Mexico’s President Would Build Alliance to Counter Cuba Blockade / By William T. Whitney Jr.

Photo credit: People’s Dispatch

On the occasion of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel’s visit recently to Mexico, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) raised the possibility of many nations cooperating to oppose the U.S blockade of Cuba. AMLO has become Cuba’s champion in the international arena, and perhaps not accidentally: the governments of the two nations each originated from social and political revolutions.

The two leaders have built a tight relationship.  Diaz-Canal visited to Mexico in September, 2021. AMLO was in Cuba in May, 2022. And AMLO refused to attend a U.S – organized Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles in June 2022 because Cuba had been excluded. 

Accompanied by Cuban government officials, Díaz-Canel on February 11 joined AMLO in the Mexican state of Campeche. That Cuban medical teams are working there now may have helped determine the meeting’s location.

In remarks at a medical center,  AMLO lauded Cuba’s medical solidarity and described his own people’s unmet social needs. He called upon the U.S. government to end its blockade of Cuba:

[Cuba] has our respect, our gratitude, our support, and we are going to continue demanding the removal, the elimination of the blockade against Cuba, which is inhumane. And there’s more than voting in the United Nations where the anti-blockade resolution is always approved overwhelmingly, and then it’s back to the way it was.

I promise President Miguel Díaz-Canel that Mexico will be leading a more active movement so that all countries come together and defend the independence and sovereignty of Cuba. No longer will there be anything about treating Cuba as a terrorist country or putting Cuba on the black list of supposed terrorists.

Cuba has been able to count on support from Mexico. As the Bay of Pigs invasion was unfolding in 1961, former Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas spoke in defense of Cuba before 80,000 people in Mexico City’s Zocalo. Soon afterwards, Mexico’s government backed Cuba in the United Nations. Later Mexico rejected calls by the U.S. – dominated Organization of American States for member states to impose economic sanctions against Cuba and break off diplomatic ties.

AMLO visited Cuba in May, 2022. Speaking before Cuban leaders, he recalled “times when the United States wanted to own the continent …. They were annexing, deciding on independence wherever; creating new countries, freely associated states, protectorates, military bases; and … invading.”  The U.S. government, he declared, needs to know “that a new relationship among the peoples of America … is possible.”

While in Cuba he signed agreements for Mexican young people to study medicine in Cuba, for Cuba to provide Mexico with anti-Covid vaccines, and for hundreds of Cuban physicians to work in Mexico in underserved areas.

Months before, in September 2021, Díaz-Canel was the honored guest at celebrations in Mexico City of the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s national independence. Welcoming his guest, AMLO praised Cuba’s steadfastness in defending its revolution. Calling upon U.S. political leaders to lift the blockade on Cuba, he appealed to their good sense and rationality, saying nothing about nations uniting in opposition to the blockade. 

Photo credit: People’s Dispatch

[The U.S. government] must lift its blockade against Cuba, because no state has a right to subjugate another people, or another country … [And] It looks very bad that the U.S. government uses the blockade to hurt the people of Cuba in order to force them by necessity to confront their own government … President Biden, who shows political sensitivity, [must] take a wider view and put a permanent end to the politics of grievances against Cuba.

The emphasis was different, however, when the two leaders met recently, on February 11 in Campeche. AMLO unveiled an evolved and more forceful approach to ending the blockade. He bestowed upon Díaz-Canel Mexico’s highest recognition extended to foreign notables, the Aztec Eagle, and then praised Cuba as a special case for its strenuous resistance to U.S. enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine. He continued: 

I also maintain that it is time for a new coexistence among all the countries of America, because that model imposed more than two centuries ago is completely exhausted, it is anachronistic, it has no future. There is no way out, it no longer benefits anyone, we must put aside the trade-off imposed on us either to go along with the United States or be in opposition, courageously and defensively. 

It is time to express and explore another option, that of dialoguing with the leaders of all the countries and especially with U.S. leaders, and convince and persuade them that a new relationship between the countries of our continent, of all America, is possible. I believe that conditions are perfect now for achieving this goal of mutual respect.

In an interview later on, Mexican foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard offered some specifics:

President Lopez Obrador wants to bring the presidents of the progressive states of Latin America together to address food security, well-being and other issues that are important for our community of nations. This is something we have to discuss with other foreign ministers and move forward in the coming months. 

