Last July, 12 members of F.I.S.T. (Fight Imperialism—Stand Together), traveled to Cuba in defiance of U.S. travel restrictions to witness the Western Hemisphere's only socialist country. Dante Strobino, one of three Raleigh F.I.S.T. members on the trip and a housekeeper union organizer, spoke to the Independent about his experiences in Cuba as Fidel Castro's power fades.
When did it first sink in that you were visiting a socialist society?
I was sitting on the bus, and there was this woman cleaning in the parking lot. I couldn't stop looking at her, because of her posture, the way she was looking off, and the expression on her face—it looked like she was so dignified. A lot of times, housekeepers [in the U.S.] try to avoid students, look down and keep quiet. For her, you could tell it was a whole different consciousness. She carried herself with this strength, with this consciousness that this is my role, this is what I have to do, this is where I've been put. And I realize this is the betterment of all of us.
Many people are struck by the poverty in Cuba—most people only own a few changes of clothes and live in cramped quarters. Yet, relative to the rest of Latin America—where, in countries like Mexico, half the population lives in extreme poverty—all Cubans are getting by. Is that enough?
People make the mistake to blame Castro and socialism for that poverty. That's like workers here blaming the union for bad wages. It's the blockade [U.S. embargo against Cuba] that made them poor. It's actually incredibly remarkable to see what they've been able to do with the scarcity.
We often see this one pair of shoes, or these 1950s cars, from this very warped American lens that's used to getting a new pair of shoes every semester and having 18 extra shirts, which is totally absurd and unnecessary.
Some people in Cuba do want these things.
The consciousness for most people is that they have what they need. There's always going to be people—particularly being 90 miles from the U.S., with all these radios and television programs and satellites aimed right at Cuba trying to undermine the Revolution—who see the TV and see things that are reasonable that they should have, like razors. People should have that stuff, but again it's not Castro and socialism's fault that they don't have it. It's the blockade.
Can socialism in Cuba continue to survive after 50 years, or does it have to change by introducing elements of capitalism and making partnerships with unlikely ideological partners like China?
Absolutely, there has to be change—it's a dynamic, organic system. People have this idea of the [Cuban Communist] party being this staunch, unwavering fist. It really is an organic, amazing, democratic system. We say "democratic" in the U.S. in the terms that you vote every four years and maybe it's democracy. They have committees for the Defense of the Revolution, which are in the neighborhoods, dealing every day with people's needs, with referendums on any given issue.
As far as going to a market-based economy, it's funny to us all the stuff that [President] Bush is saying about Raul [Castro, Fidel's brother]—that he's going toward a market-based economy. Raul was a Marxist before Fidel was; Raul schooled Fidel in Marxism.
What is your strongest visual memory of the island?
We were in the neighborhoods the night before July 26 [the anniversary of Castro's failed 1953 attack on military barracks in Santiago, Cuba], and there were a couple of old women with umbrellas sitting in little chairs by the side of the road. They had rushed into Havana with Fidel right after the Revolution [on Jan. 1, 1959]. They were sitting there with smiles on their faces. All these little kids with dimples on their faces were running around and giving everyone hugs. They're such real humans. That was such a beautiful moment.
Visit raleighfist.wordpress.com to view articles on the trip by Raleigh F.I.S.T. members.
Correction (Oct. 25, 2007): "Marxist" was confused with "markets" in a quote above; the text has been corrected. See comment below.