anthem Guantanamera, and revolutionary hero who died in the Cuban War of Independence: “I want the first law of our republic to be the worship of the full dignity of the human being.”
These are beautiful words but they are not just beautiful words. In Cuba people can be shockingly well-rounded; anecdotally a fluency with history, sociology, and global politics seems widespread. Halfway through the trip, waiting in a parking lot outside the University of Physical Culture and Sports Sciences, our tour guide Jesús casually mentioned he used to be a national champion wrestler.
Moments later, he launched into an extemporaneous speech that was deeply dialectical and materialist, on the importance of sports in the Cuban revolution. As he told us, anyone in Cuban society with talent can specialize in sports, regardless of their origins. Javier Sotomayor, holder of the world-record for high jump which has been standing for 30 years, is the son of a day-care worker and a worker in a sugar factory. Those who pursue sports receive a high-quality traditional education as well, so they can find other work if they decide sports are not for them, as Jesús did.
Jesús' skill as a speaker was beyond impressive: we were no longer in a parking lot in the hot sun, we were in a lecture hall.
Beyond anecdotes, adult literacy in Cuba stands at somewhere between 99 and 100%. In the US, a heart-breakingly low 79% of adults have at least “medium” literacy (8.1% are functionally illiterate and an additional 12.9% have very low literacy).
On another day, at ELAM, Cuba’s medical school for international students, a professor explained that they practice “bio-psycho-social” medicine and treat the patient “body and soul”. The first thing studied by incoming students is poetry. Cuba trains their doctors to give treatment to patients not just as biological organisms, but as human beings embedded in a social context.
This is of course a structural impossibility in a capitalist medical system where patients are discrete consumers of healthcare which has been stuffed into the form of a commodity, where doctors are vendors of this commodity on an individual basis, with almost no connective structures across visits and none across patients. In Cuba by contrast, the medical system is part of the state, and doctors are connected to apparatuses with the capacity to intervene at a societal rather individual level.
There is a massive contradiction in trying to embody this high-minded spirit of humanism in the context of the extreme material deprivation brought about by the US blockade. One of the students at ELAM, an American, told us with pain in her voice how hard it is to practice medicine with such few supplies, and how in her time in Cuba she’s seen elements of capitalism start to creep in around the tourist economy. From my experiences in the touristic parts of Havana, it was clear this was the case. There is inequality generated by the inflow of tourist money, and people’s differing proximity to that flow. For example, there is now a stratum of Cubans who make a high income operating privately-owned Airbnbs. I met such a man on the street, who for fun also runs a socialist book-stand.
While chatting with the medical students after their presentation, the lights cut out in the auditorium we were in – a symptom of the fuel shortage the country has been experiencing – and we shuffled back onto our buses.