The progressive governments AMLO has in mind, according to Ebrard, are Mexico, Argentina, Brazil. Colombia, Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Chile, and Honduras. They include “the three largest economies in Latin America.” The implication may be that these countries, collaborating on various issues, political ones included, have sufficient economic clout to pressure the United States on Cuba.

President Díaz-Canel himself has been building other bridges. In recent weeks he visited Belize, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Barbados, for the 7th CARICOM (Caribbean Community) – Cuba Summit meeting.

AMLO’s focus on progressive nations is crucial. He has worked toward reviving the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) as a vehicle for collective action, despite participation there by conservatively-governed nations. Yet he did not attend the CELAC summit taking place in January and so may be discouraged as to prospects for CELAC serving his purposes. 

AMLO’s power to orchestrate regional support is limited. Only 18 months remain of his six-year term as president of a country dependent economically on the United States and divided geographically, ethnically, and by social class. Nevertheless, Cuba, whose external resources for ending the U.S. economic blockade are hardly infinite, badly needs international partnering that offers persuasive power. Lifelines thrown by AMLO are a start in that direction. 

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.

The Cuban Revolution: Made by teachers and students / by W.T. Whitney Jr.

Teacher Graciela Lage gives an English lesson at the Cuban School of Foreign Languages in Havana. | Desmond Boylan / AP

Cuban education has long been ground zero for ending inequalities.

Schools on the island are places where doors opened up for all Cuban young people to learn and for students, even of oppressed classes, to prepare for one or another kind of work that would contribute to Cuba’s development as an independent nation.

Cuban literacy teachers, 123 of them, arrived in Honduras on Dec. 20. With Honduran colleagues, they will be utilizing Cuba’s special method, “Yo sí puedo” (Yes I can), to teach literacy. It’s a technique that has found worldwide application.

Dec. 22 in Cuba is Teacher’s Day. On that date in 1961—Cuba’s “Year of Education”—Fidel Castro, speaking before a large crowd in Havana, announced the end of Cuba’s literacy campaign of that year. He declared Cuba to be a “territory free of illiteracy.”

On hand were 100,000 young people who had volunteered to teach the rudiments of reading and writing to illiterate adults living in rural areas. These young people, mostly from Cuba’s cities, lived with families they were teaching and did farm work.

Joining them in the island-wide literacy campaign were tens of thousands of volunteer teachers, unionists, and other working people. In the end, 271,000 literacy volunteers enabled 707,000 Cubans (out of a population of 7,291,200) to learn how to read.

The figure of José Martí, Cuba’s national hero, epitomizes for Cubans the affinity of education and revolution. Introducing Martí’s book On Education (Monthly Review Press, 1978), editor Philip Foner observes that, “Basic to the foundation of liberty, in the eyes of José Martí, was the education of the people. Nothing guaranteed that a government was anxious to serve its citizens as much as the haste it displayed in educating its people.”

Fidel Castro waves at literacy teachers and students in Havana after declaring Cuba free of illiteracy, Dec. 22, 1961. | Cuba Debate

In comments in September 1961 about the literacy campaign, Castro updated Martí’s idea: “One does not conceive of a revolution without also a great revolution in the educational arena … revolution and education are almost two synonymous ideas … [The] Revolution will advance and be successful the more it works in the field of education, the more competent technicians there are, the more competent administrators, teachers, revolutionary cadre it has.”

Foner notes that in 1959, 23% of Cubans were illiterate, the “average school education was below third grade,” and “only a few thousand” children were attending secondary schools. By December 1961, according to Castro, the revolutionary government had created 15,000 schools while converting military installations into schools and building schools for handicapped children.

By 1973, literacy was all but universal. Some 1,898,000 children were attending primary school, and 470,000 were enrolled in secondary schools, according to Foner. By that time, a “second educational revolution” was in progress with the training of 20,000 additional teachers to handle waves of students now attending secondary and pre-university schools.

A third educational “revolution” was underway from 2000 on. Associated with what the Cuban state referred to as the “Battle of Ideas,” it called for teaching that emphasized social justice and equality and was accompanied by moral and social support for students. Education in the arts expanded, and there were new social-work schools. Visual, audio, and computer-based methods were newly available to teachers.

