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The Paradox Called Cuba

This past Monday, Cuban leader Fidel Castro turned 75 years old. His birthday celebration and the various reactions it inspired, made us reflect over our opinion that with the exception of the U.S., there is no country that simultaneously inspires more love and hate; or hypercriticism and romanticism than Cuba.

Of course, we all witnessed this in the dispute over Elian. But ever since the Cold War heated up in the Western Hemisphere, there have been revealing instances or comments from opinion leaders that seem to reveal the inherent contradictions between what life is really like in Cuba and what that country represents, and that which is described by Cuba's most ardent enemies and supporters.

We were forced to reflect over that position, which we have held for years, when Secretary of State Colin Powell committed the cardinal sin in capitalism/democracy, by praising the good that Fidel Castro has done for the Cuban people. While Secretary Powell's comments were measured and reserved, the media dove into a feeding frenzy over the very idea that Castro could receive any type of praise from America's top diplomat. It was interesting.

But the descriptive lines with Cuba have never been drawn in a convenient capitalist/communist dichotomy. We realized that to a great degree when, in 1998, after returning from an international tour, Minister Farrakhan said that he saw more Islam practiced in Cuba than he did in many Muslim countries. By the same token he has spoken of how he has seen important aspects of the work of God done in Cuba – which is supposedly an atheist country – that he has not seen performed in the United States of America - a supposedly Christian nation.


We especially witnessed this when we interviewed Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, last year, right after he had returned from Cuba and met with Fidel Castro. Rep. Thompson and his district were offered badly-needed assistance by Castro. Again, isn't it paradoxical that a U.S. Congressman would find help from Fidel Castro that he could not find in his own country – said to be the wealthiest in the entire world?

Here is a portion of that interview:

"CM: Another hot topic: Cuba. I haven't seen much on record (about the trip) other than the statement you put out. I know you just went down there. Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't Fidel Castro offer medical assistance to help you in your district because of the health problems that your constituents are having down there and because Cuba is known to have an excellent healthcare system?

Rep. Thompson: Yes. The visit to Cuba was eye-opening. I had never been in a non-racial country in my life where race was not a predominate factor in day-to-day activities. That was, to me, timely, coming from the South and coming out of a time period that was very tumultuous for Black people, and still struggling, even though I'm a member of Congress. You still get subjected to things just because you're Black. It is those kinds of things that remind you, no matter how much you achieve, that you are going to have difficulty. So that visit to Cuba, looking at his health system and some other things, I had an opportunity to talk to President Castro, who knew as much about my congressional district and the problems that I had to contend with as any other foreign -- or for that matter -- public official not born in my district. So that was good. We discussed my district and what problems I have to deal with quite often. The offer to educate students in a medical school in Cuba was made by President Castro, and we are very actively pursuing this to the point that I've just had a meeting with the Minister of Health of Cuba to continue that discussion and to try and make sure that my country will recognize people who graduate from Cuban medical school here. I'm making sure of all that before we take it.

I look at it like this: every county I represent is short of doctors and nurses. I have a lot of kids who would like to go to medical school who have been unsuccessful in getting in. Here is an opportunity to fill that void. If President Castro is the only somebody to step up to the plate, then the question is whether I'm going to play politics or whether I'm going to represent a demonstrated need for the people of my district. Everybody that I've shared the offer with in my district said "take it."

Everybody that I talked about on my position with regard to Elian going back home, they said he needed to be in Cuba with his father. These are not wild-eyed radicals that I talked to; these were grandmothers and great-grandmothers and grandfathers. Who are we to say who a child should be with? The absurdity of it. If anything, the people in South Florida, Miami, were really playing politics with this young boy's life. They didn't care about Elian. The statement that one [person] made yesterday, 'He's not going home to be with his father; he's going home to be with Castro'-- to some degree, you don't even try to respond to statements made by people who are obviously irrational. A lot of what I heard and saw, by the people who wanted to take the case, that they "loved Elian" was absolutely opposite.

CM: Specifically, what went on [the week of June 26] on this issue regarding sanctions on food and medicine placed upon Cuba? I understand that though the food embargo was lifted there were still some conditions placed on Cuba...

Rep. Thompson: There were, and obviously it is our hope that the Senate will clean it up and ultimately, in conference, [resolve it]. You know, you can't be half anything to really make it work. They never cut amendment. When I started it was good, but obviously you still can't travel to Cuba to finance certain products and supplies. To try to put restrictions on that really limits how much business Cuba can actually do with this country. Obviously, we have quite a bit of work to do on the Senate side. I think ultimately that will happen. The Republicans are just being consistent. They had no real interest in lifting the embargo with Cuba. All they can see is Castro. They can't see sick children, children who are not getting the adequate medical care because of the lack of medicine and/or equipment to perform certain procedures, and the fact that they're now paying as much as three times what they should be paying for foodstuff because of the travel costs associated with it. Many of the people who grow those same foodstuffs here in America could get it there far cheaper, where they're bringing in rice and soybeans and other products now. Obviously, we are playing a form of diplomacy that is denying a quality of life for people.

