Learning from Cuba

Print edition : April 11, 1998

The Cuban Government's efforts to counter the United States-imposed economic blockade have strengthened over the years the people's resolve to put up with enormous difficulties.

IT will probably call for extraordinary naivete to believe that today's global political order is governed by ethical or moral standards. The aphorism that might is right continues to be the norm for most nations despite the civilising progress claimed by humankind. The exceptions to this rule represent a microscopic minority and Cuba has the distinction of being in the vanguard of such nations. Its four-decade-old revolution retains its vigour and its egalitarian and democratic aspirations. Precisely for this reason, Cuba is up against the brutal face of its formidable northern Big Brother, the United States, which has imposed an economic blockade, made more rigorous over the years.

In recent years the U.S. blockade has taken the shape of a frontal attack on the nutritional and health needs of the Cuban people. The tiny island is fighting back, drawing strength from its abundant reserves of humanitarianism, spirit of independence and self-respect. In such a situation, Cuba needs support from all quarters, and the recent visit of Pope John Paul II did provide some such support when the pontiff called the U.S. embargo "ethically unacceptable". But ironically he also faulted Cuba for its "moral poverty, rooted in unjust inequalities". This extraordinary statement calls for a detailed examination.

When the revolutionaries took control of the government in 1959, Cuba had one million people who were illiterate and over a million who were semi-literate and 60,000 children who were out of school. Church-run schools catered mainly to the children of the wealthy. After the revolution, things changed dramatically. Illiteracy was wiped out in record time with the involvement of every literate person; now a substantial majority of the people have received education up to the eighth grade. Today Cuba has the highest literacy rate in Latin America and the highest teacher ratio of one per 37 inhabitants. The main thrust of the Government's effort was on the elimination of exclusivism and the cultivation of international revolutionary solidarity. Stress was laid on collective success rather than on individual material success as motivation for hard work in academics. Above all, the development of a sense of belonging to Cuba as a revolutionary society was emphasised. These efforts have strengthened the people's endurance and resolve to put up with enormous difficulties - such as in gaining access to everyday essentials such as milk, soap, footwear, oil and fuel - and still not yielding to the starvation blockade of the U.S.

Cuba's national health system - a network of institutions providing entirely free coverage to 100 per cent of the population - and the discoveries made to fight many illnesses are amazing feats for a new-born revolutionary state that had to start from scratch because of the desertion of half of its doctors, who were wooed away by U.S. attempts to drain the island of professionals in every field. The rural areas, which have been historically underserved in Cuba, were given urgent attention first and the rural-urban divide was broken. Cuba's many health indicators testify to this.


Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Cuba's infant mortality rate at 7.1 per 1000 live births (end-1997) is way ahead of Brazil's 31 and Mexico's 42; it is ahead of even the U.S.' 7.5. The maternal mortality rate is 44 per 100,000 live births for Cuba compared to 220 and 110 respectively for Brazil and Mexico, two countries heavily funded by international aid agencies with U.S. blessings. Obviously, access to resources has not been the prime determinant of the quality of social services provided. The Director of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Hiroshi Nakagima, during a visit to Cuba to attend the sixth seminar on primary health care, called upon countries whose "health care systems are trapped in a process of deterioration to study carefully the Cuban experience and the reasons why Cuba has had so much success." He said: "Top among those reasons has been the political commitment of the Government." The source of this commitment is the perception that health is not a commodity to be sold with a price tag but is a basic service to which all citizens have equal entitlement. Commenting on the economic reforms the Cuban Government had initiated, the WHO Director said: "Cuba's noteworthy efforts to reform its own health care system in line with the island's recent macro-economic measure have been undertaken without jeopardising human equity and solidarity."

It is this health system of Cuba that the U.S. is hell-bent on destroying through its several acts - the latest among them being the Helms-Burton Act restricting the activities of third countries doing business with Cuba. The World Federation of Public Health Associations in a resolution (May 1994) expressed concern that the "impressive advances achieved over the past three decades in the health of the Cuban people are in jeopardy due, in part, to the U.S. embargo" and urged member-associations to encourage their governments to trade with Cuba.

The situation in the U.S. is in sharp contrast with that in Cuba. The U.S. First Lady, Hillary Clinton, has acknowledged that in that country there are 40 million persons without adequate health care because of lack of medical insurance, apart from a considerable number underinsured persons, and 22 per cent of pregnant women receive no pre-natal care. The lack, obviously, is not of resources but of "political commitment", to quote the WHO Director.