University enrollment increased as authorities extended instruction to students’ own localities while relying on computer-based and televised teaching aids. By 2015, 80% of university students were studying close to home.

Some problems emerged, however. Teaching programs in science and technology lost students to courses in the humanities and social sciences. University teaching was contributing less than before to the country’s economic development. Fewer students were preparing to be teachers, and 20,000 teachers had left their posts for the sake of better-paying jobs.

Reversing course, the government cut back on university teaching at the local level, made entrance exams more competitive, re-emphasized scientific and technical training, and shortened the university course of study. As of 2019, 241,000 students, or one in three Cubans between 18 and 24 years of age, were studying in 50 university centers. Almost 50% of them were taking medical-sciences courses; 8,542 were art students.

All along, the U.S. economic blockade was causing shortages and adding difficulties. A report presented by Cuba’s Education Ministry in early 2022 explains:

  • Under blockade rules, Cuba lacks access to the credit needed for buying goods abroad.
  • Importing is difficult due in part to price hikes resulting from high freight costs for importing goods from places other than the United States.
  • The inflated costs of goods purchased abroad from third-party intermediaries discourage imports.
  • Under blockade regulations, specific items manufactured anywhere with even tiny U.S. components are prohibited.

The list of necessary and often missing items is long: paper, books, notebooks, computers, audio-visual devices, laboratory supplies, laboratory equipment, writing materials, art supplies, sports equipment, special devices used by handicapped students, musical instruments, recording devices, English language texts and books, broadband internet connections, and replacement parts for equipment.

Nevertheless, as the result of sustained efforts over decades, students have been prepared to take on varied tasks aimed at developing Cuba’s economy and building socialism.

  • Between 1960 and 2017, Cuban universities graduated 1.2 million “professionals,” including 80,000 physicians. Women accounted for 64% of university graduates in 2010, up from 3% in 1959. University graduates in 2019 made up 2.2% of Cuban workers.
  • Spending on education in Cuba in 2012 represented 9% of the GDP. The comparable figure in the United States currently is 4.96% of GDP. Cuba in 2018 dedicated 13% of its national budget to education.

In Cuba in 1995, a Cuban woman hitched a ride on a small bus carrying Maine visitors, myself included, from Havana to Trinidad. “We Cubans want producers, not consumers,” we heard her say. Fidel Castro spoke similarly on that first Teachers Day in 1961.

He dismissed fellow University of Havana law students as “all those people with nothing to do but to study to be a lawyer.” At that time, “the ruling class was not teaching the children of workers.” That “half the population, the rural population, had no secondary school” he regarded as a “serious problem for any revolution in an underdeveloped country like ours. What few technical workers there are come from upper-income sectors … from the economically and politically dominant class, which, logically, is opposed to revolutionary change.”

Leftists in the United States and elsewhere often regard reform and revolution as separate projects. Cuba’s experience of preparing young citizens to work at what would become socialism may be relevant.

Small though they may be, certain reforms happening now within U.S. schools, rife with inequalities, could end up serving the revolution on the way, and in that way be revolutionary. Such reforms: the fostering of equality among students, the inculcation of real knowledge about societal problems, and students’ work projects that are oriented to the common good.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.

People’s World, January 4, 2023,

US Government Must Let Cubans Eat – W.T. Whitney Jr.

Food availability was the top concern of 21 percent of Cubans responding to a recent opinion survey. The U.S. economic blockade has promoted food shortages. In 1960 the idea of a blockade was appealing to the U.S. State Department because it would cause deprivation and suffering.  Those intentions resurfaced in 1992 with the so-called Cuban Democracy Act, which, still in force, restricts foreign partners of U.S. companies from exporting goods to Cuba. It covers exports of food and agricultural supplies. 

Cuba’s food-supply system is presently unstable, due in part to a fragile Cuban economy. How it functions in the future will depend on the government’s management of agriculture and on the impact of the U.S. economic blockade. Economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic will play a role.

Some problems won’t be fixed soon. Sugarcane monoculture took a toll on soil fertility. The woody marabou plant, useful only for making charcoal and removable only with heavy machinery, has invaded 4.2 million acres of Cuban land – 18 % of the total.  Cuba has recently experienced severe drought conditions interspersed with intense rains and flooding; 60 percent of the land is at risk of desertification. The agricultural sector accounts for 40 percent of hurricane-related financial losses.