The notion is we trade with China; we trade with other countries that are not democracies. We don't put those kind of restrictions on them. Just because Castro is who he is, who has raised the literacy rate in his country higher than it has ever been, who has lowered the infant mortality rate far lower than it has ever been, we are going to punish him simply because he is not bowing down to this government or any government. On the other hand, I see 2200 doctors in other countries who are Cuba-trained, who are doing good in Africa, the Caribbean and other Latin American countries that nobody else is doing. During my travels to Africa as late as last December to Gambia, I saw an entire hospital staff with Cuban doctors and nurses that otherwise would be closed. When Nelson Mandela was sworn in as the first African President of South African, on the stage with him was Fidel Castro and Momar Qadaffi. He said those two gentleman had as much to do with him becoming President as anything in the world. Do you understand what I'm saying? Cuba helped provide technicians, medical personnel, military officers and other things. Qadaffi, from my understanding, provided a lot of the resources financially for those things to occur. I guess now we're going to tell him that we have to pick his friends to, but he didn't allow that to happen."


And then there are the accounts of racism in Cuba, where dark-skinned inhabitants are denied opportunities afforded to lighter-skinned Cubans. Last month, a group of Cubans met with the Congressional Black Caucus to describe racist conditions in Cuba and to seek their help. And last year, a very interesting article on the subject was published in the Washington Post.Please read it here. Many of those who hold out Cuba as a bastion of anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, and anti-capitalism seem to have little to say on race issues inside of Cuba.


When Fidel Castro met with Minister Farrakhan in a 3-hour meeting in 1996, he told the Minister that he (Castro) was the offspring of a White Spanish father and a Black mother. Castro told Minister Farrakhan that he always identified with his Black mother. To this day, many Castro supporters who act as if race is not a factor in their worldview, are unaware that Cuban leader has a Black mother nor are they aware of Castro's identification with her and how it has guided his steps over the last 40 years.


But maybe the most dramatic depiction of the paradoxical nature of how Cuba is interpreted (certainly in recent memory) was provided in a recent article written earlier this year which explains how the head of the World Bank expressed admiration and respect for the results of Cuba's economic model.

Here is that article followed by commentary that we provided as part of our African Union Special Report:

Learn from Cuba, Says World Bank
By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Apr 30 (IPS) - World Bank President James Wolfensohn Monday extolled the Communist government of President Fidel Castro for doing "a great job" in providing for the social welfare of the Cuban people. His remarks followed Sunday's publication of the Bank's 2001 edition of 'World Development Indicators' (WDI), which showed Cuba as topping virtually all other poor countries in health and education statistics. It also showed that Havana has actually improved its performance in both areas despite the continuation of the US trade embargo against it and the end of Soviet aid and subsidies for the Caribbean island more than ten years ago.

"Cuba has done a great job on education and health," Wolfensohn told reporters at the conclusion of the annual spring meetings of the Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). "They have done a good job, and it does not embarrass me to admit it." His remarks reflect a growing appreciation in the Bank for Cuba's social record, despite recognition that Havana's economic policies are virtually the antithesis of the "Washington Consensus", the neo-liberal orthodoxy that has dominated the Bank's policy advice and its controversial structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) for most of the last 20 years.

Some senior Bank officers, however, go so far as to suggest that other developing countries should take a very close look at Cuba's performance. "It is in some sense almost an anti-model," according to Eric Swanson, the programme manager for the Bank's Development Data Group, which compiled the WDI, a tome of almost 400 pages covering scores of economic, social, and environmental indicators. Indeed, Cuba is living proof in many ways that the Bank's dictum that economic growth is a precondition for improving the lives of the poor is over-stated, if not downright wrong.

The Bank has insisted for the past decade that improving the lives of the poor was its core mission. Besides North Korea, Cuba is the one developing country which, since 1960, has never received the slightest assistance, either in advice or in aid, from the Bank. It is not even a member, which means that Bank officers cannot travel to the island on official business. The island's economy, which suffered devastating losses in production after the Soviet Union withdrew its aid, especially its oil supplies, a decade ago, has yet to fully recover. Annual economic growth, fuelled in part by a growing tourism industry and limited foreign investment, has been halting and, for the most part, anaemic.

Moreover, its economic policies are generally anathema to the Bank. The government controls virtually the entire economy, permitting private entrepreneurs the tiniest of spaces. It heavily subsidises virtually all staples and commodities; its currency is not convertible to anything. It retains tight control over all foreign investment, and often changes the rules abruptly and for political reasons.
At the same time, however, its record of social achievement has not only been sustained; it's been enhanced, according to the WDI. It has reduced its infant mortality rate from 11 per 1,000 births in 1990 to seven in 1999, which places it firmly in the ranks of the western industrialised nations. It now stands at six, according to Jo Ritzen, the Bank's Vice President for Development Policy who visited Cuba privately several months ago to see for himself.
By comparison, the infant mortality rate for Argentina stood at 18 in 1999; Chile's was down to ten; and Costa Rica, 12. For the entire Latin American and Caribbean region as a whole, the average was 30 in 1999.

