Two hundred people from Canada and the United States participated in the meeting, organized by the U.S./Cuba Labor Exchange and Worker to Worker Canada/Cuba Labour Solidarity Committee. The conference took place at the hall of Canadian Auto Workers Local 444.
Pedro Ross Leal, the CTC’s general secretary, said the trade unions in Cuba are part of the restructuring of the sugar industry that is under way. "Not a single sugar worker will be left without a job," he said.
Facing a continued decline in the price of sugar on the world market, and saddled with many inefficient plants that are decades old, the Cuban government recently announced it will close 71 sugar mills and cut back cane production.
Leonel González González, the director of foreign relations for the CTC, said that in addition to sugar, the world market prices for coffee and nickel have also sharply declined over the past two years. Cuba has the world’s second largest nickel reserves. He also pointed out that fewer tourists are visiting Cuba, affecting one of the country’s major ways of earning foreign currency.
"Today the price of sugar is five cents a pound on the world market," said González. "So, we cannot cover the costs of production. A small country like Cuba can’t subsidize the production of sugar and compete against the protectionist policies of the United States and Europe."
In addition to tariffs and sugar quotas Washington imposes on semicolonial countries such as Mexico, Cuba is barred from exporting to the U.S. market under the embargo put in place by Washington four decades ago. Corn syrup and sugar produced in the United States are massively subsidized by Washington, giving food monopolies the ability to flood markets in Mexico and elsewhere, undercutting local production.
"At one point Cuba produced 8 million tons of sugar a year," González said. "We’re now not in a position to sell it on the world market. We had to decide to restructure the sugar industry. This has been done in complete concert with the workers."
González said the 100,000 workers whose jobs have been eliminated are going through retraining programs to learn skills for work in other industries. One program involves using land previously set aside for sugar production to grow vegetables and raise livestock. "These workers continue to receive their salaries and all services they received as sugar workers," he said. "This is possible because of the social, political, and economic system in Cuba. This would not be possible in any other system."
Cuba and world economic crisis
In the session on "How the world economic crisis affects Cuba," González invited participants to attend the second "International Conference of Workers Confronting Neoliberal Globalization-FTAA, Free Trade Area of the Americas." The conference will take place in Havana at the end of November.
The FTAA is being pushed by Washington to beat down trade and investment barriers of semicolonial countries in Latin America in order to deepen the hold of U.S. imperialism on the region. González said the pact is "more than a free trade agreement--it’s an agreement of domination and colonization. At the same time the U.S. wants to impose the FTAA, they are imposing protectionist measures. There’s no such thing as free trade per se. Rather it’s a project of domination," he said.
Manuel Montero Bistilliero, director of the Americas Department of Foreign Relations of the CTC, said Cuba was able to confront the economic and social crisis provoked after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Workers and farmers were involved in the campaign to increase industrial and agricultural production, as the Cuban revolutionary leadership organized a retreat in order to defend gains of the socialist revolution.
Despite this crisis, Cuba’s revolutionary government sought to defend and maintain universal health care and education, he said. "The situation regarding health and education is in contrast not only with what has been described here in Canada" by some participants in the conference, "but all of Latin America and most of Europe," he said. For the imperialists, the social policy of the revolution "is a very bad example" in the Americas, Montero noted.
The conference was endorsed by the Canadian Labour Congress. Union support also came from the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the National Union of Provincial and General Employees, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, and the United Steelworkers of America.
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