The Times newspaper: Cuba the 51st state? Close, but no cigar

Campaign News | Tuesday, 21 November 2006

With Fidel Castro apparently on his deathbed, is Cuba heading for another revolution? Our correspondent argues that Cubans are too proud of their achievements to allow other countries to dictate their future

The Times, UK

By Ross Anderson

It is midnight in Havana. Even at this hour the steaming heat and humidity are tangible, a thick, dark, velvet blanket. An evening stroll is like walking through oxtail soup. As we emerge from the restaurant into the barely lit street it begins to rain: big, fat, hot, tropical droplets. There are no taxis, but we knew that before we left home. In the past few days half the city’s cab drivers have had their driving licences confiscated by traffic police. Everyone says this has to do with the summit of non-aligned nations in Havana the following week, but no one can explain what.

So we wait for our alternative means of transport, and it duly arrives: a 40ft, bright yellow, 60-seater traditional American school bus. For £2 the neighbour whose day job is to drive it has agreed to bring us here and take us home. The night is young, so we ask him to drive us to the Casa de la Música in nearby Miramar, where the salsa band Bamboleo are playing. That will be OK, he says, but he can’t take Fifth Avenue, the city’s main western artery, because there are too many police checkpoints and an excuse for his bus’s presence on the street when it should be parked outside his house, let alone our presence inside it, would be beyond even a Cuban’s invention. So we go the pretty way: a bit like travelling from one end of Kensington High Street to the other in a fire engine via the back streets of Notting Hill and Shepherds Bush.

Such is Cuba - where nothing works, but it does so with superb efficiency: where there is no food but you can eat like a king: where the main international airport has no-smoking signs outnumbered only by ashtrays: where no one knows what’s happening but everyone can tell you: and where the debilitating illness of the world’s longest serving leader has ignited a worldwide firestorm of speculation over the country’s future, except in Cuba, where no one seems unduly concerned.

In July, two weeks before his 80th birthday, President Fidel Castro went into hospital for intestinal surgery. He has yet to emerge and, unprecedentedly, has ceded power to his 75-year-old brother Raul. US intelligence believe he has terminal cancer, but they would say that: they’ve had him “dead” more often than Mark Twain. On the other hand, there is no denying that in recent photos and TV footage El Jefe is a pale, frail shadow of the colossus who has ruled for 47 years and whose deft political footwork has blindsided ten US presidents from Eisenhower to Bush.

So where does Cuba go from here? To understand that, you must first understand where Cuba is now.

We return from our morning trip to the market, laden with ripe mango and papaya, oranges, limes, sweet potatoes and avocados the size of melons, to find pungent white smoke billowing from the open aluminium shutters that serve as windows in our home. “Bloody hell,” I say to my wife, “the house is on fire.” Then I remember: it’s fumigation day.

Dengue fever, passed on by a bite from the Aedes aegypti mosquito, is the summer curse of Latin America and the Caribbean. Cubans are bombarded with public health announcements on TV telling them how to prevent the mosquitoes breeding, every home is fumigated every week and military planes fly low, spraying disinfectant every other day.

This policy of prevention before cure is the bedrock of the Cuban healthcare system, which is among the best in the world, and easily the most cost-effective: Cuba spends $251 per head of population on health, compared with $2,389 in the UK and $5,711 in the US. Life expectancy at birth is 76.3, compared with 78.5 in the UK and 77.2 in the US. Infant mortality per 1,000 live births is 7.2, the same as the US.

The front line of healthcare is the community: every 150 or so families have a neighbourhood consultorio, or local clinic. The family doctor, and often a nurse, live there, part of the community they serve. The consultorio specialises in health advice and disease prevention, and every family can expect an occasional unannounced knock on the door from the local GP calling to check that everything is OK.

Patients who need more specialist treatment will be referred to a policlínico, of which there are 440 in Cuba, each one serving between 30 and 40 consultarios and providing everything from dentistry to minor surgery. The third level of care is one of Cuba’s 256 hospitals, where you may benefit from another of the country’s little miracles.

In 2002 John Bolton, the extravagantly moustached buffoon who is currently US Ambassador to the United Nations, although probably not for much longer, declared that Cuba had an “offensive biological warfare research and development effort”. Widespread mirth in Havana gave way to anger when they realised that Bolton was being taken seriously (although last year Washington came as close as is diplomatically possible to admitting that the assertion was claptrap). Cuba is indeed able to make biological weapons, in the same way that a farmer with a truckload of fertiliser is able to make a bomb: this is because it possesses one of the most advanced biotechnology and pharmaceutical research, development and manufacturing industries in the world.