Similarly, the mortality rate for children under five in Cuba has fallen from 13 to eight per thousand over the decade. That figure is 50 percent lower than the rate in Chile, the Latin American country closest to Cuba's achievement. For the region as a whole, the average was 38 in 1999. "Six for every 1,000 in infant mortality - the same level as Spain - is just unbelievable," according to Ritzen, a former education minister in the Netherlands. "You observe it, and so you see that Cuba has done exceedingly well in the human development area."
Indeed, in Ritzen's own field the figures tell much the same story. Net primary enrolment for both girls and boys reached 100 percent in 1997, up from 92 percent in 1990. That was as high as most developed nations, higher even than the US rate and well above 80-90 percent rates achieved by the most advanced Latin American countries. "Even in education performance, Cuba's is very much in tune with the developed world, and much higher than schools in, say, Argentina, Brazil, or Chile."

It is no wonder, in some ways. Public spending on education in Cuba amounts to about 6.7 percent of gross national income, twice the proportion in other Latin America and Caribbean countries and even Singapore. There were 12 primary pupils for every Cuban teacher in 1997, a ratio that ranked with Sweden, rather than any other developing country. The Latin American and East Asian average was twice as high at 25 to one. The average youth (ages 15-24) illiteracy rate in Latin America and the Caribbean stands at seven percent. In Cuba, the rate is zero. In Latin America, where the average is seven percent, only Uruguay approaches that achievement, with one percent youth illiteracy. "Cuba managed to reduce illiteracy from 40 percent to zero within ten years," said Ritzen. "If Cuba shows that it is possible, it shifts the burden of proof to those who say it's not possible."

Similarly, Cuba devoted 9.1 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) during the 1990s to health care, roughly equivalent to Canada's rate. Its ratio of 5.3 doctors per 1,000 people was the highest in the world. The question that these statistics pose, of course, is whether the Cuban experience can be replicated. The answer given here is probably not. "What does it is the incredible dedication," according to Wayne Smith, who was head of the US Interests Section in Havana in the late 1970s and early 1980s and has travelled to the island many times since. "Doctors in Cuba can make more driving cabs and working in hotels, but they don't. They're just very dedicated," he said. Ritzen agreed that the Cuban experience probably cannot be applied wholesale to another poor country, but insisted that developing countries can learn a great deal by going to the island.

"Is the experience of Cuba useful in other countries? The answer is clearly yes, and one is hopeful that political barriers would not prevent the use of the Cuban experience in other countries. "Here, I am pretty hopeful, in that I see many developing countries taking the Cuban experience well into account."

But the Cuban experience may not be replicable, he went on, because its ability to provide so much social support "may not be easy to sustain in the long run".
"It's not so much that the economy may collapse and be unable to support such a system, as it is that any transition after Castro passes from the scene would permit more freedom for people to pursue their desires for a higher standard of living." The trade-off, according to Ritzen, may work against the welfare system which exists now.
"It is a system which on the one hand is extremely productive in social areas and which, on the other, does not give people opportunities for more prosperity."

We agree with much that is in the article above. We are not as dismissive of the potential to replicate what Cuba has done in other countries as the writer is, but we do share the opinion that real opportunities, advantages and challenges remain in the tensions that exist within a country that makes health and education a priority, but places little value on the free exchange of talents and skills between its citizens in the informal and formal marketplace.

Cuba, in many respects approaches our model in the manner in which it actively cultivates the human being and enables individuals to come into contact with their unique talents. The priority that Cuba places on healthcare and education lays the base for an outstanding economy. But, its inability to maximize its financial capital, as well as the government barriers to the free exchange of human capital among private citizens, according to our model, prevents full economic growth. In fact, it prevents capital development and accumulation (in human form) from producing economic growth. In many ways it has the polar opposite problem of the so-called capitalist economies that have high economic growth in terms of income, but lack economic development in terms of the cultivation of human capital. The disconnect really is evidence of the dichotomy established by those who follow Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Those with Marx like Fidel Castro in Cuba, embody, in many respects, Marx's aversion to financial capital accumulation, thus, the underdeveloped state of Cuba's monetary policy and markets.

We can't think of a better indicator of the underattention to the development of financial capital in Cuba, than in the fact that the U.S. dollar's usage in the country is so high.

It is so ironic that a country that prides itself so much on its economic model and attention to the needs of its citizens, ultimately prefers the use of the currency of the country that is the bastion of capitalism.

In an oversimplification, we are saying that Cuba and Castro develop human capital, per capita, probably better than any country in the well. However, they fail miserably in the marrying of human capital with human capital because their markets are not just underdeveloped, but in many ways, they are actually prohibited from existing. Its financial capital is however, definitely in a state of massive underdevelopment as a direct result of a misinterpretation of the Marxist economic model.

Again, Paradoxical.

Cedric Muhammad

Wednesday, August 15, 2001

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