|By Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman
Our first, short visit to Cuba has left us impressed with the
accomplishments of the island-nation which for more than 40 years has
stood up to global capitalism. We also returned home with an awareness of
many of the limits of the revolution -- some brought on or exacerbated by
U.S. economic and military pressure -- and uneasy about the difficulties
Cuba faces in the coming years.
Walking into Havana's Jose Marti airport, we immediately sensed that this
was not like other places: there was no raft of billboards urging us to
drink Coke, smoke Luckies, charge with our Mastercard or rent a Hertz.
Indeed, there are virtually no commercial advertisements in Cuba. (Nor, by
the way, is there a personality cult surrounding Fidel Castro: we saw far,
far fewer images of Castro than we would, say, of President Daniel Moi in
Kenya. The omnipresent image in Cuba is national hero Jose Marti, the poet
and writer who helped lead the Cuban revolution of the 1890s.)
We saw a country with major accomplishments in healthcare, education,
daycare and other services. Cuba'a infant mortality rates and life
expectancy are comparable to those of the United States and other rich
countries, and the country's main health problems are now those of rich
countries. "We die as wealthy people, even though we live as poor people,"
one hospital director told us.
Cuba has invested in and maintains a sophisticated hospital system, with
hospitals spread throughout the country, not just concentrated in Havana.
Even more important is the national emphasis on preventive health measures
and primary and community care. Every person has access to a community
doctor and nurse, who serve several hundred neighborhood families and know
the health profile of everyone they serve. The women's association and
other mass organizations which are organized down to the block level also
help ensure care is delivered -- for example, making sure every pregnant
woman is receiving prenatal care. Cuba has also invested heavily in
biomedical research, giving it one of the only genuine biomedical R&D
capacities in the developing world.
We were also taken with the economic egalitarianism of the society.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost more than a third of
its national income in a single year. If the United States were to suffer
anything remotely similar, there is little doubt that the heaviest burdens
would be thrust on working people and the poor. In Cuba, the pain has been
spread equally: people have maintained their right to healthcare and
education and housing, and they were allotted food rations that gave them
a minimum level of sustenance. Even in times of genuine food shortages, no
one, so far as we know, starved.
The country's former economic dependence on the Soviet Union was, it
should now be obvious even to those who might once have argued otherwise,
one of the great mistakes of the revolution. Of course, this was a
dependence foisted on Cuba in no small part by the United States through
its embargo and continuous military threat.
Relatedly, Cuba erred in relying on agricultural exports (sugar above all)
produced on vast state-owned plantations, instead of cultivating food for
domestic consumption on smaller, farmer-owned cooperatives. Over the last
decade, the country has made considerable strides in remedying this
mistake, with more autonomy granted to farmers and a new emphasis on
organic agriculture (Cuba is now a world leader in the field). Food,
however, still seems in short supply.
One of the biggest threats to Cuba's accomplishments on the horizon is
posed by the tourism industry and the dollar economy. Cuba's greatest
potential foreign exchange earner, by far, is tourism. Tourism is certain
to grow rapidly, spectacularly so if the U.S. embargo is ever lifted.
Salaries in the peso economy are on the order of $20 to $30 a month. With
subsidized or free housing, utilities, food, healthcare, education, this
is enough, or at least close to enough, to get by.
Workers in the tourism sector are tipped in dollars. A maid or waiter will
easily make far more than $30 a month in tips.
And so the incentive is for doctors, nurses, teachers and others to leave
their jobs and go work in the tourist sector.
The result is both a misallocation of professional and skilled labor, and
the beginnings of social stratification. There is no obvious solution to
this problem that maintains the fundamental achievements of the
The problem is exacerbated by remittances from Cuban-Americans living in
Miami, and the gifts of toys, designer clothing and other items that they
provide to family in Cuba.
Walking by the hip clubs in Havana's Vedado neighborhood, one can feel the
magnetic pull of the corporate culture on kids who have little way of
understanding the very dramatic sacrifices their society would have to
make were Versace and Nike goods to become freely available.
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime
Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based
Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The
Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common
Courage Press, 1999).
(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman