Rethinking Cuba – Taking Off Those Miami Sunglasses May Help Clear Up the Picture

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The recent politicized dismissal of the indictment against Luis Posada Carriles by federal district judge Kathleen Cardone has brought the historically thorny relationship between the U.S. and Cuba once again to the forefront of the news. With both governments presenting wildly contradictory scenarios in a confrontation that defies easy resolution of this case against one of the most ill-reputed mass terrorists of the day, it is difficult to reach an informed and unbiased opinion on the matter. The same can be said for generating educated insights on almost all other aspects of U.S. relations with Cuba. At the behest of White House ideologues and their Miami colleagues, information about life in Cuba has long been filtered and strained for public consumption, resulting in a general perception of Cuba that is massively distorted and divorced from reality.

The Debate Which Never Occurred
Washington’s standard take on Cuba is that long-time ruler Fidel Castro has always been an oppressive dictator and the country a veritable prison. As recently as April 29, President Bush yet again propagated this view at a commencement address in Miami, calling Cuba’s political system a “cruel dictatorship that denies all freedom in the name of a dark and discredited ideology.” Yet there are a growing number of scholars and analysts who approach the subject of the Castro-era in much more measured terms, insisting that careful research would turn up any number of divergent findings from the White House’s conclusions. Approaching what will be fifty years of bitter hostility between Cuba and the U.S., it seems a highly appropriate moment to re-examine what has to be seen as Washington’s failed Cuba strategy – one that hasn’t produced meaningful rewards on either side.

Recent Anti-Cuba Initiatives in the White House
In 2006, the Bush administration allocated US$80 million in public funds to the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba (CAFC), a controversial body of faithful bureaucrats and Miami political militants set up to “explore ways the U.S. can help hasten and ease a democratic transition in Cuba.” Those familiar with the work of the CAFC know that it would be hard-pressed to pass a review by the Government Accountability Office for being balanced in its perspective, pluralistic in its make-up or professional in its approach. In other words, it is doomed to be simply one more boon-doggle aimed at pouring taxpayer funds into exile institutions to satisfy the wishes of anti-Castro proponents. Its first report, which totalled almost 500 pages, would have left little room for Cubans to have a say in the make-up of their government in a post-Castro era and was seen as being offensive and arrogant, even to Cubans wishing to see changes in their political system. The commission, which was reconvened in 2005 by Condoleezza Rice, was subsequently granted more funding to issue a second report.

According to official government websites, one of the pillars of CAFC’s mission is to help Cubans “meet their basic needs in the areas of health and education.” This new infusion of federal funds and proclamations about the betterment of Cuban society reinforces the negative and chronically inaccurate perceptions of daily life in Cuba that U.S. authorities have disseminated for years. If one takes the time to look further into the actual living conditions of ordinary Cubans, the CAFC, though seemingly ebullient in its would-be crusade, reveals an initiative and policy hopelessly out of touch with modern day Cuban realities.

CAFC Funds Might Be Better Spent in the U.S. than Cuba
A good place to start in upholding the above thesis is to look at Cuba’s education system, one of the areas of “basic need” targeted by the CAFC. The fact is that 100% of Cuban children attend relatively well-funded and adequately equipped elementary schools, where the student-teacher ratios are among the most favorable in the world (well below the average of even some of the most developed nations). In addition, university and professional training are accessible to all. Although this island nation is smaller than the state of Virginia, it contains 57 centers of higher education, with the government guaranteeing the right to free education at all levels in any of these institutions, provided that admission standards are met. This commitment has resulted in an exceedingly highly educated population. At 98%, the adult literacy rate in Cuba is on a par with the world’s most developed nations and averages 15 percentage points higher than the literacy rates found in other Latin American countries. This does not mean that the system is perfect; Cubans face a grievous shortage of resources, sometimes including food for mandated meals served during school hours. What it does demonstrate, however, is that the CAFC is seemingly divorced from reality in identifying Cuban education as a sector desperate for American succour.

In fact, with annual tuition at U.S. colleges skyrocketing into the tens of thousands of dollars – meaning that routinely, higher education in the U.S. is increasingly limited mainly to those who can pay for it – there are undoubtedly some beneficial pointers to be taken from Cuba’s educational methodology and its prioritization of formal learning within a societal matrix. The Latin American School of Medicine (LASM) in Havana, for example, epitomizes Cuba’s egalitarian educational approach, demonstrating that a population might be better served when education is viewed as a basic right and not as a purchasable commodity. LASM is the largest medical school in the world, with its current enrollment approaching 12,000 students.

The school is world-renowned for its high calibre of teaching, along with its provision of such services as free tuition, accommodation, board and a modest stipend for students from Cuba and 29 other nations. As of 2007, there were 91 students from underprivileged communities throughout the U.S. who were studying there cost-free. These students, like many of the other foreign students at LASM, would have most likely been unable to pay for their education in their own countries. It is rather ironic that the Bush administration now funds a commission – CAFC – to allegedly help a post-Castro Cuba meet basic education needs, when it is readily apparent that Cubans on average already have far better access to quality education than many Americans are able to obtain or afford.

Where the Left has got it Right – Healthcare in Cuba
Another sector targeted by the CAFC is Cuba’s healthcare system. Contrary to what one would expect of a “cruel dictatorship,” the Cuban government has been committed to the provision of universal health services since it first came to power. Prior to the advent of the Castro administration, Cuba had 6,286 practicing physicians, which meant that only a small elite sector of society had access to doctor’s care, while health services in the countryside were virtually non-existent. By 2002, the number of doctors had meteorically risen to 67,079, with the physician-civilian ratio improving from 1 doctor for every 1,076 patients in 1958 (pre-Castro) to an extraordinary 1 for every 168 in 2002 in revolutionary Cuba. Cubans today have an average life expectancy that exceeds that of other Latin Americans by 8 years and its mortality rate for children under 5 is staggeringly low compared to other countries in the region (in 2005, Cuba’s child mortality rate was lower even than in the U.S.). While these are not the genera of statistics that normally make their way into the American media, Cuba is viewed throughout Latin America and other parts of the world as providing an exemplary model for the provision of universal healthcare to its people. In Washington, however, anti-Castro imperatives continues to cloud the picture with heavily politicized information, generating misguided and sterile initiatives as epitomized by the CAFC. At the same time, a flourishing educational and medical system doesn’t mean that the issues of human rights observance and political pluralism have been resolved.

To put matters into perspective, the recent death of Deamonte Driver, the 12-year-old American who passed away in Maryland from a dental infection, has drawn attention to the considerable financial difficulties plaguing the American poor in its attempt to access healthcare services. The Institute of Medicine, a body that advises Congress on health issues, estimates that 18,000 Americans die every year because they lack basic health coverage. One cannot help but wonder if the US$80 million boon-doggle assigned to finance CAFC in “helping [Cubans] meet basic needs in the area of healthcare” would not be more constructively spent improving the availability of medical services within the U.S. borders. On May 24th, Washington’s own Greater Southeast Hospital was described by the Washington Post as being in “critical condition” and in desperate need of US$16 million.

What Happened When Cuba was on the Brink of Collapse
What is particularly significant about Cuba’s healthcare and education systems is that the services and public institutions heretofore discussed have been maintained in the face of a severe economic crisis producing draconian conditions in all aspects of Cuban national life. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant that overnight, Cuba lost 85% of its trade and its national GDP was reduced by more than one-third. Spare parts disappeared and agricultural production, which depended largely on Soviet oil to fuel its machinery, came to a near halt as transportation was frozen. The country appeared to be deconstructing and on the brink of collapse. With Cuba no longer allied with a menacing superpower or posing any security threat whatsoever to the U.S., one might expect U.S.-Cuban relations to have even slightly thawed during this period. This would be entirely plausible, given that Havana was introducing a number of political and economic reforms, usually in the direction of liberalization and ameliorization. Yet the U.S. government took a very different stance, viewing the end of the Cold War as the opportune moment to step up its economic sanctions against the island and go in for the kill.

