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Nicaragua and Cuba Trip Report

July 15-30, 1995
Marc Becker

(Also read about Cheryl's Afro-Cuban Culture Trip.)

Short trips have a way of making instant experts out of visitors to a region. Recognizing that, this report will seek to present a broad, though necessarily somewhat superficial, analysis of my recent trip to Nicaragua and Cuba. It will also draw on comparisons to previous experiences in the regions as well as between the two countries.

This trip was divided evenly with one week in both Nicaragua and Cuba. In Nicaragua we spent time in Managua and Matagalpa and in Cuba we were in Havana and Santiago. Highlights of the trip to Nicaragua included visits with a representative of the pro-Sandinista labor federation Central Sandinista de Trabajadores (CST), workers at a sugar mill near Nandaime in the southern part of the country, a representative of maquilladora plants near Managua, leaders of the marginal Jonathan Gonzalez neighborhood in Managua, a similar neighborhood community project in Matagalpa, and with farmers from the Campesino to Campesino soil and water conservation and organic farming program outside of Matagalpa in northern Nicaragua.

Our original plan to meet with similar labor, peasant, and community leaders in Cuba was unfortunately canceled. Instead, we joined a group studying Afro-Cuban culture and visited the "Casa del Caribe" in Santiago de Cuba (in the eastern part of the island) as well as participating in the city's first carnival in five years and watching a traditional African dance at an African Cultural Center. In addition, university students took us on a bike ride through Havana, we met with members of "Los Ancianos Tambien Pueden," an urban garden project of retired folks in Havana, labor representatives in Santiago, a group of elderly people who had participated in the revolutionary struggles in the 1950s, and a NGO association for the hearing impaired.

Undoubtedly, the highlight of the trip was being present at the Plaza de la Revolución in Managua on July 19 for the sixteenth anniversary celebration of the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution and in Guantánamo a week later on July 26 for the forty-second anniversary of the attack on the Moncada Barracks which marked the starting point of the Cuban Revolution which triumphed five and a half years later.

I expected these two events to be very similar but they were actually very different. The celebration in Managua had very much of a party atmosphere complete with loud music, fireworks, people waving banners, and kids building human pyramids and throwing each other into the air. Tomás Borge and Daniel Ortega spoke, largely of the need to look forward to the 1996 elections and build an electoral strategy which would ensure victory for the FSLN party.

In comparison to the youthful celebration in Managua, the July 26th events in Cuba were much more of a solemn commemoration of the Moncada uprising and the achievements of the Cuban Revolution. Whereas obviously certain people went to the Plaza in Nicaragua to get drunk and enjoy themselves, the crowd in Cuba was very restrained. Rather than blaring youthful music, in Cuba marshall music played over the loudspeakers as people waited for the program to commence. Its spirit was someplace between an organized political convention complete with delegates seated in a special section and a military event with goose-stepping soldiers handing out awards to people for their special achievements. Relative to each country's population, the roughly 30,000 people in Managua was about equal to the around 100,000 in Guantánamo since Cuba's population is about four times that of Nicaragua.

Fidel Castro traditionally has given long three-hour speeches at these events. As he prepares to pass power on to other people, he has not spoken at the July 26th commemoration for several years. It was, therefore, a special treat for us when he rose to the chants of "Fidel, Fidel!" to give a short 45-minute talk. He spoke of the gains of the revolution, of the improvements in the economy over the last year (a year ago the black market exchange rate was 135 pesos to the dollar; today it is 35 pesos to the dollar), and the need to stay the course even though many countries elsewhere have turned away from socialism.

The United States government has worked overtime to present Fidel as a thug and a dictator who the Cuban people would overthrow in a moment if it weren't for the severe repression. Since I have been presented with this propaganda since the day I was born, it was somewhat surprising to me two years ago when I was in Bolivia and Fidel came for Goni Sanchez's presidential inauguration. Whereas governmental officials responded somewhat coolly to him (no doubt under pressure from the U.S. government which the new neo-liberal government was seeking to please), the public responded enthusiastically in support of him. The spirit at Guantánamo was similar. Although with the declining economic situation in recent years (largely a result of the U.S. embargo against the country) some experts have said that his support has waned, there is still clearly a large segment of the Cuban populace who support Fidel and the socialist policies he represents.

