A participant of the May Day Int’l Brigade, Steve Halpern born and raised in Newark, New Jersey. During those years, he witnessed the 1967 rebellions, and was in high school during one of the longest teacher’s strikes in the country.
For close to forty years Steve lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and have worked in automotive production and as a housekeeper. During those years, he worked in solidarity with workers struggles throughout the world, including the struggle to overthrow the apartheid regime of South Africa.
The title of his novel is “Looking Back From 2101” where he imagined a future world devoid of poverty and discrimination. Steve also has an unpublished book of poems titled, “What Does The Word Freedom Mean?” Many of his poems can be seen on his blog: Human Needs Before Profits.
Recently I returned from two weeks in Cuba. I was one of 287 members of the 2017 May Day Brigade that was sponsored by the Cuban organization ICAP. ICAP has been organizing friendship brigades to Cuba for several decades. I believe there were about thirty-nine nations represented in our Brigade.
Towards the end of our time in Cuba, I asked several brigade members how they would describe their time on the island when they returned home. While everyone appeared to be inspired by our time in Cuba, many brigade members found it difficult to summarize what they found to be inspiring.
So, I’m writing this blog in an attempt to show what I found to be truly inspirational about our time in Cuba. However, in order to do this I first need to step back and look at the environment that we all came from.
While the members of the Brigade came from many different countries and spoke different languages, we all have a common experience. We all live in nations organized by the political economic system known as capitalism.
So, I will begin this blog by outlining some of the problems with the capitalist system in the nation I’m familiar with which is the United States.
Life in the United States of America
During the years when I attended schools in this country my teachers always started the day with a ritual. We would all stand up, place our hands on our hearts, and pledge allegiance to the flag that supposedly represented “liberty and justice for all.”
Many years after my time in school, I learned that this same Pledge of Allegiance was written by a socialist named Francis Bellamy. The words, United States of America, were not in Bellamy’s pledge. Bellamy’s original words to his pledge were “I pledge allegiance to my flag”, and his flag represented a future socialist world that would have “liberty, justice, and equality for all.” Bellamy didn’t include the word equality because it was controversial at a time when women, Black people, and Native Americans didn’t have the right to vote.
One of the reasons why I began to question what I was learning in school was the environment at that time. While I was pledging allegiance, the United States government was carrying out a holocaust in Southeast Asia that would cost the lives of millions.
Just before my first year of high school in Newark, New Jersey, the National Guard was mobilized and went to war against the people of the city. The National Guard murdered over twenty people including several children.
Black people had justifiable grievances against the institutionalized racism of this country. These grievances came to a head with the systematic police abuse of the Black community. Hundreds of cities across the United States joined with the residents of Newark protesting these inhumane conditions.
The teachers of Newark went on perhaps the longest teachers strike in U.S. history.
While all of this was going on, I took notice of the gross inequality in this country. Most of the students in the high school I attended were Black. The school was located in close proximity to the crowded housing projects. The school itself was run down and there was no full sized gymnasium for over 700 students.
Within a half hour drive of this school, there were other publicly funded schools that had swimming pools, tennis courts, and every convenience one could think of. There were also private schools that today cost close to $40,000 per student per year to attend.
I began to realize that this gross inequality did not happen because of a lack of sensitivity, or because of mistakes in policy. No, this inequality is a fact of life because there is something profoundly wrong with the political economic system of the United States.
Years after my time in school I read a book by James Loewen titled, Lies My Teacher Told Me. This book documented the fact that the history books I was required to study were filled with outright falsifications. Loewen argued that this is one reason why students are alienated from school.
The falsifications those history books promoted argued that the United States has a glorious history. This history was interrupted with a few problems that had been magnanimously corrected a long time ago. These falsifications are necessary in order to convince students that the government as well as corporations are worthy of their support.
