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Scoop Report: Robson On Wananaga & Cuban Prisons

Robson Discusses Literacy, Te Wananaga O Aotearoa, And Cuban Politics

By Kevin List

Whilst New Zealand was transfixed by Dr Don Brash’s oratory at Orewa and the fallout from Dr Brash’s ‘man in the pub’ arguments, Progressive MP Matt Robson was having a swell time in Cuba learning about literacy, illiteracy and finding time for a quick nosy around a Cuban jail.


Progressive MP Matt Robson in Havana with Dr Emelia Ecart Pereira, Director of the Psychopedagogical medical Centre.

Te Wananga O Aotearoa And Cuban Literacy

Scoop Caught up with Matt Robson a couple of weeks ago where he explained about the literacy course that caused ACT Leader Rodney Hide some consternation in late 2003. In August 2003 Mr Hide discovered that tertiary institution Te Wananga O Aotearoa had been using a literacy course developed in Cuba. Despite the fact this course had been used successfully throughout Latin America, Mr Hide was outraged - mainly it seemed by the course's country of origin. Mr Hide considered at the time that Cuba had nothing whatsoever to offer the world and the country itself was a “basket-case.”

Contrary to Mr Hide’s opinions, Cuba’s educational achievements are hailed internationally as Matt Robson explained to Scoop.

“Over the last year I’ve been having quite a lot to do with the literacy work of the Te Wananga O Aotearoa. They were attending a United Nations sponsored literacy conference in Cuba [in order] to show the conference the literacy work that they were doing in New Zealand in collaboration with Cuban tutors. The Cubans are acknowledged world leaders in educational terms in the area of literacy. I readily agreed to go because I thought it would be instructive and it was.”

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If Rodney Hide was “staggered” in 2003 that New Zealand was using a Cuban developed literacy course he would have probably suffered an aneurysm if he’d known UNICEF and UNESCO both consider Cuba to be a world leader in literacy.

“The conference was in Cuba because UNICEF and UNESCO recognize that the Cuban methods of ending illiteracy are probably the most successful probably in the developed and under-developed world,” said Robson.

Sadly whilst the country described by Mr Hide as a “basket case” was achieving success in literacy New Zealand was not doing so well. Whilst ACT would probably link New Zealand’s literacy problems to high taxation and suggest a flat tax would soon have the problem sorted other groups within New Zealand were willing to look beyond political dogma, and to countries where solutions exist to illiteracy.

“Cuba doesn’t have a literacy problem but we have one in New Zealand. My hat goes off to the Wananga – they didn’t let the fact that Cuba was a communist country be a barrier,” is Robson's answer to criticism of a New Zealand institution using a course developed in communist Cuba.

Despite a treasury report from 2004 showing New Zealand has a major problem with literacy there has been little in-depth analysis of the success or otherwise of Te Wananga O Aotaeroa’s literacy programs. Sadly it would seem Ken Shirley’s unsubstantiated and potentially defamatory comments made under the cloak of parliamentary privilege against Te Wananga O Aotearoa are what gets page one headlines.

“There was an asinine comment from a journalist to my office asking ‘was I bringing back the Cuban political system’ and I said in an interview with Derek Fox ‘why aren’t journalists in New Zealand investigating the depth of this problem [illiteracy]’?” Was Robson's slightly irritable answer when asked what sort of media interest there had been in the Cuban conference.

NZ Politician Get Put Into A Cuban Prison

Matt Robson surrounded by managers of a Cuban Prison

After a long journey to Cuba, Robson wanted to look not only at Cuba’s education system but also, as a former Minister of Corrections, decided it may be worth taking a peek in to the Cuban penal system.

“It’s a long way to Cuba and its made longer by the fact that there’s a total flight blockade from the United States. American citizens, unless they have permission, face enormous fines and jail sentences if they breach the total economic and travel embargo on Cuba.”

Thankfully for Robson and Wendy Petrie [TVNZ News reader who recently holidayed in Cuba] there’s no penalty for visiting Cuba as a New Zealand citizen other than drawing the ire of extreme right wing bloggers.

According to Robson, Fidel Castro has sought to include the prison system within the blanket of wider educational reforms.

“They do a lot of keeping people in the communities and the communities do a lot with people when they are in prison and help them find work when they are let out. In the prisons they have a number of pilot programs to train people to become nurses or physical education teachers. There is also a lot of effort put in to general education within the prisons.”

It seems fairly unlikely that many right wing politicians in New Zealand will see global socialism as the best solution to keeping crime under control in New Zealand. However whilst the free market may be banned Havana according to Robson it is also a mugger free zone.

“Cuba certainly has lower levels of crime than New Zealand, and nothing like the rest of Latin America. They [Cuba] became the first country in Latin America to be [totally] literate. Now they have a campaign to raise every one to university level – over about ten years or something – and what intrigued me is that included the prisons."