Among its triumphs are the first meningitis B vaccine, drugs to fight haemophilic influenza, typhoid fever and pneumonia, and others to prevent diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough. Venezuela doesn’t send only oil to Cuba: it also sends burns victims to be treated with a unique artificial epidermic growth hormone that repairs damaged skin.

Much of this research and development is carried out at the Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Havana, known to every Cuban as Genética. I know this not because the Cuban Government gave me a press release, but because my wife’s sister works there: and if she were building a botulinum bomb to fire at Washington, I’m sure she’d have mentioned it.

In a report published last year the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine concluded, with barely concealed envy: “Cuba’s health system is notable for achieving developed country health outcomes despite a developing country economy. Cuba’s experience presents nothing less than a fundamental paradox or challenge to the assumption that generating wealth is the fundamental precondition for improving health.”

Are Cubans going to give this up for an American-style system in which the quality of your healthcare depends on the size of your bank balance? Or a British-style NHS, falling apart because it costs more than taxpayers will pay? Well, would you? No, I thought not.

It’s Sunday and my wife’s niece, Marbelis, and nephew, Maikel, are going back to school. While the family is the building block of Cuban society in a sense that it ceased to be in Britain several generations ago, it is in the schools that the cement and mortar are applied to bind it all together.

You will note that Marbelis and Maikel, both 15, leave for school on Sunday, not Monday. They are at preuniversitario, the second stage of their secondary education, which is semi-residential: they won’t be home until next weekend, and for the next three years they will spend more time at school than they do at home.

They will be joined by the friends with whom they have grown up, because Cubans rarely move home, where you go to school is dependent solely on where you live, and all children receive the same basic education: what they make of it is down to their own diligence and encouragement from their families. They will be uniformly uniformed: there is no bullying of unfortunate youngsters in last month’s jeans or trainers. In the evenings they will study: there are no gangs of feral teenagers on Cuban street corners.

And when they are 18 they will be awarded their bachillerato, or leaving certificate, and go on to university, assuming that they pass their exams - and if they don’t, their mothers will kill them.

If all that sounds rigid and lacking in the parental choice that we value so highly, look at the results. Teenage street crime is rare even in tourist areas, and unheard of anywhere else. Cuba has the highest level of adult literacy in the Americas, including the US. And its universities and technical colleges produce a steady stream of doctors, teachers, artists, scientists and engineers.

Are Cubans going to give that up for a system in which your child’s education is determined by the wedge in your wallet, your postcode, or where Daddy went to school? I think not.

My wife’s sister is a sport and PE teacher. She is 41, with the body of an athletic 25-year-old, although with a slight belly that she attributes to her fondness for beer. She also smokes like a chimney: her pupils love her because they get unscheduled breaks while she sneaks a cigarette - but even with the beer and the fags I would bet on her over 200 metres against anyone in the current UK athletics team.

One of her jobs is to look out for young talent. Children who show sporting promise (usually at around 12, but swimmers and gymnasts may be as young as 8) will be offered a place at one of 30 Escuelas d’Iniciación Deportiva Escolar (EIDE, Schools for Initiation into Scholastic Sport). Those who continue to fulfil their potential will progress to one of 13 Escuelas Superior Perfección Atlético (ESPA, High Schools of Athletic Perfection), and thereafter to the jewel in the crown of Cuban sports development - Ciudad Deportiva (Sports City) on the outskirts of Havana, headquarters of the Instituto Nacional de Deportes, Educación Física y Recreación (INDER).

If you think this all sounds, again, a bit rigid, even Soviet, you would be right: it’s based on the old Russian and East German system, with the important difference that in Cuba the kids get to dance salsa instead of reading Marx. But nothing is compulsory (children can drop out at any time and rejoin the mainstream education system), and again, look at the results: apart from an 11th-place blip at Athens in 2004, Cuba - with a population of just 11 million - never finishes outside the top ten in the Olympic medals table. The system has produced legendary athletes such as Alberto Juantorena, Ana Fidelia Quirot and Javier Sotomayor, boxers Teofilo Stevenson, Mario Kindelán and Yudel Johnson Cedeno, the swimmer Rodolfo Falcón, and an endless stream of baseball stars.

Will the Cubans change that system for a better one? Don’t hold your breath while they look for it.

Our home in Cuba is filled with music. Most homes in Cuba are filled with music, but ours especially so: my wife’s sister’s husband’s grandfather was the songwriter Parmenio Salazar, the most famous exponent of whose work was Beny Moré - the legendary Forties and Fifties Cuban crooner who made Nat King Cole sound like Tiny Tim.

Pablo has inherited his grandfather’s musical genes (in addition, thankfully, to the rights to his grandfather’s songs, which provide him with a small but steady income from a royalty management company in Spain - not enough to retire on, but enough to keep him in black beans and very loud stereo equipment). His tastes are catholic: I wake every morning to American blues, rock or soul, or Cuban rap, or hip-hop, or salsa, or son, or trova, belting out from the living room below.

