HAVANA PROVINCE, Cuba - It is hot and steamy, with the smell of molasses in the air, as gears one-story high run the conveyer belts carrying sugarcane through the processing plant. Railroad cars filled with recently cut cane unload at regular intervals to keep the machinery going 24 hours a day. The zafra - sugarcane harvest - has begun and workers in Artemisa at the Abraham Lincoln Agro Industrial Complex will be working overtime to process as much sugar as possible.
But this year's harvest is not expected to be much different than the last two, in the range of 4 million tons, a big drop from the seven million or eight million produced in previous years. In the fields and the mills workers have been in a battle to halt a decline in sugar production, but the process of recovering and stepping up production is a longer term job explains one worker to two young socialists from the United States.
Brian Taylor, a 21-year-old rail worker from Chicago and Naomi Craine, 24, a former textile worker and current staff writer for the Militant, visited the complex as part of a three-week tour of Cuba sponsored by the Union of Young Communists. They have been speaking about the conditions and struggles facing the working class in the United States to workers and young people here.
More cane cutters have been mobilized than last year and priority given for much of Cuba's precious fuel to run the combines that will harvest the fields. Workers are trying to harvest the cane more rapidly than last year to avoid the costly problem of processing mills shutting down and restarting during the harvest for lack of a steady flow of cut cane. Since trade with the Soviet Union at preferential prices was ended Cuba enacted measures to guard fuel and raw materials for key industries, while many services and other production was cut. The special period, as this stage is known, means making the most efficient use of all resources available is a key goal.
In October 1993, many of Cuba's state farms were transformed into Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPC), and sugarcane cooperative members have been at the heart of a discussion about how to deal with problems confronting Cuba's agriculture.
Carlos Antela, a member of the Rigoberto Corcho sugarcane UBPC, explained they were now getting about half the yield from the cane fields they did in the 1991-92 harvest. One reason is the cumulative effects of lack of fertilizers and pesticides, most of which were previously imported from the Soviet Union. But there were other problems on the state farms that affected production also. Antela explained, "the old state farms had more people not directly involved in production." The UBPC currently has 155 members while the state farm had more than 200.
One of the main aims of the cooperative is to "satisfy the needs of the workers and their families," he said. The UBPC grows food to provide meals for cooperative members and also sells items at cost for members to supply their families, something that has made an immediate difference in the lives of many farm workers in Cuba.
The cooperatives also have autonomy Antela said. "Before the state enterprise directed everything," he added. "We couldn't plant things which would have been possible [like a different type of cane]. Now decisions are made in a general assembly of all the cooperative members." The assembly sets the norms and pay rates for each job and excess money earned by the cooperative is divided up at the end of the year according to the number of days each member has worked.
But cooperative members said it would take time to increase the yields they are getting from the cane. I asked about articles I had read in Cuba on the need for more work to be done to clean the fields of weeds. Cooperative members pointed out they had actually cleared about one-third more land than in the 1991-92 harvest, but the overall poorer quality of the cane means weeds grow more easily in the fields and you have to work harder while still getting a lower yield than you would have before.
Marcos Castaneda, the head of the brigade assigned to grow food for the UBPC, asked the two young socialists about the U.S. government's embargo barring any trade, including the sale of fertilizers, food, and medicines to Cuba. "Why do they want to make us pay such a high price? We chose the government we want, we're revolutionary."
Taylor replied, "Farmers in the U.S. are facing bankruptcy and losing their land, even when they grow a big crop. The prices they get are set by big corporations that control distribution of food and these companies pay low to farmers but sell high to workers who buy the food. The example of Cuba, where people in the countryside are given the priority in housing and you are fighting to maintain access to health care as a right for everyone is not an example they want people in the U.S. to know about. But we are visiting because these are the facts we want to explain when we return."
The two young socialists got a look at conditions in Cuba's countryside in both Havana and Villa Clara province. In the Villa Clara municipality of Manicaragua is the town of La Herradura with only about a dozen buildings. But among them is a two-story family doctor home, part of the system guaranteeing medical care to residents in all parts of Cuba. As part of a program known as the Turquino Plan, even under the current limitations of Cuba's economy, priority is given to providing access to basic services in Cuba's most mountainous regions. Under the plan a university in the mountains has been built, video rooms constructed, and greater access to television reception provided. Teachers and school uniforms for all children are guaranteed even in the most remote corners.
Rogelio Sanchez, a nurse, said that this area of the Escambray mountains, where mules provide the main transportation for many, has 23 family doctors serving about 120 families each. Dr. Grisel Vega, who works with Sanchez in a polyclinic, said they sometimes have problems getting antibiotics, "and there is not enough asthma spray.
"We've been able to respond to all the patients that need treatment though," she said, citing an aid donation of medicine received from around the world.
Deteriorating conditions in Cuba's hospitals have been the source of many complaints among the population. Shortages and theft of scarce supplies from sheets to disinfectants, combined with low wages for many workers meant it was often hard to keep the hospitals clean, and people preferred military hospitals where conditions were better. This has been widely discussed and the two young socialists spoke with workers in the Ivan Portuondo Hospital in San Antonio de Los Banos, in Havana province, about the problems they face.
Luisa Yara Vasquez, who has worked as a cleaner in the hospital for five years, said her base salary is 115 pesos a month. She noted the low salary meant absenteeism was a problem. Now she can earn more money by cleaning other areas after she is done with hers. She said after recent workers assemblies in the hospitals conditions had improved and a system of stimulus for outstanding workers was recently begun, providing access to hard to get items. In December Yara was able to buy a chicken, a tube of toothpaste, detergent, root vegetables, and rice and beans through the hospital.
Dr. Antonio Perez Abelhoff said, "Military hospitals have a higher level of work discipline and with less absenteeism they had fewer problems." He also said a contingent of workers from the tobacco harvest had been dispatched to help in keeping the hospital clean when it was needed.
But Yara noted that with the new stimulus package more people were attracted to the job than before. Many of the workplaces the two U.S. youth visited had similar stimulus programs in place as part of the effort to link access to goods with being on the job, and to supplement workers' salaries, which have been hard hit during the special period.
While conditions are difficult and prices have been raised on many items, in a discussion with young science workers at an agricultural research center Ernesto Fernandez said things were easing a little. "Now we see some services, like eating places, that were nonexistent from 1992 until about July of this year. Before you couldn't get rum, now you can find some, there are a few discos open now also," he said. "This Sunday we will have a one-day carnival, which we haven't had for more than two years. You see people have some hope and confidence in the measures the government has taken," to guarantee basic needs he added.
The Young Socialists spoke about struggles of workers in the United States in interviews with several radio, and newspaper reporters and appeared on television in Villa Clara province and in Havana during the course of their three-week tour of Cuba.
At an agricultural camp in Havana province, where they spent the night and worked in the fields the next morning, many youth crowded around as Craine showed a photo album of social struggles taking place in the United States. Included was a photo of a clinic defense line at an abortion clinic. "What will you do when you get back?" several asked. Craine said, "We will talk to people we meet on our jobs, and at events like marches to defend abortion rights or in support of immigrant workers, and explain why defending Cuba is important for fighters everywhere."
Taylor added, "We are helping to organize to get two Cuban youth to visit the United States, and to bring some more youth from the U.S. to see Cuba for themselves, to gather information and write articles about what they learn."
"This is the reason for our visit," said Craine. "To continue to organize an exchange of young people who are involved in fighting for their rights in the U.S. with Cubans who are fighting for their dignity and for socialism here in Cuba."
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