Cuba has seen academia divided for years but the exemplary advances being made in education and healthcare in the country speak for themselves
“They talk about the failure of socialism but where is the success of capitalism in Africa, Asia and Latin America?” Fidel Castro
While studying Development Economics at university, Cuba always polarised debate in the academic community. Cuba is one of the very few countries which have completely rejected neoliberalism, capitalism and “economic development” by privatisation. It is only one of six countries that is not part of the IMF or World Bank – the two institutions which are the blueprint for eradicating poverty in nearly every developing country. After all, the World Bank’s mission is to “push extreme poverty to no more than 3 per cent by 2030 and to promote shared prosperity and greater equity in the developing world”.
As Cuba has also been subject to a US trade embargo since the early ‘60s, it is a very daring move of the country to reject capitalism in full. In theory, the embargo prevents any imports from the US, a mere 90 miles away. In practice, however, this extends to non-US companies who do not want to trade with Cuba out of fear of being penalised by the US. To put this into context, Cuba was once the world’s largest sugar exporter and until the ‘60s the US received 33 per cent of their sugar exports from Cuba. Apply this, also, to Cuba’s tobacco, rice, fruit and a myriad of other items that are crucial for its economy and the standard of living of its people.
So, how can a country of 11 million people which has rejected capitalism, the World Bank and IMF, and has been subjected to one of the worst economic embargoes in history, have one of the best healthcare systems in the world, free education for every citizen up to and including university level, and have a higher literacy rate than the US and UK? In actual fact, Cuba shames all developing countries and the majority of OECD countries in nearly every development statistic.
However, Cuba still instigates heated debate, and a quick Google search brings up everything from how repressive the regime is to its people, to how the Cuban socialist government is one the fairest in the world, and plenty of alternative theories in between. As a result, I jumped at the chance to embark on a cycling holiday around Cuba to see for myself, and being only a few days after Obama’s announcement of normalising American ties with Cuba, the opportunity could not have come at a more pivotal moment.
What I did actually find in Cuba is a model for every developing country to follow. Cuba proves that a developing country can have the resources to look after its poor people, but instead it chooses to (or is forced to) neglect the most vulnerable. In the face of the collapse of the Soviet Union (Cuba’s financial backer), one of the worst trade embargos in the world and of western isolation, Cuba has no homelessness. It is simply not an issue in Cuba. Every Cuban is housed and you will not see a slum or homeless person in sight.
Another area of excellence in Cuba is education. Cuba spends 10 per cent of its national budget on education, compared with 4 per cent in the UK and just 2 per cent in the US. Following the revolution Cuba launched an extremely ambitious one year literacy campaign which was dubbed the “year of education”. “Literacy brigades” were sent to the countryside and rural areas to establish schools and teach the illiterate Guajiros (peasants) to read and write. Prior to the revolution, the literacy rate was between 60-76 per cent. In the “year of education” over 700,000 adults were taught to read and write, raising the literacy rate to 98 per cent and today it is slightly higher than that of the US and UK. Education is a priority in Cuba and does not end with basic literacy. Education at every level including university is free for all Cubans. Compare this with the UK, where the average student leaves university £22,000 in debt. This puts Cuba at number 14 in the UNESCO’s Education for All Development index, higher than any other country in the Americas.
Another area where Cuba serves as a shaming example to the rest of the world, especially the US, is its health care system that, according to the World Health Organization, is an example for all countries of the world. Famed for its excellence and efficiency, it is available for free to all segments of the population despite the impact of economic sanctions on Cuba. While exploring the pretty city of Cienfuegos, I met four female Pakistani medical students. Following the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, the Cuban government awarded 1000 scholarships for Pakistanis to study Medicine in Cuba. The girls were in their seventh and final year of study and had nothing but glowing reviews of their experiences. Cuba’s emphasis on education and healthcare is not merely reactionary and tokenistic. Cuban healthcare statistics speak for themselves; life expectancy is an impressive 79 and infant mortality calculated at 4.83 deaths per 1000 lives. Compare this infant mortality rate to the US where the figure is 6 and the average figure for Latin America is 27 per 1000. There is also one doctor for every 220 people in Cuba – one of the highest ratios in the world and better than England where there is one doctor for every 370 people. Healthcare is free, holistic, prevention-orientated and community-based.
Whether it is women’s rights, homelessness or any other development statistic, Cuba is not just doing better than almost every other developing country, but it is actually doing better than most countries in the world.
Having visited many developing countries, I expected (and quite used to) seeing billboards around schools, hospitals and farms, advertising their funding from Oxfam, UNICEF and other major charities.I half expected to see the same thing in Cuba but I saw no signs of a major charity being involved in providing basic services to Cubans. Instead, what I saw was the state being directly involved in providing services for the Cuban people, and what an exemplary service it provides.
Upon leaving Cuba I spent two days in Toronto before returning home. What hit me nearly as hard as the change in temperature was the prevalence of poverty. Amid the towering buildings I saw more homeless people in two days than I did during the whole time I spent in Cuba (which was zero). While walking in the snow, a homeless man approached me from behind. He asked me if I had any change I could spare so that he can try to secure a bed at a shelter to stay out of the cold that evening. The contrast hit me in the face like the sharp cold that this man was trying to get a respite from. There is no cap to the wealth that can be attained in our capitalist havens. However, there is no adequate minimum standard of care set for the neediest in our societies. This homeless man would be better looked after in the country I had just left than in the country I had arrived in. Should that not be the test of our humanity and the strength of nation-states?
For all the millions of dollars being wasted by multinational institutions like the World Bank and multinational charities, Cuba proves there is another way.
Photo Credits: Ali
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.