Bully to the North Ties Tightens the Noose
The Torricelli Act was passed in 1992 in an effort to mortally damage Cuba’s trade relations with third countries. According to its provisions, subsidiaries of U.S. companies were prohibited from trading with Cuba and foreign ships that docked at a Cuban port were banned from entering U.S. ports for a period of six months. When Castro’s regime did not crumble as hoped, the Clinton administration, under increasing pressure from the exile community, again tightened sanctions, this time passing the notorious Helms Burton Act in 1996. The bill, which was ruthless in its quest to sever third country ties with Cuba, was energetically opposed by the European Union for its violation of international law and its members’ business interests on the island. Prior to the Castro revolution in 1959, a major part of Cuban wealth rested in the hands of rich Americans who, among a number of other things, owned much of the island’s sugar and rum producing land. These properties were seized by Castro and redistributed among the campesinos to be used as farm parcels. The Helms Burton Act states that any foreign investor currently engaged in business ventures involving property that once belonged to an American citizen (fifty years ago or more) could now be sued in American courts.

Although completely isolated by a continued U.S. policy aimed at hermetically sealing Havana from both diplomatic and economic contacts abroad, the Cuban authorities managed at enormous effort to maintain existing funding levels for their health services, viewing healthcare as a primary right of all of its citizens. Social unrest and extreme hardships were contained during the 1990’s precisely because the government devoted what few resources it had to maintaining the provision of basic food, healthcare and social services to the population. In 2002, just as Cuba began to emerge from this “special period” of enormous hardship, 99.2% of all Cubans were still under the care of a family physician, with the infant mortality rate remaining among the lowest even in the developed world. Considering the severity of Cuba’s recent economic crisis following the fall of the Soviet Union, these statistics are quite impressive. They are incongruous, however, with what Washington describes as a heartless system under the unyielding heel of a cruel bureaucracy.

Cuba-U.S. relations are not a Foreign Policy but a Domestic Policy
If the Bush administration has undergone a late-inning conversion when it comes to issues of poverty and social injustice, perhaps it should consider the consequences that the U.S.-initiated trade embargo have had on the health and welfare of the Cuban population. With the inauguration of the Helms-Burton Act, Cuba effectively has been banned from buying sweeping categories of equipment, medicines and laboratory materials produced in the United States or covered by U.S. patents. With increasing U.S. dominance of the international pharmaceutical industry, Cuba is forced to turn to more remote world suppliers where high prices greatly restrict Havana’s purchasing power.
The Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act, which passed the U.S. congress in 2000, calls for medicines to be exempted from the embargo. While certainly a step in the right direction, the bill was far from comprehensive. Current legislation requires the sale and shipment of all medical supplies to be licensed, meaning that humanitarian groups in the U.S. often must wait up to a year before they receive authorization to ship vital medicines. Payments must be made through third-country financial institutions, which increases banking fees for Cuba and makes the purchase even more expensive. Complicating the situation further, as of 2005, the Bush administration has demanded that medical exports be paid for in cash before the shipments leave U.S. ports. In other words, bureaucracy continues to badger even well-intentioned policies towards Cuba. In 2001, an activist group opposed to the restrictive legislation attempted to cross the border to Canada with supplies they would later ship to Cuba. When U.S. federal authorities learned of the intended mission, a scuffle ensued whereby much of the heavy medical equipment was seized as the activists and Canadian supporters attempted to carry their supplies across the border.

