Basic Rights For All:  Lessons From Fidel Castro And The Cuban Revolution


A presentation to commemorate the death of Fidel Castro
Organised by Tanzania Socialist Forum (TASOFO)
25th November 2017, Soma Book Café, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
By Njuki Githethwa, Writer/ Activist

By way of beginning
In 2016, compatriots in Kenya convened by the Kenya–Cuba Friendship Society congregated at the Embassy of Cuba in Nairobi to pay tribute and commemorate the passing away of Fidel Castro on November 25th 2016. Looking at the participants in the occasion, there were no so-called big men and women, the who’s who in the fields of politics, academia nor diplomatic missions in the country. We were just a handful of us, as most other times – run-of-the-mill compatriots for progressive causes in our country and elsewhere in the world – Palestine, Venezuela, Libya, Zimbabwe, such.

In Kenya, Fidel Castro was historically presented by the pro–imperialist politics and the deliberate disinformation and misinformation by the mass media as a devil incarnate, a ruthless despot. The Cuban Revolution was itself presented as a ruthless dictatorship, an aimless misadventure, a stain on the road to world civilization. This of course was meant to massage Kenyans that the ruthless capitalist dictatorship since the country gained independence in 1963 was better off than Cuba’s. That there was nothing positive to be said about Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution.

There was, there is and there always will be many reasons to remember Fidel Castro and the achievements of the Cuban Revolution. To start with, no single street in Cuba bears the name of Fidel Castro, not a single statue was erected in his honour.  Instead, the opposite happened: laws were enforced keeping his name, and any other living leader, off public sites such as statues and streets.  Raul Castro, in his moving tribute to Fidel on December 3, 2016, said:  “Fidel was always against the cult of personality until his dying days. He was consistent with that attitude, insisting that after his death his name and figure never be used to name plazas, avenues, streets, and other public places, as well as the building of statues.” The Cuban National Assembly recently passed a law implementing Fidel’s wish. Fidel Castro was not interested in monuments as his legacy for himself and of the Cuban Revolution. His legacy was different – the rights to basic needs for everyone in Cuba.

Basic needs are basic rights

Available statistics prove this, not from pro-Cuba agencies, but from global multilateral agencies. UN children’s agency, UNICEF, shows that that between 2008 and 2012, Cuba achieved 100% adult literacy rate. Compare this to USA, 78%, Kenya 72%, Tanzania 68%.

Primary school enrollment in Cuba is 98.4%, USA 95.7%, Kenya 84 %, Tanzania 98.2%.

Life expectancy rate in Cuba is 80 years, USA 78, Kenya 61, Tanzania 60.9.

Before the Cuban Revolution in 1959, life expectancy rate was only 52 years. The country then had only 6,000 doctors. Some 3,000 out of the 6,000 doctors emigrated from Cuba to the United States after the revolution. In the years of the Cuban revolution, the island has produced some 10,000 Cuban doctors a year.  Before then, most Cuban workers and peasants rarely, if ever, saw a doctor their entire lives.  By 2014, with a population of about 12 million people, the country had 67.2 doctors for every 10,000 people, ranking it first in the world as the country with the largest number of doctors per capita.  The country devotes almost a quarter of its GDP to education and healthcare, nearly twice the percentage of the USA. As a result, the country guarantees free education and health care for all citizens. Women receive six weeks of paid pre-natal maternity leave and up to one year of paid leave after giving birth. Home ownership is high with mortgages costing about 10% of monthly incomes.

Cuba has also set trends in the innovations of medical research. In 1985 the country pioneered the first and only vaccine against meningitis B. The country’s scientists developed new treatments for hepatitis B, diabetic foot, vitiligo and psoriasis. They also developed a lung cancer vaccine that is currently being tested in the United States. Cuba was also the first country to eliminate the transmission of HIV and syphilis from mother to child, a feat recognized by the WHO in 2015.

The army of white coats

Fidel Castro referred to Cuba’s doctors as the army of white coats, the first medical brigade that was sent to Chile after an earthquake left thousands dead in 1960. Since then, Cuba has sent more than 300,000 healthcare workers to 158 countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Currently, around 50,000 Cuban medical workers are present in 67 countries.

In October 2014, more than 450 medical workers from Cuba were deployed to combat the Ebola epidemic in parts of West African countries, making it the largest single national medical force in the region.

