Last night's meeting of North Staffs TUC heard from Bill Greenshields of Derbyshire Cuba Network and the Cuba Solidarity Campaign speak, funnily enough, on Cuba. As readers can imagine Bill's talk was unashamedly pro-Cuba, but this is an important corrective to received notions that have it as a gulag with palm trees - a view assiduously cultivated by the US state department, right wing Cuban exiles, and intellectually dishonest ex-lefts.
Bill opened with a very quick overview of the Cuban system, touching on the statutory right to work, the 1:650 doctor/general population ratio, the strength and depth of social solidarity, and its avoidance of personality cults and dogmatism characteristic of similar societies. If we realise how all this is possible in a poor country under the lash of an economic blockade then, Bill argued, we can also understand why the USA sees Cuba as a threat.
As a former leading member of the National Union of Teachers, most of Bill's talk focused on Cuba's education system. We were given the impression this extends far beyond formal schooling and HE. Crucial to retaining mass support for the Cuban revolution are the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution. These community organisations, working in conjunction with the other mass organisations (the party, the federation of women, the young pioneers, and the unions) are responsible for community events and officially tasked with maintaining high rates of "morality" (i.e. social solidarity).
Pre-school begins at the age of three, with compulsory schooling kicking in at six. This ends at 15 with a guaranteed job for every school-leaver. The way education is done will be quite different to the experiences of readers of this blog. Central to it is 'emulation'. Instead of a system based around competitive exams the emphasis is one educating the collective. If a group of students grasp something in advance of others, the expectation is they will work to help the rest of the class get it. If a section of the class still can't understand it then no one passes the set task. This has led to a reconfiguring of competition between students - instead of awards based on grades, praise is conferred on those who seek to lead emulation.
There is, however, something of a teacher shortage on the island. Education policy is committed to reducing class sizes to 15 for primary and 20 for secondary schooling. The situation is complicated by attempts at integrating disabled children from special schools into the mainstream system: they are guaranteed by statute one-to-one teaching, therefore while integration does take place it is rare.
Apart from the discussion of education and digressions into the health system, Bill gave us a good sense of Cuban social relations. While it is true there are political prisoners and penalties for those who criticise the system, society is more cohesive and solidaristic than in advanced capitalist states. How this manifests itself in education and elsewhere deserve careful study by socialists outside Cuba.
Personally speaking I am always wary of solidarity campaign talks, as they're usually structured around guided tours that show the country in question in the best light. But even with my critical hat on Bill's presentation did an excellent job showing that Cuba, despite its problems and less than spotless record on democratic rights, is a different kind of society. If Cuba is a living example of what can be achieved on a small island under conditions of economic autarchy, imagine the kinds of achievements within our reach if this was married to greater deomcratisation and available resources.
I don't think Cuba is socialist, but it does prefigure some features of future socialist societies. For this reason, despite its flaws, Cuba deserves the solidarity and support of labour movements everywhere.