A revolution in good health

According to orthodox neoliberal economic theories, peddled by social democratic and conservative politicians alike, Cuba should not exist. Havana has no programme drawn up by the International Monetary Fund demanding mass privatisation and the dismantling of democratic structures. It also has no CEOs from huge corporations courting leading politicians to influence foreign and social policy to suit the richest nations on Earth. However, Cuba lives, and, judging by its current situation it is flourishing, with economic growth that outstrips the rest of a Latin America buckling under the oppressive weight of neoliberalism.

Brian Denny, recently back from the island republic, where he spent May Day, 2000, reports.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of Cuba’s main trading partners, Havana has struggled hard to readjust it’s economy to the new situation in what was labelled the ‘special period.’ The United States attempted to press this perceived advantage by tightening its blockade of the country by threatening other nations that they must join its economic and political aggression or face sanction themselves.

However, around a million people filled Jose Marti Revolution Square in Havana last May Day to prove once again that every hostile action by Washington serves only to strengthen the revolution. The concerted efforts of the Cuban people have also meant that the terrible shortages of the early nineties are being overcome.

Investment in new industries such as tourism, which brings in over a $1 billion a year, has led to annual growth levels of over 6 per cent. The most impressive fact is that not one school, not one hospital or nursery has been closed during the ‘special period’, proving to the world that austerity does not mean massive cuts in public welfare programmes as the IMF would have us believe.

On top of this, since the 1959 revolution over 42,000 Cuban health workers have given their services free in nearly 100 poor countries. Incredibly, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba has actually increased the number of doctors working abroad as well as launching one of its largest international solidarity projects for decades by pledging to train up to 5,000 young people from the world’s poorest regions to become doctors themselves.

The idea came following the devastation of Central America after Hurricanes Mitch and George hit at the end of 1998. The extent of the damage was huge and the idea grew that it would be more efficient to train young people from the region to assist their own people rather than send Cuban doctors.

With typical Cuban aplomb president Fidel Castro ordered that the sprawling 21 hectare Naval base just west of Havana be converted for this task and today 3,000 students from 20 countries are already studying there. Havana eventually plans to house 8,000 students whose costs, covering all food, transport and general living expenses and a modest monthly income, are footed by the revolutionary government.

The sheer scale of the project cannot be fully appreciated until you cross the gates once guarded by Navy personnel.

The complex contains a 60 bed hospital, a huge film theatre, computer labs, study and research areas, a 24 hour cafe, living quarters and a beach area situated on one of the most beautiful coasts in the world. Staff also point out that there is a centre on the other end of the island in Santiago de Cuba to train a thousand French-speaking students from the Caribbean.

One of the directors of the Latin American School of Medicine, Lorenzo Francis Virgili, matter-of-factly points out that the institution promotes ethical values of solidarity.

‘We do not see doctors as managers taking care of clients, these are capitalist values. We see patients as human beings not objects.’

The school’s rector, Juan Carrizo Estevez, also said: ‘We are working above all to form doctors who have a profound concept of humanitarian medicine for the people.’

Cuban minister of public health Carlos Dotres explained that ‘our strategic objective is to make doctors out of the students coming from the poorest areas of the Third World and not provide perpetual medical aid to those countries.’

When Castro opened the school he told students ‘you will be apostles and creators of a more human world. We want the students to absorb the same doctrine as our doctors - total dedication to their future noble work, because the doctor is a shepherd, a priest, a missionary, a crusader for physical and mental health and well-being.’

For these and other countless acts of solidarity, students at the school are full of admiration and praise for Cuba.

‘It’s incredible. We can’t believe how the Cubans, in the difficult economic situation they are in, can do all this. They give us everything free, every book. We are so grateful,’ said 21-year-old Argentine Patricia Legarreta, who hopes to work in remote zones of Patagonia after graduating in Cuba.