Children born in the beleaguered little island that reels under a 37-year-old "war without bombs" - "a thousand times smaller David confronting a mammoth Goliath with a sling of biblical times," to use Fidel Castro's analogy - fare incomparably better than six million children below the age of six in the U.S. who live in poverty, half of them in extreme poverty. After a study, two U.S. academicians concluded that the "poor U.S. children are worse off than their counterparts in 16 out of 18 nations studied. Our high-income children are better off than their counterparts in every nation studied...a reflection of our overall income inequality." The study notes an important difference between the reaction of the European countries and the U.S. to child poverty. The former attempts to lower poverty levels by instituting child support measures while the latter has produced an intolerably low standard of living for a large number of children by sounding a "social policy retreat". (Professor Lee Rainwater, Harvard University and Timothy Smeeding, Syracuse University in Child Poverty News and Issues, Fall 1995).

In the U.S., according to a Blue-Ribbon Commission of the State Boards of Education and the American Medical Association, "Never before has one generation of children been less healthy, less cared for or less prepared for life than their parents were at the same age." It is not surprising that the U.S. has the distinction of being one of the only two countries that have not yet ratified the United Nations Convention on Child Rights; the other is Somalia.

As for the children of the rest of Latin America a report of the Inter American Human Rights Commission of 1993 says that a majority of them live in conditions of extreme poverty: "There are frequent cases of murder, torture and exploitation of every kind, sexual abuse, abandonment and the use of children as involuntary organ-donors and for prostitution." Such evidence, characteristic of urban "development" is seen in varying degrees in the developing and even in some developed countries. But Cuba is an exception, as acknowledged by many U.N. organisations.

The gains made by Cuban workers after the revolution have been phenomenal. In a world plagued by unemployment in developed as well as developing countries, Cuba offers higher levels of pension to those willing to work after retirement. The Cuban Constitution assures protection to every worker who is unable to work because of age, illness or disability. The inequality in income between people in town and country has also been greatly reduced - the average wage in agriculture, which was only 49 per cent of the average wage in industry in 1962, improved to 86 per cent in 1980.

The gender gap in employment has greatly narrowed. Forty per cent of the labour force consists of women. Fifty per cent of all women of working age are economically active, up from 25 per cent in 1970. Half the number of physicians and half the number of directors of hospitals are women. Fifty-three per cent of advanced scientific workers are women. A quarter of the parliamentarians are women and women's political representation in Cuba is the third highest in the developing world.

"Violence is as American as apple pie," said a militant black American once. Violence is built into all structures in the U.S., from the family to the state. The gun lobby is so strong that a law for the compulsory licensing of firearms could not be passed - one result is the proliferation of Godfathers and gangsters. Another country where the people are armed is Cuba. But what is its impact there? Are people killing each other? Are the roads, casinos and bars unsafe for women? Is the Government being attacked? Is there lawlessness and senseless violence? Fidel Castro states it graphically: "Everywhere, throughout history, the government is the embodiment of the people's strength. What would become of the Cuban Government if the people weren't armed? It couldn't exist." Then he goes on to ask: "What would happen in Europe if the workers, students and all the other sectors that are constantly repressed whenever they demand something or mobilise for something, were armed? What would happen in any of those societies of exploiters and exploited if the people were armed? ...Nowhere else in the world are the people and government so closely identified as in our country...this is eloquent proof of the essence of democracy...which can exist only in a fair social system."

The entire process of electing representatives to various levels of political organisation in Cuba is geared to the empowerment of the people. Unlike in India, where the highly hierarchical socio-economic foundation nullifies, in practice, some legislative measures that remain on paper, the egalitarian foundation created by the revolution and strengthened over the years in Cuba has invigorated its legislative process immensely. New proposals are widely debated at work sites and other places at different levels, and the experience of and insights provided by every individual benefits the Government. Candidates for elections are nominated by the people of a neighbourhood and not by the political party. Such a process activates the people politically, giving them a sense of power and control over their own lives. This, among others, has prevented the process of alienation of the people from the political power structure, a phenomenon common in most countries.

Even those who admit that the revolution has made a qualitative difference to the lives of the people wonder at the absence of a multi-party system in Cuba. This needs to be seen in the context of the historical circumstances in which the Communist Party gained ascendancy. The party enjoys a unique position: it symbolises the nation's anti-colonial and anti-imperialist traditions and unifies the people around preserving and enhancing the nation's "main conquest" - the dignity which even the poorest Cuban has acquired. Multi-partyism has been discarded not merely as irrelevant but as harmful to realising the objective of creating a new way of life in which "nobody is forsaken". As Fidel Castro explains it, "We are not against people having opinions that differ from ours. In Cuba the main thing is the battle between the nation of the Cuban people and imperialism. There is not any third position here - you are either with the revolution or against it, nobody is neutral." In the existing crisis situation, Castro said, the Cubans decided not to play around with the country's security and independence, "pretending that circumstances are ideal and dreaming up idealised forms of leadership and political organisation that cannot be applied in the present circumstances."

