BY ALISON DELLIT
"Why must anyone endure hunger, unemployment, early death from preventable diseases, ignorance, the lack of culture and all sorts of human and social afflictions for exclusively commercial reasons and profits?" — Fidel Castro.
July 26 marks the 48th anniversary of the first shot in the Cuban Revolution, the attack by Fidel Castro, his brother Raul and 79 others, upon the Moncada Barracks, in the country's south.
Although the attack was a military disaster — most of the participants were killed and the rest imprisoned — Castro's subsequent trial was a massive propaganda victory for the "July 26 movement".
Six years later, that movement led a successful people's revolution, forced the dictator Fulgencio Batista into exile and established a workers' and farmers' government, the first such government in the Americas.
Since 1959, Cuba has taken a different path to the market obsession that dominates most of the rest of the world — and the results have been remarkable.
Other countries rich and poor, encouraged by the big corporations and their governments, have privatised state assets, loosened trade barriers that hinder First World corporations from selling their goods and reduced expenditure on state infrastructure in order to service debt.
We are told that these changes will help reduce world poverty, and "rescue the Third World". On July 17, US President George W. Bush told those intending to protest in Genoa, Italy, against First World exploitation of the Third World not to bother: "those who protest against free trade are no friends of the poor".
Cuba is living evidence that Bush is wrong.
Since the 1960s, as social indicators for the Third World as a whole have worsened, and the gap between poor and rich countries has widened, Cuba has made startling progress in improving its people's quality of life.
There are few countries, even in the First World, which can boast free education from kindergarten to university — including textbooks and accommodation. There are also few First World countries which can boast free health care, or a ratio of one doctor for every 125 citizens. And these days there are even fewer, if any, First World countries which can boast no homelessness.
But Cuba is not a First World country, and that is what makes its achievements most remarkable.
Cuba's average gross domestic product per capita (using the Purchasing Power Parity measure) is US$1700. This is less than 1/16th of Australia's.
Countries with comparable income levels to Cuba are Kenya (US$1600), Azerbaijan (US$1770) and in Latin America, Haiti (US$1450). El Salvador's is somewhat higher (US$3100).
But the key social indicators could not be more different.
For every 1000 children born alive, seven will die in Cuba. In Azerbaijan 83 will die, 69 will die in Kenya, 29 in El Salvador and 91 in Haiti.
Whereas children born in Cuba will, on average, live to be 76 years old, Kenyan children can only expect to reach 48, Azerbaijanis 63, El Salvadoreans 70 and Haitians 49.
Ninety-seven percent of Cubans are literate. In Haiti only 45% of the population can read and write. In Kenya it is 78%, and El Salvador 72%.
Before the revolution, literacy in Cuba was 30%, life expectancy was 55 and infant mortality ran at 60 per 1000 live births.
The differences between Cuba and countries of similar per capita income do not stop at the basic social indicators.
Cuba has made tremendous advances in overcoming gender and race inequality. Women now compose the overwhelming majority of university graduates in both traditional and non-traditional fields. Nearly 70% of doctors in Cuba are women.
Before the Cuban Revolution, Cuba's black population endured systematic discrimination and enormous wage disparity. The institution of publicly funded health care and education by the revolution has made a dramatic difference to racial equality and began to break down the institutional separation between blacks and whites.
While racist ideas, like sexist ideas, still exist, they are no longer institutionalised and are a shadow of the former discrimination.
Cuba has even been able to help alleviate the poverty of countries with a similar per capita income to its own. More than 2000 Cuban doctors work overseas in aid programs. There are more of them than there are World Health Organisation doctors abroad.
Even the CIA concedes that wealth disparity in Cuba is minimal, and unemployment is low (around 6% in 1999, when Australia's rate was 7.7%).
In Azerbaijan, however, 60% of the population live below the poverty line and unemployment is running at 20%. In El Salvador, 48% of the population live below the poverty line, unemployment is officially at 8% — and unofficially at more than 20% — and the wealthiest 10% own 39% of the country's wealth, while the poorest 25% own just 1%.
Haiti has a staggering 80% of the population living in poverty. In Kenya, unemployment is more than 50%, and the wealthiest 10% own 48% of the country's wealth while the poorest have just 1%.
Praise for Cuba's social equality and security has even come from the World Bank itself. In April, World Bank president James Wolfenson admitted that "if you judge the country by education and health they've done a terrific job".
But underlying Cuba's success is a value system fundamentally opposed to everything that the World Bank stands for.
It is not because they have discovered the secret to economic efficiency that the Cubans are able to have highly developed social services. Rather their achievements are the result of having a government that places the welfare of all its citizens above the pursuit of private profit, and uses the active participation of its citizens in decision-making to ensure that this people-before-profits values system is reflected in all aspects of social life.
This concentration on the needs of the people sharply contrasts with the values inherent in capitalist societies.
Sometime last month, tobacco multinational Philip Morris sent a "research paper" to the Czech government "proving" that increased smoking was beneficial to the Czech economy — because the early deaths of Czech smokers save the government pensions, health insurance and nursing home subsidies.
The public release of the document was unusual, but the values inherent in it are not. They are the values at the very heart of a market-driven system that regards the great ajority of people simply as a factor of production for corporation's profits.
It is these values which underpin the endless push to "deregulate", which is really a push to let "the market" (read: corporate capitalism) continue making most of us poorer and the small groups at the top richer.
But these values don't dominate the Republic of Cuba.
Since its inception, revolutionary Cuba has struggled against attempts by the dominant capitalist power — the United States — to crush it. This has developed from invasion attempts — April 2001 marked the 40th anniversary of the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion of more than 1500 CIA-organised Cuban emigres — to economic and ideological warfare.
Cuba is still subject to a crippling economic blockade, tightened under the Helms Burton Act and the Torricelli Act. Every day the United States pumps television and radio broadcasts into Cuba, telling the Cuban people that life under capitalism for everyone is like life for the wealthy in the US. These never mention what life is like for most people in Haiti or El Salvador.
International condemnation of Cuba has nothing to do with issues of human rights or different systems of democracy. It has everything to do with the fact that Cuba refuses to sacrifice the needs of its own population, or any other people, to the continued profitability of a system that is destroying the world.
In 1964, Cuban revolutionary leader Che Guevara told the United Nations General Assembly: "The only way to solve the problems now besetting humanity is to eliminate completely the exploitation of dependent countries by developed capitalist countries, with all the consequences that implies." Nearly 40 years later, Fidel Castro argues the same point.
Cuba is a threat to this system because it poses an example to the Third World of what is possible once capitalism is replaced by an economy and society run by and for working people. The living standards available in Cuba, combined with the literacy and democratic discussion, provide a standard of dignity that most of the world's five billion poor people can only dream of.
This is the hope and the inspiration of Cuba. This is why all those committed to social justice must continue to defend the Cuban Revolution.
Che told the UN General Assembly in 1964: "Our country is one of the trenches of freedom in the world, situated a few steps away from US imperialism, showing by its actions, its daily example, that in the present conditions of humanity the peoples can liberate themselves and can keep themselves free." That's still true today.