Cuba: A success story

Campaign News | Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, President of the International Movement of a Just World writes about a recent visit to Havana

I had a pleasant surprise when I visited Cuba for the first time a few weeks ago. There were hardly any billboards in Havana dedicated to the man who has dominated Cuban politics and society since the Cuban Revolution of 1959. It was difficult to find a huge portrait of Fidel Castro anywhere in the capital city peering down on his people. Not a single street or building is named after him. There was no evidence of any attempt to immortalize the leader; to render him sacrosanct.

Health Care

There are other aspects of Cuban society which also deserve accolades. It is now widely known that Cuba has a comprehensive, sophisticated health care system. Through neighbourhood clinics, polyclinics and hospitals which cover the entire 104,944 square kilometres of the island - the fifteenth largest in the world--- the Cuban government provides free, good quality health care service to its 11.24 million inhabitants. With one doctor for 159.2 persons, the Cuban ratio is perhaps the best in the world. The republic's infant mortality rate of 5.4 per 1000 in 2006 is among the lowest in the world while the average Cuban can expect to live up to 77 years of age.

What is even more significant, there are at least 40,000 Cuban doctors, nurses and other medical personnel serving in other parts of Latin America, Africa and Asia. Cuba also offers medical training to students from the three continents, especially from Latin America. I was impressed by the Latin American School of Medicine which is testimony to the success of this endeavour. Cuba is now even helping to establish medical schools in other Caribbean and Latin American countries and also in Africa and Asia.

There is perhaps no better proof of how much its humanitarian medical assistance means to the people of other countries than its 'Operation Miracle' programme. Through this programme, Cuban doctors have restored the vision of tens of thousands of mostly poor people in Latin America and the Caribbean. Eye hospitals in Cuba staffed by outstanding ophthalmologists are among the best in the South.

Cuba has also developed a reputation as a leader in medical research. It has pioneered new vaccines and made significant advances in the study of certain types of cancer. It is partly because of its solid scientific base that Cuba has emerged as a leading player in the field of biotechnology. It is also through science that Cuba converted its fertilizer and pesticide dependent agriculture into organic agriculture --- perhaps the first nation in the world to do so on such a vast scale.

Education and the Economy

Its progress in medicine and the sciences is due in no small measure to the network of kindergartens, elementary and secondary schools that constitutes the foundation of the nation's education system. Mathematics, apart from Spanish, is the cornerstone of this system. At its apex are a multitude of polytechnics, colleges and universities. 98 percent of all Cubans are literate.

The question that is often asked, especially in relation to Cuba's ability to provide free health care and education, is this: how can the State support and sustain these programmes when we know that Cuba is not a wealthy country? Cuba's Gross Domestic Product(GDP) for 2006 for instance was US $ 44,065 billion compared to Malaysia's US $ 151.75 billion for the same year. Its main sources of income are from tourism, services, the export of pharmaceuticals, food products, sugar, cigars and nickel. The earnings from all these are geared towards nurturing an educated and healthy population which supercedes almost all other development goals. When an economy is totally socialized it is possible to mobilize all resources and direct them towards one's primary mission.

The Cuban economy, needless to say, is dominated by state and municipal corporations, cooperatives and collectivities in agriculture, commerce and industry. Some private enterprise is permitted especially in the food business and agriculture. It is mainly because of the way in which the economy is organized that income differentials have been kept to the minimum. A doctor's monthly wage may be a few pesos more than what a farmer earns in the same period. There is no privileged economic class in Cuba. It is a society where egalitarianism is the order of the day.

Harmony, Equality and Family

Just as Cuba has eliminated class differences, so has it eradicated racial and ethnic discrimination. A deeply segregated society before the 1959 Revolution with whites enjoying privilege and prestige, Cuba today is one of the most harmonious multi-ethnic and multi-cultural societies in the world with equal opportunities for blacks, meztizos, (or people of mixed ancestry), whites and minority groups such as the Chinese. The various professions reflect the multi-ethnic integration of Cuban society. At the social level, there is easy, uninhibited interaction among the different communities.

Gender equality is another of the great accomplishments of the Cuban Revolution. Not only are there equal opportunities for women in the workplace, in a number of critical professions there are in fact more women than men! For instance, 56 percent of all doctors are female. Women constitute 36 percent of the National Assembly and are well represented at all levels and in all spheres of public decision-making. The family as a social structure remains strong, reinforced by a caring network of relatives, neighbours and friends. This provides the people with an enduring sense of community which is so tangible even in a city like Havana.

It is partly because of the cohesiveness of family and community that the disabled are more mainstreamed than marginalized in Cuba than in many other countries of the South. Of course, law and public policy are also on their side. Sporting activities, from baseball to boxing, and from athletics to cycling, also figure prominently in Cuban national life. If Cuban sportsmen and women have carved a niche for themselves in the international arena, so have their musicians, dancers and film-makers. Indeed, the various facets of Cuban culture which were already vibrant before the Revolution have become even more dynamic since 1959, through the patronage of the state.