He spelt out the condition under which Cubans might seek "different political formulas" for the country: the end of the "war without bombs" that the U.S. had unleashed against Cuba. Cubans claim that their form of democracy more than works and that it is effective in fulfilling the main need of the revolution's survival - creating a politically aware and united people. It is this democratic system which has kept the morale of the people from hitting the bottom during the nearly four decades of economic blockade by the U.S., the many attempts to topple the Government and assassinate its charismatic leader and the collapse of socialism in Europe and with it the end of all beneficial trade and financial arrangements with the erstwhile socialist countries. Cubans' constant refrain is "unity is the main thing for us." It is in this context that the single party system must be comprehended and evaluated.

The Cuban values of political governance are reflected in the relatively high morale of the people despite the severe shortages of essentials that make everyday life an ordeal. Timothy White, a U.S. Professor who visited Cuba last year, commented:"Despite hardships caused by the blockade, Cubans appear resilient and willing to tolerate rationing or shortage during this 'special period' because they understand that this is a way of guaranteeing basics to everyone." His observations on his later visit to Cancun and Mexico City also emphasised the uniqueness of Havana as compared to other metropolises of Latin America. Cancun and Mexico City, he noted, appeared in comparison prosperous but "millions of Mexicans live in abject poverty. Every day brings revelations of new corruption, crime is up to 700 per cent in Mexico City and there are two bank robberies per day in the world's largest city....and the Mexican army is engaged in arresting and killing unarmed peasants in virtual combat zones." (The Latin American Alliance l997)

The Cuban people's grit and egalitarian spirit despite Havana's dilapidated look and the run-down conditions of just about everything and despite all this come through in an article written by Dr. Alvarez in response to Linda Robinson's comments in the U.S. News and World Report. Contrasting what success means to Americans - a better car and a larger house - and to Cubans - greater social recognition and a pride in the achievements of the people -, he writes that the Cuban scientific community "...is not ashamed of getting to work by bus or bicycle, or living through the same difficulties as the rest of our people".

At a maternity hospital in Havana.-ALEX TEHRANI/ GAMMA LIAISON

Alvarez also notes how Cubans have avoided "falling into the mortal sin of poor countries...attempting to imitate the consumer society created as a model by the U.S. Neither did we commit the error of pouring our scant resources into extravagant articles or luxury cars".

That there is a significant lesson in this for India is an understatement. The total manipulation of the individual's needs, desires and greed in the Western "democracies" by the multi-billion-dollar media industry selling consumer products and expensive tailor-made lifestyles, leaving little scope for expressing one's individual identity and preferences, is well known. In this sense Cubans enjoy more freedom and power over their own lives than their enviably rich northerners. If not the enjoyment of a high material standard of living, what else serves to keep the Cuban morale high? To quote Alvarez again, "...the satisfaction of living every day in a country without political corruption, without drugs, without illiteracy, without poverty fulfils our spiritual aspirations".

The U.N. has declared poverty - defined not just as poverty of income but as poverty from a "human development perspective i.e., a denial of choices and opportunities for living a tolerable life" - as a denial of human rights. Applying this criterion, the U.S. is more of a human rights offender - with 14 per cent of its population under poverty against Cuba's 5 per cent. What is probably crucial for making life tolerable is whether the polity is governed by the morality of the market or is of the humane kind. Noam Chomsky points out:"Outrage peaked during the Pan-American games held in the United States, when Cuban athletes failed to succumb to a huge propaganda campaign to induce them to defect, including lavish financial offers to become professionals; they felt a commitment to their country and its people, they told reporters. Fury knew few bounds over the devastating impact of Communist brainwashing and Marxist doctrine."

It is the firm refusal of a great majority of the Cuban people to be seduced by material prosperity - barely 145 km away - and to betray their revolution, that played a key role in compelling the U.S. administration to ease some of the restrictions on "humanitarian asssistance" to Cuba recently. While the impact of the move is yet to be assessed fully, it is also indicative of the pressures exerted by the national and international sources on the U.S. to lift the blockade. (Frontline, April 17, 1998)

Cuba holds many lessons for the world. It is a pity that those who would listen are getting fewer in this unipolar world.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor