Socialists from US, UK talk with youth in eastern Cuba’s Santiago province
A welcome visit to cradle of Cuban Revolution by communists building revolutionary workers parties in their own countries
BY MARTÍN KOPPEL
AND TOM BAUMANN
SEGUNDO FRENTE, Santiago de Cuba province, Cuba—An enthusiastic welcome from 120 students assembled at a high school in this mountainous area of eastern Cuba greeted the arrival of six guests from the United States and United Kingdom.
The March 1 visit was a first for the school. Both students and teachers became more and more interested in exchanging experiences as they learned that the visitors, involved in editing, using, and distributing books published by Pathfinder Press, were communists building revolutionary working-class parties in their own countries.
Several students performed songs, dances, and skits, after which Elena Rivera, municipal director of education, welcomed the guests. A brief presentation of three recently published books and of the socialist newsweekly, the Militant, explaining how they are used by workers carrying out communist political work in the United States and other countries, was followed by a lively exchange of questions and comments.
After more music and dance performances, students and teachers massed around the literature table to buy the featured books and other Pathfinder titles.
The meeting was part of a three-day tour in Santiago province organized by the national leadership of the Union of Young Communists (UJC). The visit included several events in the city of Santiago de Cuba: an exchange with students at the University of Oriente, a meeting with the provincial UJC leadership, and a book presentation at what was once the family home of Vilma Espín. Espín was a central leader of the July 26 Revolutionary Movement and a Rebel Army combatant in the revolutionary war, commanded by Fidel Castro, that overthrew the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in January 1959. Her home was the general headquarters of the underground struggle in Santiago for a period of time.
The visitors also toured two historic sites—the family home of Frank País, a central leader of the July 26 Movement, murdered by Batista’s henchmen in 1957, and the Museum of the Underground Struggle, which recounts the work of the July 26 Movement in Santiago.
Visit to mountainous district
The trip to Segundo Frente (Second Front), north of Santiago in the foothills of the Sierra Cristal mountains, had particular significance. That’s where the Rebel Army’s “Frank País” Second Eastern Front, a vast liberated territory under the command of Raúl Castro, established its general headquarters in the town of Mayarí Arriba in 1958.
The story of how the Second Front was established, and of the social revolution that deepened throughout the region as the war accelerated, is told by Vilma Espín and Asela de los Santos, two combatants who helped lead it, in Women in Cuba: The Making of a Revolution Within the Revolution, one of the books featured in the panel presentations.
The tour of the area included a visit to the memorial honoring Rebel Army combatants and to the Museum of the Second Front, originally a few wood cabins used by Raúl Castro, Espín and other rebel leaders when they weren’t on the move throughout the region.
The meeting in the Segundo Frente district was held at the Rolando Matos Ferié Pre-University Institute. Students aged 15-18 had come from several nearby schools. Most were children of workers in Mayarí Arriba and surrounding towns. The grandparents of many of the students had been landless peasants under the Batista dictatorship. Facing the permanent threat of eviction and brutal reprisals from the tyranny’s troops and thugs, many peasants had aided the Rebel Army.
“Before the revolution, there were few schools and a lot of illiteracy here,” noted assistant school director Inés Maturell. The Rebel Army’s Education Department, headed by Asela de los Santos, opened some 400 rural schools throughout the Second Front with the help of peasant families. “Today, in the Segundo Frente municipality alone, we have 74 schools and even a university,” Maturell said. Segundo Frente has a population of about 40,000.
The students were all eyes and ears as Mary-Alice Waters, president of Pathfinder Press and a member of the Socialist Workers Party’s National Committee, gave a brief picture of the political work carried out by communists in the United States and other countries.
Going door to door in working-class neighborhoods and using the Militant and Pathfinder books, “we are part of the wide-ranging discussion among working people who are trying to understand the deepening world capitalist crisis and how they and other workers can effectively respond,” Waters said.
Today, she noted, working people in the U.S. are confronting high levels of prolonged unemployment, wages that are being slashed, and the loss of homes, savings and access to health care.
“And we’re only in the opening stages of the capitalist contraction,” Waters said. “Decades of political and social convulsions, as well as open-ended wars, lie ahead of us.”
As a result, growing numbers of working people are becoming more open to learning about the example of the Cuban Revolution, Waters said.
Fight to free Cuban Five
Workers are discovering the truth about the frame-up and imprisonment in the U.S. of five Cuban revolutionaries who were monitoring violent plans by counterrevolutionary groups with a decades-long record of deadly attacks on Cuba, operating with impunity from U.S. soil. As they learn of the integrity and dignity of these five fighters, workers become attracted to the political example they are setting and to the struggle to win their freedom.
Following the remarks by Waters, Róger Calero presented Cuba and Angola: Fighting for Africa’s Freedom and Our Own, and Martín Koppel talked about The Cuban Five: Who They Are, Why They Were Framed, Why They Should Be Free. Calero and Koppel described how hundreds of these and other books, along with several thousand subscriptions to the paper, have been sold as Militant readers go house to house, apartment to apartment talking with fellow workers.
Several students took the floor during the discussion. Marlén Sánchez, a 12th grader, commented on the importance for them of the fight to free the Five Heroes, as they are known here in Cuba. Beatriz Miniet, also in 12th grade, asked, “What are your experiences taking the fight to free the five to the American people, especially when the media blocks the truth?” She also asked, “What possibilities do young people in the United States have to get an education?”
In response, Koppel said the fight of the Cuban Five “strikes a chord among workers in the U.S. Many have firsthand experience with the capitalist cops, courts, and prisons.”
Calero noted the difference between education in the United States and Cuba. Schools in the U.S. reinforce class divisions and bourgeois values, he said. The socialist revolution in Cuba enables working people to continue expanding their access to culture and learning throughout their lives.
