by Danaka Katovich
A week ago I returned to the United States from Cuba where I got to spend International Workers’ Day with 100 other young organizers from the U.S., and of course the 700,000 people who celebrated in Havana that day. With the International People’s Assembly of North America, we spent a week learning about the Cuban socialist project and how the blockade imposed by the United States impacts life in Cuba.
For the conditions placed on the Cuban people, it is remarkable how successful their revolution is. One thing I want to emphasize is that Cubans, citizens or government officials, will rarely say that Cuba is a perfect place. I was astounded by the critical analysis that most people seemed to have. Our hosts never strayed away from the hard questions. We engaged in important discussions about a range of topics and they asked increasingly difficult questions of us too. So many people in the United States will tell you that we live in the best country in the world despite our streets being lined with unhoused people, our education system failing, our bridges collapsing, and our people dying because they can't afford healthcare. We are failing spectacularly at things Cuba does so well with a tiny fraction of the resources we have access to in the United States.
Life is hard for the Cuban people. In the United States it is uncommon to encounter masses of people who are aware of the origins of their material conditions. Many people are taught to attribute our poor material conditions to meritocracy. Maybe we did not work hard enough to deserve the things that give every human dignity.
The Cuban people knew it was my country that was starving them. They understand because the U.S. government has publicly admitted that the only reason the blockade is in place is to punish Cuba for trying to build something outside of the global capitalist order. Still, they treated me with so much kindness. They fed me well despite not having much.
In the United States we would benefit a lot from gaining a better understanding of where our suffering comes from. We need to get much better at managing nuance, which is something the Cuban people do not lack. They understand their suffering comes from multiple avenues and I didn’t encounter many that said their economic system is one of them. Despite the embargo, the Cuban government has been able to efficiently allocate the resources they do have to keep people alive, housed, in school, and engaging in work and popular education. I believe very deeply that is what any society should strive to do. Without the embargo I believe Cuba would be able to prove to the people of the world who suffer under the neoliberal order that another reality is possible. That is exactly what the embargo is trying to prevent.
I went into the experience particularly interested in how unions and cooperatives exist in Cuba. The first day of our trip, I spent the morning and early afternoon with the auto mechanics union and cooperative, Autochapt. I was interested to see how workers in cooperatives saw themselves within the revolution and how they functioned within socialist society.
The leaders of the mechanics union were probably the most fervent communists I met on the entire trip. They saw their work as critical to sustaining the revolution. Cars get people to work. Farming equipment helps feed people. Buses get people to where they need to go. In a country that cannot import new parts, auto mechanics become more relevant. Many Cubans drive American cars that are decades old. The mechanics have no access to importing spare parts so they manufacture the parts themselves in some cases.
The union members have a solid democratic structure for decision making and their pride for their union was tangible. The mechanics found their work meaningful. They did not feel as though people were making decisions for them. They told us how they voted to give 10% of their salaries to the victims of the hurricane that hit Cuba last year. We danced and paraded around the cooperative together and we approached a wall at the entrance of the cooperative that had a mural of Cuba surrounded by little rings hanging off of nails. It was made by the cooperative to illustrate the blockade. Taking turns, the group from the US, other countries and members of the cooperative broke down the blockade together, tearing the rings off the wall and throwing them to the ground.
I was also curious to see how minority religions function in a socialist society. Religion did not play an important role in the early days of the Cuban revolution, but today religious communities find themselves a part of the revolutionary society and there is significant religious diversity. Various kinds of Christianity are present there, including Roman Catholicism. Many people in Cuba practice several African religions and spiritualities.
As for Islam, when people think of Muslims and Cuba, they may think of the U.S.-run torture blacksite that has incarcerated Muslims exclusively since the War on Terror began. Twenty years later there are still 39 Muslim men held without charge or trial at Guantanamo Detention Center by the U.S. military. I thought of them often while I was in Cuba, especially when I spent time during Eid at the only mosque in the country.
The Cuban Muslim community is small at about 4,000 people, not including Muslims from countries around the world who attend school in Cuba. The Cuban government has an entity that deals with and meets the needs of religious communities, including the Muslim population. The government built the mosque after three men came back from their pilgrimage to Mecca in 2015. In conversations at the mosque, I asked men and women how their religion relates to socialism. They said it would be disrespectful to compare Islam and socialism, but believe they run parallel to each other, both with the intention of raising people up and making life better for everyone. They said the socialist project has contradictions but Islam does not.
All the women I met there were converts, and all of them recounted stories of feeling incredibly welcome by the Muslim community and at the mosque when they were thinking of converting. One of the older women said she felt like the community at the mosque was her new family.
I also visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center, which provides support to delegations like the one I went on. Our guides from the MLK center, Edelso and Izett, always took the time to answer our questions and be present with us for the entire week. Izett talked a lot about liberation theology as a means of freeing everyone, not just people who practice a certain religion. There was a small chapel in the heart of the MLK Center where Izett spent over an hour talking to us about the complexities of Cuban society. Many people in the United States say that the Cuban government doesn’t take kindly to religious diversity, but I can say confidently that is not the case. In fact I struggle to envision a government in the United States that would provide a fraction of support that the Cuban government does to religious minorities.
I cried a lot during the week I was there. One moment that stuck with me was when I found out that Cuba tried to send support to us after 9/11. Cuba was one of the first countries to call after they heard the news of the attacks on the World Trade Center. President Bush refused support not just after 9/11, but also after Hurricane Katrina. When Cuban doctors were turned away from assisting people in the United States they flew to Kashmir to help people affected by the earthquake that had just happened there. In the wake of horrible tragedies like 9/11 and Katrina, the world would be a much better place if more countries sought genuine international solidarity. Cuba was not expecting anything in return.
While we starved them, they tried to give us life. Tears streamed down my face as I heard Cubans tell me over and over again they stand with us. They feel for us because we don’t have healthcare, housing, democracy, or education for all. We have a surveillance state, police crackdowns, brutality, starvation student debt, unemployment and no meaningful way to engage in our governance. They want a better life for us as our government robs them of the opportunity to create something radically different.
I was eating dinner with our Cuban hosts when we got word that Roe had been overturned. The table went silent. The Americans were scared and the Cubans were afraid on our behalf.
The American working class and Cubans have much more in common than the dinosaurs in Washington would have us think. Both face an important task: demanding dignity from the imperial core that constantly works to undermine our right to life. In that regard, we can learn many things from Cuba. The U.S. has not achieved its goals in Cuba, a country that has been standing toe to toe with the neoliberal world order since 1959. The 100 young people who returned to the United States and Canada a week ago, including myself, are willing to go to bat for the Cuban people and meet their first and foremost demand: end the embargo.
To everyone I met in Cuba, from the US and around the world, I feel incredibly lucky to have met you. There is no one else I'd want to be in this fight with. I hope to see you all very soon.