Six years ago I was in Cuba for three weeks on an AFSC international workcamp. My sense from things that I have read and reports from people who have visited since then is that many things bottomed out last summer around the time when many people left on rafts for Florida. Things (both in material and subjective terms) appear to have rebounded since then and appear to be returning to the level which I observed in 1989. There are some important differences which can be observed on the surface. For example, due to the U.S. embargo which has resulted in a petroleum shortage there are now many more bikes in the country. Bike lanes now exist on the Malecón that were not there six years ago. A lack of artificial fertilizers has forced a rise in organic gardening practices. Of course, some people would argue that these are positive rather than negative developments. Overall, my impression is that most people generally support the government (those who are most critical have left), are happy, and the most dangerous threats to the country are the U.S. embargo and the ever-present threat of an all-out U.S. military invasion which surely would be bloody. Without such outside forces, the Cuban Revolution would continue to survive well into the next century.

Ironically, my most negative experience in Cuba was the same one that I had six years ago and concerns that of tourist apartheid. People have analyzed and I have personally observed the negative impact of tourism on indigenous cultures in places such as the Guatemala and the Ecuadorian Amazon. Although tourism is not in danger of destroying "fragile" and "primitive" cultures in Cuba, it was very disturbing for me as a North American with dollars to have access to goods and services which most Cubans did not. The Cuban government has embraced tourism as a way to generate hard currency to purchase much-needed products (such as petroleum) which the country cannot manufacture. In 1989, we visited a cafe in the port city of Trinidad which Cubans were not allowed to enter because it was a tourist cafe where everything was sold in dollars. Since then the dollar has been legalized in the country and this has become a much more common occurrence. In Santiago, Havanatur placed us in a resort which Cubans were not allowed to enter. Many more stores sell products only in dollars. Cubans can access some of these resources if they have dollars, but rather than distributing dollars based on need or merit people with relatives in Miami (the ones least likely to support the revolutionary process) are the ones who often have the dollars. What does this do to the egalitarian concept of a socialist revolution?

Overall, my impressions on this short trip to Cuba were positive and people who we met appeared to be cautiously optimistic for the future of the country. I also came away with similar impressions of Nicaragua. I had previously lived and worked in Nicaragua in 1985-1986 and have returned for two short visits in 1990 and 1993. During the first stay, I saw the country slowly collapse under the U.S. embargo and the U.S. sponsored contra war. In June of 1990 I returned shortly after the Sandinista electoral defeat to Managua's conservative mayor Alemán symbolically erasing pro-revolutionary murals on the walls and changing the big white FSLN letters on the FSLN hill to read "FIN" (The End). On a Kansas Student delegation in January of 1993, we were inspired by the hope and struggles of the Salvadorean people which placed the dire situation of the Nicaraguan people in a marked contrast. During that trip we met with communities who the Sandinistas supported in the 1980s; now without their presence they turned to us to play the role of "Santa Claus." It appeared that 12 years of struggle in El Salvador had ironically placed those people in a better position to survive than the Nicaraguan people who had enjoyed 11 years of Sandinista protection where everything had come so easily. (Is this an argument for the partisans of the Prolonged Peoples' War?)

After that experience, it was a pleasure to be inspired by the strength and struggles of the Nicaraguans we met on this trip. We visited a sugar mill which was the only one of the six in Nicaragua which in the current Chamorro government's privatization plans had been handed over to the workers. Despite difficulties, the workers' management of the fields and mill appeared to be going well and they were looking for ways to increase their production, diversify their production, and expand into new markets. In Matagalpa, we met with farmers in a Campesino to Campesino program which is a grassroots effort to test new plants and practices and to teach each other new agriculture practices. Although people in these communities presented us with formal letters requesting financial assistance for the communities' economic needs, they seemed to be empowered and ready to face the future. In both Managua and Matagalpa, we visited neighborhood development projects which worked on such issues as community gardens, drainage, water, and composting toilets. These projects demonstrated a spirit of self-sufficiency and an ability to organize and overcome problems which they faced.

It was encouraging to see that after more than a decade of war, the country has returned to peace and the prospect for a return to fighting now seems remote. A Sandinista trade union member noted that it might be easiest to go on strike or take up arms, but the FSLN wants to work with investors to build closer relations in order to improve the economic situation in the country. The FSLN appears to be moving in the same direction as the MNR did in Bolivia; after losing power it dropped its revolutionary rhetoric and was more concerned with regaining power than instituting deep-seated social changes. A 1996 Sandinista government (which is a very real possibility) would be much more moderate than the young group of revolutionary guerrillas who entered Managua in 1979.

Although this was a short trip, we had opportunity to visit with a variety of people in each country from various different sectors of society and with a variety of political opinions. Both countries have their share of problems and the future will not be easy for either one. Nevertheless, we witnessed a determination to survive and to struggle for a better tomorrow. In the face of neo-liberal economic reforms which are wrecking havoc on the world's poor, there remain glimmers of hope and optimism.

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