Cuba: making poverty history

February 10, 2007

In recent years "making poverty history" has become the fashionable cause for ageing rock stars such as Bono and Sir Bob Geldof. As global poverty means that each year 9 million children die of preventable diseases, the need to achieve this goal is undeniable.

Unfortunately, however, poverty cannot be eliminated by the sorts of solutions they, and British PM Tony Blair, are proposing.

To start with, these "free market" schemes — infrastructure privatisation, promotion of monoculture for export, tariff reductions that are not demanded of Western countries and the recognition of Western corporations' "intellectual property rights" — are proven creators of poverty.

The fact that they are administered by international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and World Trade Organisation makes it worse because the overall effect is to increase the ability of foreign corporations to dominate and exploit the poor countries.

Austerity measures feature prominently in the economic policies imposed on the Third World by the Western-controlled international institutions. The "necessity" for austerity is generally explained in terms of the "natural" workings of the market and the need to remain competitive.

This is also the case in Western countries when governments impose austerity measures that, while not killing millions of children, do mean declining living standards for working people so that big business can remain profitable.

But the measures Cuba adopted in the 1990s to combat their economic difficulties were a very different experience. One difference was that the need for austerity was imposed by external objective causes. Since the early 1960s, Cuba had been (and still is) subject to a US-imposed economic blockade. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist bloc in 1989-91 deprived Cuba of between 50-80% of essential imports such as energy, food, agricultural inputs and medicine.

More revealing is that Cuba had already made poverty history, with indicators such as life expectancy, infant mortality, accessibility of health care, nutrition and employment and education equalling or bettering the West. (Before the revolution, life expectancy was 55 years' old.) The economic crisis of the 1990s was combatted while maintaining the social infrastructure. While in the rest of the world, living standards are counterposed to environmental sustainability, in Cuba living standards were maintained during the 1990s by pioneering developments in transportation, energy and particularly agriculture that have made Cuba a world leader in sustainable development.

Cuban President Fidel Castro described his country's achievements as being "thanks to its privileged position as a non-member of the IMF". By taking a socialist path, the Cuban revolution has shown the potential of the non-market in tackling poverty. The revolution began as a struggle against neo-colonial domination by the US. But, by 1961, it had begun to construct a socialist society.

Unsurprisingly, Western corporate media and politicians portray Cuba as a Stalinist police state where democracy is denied and human rights abused. This is untrue.

According to Castro, "We have never used soldiers or policemen against civilians. We have never had a fire-engine using powerful water jets against people, as one can see in those images from Europe itself almost every day, nor [police] wearing masks as if ready for a trip to outer space. No, it is consensus that maintains and gives the revolution its force."

The only thing resembling a gulag in Cuba is in the US's illegally-held enclave at Guantanamo Bay where the Bush administration has built its notorious concentration camp.

Contrary to the impression given by the Western media, Cuba does have competitive elections. Much is made of the fact that there is only one party, the Cuban Communist Party (PCC). The PCC does not, in fact, endorse candidates in elections. While party members can, and do, run in elections, so can non-members. In any given electorate there may be one, or more than one, PCC member standing or there may be only non-members as candidates.

Furthermore, Cuban democracy has levels of accountability and participation that Western democracy lacks. Voters have a right to recall their elected representatives if they believe their performance is unsatisfactory, and this right is facilitated by regular meetings at which representatives must report back to their electorates.

Decisions at the national level are made in consultation with local elected bodies and participatory assemblies. Furthermore, the socialist nature of Cuban democracy means that not only do workers' assemblies and elected councils play a significant role in the management of economic enterprises, but decisions regarding production and the economy are made democratically rather than in corporate boardrooms.

These democratic structures were responsible for the measures that brought Cuba through the crisis of the 1990s. They not only allowed the Cuban people to define and prioritise their needs in a time of real material shortage, but allowed the intelligence of the whole (highly educated) population to be utilised in the process. Older peasants' knowledge of traditional farming methods and the small organic movement in scientific and academic circles were both crucial in the transformation of Cuban agriculture.

Human rights are defined far more broadly in socialist Cuba than in the West. Housing, free education to tertiary level, employment, decent health care, nutrition, child care and sporting, recreational and cultural fulfilment are all considered human rights.

Conversely, the right to profit from the exploitation of others, the property rights and market freedoms so central to Western models of democracy are rejected in Cuba.

This is the secret behind Cuba having overall economic indicators such as a GDP that puts it in a league with Bangladesh, but social indicators, such as in health and education, comparable to Australia. Furthermore, these social indicators are averages and disguise the fact that while in Cuba there is a relatively egalitarian distribution of wealth, in the Western countries there are vast, and increasing, disparities in wealth, with many communities within these countries having significantly lower living standards.

While the Australian government makes excuses for ignoring Bono's pleas for a minor increase in overseas aid, Cuba, a Third World country subjected to an economic blockade, has a significant commitment to reducing poverty globally.

Cuba may lack hard currency to give to other poor countries but it does have, and does offer, highly educated professionals such as teachers and doctors. Cuba has more doctors serving overseas than the World Health Organisation. Moreover, Cuba gives thousands of scholarships to overseas students from poor communities. Hundreds of East Timorese have been educated as doctors and other health workers in Cuba. By contrast, Australia grants a handful of scholarships to East Timor as part of an aid program made conditional on Australian corporations' right to plunder East Timor's oil and gas.

Cuba's Medical School of the Americas even educates working class and minority students from the US who are denied access to medical school in the world's richest country!

Elimination of racism and sexism have been cental to the Cuban Revolution. That is not to say that racist and sexist attitudes are non-existent, but legal discrimination has been removed and economic inequality combatted. Cuba's understanding of women's rights goes beyond just eliminating sexist laws such as those restricting divorce or access to reproductive health services. Universal child care and equal educational and employment opportunities allow women economic independence. Cultural production, such as the cinema and the media, are used to change attitudes.

The development of social values has been uneven. Homophobic repression continued until the late 1960s and the Communist Party and the state did not start actively campaigning against homophobia until 1986.

The current illness of Cuba's 80-year-old president, Castro, has led to fervent speculation that his death will cause the collapse of the revolution. This refrain is not new. In 1998, Castro dismissed "the idea that the end of Castro would be the end of everything". He asked: "What would be the worth of a revolution if it depended on Castro or any other single individual?"

Western politicians' insistence that Cuba is undemocratic has led them to underestimate their opponent. In another 1998 speech Castro explained: "This is not Castro's revolution, it is the revolution of a people, the revolution of millions of workers … who have managed to keep united, to confront the giant."

Today, Cuba's socialist democracy looks even more capable of fending off the heightened US and Western aggression that will inevitably follow Castro's death.

The emergence of the Bolivarian revolution in oil-rich Venezuela has not only ameliorated Cuba's economic isolation, more importantly it has reinvigorated the struggle for socialism as an alternative to the horrific poverty and plunge towards environmental catastrophe that are products of the global "free market".

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