Two Victories in Cuba Shape the World Today

Cheryl LaBash

Gissel Saldívar, a 19 year old chemical technician, supervises work at the Immunoassay Center’s Biosensors plant in Havana. Photo: Irene Pérez/ Cubadebate

The Cuban Revolution was just two years old in 1961. Two victories won in that year, 60 years ago, laid crucial foundations for today’s resilient, rebellious and free country just 90 miles from the U.S.: The Literacy Campaign and the 72 hours route of the  U.S invasion at Playa Giron, more commonly referred to as the U.S. Bay of Pigs.

Shortly, within months, Cuba’s Soberana-02 COVID-19 vaccine will conclude final testing. Soberana-02 is one of four vaccine candidates developed by Cuban scientists. This accomplishment is unmatched among small countries emerging from centuries of colonialism, slavery and neocolonial imperialist domination. 

What’s more, Cuba’s internationalist record and projection of producing 100 million vaccine doses — far exceeding the needs of its 11.3 million people —  gives hope to countries in the global South who are left out when rich countries compete to buy up and corner life-saving vaccine production.  Cuba has already signed agreements with Iran, Vietnam, Venezuela and India, said Dr. Vicente Vérez Bencomo, Director General of the Finlay Vaccine and Serum Institute.

Many in the U.S. are incredulous. They ask: “Where will Cuba get the vaccine? From Russia?” How can it be that Cuba is developing and planning production for a vaccine on the same time frame as corporations in the U.S., Britain and Germany?

The U.S. blockade is real

Instead of billions in development funds for “Operation Warp Speed” the U.S. economic war against Cuba was finetuned even during the pandemic to create maximum suffering for the Cuban people. Spare parts for medical devices are withheld by U.S.-owned international corporations fearful of fines. A flight from China refused to land. Venezuelan oil trade with Cuba was interdicted by the U.S. This is more than the “previous administration” policy.  It was the U.S. State Department itself that admitted these cruel intentions. The Mallory-Rubottom State Dept. internal memo April 6, 1960, explained the U.S. strategy still in play today:

“Every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba. If such a policy is adopted, it should be the result of a positive decision which would call forth a line of action which, while as adroit and inconspicuous as possible, makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.”

Staff at the Immunoassay Center’s Biosensors plant. Photo: Irene Pérez/ Cubadebate

Education is a right

Yet how does Cuba do it? The short answer is socialism. It is Jose Marti’s words that “Homeland is Humanity.” It is Fidel Castro in his defense statement after the attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953 describing the conditions the revolutionaries sought to end:

“In any small European country there are more than 200 technical and industrial arts schools; in Cuba, there are only six such schools, and the boys who graduate have no place to use their skill. That little rural schools are attended by only half of the school age children — barefooted, half-naked, and undernourished — and frequently the teacher must buy necessary materials from his own salary. Is this the way to make a nation great?”

In December 1960, the new revolution announced a great campaign to eliminate illiteracy. At the United Nations, Fidel Castro announced they would do it in one year. By mobilizing young urban volunteers to be teachers, Cuba not only uplifted the dignity of formerly illiterate rural and urban families, but educated the more privileged to the everyday hard  life in the country where they worked as well as taught.

In what was at that time a traditional patriarchal society, young women — more than half of the brigadistas —  gained unheard of independence, overcoming the resistance of their parents. Today Cuban scientists are developing vaccines and using nanotechnology to solve the problems confronting people in Cuba and the world. A June 14, 2018, report in Granma noted that 53 percent of the scientists are women. They are the daughters and granddaughters shaped by the Literacy Campaign  Watch this eight minute trailer of the movie Maestra, women of Cuba’s National Literacy Campaign to get the feeling of the time.

April 1961 — what was won

In April of the year to end illiteracy, the U.S. launched a direct invasion at Playa Giron, known in the U.S. as the Bay of Pigs. Literacy teachers were targeted,  tortured and killed. In a playbook seen many times since then, bought and paid for U.S. agents attempted to gain a beachhead, falsely  presenting themselves as authentic representatives of the Cuban people to unleash direct U.S. military intervention and reimpose imperial domination. The invasion was quickly defeated..  

But what would a U.S. victory in April 1961 have meant today. Of course, we can point to Haiti and Puerto Rico as examples. But we have actual U.S. documents, too.  The 2004 plan written by the Bush administration’s Commission for the Support of Free Cuba.”

Luis A. Montero Cabrera, professor and member of the Cuban Academy of Science, says it best in part three of his series of articles “Vaccines and Sovereignty.” 

“We Cubans have a very remarkable platform for biomedical production, one might even say extraordinary for a country like ours. An infamous 2004 document from the “Commission for the Support of a Free Cuba” of a previous administration in the U.S. described it as unnecessary and very expensive for such a poor country as ours:  ‘Large sums were also directed to activities such as the development of biotechnology and bioscience centers not appropriate in magnitude and expense for such a fundamentally poor nation, and which have failed to be justified financially.” (p. 256) 

“The only thing to be added to this is that those of us in the South with darker skin ought not to have the luxury of science.  But our biopharmaceutical sector is the child of necessity, of the creative initiative of a lover of knowledge and a true revolutionary, as was our Fidel, and of an educational policy that gives everybody without distinction the right to reach the highest level of human knowledge and to with that knowledge, create.  It was not begun with a specific strategy or goal but became, as it is today, a bastion of the knowledge, science and culture of our country.  It was and is the fruit of revolutionary thinking.” 

It is through the lens of this history that we look toward the vaccinations with Soberana-02 that are coming soon to Cuba, and the world. Soberana, sovereignty, self-determination powered by the people, for the people, not for corporate profit.