A glimpse of Cuba in our political history
September 16, 2005
A glimpse of Cuba in our political history

by Dr. The Honourable Ralph E. Gonsalves

Prime Minister

In the 1950s my geography lessons on Cuba at my primary school at Colonaire came alive in the village, on the streets and at my home, with stories about persons who had gone to Cuba in the 1920s, and later, to cut sugar cane on the plantations. I remember the tales which my father told about my paternal grandfather who had a labourer’s stint in Cuba during the Machado regime. I can still see in my mind’s eye the dignified, elderly, Mr. Doyle, who had been a cane-cutter in Cuba, defending himself vigorously against the humourous barbs of his contemporaries that he had stayed all his time in Oriente Province and had not seen the bright lights of Havana City. I knew early that Cuba was a Caribbean country.{{more}}

The very month and year, January 1959, when I entered the St. Vincent Grammar School, a youthful revoluntionary, 32-year old Fidel Castro, entered Havana as head of the July 26th Movement which chased the corrupt dictater, Fulgencio Batista, out of Cuba for good. Colonial Grammar School said, thought, and taught nothing about this epoch-making event which was arguably the fourth most significant, sequentially, in Caribbean history up to that point following upon: Columbus’s arrival in “the Indies”; Toussaint L’Overture’s revolution in Haiti; the 19th century abolition of slavery; and Fidel’s triumphant emergence from the Sierra Maestra. The Grammar School was silent but there was discussion in my village led by real flesh-and-blood persons who had harvested sugar cane in Cuba, years before. The news had come to us in Colonarie by way of two beautifully-crafted box radios with the huge tubes — my father’s Grundig and Mr. Latham’s Pye. Renrick Rose, who was later to play a most vital role in the political education of St. Vincent and the Grenadines about Cuba’s revolution, also entered the Grammar School in January 1959.

The colonial cocoon at the Grammar School was not pricked in the slightest when American imperialism, conjoined with an assorted bunch of Cuban émigrés from Miami, launched their ill-fated invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. However, “the Missile Crisis” of 1962 which pitted the United States of America and the Soviet Union in a potentially deadly stand-off over Cuba finally roused our supposedly elite boys’ school in St. Vincent and the Grenadines from its Caribbean slumber. The discourse, though, was overwhelmingly, if not unanimously, anti-Cuba, anti-Soviet, anti-communist. This was the case, too, throughout the region. The Mighty Sparrow celebrated that version of history in a popular calypso.

So, when in 1973 four brave nationalist Caribbean leaders — Errol Barrow of Barbados, Forbes Burnham of Guyana, Michael Manley of Jamaica, and Eric Williams of Trinidad and Tobago — caused their independent countries to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, which since 1962 had been and still is subjected to diplomatic isolation and an economic blockade by the U.S.A., a sense of unease arose even amongst these leaders’ supporters on the ground. Anti-communism and the American view of the world still held a dominant sway in popular consciousness.

Gradually, though, the Caribbean people began to see Cuba and its revolution in a different and better light, even though they would not trade their competitive liberal-democratic political apparatuses for Cuba’s one-party political system. The revolution’s achievements in education, health and agriculture, its impressive internationalist solidarity, and its discipline and political dignity, have increasingly won it friends in our Caribbean. Events in the real world have helped its approval ratings: Cuba’s solidarity with Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress against the apartheid regime, including the decisive battle at Cuito Cunavale against the army of apartheid South Africa; the murderous terrorist downing of a Cubana aircraft off Barbados; increased Caribbean trade with Cuba; the university scholarship programme in Cuba for our nationals; the recent “Vision Now” initiative; and the political endurance of Fidel.

Others will write fully about the role which principally Renwick Rose and I played in securing and defending the scholarship programme for Vincentian students twenty-five years ago. It did not just happen. It was a process from the days of YULIMO in the late 1970s. It culminated in 1980 as a party-to-party agreement between the United People’s Movement (YULIMO’s successor) and the ruling party of Cuba. Dozens of Vincentians have been trained in Cuba. Over 130 Vincentian students are currently at Cuban universities. Children of the poor in St. Vincent and the Grenadines are accessing quality university education, free of charge. But in the early days, the programme was frowned upon, decidedly by those who ought to have known better. Things, however, have changed, markedly, for the better.

Cuba will be assisting St. Vincent and the Grenadines with the construction of its international airport at Argyle. Embassies are shortly to be set up in each country. Fittingly, an early Vincentian graudate of a Cuban University, Dexter Rose, is SVG’s ambassador-designate to Cuba. In the region and in SVG, Cuba, a Caribbean nation, has come in from the political cold. What a happy 25th anniversary of the departure of the first batch of Vincentian students for Cuban universities! These pioneers have made

us proud! We love them dearly!