Afterwards students surrounded the display table, buying dozens of books, pamphlets, and copies of the Militant, while peppering their guests with more questions. In addition to the speakers, the visitors included Tom Baumann from the United States and Jonathan Silberman and Olivia Pallister from the Communist League in the United Kingdom.
By the end, virtually all books were gone. The rest were donated to the school library, to the pleasure of teachers and students alike.
While visiting Segundo Frente, the delegation also met and talked with two municipal UJC leaders, First Secretary Yunia Machuca and Noriel Almenares. Machuca, 34, was previously a teacher, and Almenares, 28, had served five years in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba, where he had responsibilities for political work among young soldiers.
The heart of the UJC’s efforts in this coffee-growing area is political work with young workers and farmers, Machuca and Almenares explained. After the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Sandy, the UJC in Segundo Frente organized a brigade of some 50 local youth to join farmers in helping salvage storm-battered coffee plants.
The UJC leaders also described how they work with young people interested in farming by organizing clubs at elementary and high schools, and involving students in tending vegetable gardens that supply their schools.
University of Oriente event
At the University of Oriente in the city of Santiago de Cuba, the socialists took part in a Feb. 27 seminar and related events around the study of the revolutionary legacy of José Martí, Cuba’s national hero. Held at the agricultural sciences campus, the one-day event drew students and teachers from throughout the university.
One of the organizers, Esperanza Aguilera, a professor at the university, had visited the Pathfinder stand at the Havana book fair the week before. When she learned about the planned trip to Santiago, she arranged for a Pathfinder presentation to be part of the day’s program.
An audience of 80 attended the presentation, which was followed by 45 minutes of questions and discussion.
Acting university rector Pedro Tejera Escull concluded the session. He expressed appreciation for the Militant and for the political activity the Socialist Workers Party carries out in the working class in the United States. Noting that the university library has a number of Pathfinder titles, he pointed to Cuba and the Coming American Revolution by SWP National Secretary Jack Barnes and My Life by Leon Trotsky.
After reading Cuba and the Coming American Revolution, Tejera said, he was surprised to find out the book wasn’t about a revolution that had never taken place, but about the present and future. When he met Socialist Workers Party members at an international conference in Cuba several years ago, Tejera recalled, he’d been struck that “while others talked about ‘social movements’ today, they were the only ones who talked about the working class.”
The probing questions and discussions continued around the book sale table outside the meeting room.
One of the most sought-after titles was the issue of Nueva Internacional magazine featuring the article “Capitalism’s Long Hot Winter Has Begun.”
“I need to read this,” a student remarked. “I want to understand more about the economic crisis. I’ve been following the news about the crisis in Spain.”
At the seminar’s closing session, prizes were handed out to winners of a José Martí essay contest. Rosa María Reyes, dean of the School of Social Sciences, thanked the guests from the U.S. and U.K. for participating. One reason Cubans are often unaware the economic problems they face today are sharply intensified by the global capitalist crisis, she said, is “that we’re protected by our government.” As a result of our socialist revolution, Reyes said, workers in Cuba don’t face the threat of unemployment or losing their homes, as in capitalist countries.
In discussions with the provincial UJC leadership Feb. 28, the SWP and CL members heard First Secretary Jorge Suárez explain the UJC’s work in boosting agricultural and industrial production in Cuba.
Response to Hurricane Sandy
This has become even more important in Santiago, where Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc last October. Suárez and other UJC leaders described how the organization mobilized brigades of youth who joined with others to help with the heavy cleanup and reconstruction work.
In response to the heightened danger of dengue fever outbreaks, the UJC also organized youth from Santiago and across the island into brigades that went house to house to work with local residents to eliminate breeding grounds for the mosquito that transmits the disease. Young people who want to continue working on such public health efforts are offered the opportunity to do so.
While everyday activity is largely back to normal in Santiago, the longer-term effort to repair and rebuild damaged housing and infrastructure is still under way.
Suárez was asked about the challenge of winning youth who are neither in school nor working a job to the revolution. He noted that the UJC, along with the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) and other mass organizations, goes house to house to work with these young people and draw them into productive activity.
UJC members Marianela Castañeda and Rocío Nápoles described a related UJC-led effort—the José Martí Brigades of art instructors, of which they are the president and vice president. The brigades go to local communities to give art classes and involve young people in music, drama and other cultural activities.
Event sponsored by FMC
A highlight of the Santiago visit was a presentation, sponsored by the Federation of Cuban Women, of two related Pathfinder titles: Women in Cuba: The Making of a Revolution Within the Revolution by Vilma Espín, Asela de los Santos, and Yolanda Ferrer; and its companion booklet Women and Revolution: The Living Example of the Cuban Revolution by Asela de los Santos and Mary-Alice Waters.
The presentation was held at Espín’s family home, now a museum that exhibits photos and other materials illustrating chapters in the Cuban Revolution in which Espín took part.
More than 100 people attended, among them some two dozen students, mostly young women, from a nearby high school. Also present were a dozen veterans of the Santiago underground and Rebel Army who had worked with Espín and de los Santos, along with cadres of the FMC and representatives of other mass organizations.
Margiola Sánchez, director of the Vilma Espín memorial, chaired the meeting, which featured remarks by Waters and Surina Acosta, FMC general secretary in Santiago province. Acosta, who was trained as a livestock specialist and worked for a number of years on a cattle-raising cooperative, is a deputy in Cuba’s National Assembly and just completed a five-year term on the country’s 31-member Council of State. The event was widely reported in the Santiago press and featured in the national TV newscast.
A fuller report on this event and a similar book presentation a week earlier at the FMC training center in Havana will appear in a coming issue of the Militant.