Forty years ago on April 16th , 2001, in the Vedado section of Havana, Fidel Castro announced to the Cuban people and beyond that the Cuban revolution had become a socialist revolution. On April 16th, 2001 in the same place, Fidel reaffirmed Cuba's commitment to socialism to an enthusiastic gathering of a reported half a million people.
Fidel spoke for slightly over an hour on a hot and sunny day in the late afternoon. For the first 25 minutes, he recounted the historic days of April 15th to 19th, 1961. Forty years ago on April 15th, pilots from the U.S. and Cuban exiles tried to destroy the Cuban airforce by intense bombing. They destroyed some but not most of the Cuban military planes. This was the beginning of the Bay of Pigs invasion, an illegal U.S. organized effort to overthrow the legitimate and popular Cuban revolutionary government. Over 1200 Cuban exiles trained and paid by the CIA and heavily armed, landed in Playa Giron (or the Bay of Pigs) in central Cuba, early on April 17th, 1961. They hoped to establish themselves there and then call for U.S. military support. The Cuban armed forces, aided by hundreds of thousands of Cubans who had mobilized in militias, quickly defeated the counterrevolutionary Cubans who surrendered unconditionally two days later. Fidel, in his speech today, honored the Cubans who died in these attacks. He and many of the speakers at this huge rally, called the Bay of Pigs the first defeat of U.S. imperialism in the Americas. On Cuban TV and in towns and cities throughout Cuba, the defeat of the U.S. sponsored invasion of 40 years ago is being celebrated. The survival of a non-capitalist Cuba 90 miles from the U.S. against continued U.S. aggression is inspiring .and deserves to be honored. Part of the purpose of these gatherings is to reinvigorate the revolutionary spirit of the Cuban people in a period of continuing economic hardship for most.
The bulk of Fidel's speech was devoted to the theme that the advances of the Cuban people are because of the socialist nature of the Cuban revolution. In a rhythmic manner, he told the attentive audience that without socialism, Cuba would not have free education from primary school through the university, free health care for all, an infant mortality rate of 7 per 1000, full entry of women into all aspects of society and low rates of drug addiction and violence. Castro also told the audience that without socialism, Cuba would not be the society it is today—an independent country that actively promotes internationalism and international solidarity, a sharp alternative to neoliberalism, a society that supports the equality and dignity of all people. The word socialism was used repeatedly in Fidel's speech and there were billboards all around promoting socialism This was very fitting on the day that celebrated the 40th anniversary of Cuban socialism. A recurring theme was that the Cuban revolution was by the humble, with the humble and for the humble. He also strongly attacked the structural adjustment policies of the International Monetary Fund, and said Cuba had no interest in joining the IMF. However, missing in his speech and in Cuban discourse in general is a discussion or an analysis of what socialism is. This is particularly important given the collapse of the Soviet Union and the growing amount of production in Cuba that is for profit.
Fidel mentioned the difficulties faced by the Cuban people during the Special Period, the period that began in 1989 and continues today. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies meant a 75% contraction of Cuban foreign trade and the end of Cuba's ability to buy oil cheaply and sell sugar at decent prices. Output and income fell by almost 40% from 1989-1994, greater than the decline of production in the worst years of the great depression in the United States. Beginning in late 1994, there has been a slow but steady economic recovery, but per capita output is still substantially below the level of 1989, approximately 20% lower. Income inequality has grown substantially in the 1990's as the dollar is increasingly used for buying and selling goods and services. The main divide today is between those who have access to dollars, roughly half the population and those who don't have access to dollars. The main source of dollars is money sent to Cuban citizens from family members in the U.S. and other countries. Another large source of dollars is working or being connected to the tourist industry. A cab driver transporting tourists makes more in a few days than a doctor can make in a month. Tourism has become the dominant industry in Cuba, the Cuban government is committed to expanding it. It is both a source of important income and foreign exchange but also brings in some very non-socialist values. Those who do not have dollars do not starve but have almost no income left over to buy anything but food. Most Cubans today are poor although there is not the misery, hunger, homelessness that marks the rest of Latin America and most of the Caribbean. I wish that Fidel had spent more time in this or other speeches analyzing how the Cuban government and Communist Party hoped to address the growing inequality in Cuba, poverty and the growth of individualism.
Fidel spoke strongly about the illegality of the continuing U.S. blockade against Cuba. Part of the attempted strangulation of Cuba is the U.S. government's attempt to limit travel of U.S. residents to Cuba. The growing number of non-leftist U.S. tourists to Cuba is striking, qualitatively more than in my earlier visits to Cuba in the early 1990's. The U.S. blockade/embargo has almost no support internationally. In addition, by visiting Cuba the people of the U.S. are increasingly voting with their feet against the travel ban and against U.S. policy.
Fidel Castro concluded with a call to the Cuban people to be ready to defend themselves against the militaristic President of the United States, George W. Bush. It was clear that almost everyone at the rally was willing to defend Cuba, no matter what the risks. It is our responsibility to work to end the U.S. blockade and other war like acts by the U.S. against Cuba. Venceremos.
Peter Bohmer Havana, April 16, 2001