Cuban prisons are generally larger than those in New Zealand, although the Cuban managers spoken to by Robson did not seem to be keen on emulating the American trend towards super prisons.

"The prison that I went to housed 3000 inmates, and the managers said to me that this was too big. They [the managers] were interested in the fact that in New Zealand we try and keep prison numbers to about 700. Interestingly enough the ACT party seems quite keen on big prisons. They have this false notion that they are successful in the United States."

The United States and Its Relationship With Cuba

Robson considers the best way to look at Cuba and its large, powerful and unfriendly neighbour, is to view the relationship as that of two nations at war with each other.

“The United States has from 1960 been dedicated to the violent overthrow of the Cuban revolution. The Cuban revolution wasn’t a Nazi revolution. Their revolution was to end poverty, educate people and bring good health and they have been staggeringly successful.

Robson thinks detractors of Cuba should look at the historical context of the Cuban revolution – however he also does not regard Cuba as some sort of socialist paradise either.

"They [the Cuban revolutionaries] had to change the type of country that Cuba was which was a brutalised third world colony of the United States run by the mafia. Within that there are a lot of questions that people should ask. But the first thing to do is to normalize relations.”

Whilst the United States is at present engaged in a so called “war on terror” Robson considers that some of the Actions taken against Cuba by various United States administrations have been nothing short of state sponsored terrorism in their own right.

“The war on terror isn’t an abstract thing for the Cuban people. They’ve already got a terrorist war waged against them - and it comes from Washington. This is a fact it is not disputable. The Americans vote in their budget money to fund organizations aimed at the overthrow of the government of Cuba,” he says.

Human Rights In Cuba

The protest by Green foreign affairs spokesman Keith Locke that the Americans are torturing Al Qaeda prisoners at Guantanamo Bay by forcing them to wear blindfolds and earmuffs, is just hypocrisy, ACT leader Richard Prebble says. "No one is suggesting that any prisoner has been physically mistreated," Mr Prebble said.[ACT Press Release early 2002] More than two years after the first of the detainees arrived in the US Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Camp X-Ray and its successor Camp Delta, the United States Government continues to exert unfettered executive power in total disregard for the rule of law. Hundreds of detainees remain held in tiny cells for up to 24 hours a day without any legal process. Amnesty International 2004

I have been in the company of other detainees who were beaten while blindfolded and handcuffed. At one point, a group of detainees, including myself, were subjected to being randomly hit over an eight-hour session while handcuffed and blindfolded. Part of Australian David Hicks Affidavit. 2004

Given the United States has good relations with a number of countries which have far worse human rights records and no regard whatsoever for democracy [Saudi Arabia for example] Robson considers it may be Cuba’s lack of enthusiasm for the free-market that annoys the United States

Robson believes the United States blockade of Cuba and more likely to produce a siege mentality within the Cuban administration. He advocates lifting the blockade which he considers not only penalises the Cuban people but leads to misunderstanding and distrust between the two countries.

Scoop: The day that say, ACT Leader Rodney Hide goes to the United States and says ‘it’s a disgrace what you are doing in Guantanamo Bay’ - is that the day you’d speak out about any perceived wrongs in Cuba?

“Yes of course – the execution of the poorest Americans many of whom are mentally retarded for the sake of politicians being re-elected is a also a disgrace. Amnesty International has a campaign against the American prison system and what they do to people.”

Detainees held at Guantanamo bay by the United States

The Cuban Political System Vs Westminster Democracy

Whilst in Cuba, Robson had the chance to chew the fat with members of the Cuban equivalent of our Parliament and engaged in some robust debate on the merits of a Westminster style democracy Vs the Cuban political system.

"I discussed with their parliamentarians the fact that they have one political party – the Member of Parliament shot back to me ‘why do you govern by insult’?

Scoop: Had they been watching Tony Ryall baiting George Hawkins?

"To the Cubans its not dealing with the problem it’s one side saying ‘you’re soft on crime’ like we’re seeing with Hawkins at the moment" is Robson's answer.

"I might say [to Cuban politicians] 'how can you have a one party state and call it a democracy?' They’d shoot back 'how can you govern in your way when it just seems to be a farce and a sham.' They also say 'look at the rest of Latin America, they have elections and they’re corrupt – that was our experience we think we can develop our democracy in our own way."

Rather than blindly dismissing everything that comes from Cuba as backwards, Robson believes that even if one disagrees with the Cuban administration, change in Cuba is best achieved through dialogue. As he bluntly points out New Zealand is willing to chat to just about any regime in the world – no matter how dodgy they are.

“They don’t allow parties to campaign for their Parliament – they say Parliament is to discuss the problems of the nation. It’s interesting, and it could be open to criticism but a dialogue should open up with Cuba just as we have a dialogue with China. We have a dialogue with Indonesia and they have an army killing people in Aceh.”


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