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Left: Discussion group and street scene on the Paseo de Martí, Havana. Right: Discussion group at the
Aristide Foundation for Democracy in Port-au-Prince
It’s time to show some appreciation and support for the people of two neighboring Caribbean islands. January 1, 2014 was the 210th and 55th anniversary of two major revolutions— one in Haiti and the other in Cuba— that can help us wake up and reclaim our humanity.
On this day in 1804, enslaved peo- ple of African descent accomplished the unthinkable after rising up to break the chains of slavery and colonialism, and gave birth to the Republic of Haiti, the first free republic in the Western Hemisphere. It was a bold beginning on the journey towards true liberation of the human spirit. Shocked by this unprecedented proclamation of univer- sal human dignity, the pervasive greed of superpowers in North America and Europe kicked into high gear and man- aged to put the brakes on the next phase of the Haitian Revolution, the move to- wards economic equality. Wealthy Hai-
tian elites were swiftly co-opted by big capital and remain instruments of for- eign oppression to this day, in spite of successive movements by the grassroots over the last two centuries to reclaim and share their country’s resources.
Most recently, the emergence of the Lavalas movement in the late 1980s under the leadership of Jean-Bertrand Aristide brought the beginnings of so- cial renewal welcomed enthusiastically by Haiti’s poor majority. After just a few years of being elected to power, the Lavalas government made significant advances in education, housing, health- care and economic justice, challenging the hegemony of the superrich in order to uplift the destitute. The movement was dealt a major blow, however, ten years ago with the February 29, 2004 coup d’état facilitated by the US, France, and Canada, from which it is still strug- gling to recover, amid growing US- backed repression that has thwarted democratic processes and reintroduced sweatshop conditions.
During three visits to Haiti since the 2004 coup, I met with and listened to numerous groups representing poor neighborhoods, women, peasants, for- mer political prisoners, low-wage work- ers and the unemployed, who engage in ongoing discussions on how to achieve their goals. I heard a strong and clear message about what Haitians want for everyone:
Decent living conditions, health care, education at all levels, meaningful work with fair wages, art and culture, participation in decisions that affect their lives, respect for their sovereignty, freedom for political prisoners (Lavalas leaders unjustly targeted since the 2004 coup), an end to foreign military occu- pation (by UN troops), and internation- al solidarity.
Isn’t that what people want every- where? It’s what I hear consistently from my neighbors here at home and residents of countries all over the world. I heard it again in Cuba, Haiti’s neighbor and partner in promoting healthcare.
On a recent sister-city visit from Richmond, California, to Cuba, people I met throughout the country echoed their commitment to these same goals for everyone:
Decent living conditions, health care, education at all levels, meaningful work with fair wages, art and culture, participation in decisions that affect their lives, respect for their sovereignty, freedom for political prisoners (the Cu- ban 5, three of whom remain unjustly incarcerated in the US), an end to for- eign military occupation (by the US in Guantanamo), and international soli- darity.
These are key values of the Cuban Revolution, now celebrating its 55th an- niversary. On January 1, 1959, Cubans succeeded in moving beyond the end of slavery and colonialism, and liberated their country from the psychological chains of economic imperialism. The Cuban Revolution accomplished the unthinkable, successfully challenging the injustices of capitalist exploitation and claiming their land and resources for the benefit of all Cubans. Uplifting the poor and ensuring a dignified life for everyone emerged as guiding prin-
ciples, replacing the entrenched power of the superrich and transnational cor- porations.
People I met throughout Cuba embrace the changes brought by the revolution in terms of social uplift, eco- nomic redistribution, and opportuni- ties for political participation. While some inequities persist, they don’t want to lose these hard won gains. Building on the pro-people commitment of the post-revolution state, how to actually make the state work in everyone’s best interest is open to vigorous debate. As the Mayor of Regla, Richmond’s sister city, told us: “We continually evaluate and assess our social programs. We face many problems and we address them with participation from all the people.”
Though material possessions in Cuba remain sparse due to the US blockade, there’s a sense of everyone be- ing in the struggle together with dignity and mutual respect. I enjoyed seeing people in well-kept public spaces on a Saturday, laughing, talking, making music, dancing, teaching children how to paint, doing sports, learning from each other, and genuinely appreciating each other’s company.
By engaging in continual evalua- tion and policy adjustments with broad input, Cuba’s revolutionary social, eco- nomic, and political model has persevered since 1959 in spite of the 1990 fall of the Soviet Union, its major economic partner, and in spite of ongoing overt economic warfare and covert sabotage perpetrated against Cuba by the US.
The biggest problems facing Cuba and Haiti today are rooted in the pow- er circles of Washington DC and Wall Street. Americans who care about and want to support the people of Haiti and Cuba need to start by cleaning up our own house. We need to overhaul US policies aimed at allowing certain indi- viduals to do whatever it takes to amass huge amounts of personal wealth, which inevitably results in extreme in- come disparities in both the US and elsewhere, and all the social ills that such inequality breeds. In shifting US economic priorities, the goal is not to harm anyone, but simply to insist that the superrich do a better job of sharing the earth’s resources equitably with their brothers and sisters in the human fam- ily. That way, everyone does well.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. de- scribed his vision of the American dream as “A land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.” The US has a long way to go before it can achieve this dream. The people of Haiti and Cuba can lead us in getting there, if we would only listen to them.