Foreign Policy

No narration of the successes of the Cuban Revolution would be complete without a look at its foreign policy. Given the ever present threat posed by the United States --- embodied in the infamous 'bay of pigs' invasion of 1961--- defending its independence and sovereignty has been one of the two principal objectives of Cuba's foreign policy. The determination to protect its independence became even more pronounced after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 when Cuba could no longer rely upon Soviet aid and had to fend for itself. At the same time, Cuba has, since the outset of the Revolution, displayed a strong commitment to the poor and oppressed beyond its own shores. Its humanitarian medical assistance to other nations which we have alluded to would be part and parcel of that dimension of its foreign policy. It is not widely known that Cuba also sent soldiers to support the Algerian people in their struggle against French colonialism and dispatched some armed personnel to the Golan Heights to protect the rights of the Syrian people against Israeli aggression in the sixties. Similarly, Cuban freedom fighters were actively involved in liberation struggles in Namibia, Angola and Mozambique, among other places, just as Cuba was one of the staunchest opponents of apartheid in South Africa from the early sixties to the late eighties. By associating itself with liberation struggles in other lands, Cuba has demonstrated through the sacrifice of its sons and daughters that it is an implacable foe of racism, colonialism and imperialism.

Cuba's foreign policy initiatives, like its myriad achievements in the domestic sphere, are a matter of pride for the Cuban people. One gets the impression that Cubans from all walks of life are very much aware of what they have accomplished as a nation. For 45 long years they have withstood a crippling economic blockade imposed by a colossal power just 145 kilometers away. It is not just the blockade. The Cuban people have also been subjected to subversion and subterfuge, terrorist attacks and numerous assassination attempts upon their leader, Fidel Castro. Because of its desire to be independent and to preserve its sovereignty, the Cuban nation has earned the wrath of the ruling elite in the US. Simply put, the US ruling elite has been fighting the Cuban people in one of the longest undeclared wars in modern history! The people's ability to survive and succeed is all the more remarkable when one recalls that after the Soviet demise they had to literally eke out a living in the nineties, in what was described as 'the special period', a period of great suffering and hardship. It is the strength acquired and accumulated through a long struggle stretching over decades that has made the Cuban people so resilient. It is a struggle that has endowed them with integrity and dignity.

Achievements: Some Reflections

At this juncture we should perhaps reflect on Cuba's achievements. How does one explain its relative success compared to other countries which had in the past also chosen the socialist road to transformation? There are three explanations that may be worth considering. One, there is a high degree of involvement and participation by the people themselves in planning and executing the changes that affect their lives. Decision-making is mediated through various bodies and agencies which appear to exercise considerable autonomy in relation to the national government or the Cuban Communist Party. By encouraging popular participation and by allowing grassroots communities to take charge of their own destinies to some extent at least, the Cuban Revolution has become a broad-based, people centred movement. Of course, one recognizes that in many instances the ultimate repository of power and authority is the Party leadership, specifically Castro himself. It is of course true that there have been cases where individuals who in the eyes of the leadership have attempted to subvert the Revolution are put on trial, convicted and imprisoned for long periods of time. On rare occasions there have been executions. Nonetheless, it is a Revolution which by and large has minimized violence against its political adversaries while maximizing dialogue and engagement with, and participation by, the people.

Two, compared to other similar revolutions in the old Soviet Union and China, the Cuban Revolution has been far less dogmatic and rigid in matters pertaining to culture and religion. Though in the initial years of the Revolution, the Cuban government was critical of organized Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism, it has over the decades begun to acknowledge the progressive role that religion can play in social transformation. Castro in particular has often articulated this sentiment. Apart from Catholicism, the religion which has a popular following in Cuba today is a combination of West African religious culture and Catholicism called Santeria which evolved through the centuries as a unique Cuban form of worship. The State has allowed it to flourish.

Three, a more important explanation for Cuba's relative success is the quality and caliber of its leadership. In more specific terms, as Leader of the Revolution and President of the Nation, Fidel Castro has been exemplary. With selfless dedication and devotion, he has served the cause of his people for almost five decades. In the process, he has evolved an intimate bond with his people, fulfilling their aspirations while articulating their dreams. It is remarkable --- as we have noted----that he has maintained this rapport with his people for such a long while without succumbing to the temptation of building a personality cult around him. If there is so much affection and admiration for him among the masses it is primarily because of his ability to protect their interests and enhance their dignity while defending the integrity and independence of their small nation against the greatest of odds.