The actual history of the United States is a bit different. This history includes: genocide against the Native Americans, the horrors of chattel slavery, the inhumanity of the factory system that included child labor, and the fact that women didn’t have basic human rights for most of U.S. history. The source of change in this country didn’t come from the government, but from those who organized to protest against government policy.
Working for a living
When someone leaves school and enters the workforce, that person continues their real education. On the one hand, the individuals now have money that can used as they choose. On the other hand, there is a new kind of regimentation that the worker learns she or he has no control over.
Sooner or later the worker learns that there are real problems on the job that are very difficult to rectify. While the Constitution says there is freedom of speech, workers understand that they can be fired if they attempt to organize a union.
Then, we learn that we need to plan for our retirement, our health care, as well as the education for our children. While every worker produces vast quantities of wealth, most of this wealth isn’t used for our benefit. Why do I say this?
Today, corporations as well as the government argue that cutbacks in all or most social services are necessary. However, the Apple corporation acknowledges that profits on their cell phones are about 40% to 50%. If this is the typical markup on commodities, why are prices so high?
The capitalist system gives us visual aids in answering this question. The largest cities in this country have numerous skyscrapers that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build. In order to work in these skyscrapers, one must wear expensive clothes and men almost always wear ties.
Many of the enterprises housed in these buildings are: insurance companies, banks, advertising agencies, corporate headquarters, as well as corporate law firms. Now, we might think about the goods and services working people need and want. These include: food, clothing, housing, transportation, communication, health care, education, as well as exposure to culture like music, theater, sports etc. . .
You might notice that the enterprises housed in those skyscrapers contribute nothing to the value of the commodities we need and want. However, when we pay for any commodity, we need to pay for all the services housed in these skyscrapers. This is one reason why prices are so high.
Another reason is that less than one percent of the population owns and controls half of the financial wealth in the United States. Again we see how this small minority takes a cut out of the sales of all commodities.
So, when workers ask ourselves: Why there is such a profound disparity in the standard of living in this country? The answer is that this is the basic nature of the capitalist system.
Other features of capitalism
When we speak of the unnecessary institution of advertising, we might mention the street named Madison Avenue in New York City. This is the center of an enterprise that uses about $200 billion every year.
One of the primary tasks of advertising is to make women feel insecure about their appearance. The image advertising agencies promote is the nineteen-year old runway model. Their goal is to convince women to purchase billions of dollars worth of clothes and jewelry to conform to this impossible image advertisers promote.
Another issue concerning women is abortion. The primary issue about abortion is whether or not women should have the right to decide if and when they will become mothers. In the United States there are powerful forces dedicated to taking away this right of women to control their own bodies.
While the government argues that discrimination is against the law, Blacks, Latinos, and women experience systematic discrimination. Anyone who lives in the U.S. has a better chance of going to prison than citizens of any other nation in the world.
Trump and Obama
Today, much of the media in this country is critical of President Donald Trump. They argue that he is unfit to be President and that he has been dishonest.
One of those critics is former President Barack Obama who implies that Trump disdains facts. Well, there are a few facts that Obama isn’t too fond of.
Obama argued that he improved health care in this country with his Obama-care. The Department of Agriculture argues that about one out of every six people in this country doesn’t have enough food to eat. Clearly, not having enough food to eat is harmful to one’s health.
Immigrant workers are indispensable to the economy of this country. Without these workers entire enterprises would shut down. Yet Obama deported more immigrants than any other President.
Many of these immigrants have children who were born in this country. When they are deported, the children are sent into foster care and might never see their parents again. Yet Obama says he is critical of people who disdain facts.
When we look at the true history of the United States, we also see a history of struggle. Unions carried out momentous battles for decades to improve the standard of living. Black people mobilized to do away with Jim Crow segregation, so they would have citizenship rights in this country. Women also mobilized so they could have the right to vote, as well as the right to decide if and when they would become mothers.
Corporations are not in business to improve the standard of living of workers. No, corporate executives are obsessed with cutting costs.