According to one report, disempowerment of women in rural areas “impedes progress in the agricultural sector.” Many young people lack incentive to work in agriculture. The burden of feeding urban dwellers has increased. They accounted for 58 percent of the population in 1960, 77 percent in 2018. 

Cuba’s food –supply problem manifests in the perennial need to import 60-80 % of food consumed on the island – at an annual cost of $2 billion.  

Beginning in 2008, Cuba’s government instituted economic changes affecting the entire society, agriculture included. The government and Communist Party alike fashioned ambitious documents that outlined comprehensive reforms. The first was the Party’s 2011 “Guidelines for Economic and Social Policies.” 

In 2008, private individuals and collectives gained long-term usage rights to small tracts of land. Now some 500,000 new, independent farmers work 4.9 million acres of agricultural land. Private farmers in general, new and old, occupy 5.93 million acres, which yield almost 80 percent of Cuba’s food.  

The largest class of farmers, the UBPC cooperatives, heirs of the dismembered state farms, control 8.42 million acres of Cuba’s total of 15.56 million acres of arable land; 1.16 million acres remain idle and unfarmed.

The new private farmers ought to be producing “even more food,” says one observer.  Supplies, equipment, spare parts, fertilizers, and seeds provided by state agencies are often unavailable, delayed, or of low quality. Access to credit and insurance may be limited. 

Cuban farmers face gasoline and diesel fuel shortages, mainly because of drastically reduced shipments from Venezuelan oil producers, paralyzed by U.S. sanctions. The impact on food production in May 2019 led to increased food rationing. 

Food distribution is inefficient. The National Union of [food] Collection, otherwise known as the “Acopio” (“collection” in English) is the Agriculture Ministry entity responsible for distributing food. Problems include delayed payments to producers, inadequate storage facilities, transportation delays, regional variations in service, and “cumbersome” criteria for defining food quality. 

The Acopio operates 400 state agricultural markets and 1200 other food-selling facilities. Consumers experience long wait times, unavailability of desired food products, and variable quality. Vendors setting their own prices often reserve higher-quality food for consumers paying with the convertible currency used by foreign visitors. Cubans relying on rationed food may be left with lower quality food and smaller amounts – and forced to pay high prices for food they still lack.

Some government efforts at bolstering food supplies look like the ecologically-oriented initiatives for feeding urban populations that appeared during the Special Period, after the fall of the Soviet Bloc. They bear names like “Program for Municipal Self-supply;” “the Program of Urban, Suburban, and Family Agriculture” (focused on growing food in small spaces), and the “Program of Local Support for Agricultural Modernization,” for 37 municipalities. 

Speaking in February, President Miguel Díaz-Canel called for local self-sufficiency and for the Acopio to collect farm products promptly and thoroughly. With more food arriving at markets, he suggested, the state could regain control over food sales and prices, and thereby push out speculators and black marketeers.  Later Díaz-Canel spoke approvingly of producers bypassing the Acopio and selling at local markets. There’s discussion of “participation of other state and non-state actors” in the Acopio system.

Citing the examples of Vietnam and China – socialist countries that export food – reformers propose using remittances from Cubans living abroad for investing in food production, thus promoting farmer autonomy. Díaz-Canel recently advocated greater involvement of scientists and academicians in food production, just as with the coronavirus pandemic. 

Overall, the official response to food-supply problems seems to lack focus and coherence. If so, maybe it’s because planners are stymied as they deal with a regimen of shortages cemented in place and intractable. 

The imagination sees a specter-like U.S. presence as government officials deliberate and as farmers and consumers complain. It’s in the room as officials look abroad to transfer money, secure credit, import food, and seek investment in agriculture, or when they want to import farm machinery, tools, spare parts, premium seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, purebred livestock. and hydrocarbon fuels. 

U.S. pressures on foreign financial institutions are unrelenting. Foreign suppliers face merciless penalties if they ship agricultural supplies to Cuba, especially if they have associations with U.S. companies or if their goods contain some tiny U.S. component. 

When agricultural projects end up badly in Cuba or when food is short, surely recriminations crop up and perhaps animosities and anti-government ideas also. These would be exactly what the U.S. doctor ordered.