There is yet another reason why Castro enjoys so much respect among his people. He has been firm and resolute in combating corruption within the leadership stratum of Cuban society. This is why this terrible scourge which has destroyed many a society, whether socialist or capitalist, has not afflicted Cuba even though it has been under the same leadership--- a leadership which exercises enormous power and authority--- for almost five decades. Apart from effective laws and policies, Castro has managed to curb corruption through his own example. He is not only scrupulous about the management of public funds; he eschews extravagance and ostentation. It is partly because of his example that he has succeeded in cultivating at least two generations of leaders who are averse to using public office for private gain. By and large, Cuban men and women in public life are conscious of the importance of adhering to ethical standards of conduct. As a result, they have helped to protect and perpetuate values which are fundamental for the success of any society --- values such as honesty, accountability and transparency.

Problems and Challenges

While the singular significance of leadership as the decisive factor in Cuba's success cannot be emphasized enough, we should also concede that there are major problems that continue to confront the nation. The government has not been able to build enough houses for its people. Public transportation is still inadequate. For almost a couple of decades now, Cuba has been recording high divorce rates. Its population is ageing. At the same time, it has one of the lowest birth rates in Latin America.

There are other challenges which Cuba faces that are perhaps far more serious. Cuba is one of a handful of socialist economies left in a world where capitalism, especially its neo-liberal variety, has become overwhelmingly powerful--- and penetrative. How long can Cuban socialism keep capitalist influences at bay? Tourism, which the Cuban government was forced to encourage in a big way partly because of the economic crisis of the nineties, is already bringing in through the front door some of the adverse consequences of capitalism. Those in tourism related jobs are earning more than their fellow Cubans. With better incomes come changes in consumer habits and lifestyles which in turn are seducing Cubans in other sectors of the economy to pursue wealth. There are also Cubans living abroad who send their remittances in American dollars or euros thus boosting the incomes of their relatives at home above the accepted average. As a result, some new disparities have begun to emerge.

In order to control the negative effects of 'tourism money' the government has introduced a separate currency --- the Cuban Peso Convertible---which is the legal tender for visitors to Cuba. It is about 25 times the value of the ordinary peso that Cubans use. While it may help to protect the Cuban economy in some respects, there is also the danger that it will encourage abuse and lead to 'black market' operations in the dollar and other foreign currencies.

The threat is not just from the dollar and capitalism. There is the perpetual danger of a US military attack. True, the US government had assured Cuba in 1962 after the missile crisis that it will not attack the country. In that crisis, the Soviet Union, then Cuba's protector and patron, was forced to remove nuclear missiles located in Cuba in order to protect her from a US attack in return for an assurance from the US President, the late John. F. Kennedy, that the US will respect Cuba's territorial integrity and not launch a military attack. Cuba cannot be sure that a belligerent US President like George W. Bush who has already tightened the economic blockade against Cuba will not embark upon a military offensive especially when the ailing 80 year old Castro departs from the scene. This in fact is the concern of a number of Cubans.

It is related to yet another challenge which faces the Cuban people. Will Cuban society remain as committed to the ideals of the Revolution, will the people continue to manifest those values which were responsible for the transformation of the last 48 years, when Fidel Castro is no longer around? Given the influence and impact of global capitalism, especially its culture of consumerism and individualism, will young Cubans in particular be willing to sacrifice for the common good like the present two post-1959 generations?

The impression I got was that Cubans below the age of 20 have been effectively socialized into the ethos of the great transformation that has taken place in the country over the decades. There is a great deal of appreciation among the young of the fruits of the Revolution. Likewise, a number of Latin American countries --- Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile--- have, in different ways and to different degrees, begun to question neo-liberal capitalism and even US dominance of their continent. There is no need to emphasize that Venezuela is in the forefront of this with its espousal of 'socialism for the 21st century'.

What this means is that Cuba's neighbourhood is undergoing a significant transformation. To put it more dramatically, it is not penetration of US capitalism that Cuba has to fear; rather it is the challenge to US capitalism from Latin America that the US has to fear! If we placed this in the context of the concerted opposition to US hegemony in other parts of the world, notably the Middle East, one can even argue that the future augurs well for Cuba which has, with courage and principle, resisted US dominance and power for almost half a century. Who knows, if the present challenge to US capitalism and hegemony in various parts of the world leads eventually to fundamental changes which benefit humankind, posterity may celebrate them as Castro's greatest legacy to the people of Latin America and the world.


Whatever the future holds for Cuba, it is undoubtedly one of the most outstanding success stories in social transformation in history. There are few other places on earth where justice, equality and solidarity have been given such concrete expression. What makes Cuba's achievement even more unique is that it has--- in spite of the US blockade--- given so much help to the poor and needy millions in other countries. Indeed, it is this ----Cuba's unparalleled humanity--- which has enhanced its dignity in the eyes of the world.

Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is a political scientist and President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST) based in Malaysia

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