So, when working people mobilized so we might have better lives, corporations responded. They invested massive amounts of money into nations where the prevailing wages are two dollars per day. As a result entire industries shut down, and there was a tremendous growth in the Chinese economy.
One of the reasons why the United States government doesn’t like Cuba is because that government uses its resources to support the interests of the people. Corporations would prefer that the wealth of Cuba be used to enrich the affluent as it did before the revolution.
The experiences of the rest of the world
During our time in Cuba we learned from Brigade members of problems in other parts of the world. Thinking about these problems, we all developed a greater appreciation for Cuba.
Latin America: We learned from Brigade members that the nations of Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina all experienced a similar development. These nations experienced economic upturns. The governments of those countries made modest concessions to workers during those years. Then, the economies went down and now the new governments of those countries are demanding cutbacks from the workers.
We met several Brigade members living in Chile who had been forced to leave the country because of the U.S. supported military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. They received asylum from several nations and lived outside Chile for over ten years.
Africa: We met people from Zambia and Ghana. The people from those countries were looking for ways to develop their countries. Africa has been one of the most mercilessly exploited continents in the world.
Cuba sent it’s armed forces to Angola to defend that nation from an invasion supported by the former apartheid regime of South Africa.
The developed nations of Asia and Europe: There were members of the Brigade from South Korea, Japan, The United Kingdom, Denmark, Austria, and Switzerland. We discovered how workers in these countries are experiencing the same kinds of cutbacks as in the United States.
South Korean and Japanese workers have been protesting the fact that there are U.S. armed forces occupying parts of their countries. The U.S. also occupies a section of Cuba at the Guantanamo Naval Base. Our entire Brigade was united in demanding that the United States return their military base in Guantanamo to Cuba.
Turkey & Kurdistan: We learned from a Brigade member that many political activists are now serving time in prison because of the repressive policies of a dictatorial government. Most Kurdish people live in Turkey and they have been experiencing horrendous discrimination for centuries.
Haiti: Haiti is the closest neighbor to Cuba. The extreme poverty of the country as well as natural disasters have had devastating consequences. Former U.S. President William Jefferson Clinton and the President of Haiti supervised how the relief money would be spent. About thirteen billion dollars was raised for earthquake relief. According to a member of the Brigade, this money did little, if anything, to improve the lives of the Haitian people.
On the other hand, Cuba has been sending doctors to Haiti for over ten years. These doctors clearly improved health care in that country. Cuba has also trained over five-hundred Haitians to become doctors. This was done free of charge.
How is Cuba different?
During our first days in Cuba, Brigade members carried out agricultural tasks on farms. We went to our work locations on the back of a truck, and we used a ladder to climb in.
While this was basic work, we were under no compulsion to work faster or face the threat of termination. No, the Cubans told us of all the work we did and were appreciative of our efforts.
The rooms we stayed in were primitive compared to living conditions in the developed nations of the world. I shared a room with seven other Brigade members and most had similar accommodations.
So the immediate question is: What is so special about Cuba given that our living quarters clearly were not of the standards of the United States?
In order to answer this question, we need to look at facts that the capitalist media rarely considers. Today, about half of the world lives on two dollars per day or less. About one billion people in the world do not have direct access to electricity or running water. According to the United Nations, every day about 30,000 children die of preventable diseases.
These were the kinds of conditions most Cubans experienced before the revolution. What we all experienced in Cuba reflected a dramatic improvement over the extreme poverty and ignorance experienced by the Cuban people before the revolution.
We might also reflect on some of the things we didn’t encounter in our time in Cuba. There were no skyscrapers that housed banks, or insurance companies, or advertising agencies, or corporate law firms.
Yes, corporations are in Cuba invested in things like tourism and nickel mining. However, those corporations are strictly regulated by the government.
What does all this mean for the Cuban people? Today infant mortality in Cuba is lower than in the United States. Life expectancy is about the same in Cuba as the United States. The percentage of people who have AIDS in Cuba is significantly lower than in the United States. No Cuban has to worry about how they will pay astronomical medical bills because health care is a right for everyone on the island.