In cases where patent-holding results in monopolizing the availability of a specific drug by a U.S. company, even remote supply sources may not be an option and Cubans are denied access to drugs essential to their health. A recent and notorious case was when Cuba was barred from purchasing an isotope required to treat eye cancer in children. In other words, Cuban children today are paying the price in a neocolonial live battle that dates back to the overthrow of former dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1958, whose policies at the time were much more welcomed because they suited American commercial interests. The baleful consequences of the unrelenting restrictions on Cuban civilians imposed by Washington hardliners are absolutely unfathomable. It is one thing to impose economic sanctions on a nation; it is another to prevent a civilian population from having access to essential medicines, especially when the intended policies don’t work. Cuba has never been less isolated either diplomatically or politically than it is today.

The UN General Assembly has repeatedly condemned the longstanding U.S. embargo because of its unquestionable negative ramifications affecting ordinary Cuban citizens. It issued a comprehensive report in 2005 that highlighted the numerous instances in which the health of innocent Cubans was being adversely affected by U.S.-imposed economic sanctions. In November 2006, for the 15th year in a row, the UN General Assembly called for an end to the embargo. This time, 183 countries voted against it, with only 3 besides the U.S. supporting its position.

While the embargo is supposedly a means of ending perceived oppression, in actuality, it has done little to change Cuba’s political system but has effectively and without question, denied Cubans access to life-saving drugs and technologies. Few, if any other embargos in history have restricted medical commerce so severely, while violating the UN charter and international law which calls for the free movement of medicine, even in wartime, to civilian populations. The Bush administration, in maintaining this repressive trade embargo, has demonstrated itself to be more concerned with the radical goals of extremist anti-Castro Miami exiles with the best of White House connections, than with the health and welfare of the general Cuban population.

Accepting that the Cold War is Over
While the U.S. government is now expending significant funds to identify measures that would help Cubans meet their education and healthcare basic needs in a post-Castro era, the fact is that Cubans presently have much better access to what are considered essential services than many Americans. While some Castro opponents will continue to adamantly refute the quality of Cuban healthcare and education, the validated rate of infant mortality and literacy levels should carry far more credibility than the unsubstantiated claims of rabid anti-Castro proponents. The allocation of US$80 million to a body charged with identifying measures for the improvement of health and education in Cuba suggests that the U.S. government is either hopelessly misinformed, or obdurately insists on clinging to its own obsolete Cold War propaganda. Either way, the good people of CAFC are clearly in no position to make rational decisions regarding the welfare of Cuban islanders.

Most Americans would be very surprised by these favorable Cuban statistics, given the harsh terms in which Castro is continually characterized and the intensifying economic sanctions that have been imposed on Cuba for decades by successive U.S. administrations – both Democratic and Republican. U.S.-Cuban relations have, at the behest of administration Cold War ideologues, long been consigned to inadmissibility and simplified for public consumption. The result is that many Americans have been left ill informed and unaware of essential pieces of the matrix regarding actual living conditions in Cuba and the state of the Cuban public’s acceptance of the regime. In an era where this information is so readily accessible, one no longer has to accept media-propagated stereotypes and unexamined charges that are little better than propaganda, without looking below the surface and challenging the origins of what may be totally erroneous information and doctored claims.

The UN-generated facts presented in this article reveal a Cuba that is markedly different from the one which virulent anti-Castro rhetoric routinely portrays it to be in the U.S. media. Demonizing the Castro regime and demanding its abolition is counterproductive to resolving Washington-Havana’s eternal conflict. In fact, there may be valuable lessons to be learned from a nation that has kept its people fed, educated and healthy through the most chilling of diplomatic circumstances. There is no doubt that there are fundamental aspects of the Cuban political system that need to be changed, but if the U.S. government wishes to maintain its credibility in discussing these matters, it has to acknowledge the parts of the Cuban system that are working. On the eve of what soon will be fifty years of a bitter standoff between two nations, it is time to accept that Washington’s Cuba strategy is not only outdated but dysfunctional as well. There may be systematic shortcomings of socialist Cuba, but demonstrably, a lunar view of the Earth would discern some blemishes in the capitalist system as well. Until both sides can admit this, resources will continue to be squandered on unproductive and utterly wasteful initiatives such as the CAFC, which lampoons creative policymaking rather than emulates it.