The social dimension

Print edition : April 24, 1999

India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

Why and how Cuba is indeed different from the rest.

"CUBA is different." That is a judgment commonly expressed by casual visitors to the country. The proximate source of this sense of "difference" is the untested belief that centrally planned systems harbour populations whose ability to enjoy life has been stifled. Cuba, however, is a country which obviously challenges such preconceptions. It has been through years of economic development within a command economy framework, pursued in a climate of encirclement. But this has not dampened the ebullience and passion of its people, whose lives still retain quintessentially Latino characteristics. The state does not dampen such sentiments, and it is helped by the fact that simple pleasures still offer people an easy escape in periods when economic conditions turn harsh, as in the early 1990s.

But the retention of traditional social traits has its downside as well. Superficially, Cuba remains a male dominated society, even though women in most families are better trained and occupy more prestigious workplaces. Not surprisingly, in a country where family values are strong, divorce is an almost everyday occurrence. According to official statistics, while 5.5 out of every 1,000 inhabitants took their nuptial vows in 1997, 3.7 in every thousand broke those vows. But even this record divorce rate (for the country) is seen as unusual. Divorce, after all, is expected to be discouraged in what, it is presumed, must be a regimented society.

Even though the influence of Fidel Castro pervades everyday life in Cuba, there are few signs of a "personality cult" of any kind in the country.-JOSE GOITIA/CP PHOTO/AP

There are other surprises as well. Despite Soviet-style socialist construction, there are few signs of a "personality cult" of the kind seen in similar contexts elsewhere. The country's heroes are Jose Marti and Che Guevara. And even though the influence of Fidel Castro pervades everyday life, a visitor is not confronted by his visage at every street corner. What is more, even his worst enemies would admit that he commands not just the respect and admiration of his people, but a deep affection and warmth. Fear, even if it is being felt, is not easily perceived.

Finally, despite long years of rule by a single leader and the hostile presence of migrant Cubans in Miami, dissent within Cuba is minimal and easily managed. Recently, Cuba jailed four political dissidents on charges of sedition, including that of criticising one-party rule, calling for a boycott of elections to the National Assembly held for the first time in February 1993 and urging foreign investors not to invest in Cuba. Interestingly, one of the four, Vladimiro Roca, is the son of Communist Party of Cuba founder Blas Roca. There was little by way of a response from Cuba's divided "Opposition". And the governments of Spain and a few trading partners, besides of course the United States, issued formal statements of censure, which were quickly forgotten.

Unable to find an Opposition to back, the international media have focussed on Cuban "refugees" who risk hazardous voyages across the Florida Straits in search of the good life. They are presented as people voting with their feet against the regime. In fact, many of these "refugees" are not so much political exiles as economic adventurers. The Cuban Government has not tried to prevent them from fleeing either. This encouraged the exodus, leading to a catastrophe in 1994, when more than 30,000 Cubans tried to reach the shores of America, and many drowned in the process. The U.S. administration soon decided that the flow could create problems at home and ended the automatic right to asylum it had granted Cubans. Now the flow is regulated and refugees without official sanction are routinely sent back home. Clearly the U.S. Government had come to realise that the political gain to be made from encouraging "asylum seekers" was small, when compared with the loss resulting from the disorder and discontent it generates at home.

THESE features of Cuban society, presumed by the outsider to be paradoxical, also make him or her identify the country as being in some sense different. However, serious scrutiny suggests that it is not this set of paradoxes which defines Cuba's essential difference. That lies in its commitment to raising the quality of life of its people. The real surprise is the level of education of its population. For example, it is not just that there is virtually no illiteracy in Cuba. What is more impressive is the fact that there are more than half a million university-trained professionals in a country with a population of just over 11 million. And this proportion is bound to rise. At the end of 1997, not only were around 95 per cent of children in the age group 6 to 16 in school, but the percentage of sixth graders going on to the secondary education stage stood at 99.8 per cent, and the percentage of secondary school graduates going on to the higher education stage stood at 99.2 per cent. That is, when most developing countries are still struggling to achieve universal primary education, Cuba appears close to achieving universal high school and post-school education.

Children at a school in Havana. When most developing countries are struggling to achieve universal primary education, Cuba appears close to achieving universal high school and post-school education.-ALEX TEHRANI/ GAMMA-LIAISON

Such a rapid rate of progress in education creates the human resources needed to make a huge difference to a range of social development indicators. Access to health and education in Cuba are among the best in the world. With 62,624 practising doctors at the end of 1997, or a physician for every 176 of its inhabitants, access to medical services compares with the best in the world. These doctors are supported with an institutional network consisting of 280 hospitals and 442 polyclinics which offer 80,528 hospital beds or close to 7.5 beds for every 1,000 inhabitants. Not surprisingly, achievement on the health front has been remarkable. With a birth rate of 13.8 per thousand, an infant mortality rate of 7.2 per thousand live births and life expectancy of 75 years, Cuba ranks among the front-runners in the public health area.

On the educational front as well, a highly qualified population implies better services. Cuba has a cadre of professors and teachers exceeding a quarter of a million in number, which allows it to field one teaching professional for every 42 of its inhabitants. In practice, at the school level there are an average of just 13 students per teacher at the primary level, 11 at the middle school level and 4.8 at the high school level.

THE really remarkable achievement, however, is that after the breakdown of the Soviet Union, which led to a collapse of output and trade and shortages of various kinds, Cuba managed to protect its social development achievements. As an official organ put it: "Workers of paralysed factories continued to receive full or partial salaries, not a single school was closed, not a single hospital ceased to function." Not surprisingly, figures for adult literacy and life expectancy remain the best in Latin America and, during the Special Period, Cuba even recorded an improvement in indices such as infant and maternal mortality, maintaining its position among the front-ranking nations of the world. This compares with the experience in Eastern Europe and Russia, where the transition away from socialism, backed by the U.S. and the International Monetary Fund, has actually affected a range of human development indicators adversely.

For a nation that had little by way of domestic material resources to sustain its social services and was virtually starved of the foreign exchange needed to import them after the collapse of the Soviet Union, this was no mean achievement. It required not merely the ingenuity, commitment and innovativeness of its highly qualified people, but also hard decisions on the priorities with regard to allocation of domestic resources and foreign exchange. But those decisions have more than paid off. There are few people who would deny that the Cuban Government's ability to keep basic services going in a period of economic retrogression explained the ability of the regime to retain the support of its population in the difficult years of the Special Period. It also explains why, despite having decided to provide a role for the market and open up to foreign capital, neither external observers nor people at home believe that Cuba has succumbed to neoliberal ideology and deviated from the egalitarian economic strategy it adopted after the Revolution. Finally, it helps make sense of the fact that Fidel Castro, who spearheads Cuba's new openness, remains at the forefront of the growing movement against neoliberal globalisation. Cuba, it appears, is indeed different.

A letter from the Editor


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