When thinking about these facts, we might also consider that Cuba spends significantly less on health care as the United States. Cuba has a population that is 100% Latino and about 40% Black. These communities in the United States have the least access to health care, yet in Cuba the facts show that these same communities have better standards of health.
We see a dramatic difference in Cuban health care when it comes to dentistry. About one-third of the U.S. population doesn’t have dental insurance. So, by the age of retirement, about twenty percent of the population have no teeth in their mouths. Yet, cosmetic dentistry for the affluent is booming. In Cuba everyone has the right to a lifetime of dental care.
Because of the economic blockade against Cuba by the U.S. government, Cuba lacks in many medical supplies that would help save Cuban lives. However, when we look at the overall standard of health in Cuba, there is one inescapable conclusion. Cuba overall, has a better health care system than the United States.
I began to see the difference in values of Cubans to the values in the United States in a discussion I had with Cuban baseball players. We visited the home of a former Cuban baseball player. He made his home into a museum documenting the history of Cuban baseball.
Investors liked what he had done and offered this person a considerable amount of money to sell his home. When he refused this offer, he was offered another considerable amount of money to rent out his home to be used as a museum. This person refused that offer as well because he wanted control over how his home was used.
This large amount of money might have made the life of the former baseball player a bit easier. However, this person argued that his family never went without food and their needs were taken care of. This person now works with children with disabilities to teach them the game of baseball.
The highpoint of our time in Cuba was the May Day event. We had the opportunity of seeing over one million people marching in the Square of the Revolution giving their enthusiastic support to the government.
Unlike in the United States, the Cuban people learn the truth about their history. They learned that they were once a nation of abject poverty and ignorance. They learned that before the revolution the only so-called job open to many women was prostitution. They learned that all of this happened so a small percentage of Cubans and the affluent from the United States could benefit. They learned that the present government is dedicated to making sure that Cuba will never live that reality again.
We visited a medical college in Cienfuegos. There the director of the college told us how the Cuban people are proud of the fact that they have trained thousands of doctors from all over the world.
After his talk we listened to a musical performance by about sixteen children aged five to about sixteen. They sang the famous song, We Are The World. Listening to those children give their outstanding performance was another high point of our time in Cuba. The words to that song, sung by those confident children, gave us the impression that yes, a better world is possible.
We listened to many different talks about the Cuban reality concerning the relations with the United States, the Cuban economy, how Cuban women are advancing, and how Cuba organized to teach everyone on the island to read. We were all impressed by the professionalism of all these talks. We were also impressed by the honesty of what we were listening to. In the capitalist world, all ideas promoted by those who have power are tinged with the reality that the super-rich will get their cut of the action.
We viewed a film titled Behavior. This film exposed some of the real problems Cuban people have today. The story was about a troubled student who’s mother was addicted to drugs. The school this child attended was divided about the idea of expelling the student, or in aiding the student to deal with his problems. During the course of the film, some of the problems of this student had been resolved. However, at the end of the film we don’t know the ultimate result of the story.
We might ask ourselves how many films we have seen where there are good and bad characters? How many of these films even attempt to look at the reasons why the so-called bad characters became anti-social? Typically, these films end with the good characters winning. Isn’t all of this a bit silly? Doesn’t the film Behavior reflect a more realistic portrayal of reality?
I came to Cuba to learn about their reality and came away with a lot more than what I expected. With all the seeming political madness we see in the United States, I found a nation where the people and the government make rational decisions about their future.
There is a saying in the United States, “Open the door and let us in.” The late singer, song writer, and dancer James Brown had another version to this saying. He said, “Open the door and we will walk through ourselves.”
The Cuban revolution opened the door for the Cuban people so they could walk through and begin to transform their lives. I learned that it is possible for people all over the world to also force the door open, so we can walk through and make this a world where human needs are more important than profits.