One doctor told Reuters at the time that he and his colleagues felt they had a responsibility to help: “We know what can happen. We know we’re going to a hostile environment. But it is our duty. That’s how we’ve been educated.”

Salvador Silva, a doctor specializing in infectious diseases who has worked in Haiti and Liberia was quoted in the publication, El Pais: “Cuban doctors are rooted in solidarity and in the Hippocratic Oath. Our job would be unthinkable without foreign missions.”

“Yes, our salary is low and maybe that pushes us to go abroad, but it also makes us proud when we see our work recognized throughout the world, on top of just helping in our own country.” he adds.

On the social level, Cuba is still grappling as many other countries with racism and homophobia. In the early years of the revolution, there were initial prejudices, indifference, and even cases of persecution against gay and lesbian Cubans. But as observed by Ike Nahem, “this was overcome after a few years through debate and struggle, to the point where, for many years now, Cuba is in the forefront across the Americas where the rights and social space of LGBT Cubans is most advanced.” The International Gay and Lesbian Commission in its report on June 17, 2017 reported that Cuba was one of the 52 countries in the world that supported the United Nations Human Rights Council’s recent resolution on human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity

Cuban Human rights

In Cuba, supporters and detractors of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution agree on one thing: That his legacy will be defined by the question of human rights. “Health and education are the revolution’s pillars of legitimacy so the government has to make them work. If they don’t, it loses all its moral authority.” A senior western diplomat told the Guardian in 2007.

While covering the death of Fidel Castro, a western journalist reported an intense period of collective gathering the whole country save for a handful from the “dissident community who surreptitiously opened a bottle of rum to celebrate his death.”

“On a cool Havana night four days into the period of official mourning, there was a mass rally in Havana’s Revolution Square. A nine-storey image of a young Castro was unfurled down the side of a tower block flanking the plaza. It overlooked the hundreds of thousands of people who overflowed the square into the adjoining avenues.”  He writes.

In a widely spread news item, the Associated Press reported that thousands of people had been “sent in groups by the communist government” to the rally in Havana’s Revolution Square, implying that the state had been shunting about a docile population against its will. Yet everyone the journalist spoke to that night insisted they were there voluntarily.

When the journalist asked the people he met on what they thought Castro would be judged on human rights, the responses were subtle:

“Where to start?” said Julio Cueta, a 41-year-old taxi driver. “My mum had cancer three years ago and they operated on her for free. How many third world countries can you say that about?”

“If it wasn’t for the revolution, I wouldn’t be able to study,” said Laura Alvarez, 25, wearing a white medic’s coat, with “Fidel” written on her cheek in glitter.

Some people even got upset when the journalist asked them the standard questions about dictatorship, dissidents and human rights abuses.

“If there is one country that respects human rights, it’s Cuba,” said a man dressed in military uniform. “The right of mothers to give birth safely is guaranteed here, children can study whatever they want at university and they don’t pay a penny.”

The journalist spoke with Juan Valdes Paz, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Havana, who argued that any discussion of human rights in Cuba has to be seen through the lens of national liberation.

“The revolution’s first and most important achievement is something without which everything else – even health and education – would have been impossible: winning the country’s sovereignty and independence,” he said.

“Ever since the revolution, Cuba has maintained that all human rights are complementary and interdependent. It doesn’t make sense to talk about political rights, if citizens are illiterate or if they don’t have enough food to guarantee their survival. The Cuban approach is a very third world conception of what human rights are.”

This is the same view expressed by Mwalimu Nyerere, the first President of Tanzania, a comrade of Fidel Castro:

“We talk about development ‘in the air’, so it is development of things, rather than development of people. We now talk of development in terms of GNP and we say this country is developing because its GNP is x, and another one is not developing well because its GNP is lower than that. We’ve always said ‘Yes, fine; the building of roads is right’, but how does this relate to the well-being of the people? Because development must really concern the well-being of the people — that’s number one.” Said Nyerere.

There is no plausible economic reason at all why basic rights such as education from primary schools through colleges and university and health care cannot be free in Kenya, Tanzania and elsewhere in the world like in Cuba. The barriers to access of basic rights are not economic, they are political decisions skewed in the neo-liberal direction under conditions of highly unequal wealth and power relations. These barriers can be overcome. Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution showed us that a revolution in basic rights is possible. It must happen.

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