He has a rich tradition on which to draw. The arts in Cuba are not the icing on the national cake, but a vital ingredient. The Cuban Culture Minister, Abel Prieto, is not a bit player in government: he has clout, and he uses it. Arts programmes on Cuban TV are not shown at 1am on channels nobody watches: they are mainstream viewing - and Cubans, with an appreciation of the arts an integral part of their education, watch avidly. Would they swap their system for one in which the arts were at the bottom of the list of social and economic priorities? Not likely.

Despite all of the above, this is not a homage to Cuba. Its successes could just as easily have been achieved under a system of genuine political accountability, with public access to print and broadcast media free to question and criticise the government, with an independent judiciary and a police force that didn’t make up the laws as it went along.

The chief casualty of these flaws is the economy, which is a basket case, and reform of which will be crucial in a post-Castro Cuba. Everyone knows this, but no one is talking about it - especially not its history.

For more than 400 years after Columbus set foot on the island in 1492, Cuba was a Spanish colony. It achieved notional independence in 1898, but until January 1959 the countryside was administered by American fruit and sugar companies who paid slave- labour wages and exported the profits, while Havana was run by the Mafia as a gigantic casino-cum-brothel. Fidel Castro turfed the lot of them out.

For the next 30 years Cuba was a Soviet satellite, artificially protected from harsh economic reality: but when the Soviet Union went belly-up, so did Cuba. For the first time in its history it was truly independent, and the birth pains were almost unendurable. My wife, then in her mid-twenties, recalls filling a backpack with rudimentary cosmetics bought in Havana, hitchhiking 100 miles to the rural western province of Pinar del Rio, exchanging the cheap tat for food and then hitchhiking home to feed her family. It was that or starve.

You could argue that, while building world-class health and education systems is admirable, Cuba might have spent some of the Soviet largesse on a transport and telecommunications infrastructure, modern agriculture, and perhaps a couple of manufacturing industries as insurance against the day when the wheels came off. It has been reported that, in private, Fidel accepts that hitching Havana’s wagon so irrevocably to Moscow was a mistake - but in his own defence he points out: “The United States had hundreds of intelligence analysts studying the Soviet Union and they didn’t see the collapse coming: how could I?” He has a point, but Cuba needs to start making stuff that other countries want to buy, and not just rum and cigars. Fidel is stubborn, but not stupid: why the inaction?

I have a friend who is a senior employee of a Cuban state import-export company; he has worked throughout Europe, and he believes he has the answer to that. “Fidel has been to China,” he says, “and he has seen exactly what needs to be done, and how to do it: retaining political control but releasing private entrepreneurs to create wealth. He won’t do it because he sees it as a betrayal of the revolutionaries who fought with him in the Sierra Maestra 50 years ago. He says the next generation can do it when he’s gone.”

So who are this next generation? Most speculation focuses on two men: Carlos Lage, 54, an economic adviser to Castro since the early 1990s and effectively the country’s prime minister, and Felipe Pérez Roque, 41, the foreign minister and youngest member of the Cuban Cabinet.

Pérez Roque is believed to be Fidel’s choice, but although he is the younger of the two he is also the more conservative, and less likely to implement change. Lage, on the other hand, already has a record of economic reform, albeit minimal.

Wherever Cuba’s future is decided, it will not be in Miami, home to the United States’s largest Cuban- American community - largely comprising swivel-eyed, spittle-flecked, bile-spewing octogenarians who believe that Fidel Castro is the anti-Christ and that as soon as he dies they can return to reclaim their Miramar mansions. This is not going to happen, but these people’s electoral clout in Florida gives them extraordinary influence over Washington policy. The result is systematic American political and economic bullying of Cuba, condemned at the United Nations this month for the twelfth consecutive year by the usual vote of Everyone Else to One.

Imagine if Britain declared that the Roman Catholic Church was too powerful in the Republic of Ireland, spent £6 million producing a report on how to achieve the transition to a secular state, and appointed a senior diplomat to help to bring it about.

There would be outrage: yet substitute “democratic” for “secular” and this is precisely what the United States has done with Cuba. The 2004 report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba is now US government policy and Caleb McCarry, former staff director for the House Foreign Relations Committee’s western hemisphere subcommittee, is the man with the job of implementing it.

Best of luck, Caleb. Over dinner in Havana one night I chatted to Walter Lippmann, a Los Angeles journalist who writes, edits and collates news and comment about Cuba for an internet newslist. “This country has a lot of problems,” he said. “The solution to none of them lies 90 miles north of here.”

He’s right. Cubans chose Fidel Castro. And Cubans will choose his successor.,,7-2462351.html

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