Student Celeo Armando Solis Palma, from a farming family in a poor, rural zone of Honduras, said he had always wanted to study medicine but did not have the means before winning the Cuba scholarship.

‘We feel proud to be part of what Cuba is doing. This is an example to the world, the most humanitarian school in the world,’ he said.

‘The only way to pay Cuba back is to return and serve the most needy people in our countries, the rural areas where people are condemned to die for money problems.’

During a recent visit to Cuba by the Congressional Black Caucus, Fidel also offered to train doctors for the poor communities represented by US Democrat Mississippi Representative Bennie Thompson.

‘To a district like mine it’s a novel idea. I have not heard anyone else make that offer,’ said the black Congressman.

With free services for all, one of the highest ratios of doctors in the world and First World-level medical statistics, Cuba’s health system puts most in the developed world to shame. Cuba’s infant mortality rate, already one of the lowest in the world, fell further in 1999 to about 6.5 deaths per thousand births.

Not satisfied with this Cuba sends doctors to African countries to combat the child mortality rate which in some countries reaches 162 per thousand. Child diseases have also been eradicated in Cuba by vaccination, and there are about 60 doctors and 76 nurses for every 10,000 inhabitants among the island’s 11 million.

Health Minister Dotres acknowledged there were still shortages of medicines due to the US blockade.

‘There is a lack of medicines and there will still be because we have a blockade. But we have not had to lament the death of one Cuban for lack of medicines.’

The staggering achievements of the Cuban health system are emulated in the field of education where young people are also at the fore in the struggle to build a proud and independent nation. Evidence of this was seen at this year’s May day celebration in Havana where the presidium consisted almost entirely of young pioneers in their distinctive red, white and blue uniforms. Young people have recently been deeply politicised by the kidnapping of the Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez and have been at the forefront in the campaign to return him home.

These kids sing songs they penned themselves and the most inspiring speech of the day was from a distinctly chubby seven-year-old girl who spoke with such sincerity, confidence and passion that it would have driven the most heartless far right Miami-Cuban emigré to despair.

The director of the Cuban newspaper Granma International Gabriel Franchossi confirmed the Elian case had energised the youngest people in the country to fight US imperialism.

‘Before this we had no idea of the true potential of our young people. This has been a revelation to us,’ he said.

Solidarity messages from around the world were delivered by a list of women from across the Americas and the most moving and illuminating was from a representative of Argentina’s Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Hebe de Bonafini.

‘In my country, human rights are violated every day, workers are beaten, people die of hunger, murder is ruthlessly committed, prisons are concentration camps. What human rights is our government speaking of when it condemns Cuba?’

When Fidel finally took the podium he spoke slowly and patiently of the Elian tragedy and the twists and turns of the Miami mafia and the US government.

Fidel assures the world he bears the American people no malice but only speaks of those who deceive them.

‘It would be wise of US leaders to realise that David has grown and that he has become a moral giant who does not throw stones with his sling, but rather examples and ideas against the Goliath of colossal wealth, nuclear weapons and power based on selfishness, demagogy and hypocrisy which lies completely helpless.

‘The peoples of an ungovernable world, who suffer poverty and are exploited and plundered at an ever-growing rate, will be our best comrades in arms.’

This strikes at the core of the revolution which began over a century ago when Jose Marti swore ‘with the poor people of this Earth I want to share my fate.’ These simple facts contribute to the continuing success of Cuba’s revolution and it’s struggle to resist the power of the strongest superpower in the world just ninety miles away.

Each attempt by the US to undermine Cuban socialism, from the kidnapping of Elian, to the long-running blockade, to its use of biological and psychological warfare has strengthened the resolve of a fiercely independent nation to choose its own path.

Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defence during the Vietnam War, summed up Washington’s arrogant and racist attitude when it lost its ten thousand day war of aggression against the tenacious Vietnamese people. ‘We acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation. We were wrong. We were terribly wrong.’

Brian Denny is Foreign Editor of the British left daily, The Morning Star.