The 26th of July is celebrated in Cuba as the Day of National Rebellion, in honour of the attack on the Moncada army garrison in Santiago de Cuba on 26 July 1953. This attack, led by Fidel Castro, was the beginning of the revolutionary armed struggle against the Batista regime.
To help mark 60 years of the Cuban Revolution, I have put together a list of 20 reasons why all sensible, progressive people should support and defend Cuba.
1. Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world
Cuba’s literacy rate of 99.8% is among the highest in the world – higher than that of both Britain and the US. The Cuban Revolution has placed a very strong emphasis on literacy, considering it an essential component of empowering the population. Just two years after the seizure of power in 1959, the Cuban government embarked upon one of the most ambitious and wide-ranging literacy campaigns in history, sending tens of thousands of students to the countryside to form literacy brigades. Within a year, the literacy rate was increased from 70% to 96%. Additionally, over the past 50 years, thousands of Cuban literacy teachers have volunteered in countries around the world including Haiti and remote indigenous communities in Australia.
2. Health-care is free, universal, and of high quality
It is a small, poor island that does not exploit other countries and which suffers from a suffocating economic blockade, yet Cuba “boasts better health indicators than its exponentially richer neighbour 90 miles across the Florida straits.” Life expectancy is an impressive 79. Infant mortality is 4.83 deaths per 1,000 live births compared (better than the US figure of 6.0, and incomparably better than the average for Latin America and the Caribbean, which is around 27 deaths per 1,000 live births). Cuba has the lowest HIV prevalence rate in the Americas. There is one doctor for every 220 people in Cuba – “one of the highest ratios in the world, compared with one for every 370 in England.” Healthcare is community-based, prevention-oriented, holistic, and free.
As Kofi Annan said: “Cuba demonstrates how much nations can do with the resources they have if they focus on the right priorities – health, education, and literacy.”
3. Education is free, universal, and of high quality
If you want to understand the true nature of a society, then a study of its education system is a good place to start. In Cuba, high quality education at every level is regarded as a human right, and has been the major priority of the government from 1959 onwards. The result is that a poor, underdeveloped country with widespread illiteracy and ignorance has become one of the most educated nations in the world. (Incidentally, you might think that a ‘dictatorship’ obsessed with preserving its grip on power – as the Cuban government is portrayed in the imperialist world – would worry about the consequences of creating generations of skilled critical thinkers!)
This article by Nina Lakhani in The Independent gives a useful overview:
“Education at every level is free, and standards are high… The primary-school curriculum includes dance and gardening, lessons on health and hygiene, and, naturally, revolutionary history. Children are expected to help each other so that no one in the class lags too far behind. And parents must work closely with teachers as part of every child’s education and social development… There is a strict maximum of 25 children per primary-school class, many of which have as few as 20. Secondary schools are striving towards only 15 pupils per class – less than half the UK norm.
“School meals and uniforms are free… ‘Mobile teachers’ are deployed to homes if children are unable to come to school because of sickness or disability… Adult education at all levels, from Open University-type degrees to English- and French-language classes on TV, is free and popular.”
The quality of Cuba’s education is recognised at the top international levels; for example, Cuba is ranked at number 16 in UNESCO’s Education for All Development Index, higher than any other country in Latin America and the Caribbean (and higher than the US, which is ranked at number 25).
4. The legacy of racism is being wiped out
Pre-revolutionary Cuba was, in effect, an apartheid society. There was widespread segregation and discrimination. Afro-Cubans were restricted to the worst jobs, the worst housing, the worst education. They suffered from differential access to parks, restaurants and beaches.
The revolution quickly started attacking racism at its roots, vowing to “straighten out what history has twisted.” In March 1959, just a couple of months after the capture of power, Fidel discussed the complex problem of racism in several speeches at mass rallies.
“In all fairness, I must say that it is not only the aristocracy who practise discrimination. There are very humble people who also discriminate. There are workers who hold the same prejudices as any wealthy person, and this is what is most absurd and sad … and should compel people to meditate on the problem. Why do we not tackle this problem radically and with love, not in a spirit of division and hate? Why not educate and destroy the prejudice of centuries, the prejudice handed down to us from such an odious institution as slavery?”
The commitment to defeating racism has brought about tremendous gains in equality and racial integration. Isaac Saney writes: “It can be argued that Cuba has done more than any other country to dismantle institutionalised racism and generate racial harmony.”
Of course, deeply ingrained prejudices and inequalities cannot be eliminated overnight, and problems remain, especially as a result of the ‘special period’ in which Cuba has had to open itself up to tourism and some limited foreign investment. Racism thrives on inequality. However, Cuba remains a shining light in terms of its commitment to racial equality.
Assata Shakur, the famous exiled Black Panther who has lived in Cuba for several decades, puts it well:
“Revolution is a process, so I was not that shocked to find sexism had not totally disappeared in Cuba, nor had racism, but that although they had not totally disappeared, the revolution was totally committed to struggling against racism and sexism in all their forms. That was and continues to be very important to me. It would be pure fantasy to think that all the ills, such as racism, classism or sexism, could be dealt with in 30 years. But what is realistic is that it is much easier and much more possible to struggle against those ills in a country which is dedicated to social justice and to eliminating injustice.”
Isaac Saney cites a very moving and revealing anecdote recounted by an elderly black man in Cuba:
“I was travelling on a very crowded bus. At a bus stop, where many people got off, a black man got a seat. A middle aged woman said in a very loud and irritated voice: ‘And it had to be a black who gets the seat.’ The response of the people on the bus was incredible. People began to criticize the woman, telling her that a revolution was fought to get rid of those stupid ideas; that the black man should be viewed as having the same rights as she had – including a seat on a crowded bus. The discussion and criticism became loud and animated. The bus driver was asked to stop the bus because the people engaging in the criticism had decided that the woman expressing racist attitudes must get off the bus. For the rest of my trip, the people apologized to the black comrade and talked about where such racist attitudes come from and what must be done to get rid of them.”
Who can imagine such a scene occurring on a bus in London, Paris or New York?
5. Women’s rights are promoted
Cuba has an excellent record in terms of building gender equality. Its commitment to a non-sexist society is reflected in the fact that 43% of parliament members are female (ranking fourth in the world after Rwanda, Sweden and South Africa). 64% of university places are occupied by women. “Cuban women comprise 66% of all technicians and professionals in the country’s middle and higher levels.” Women are given 18 weeks’ maternity leave on full pay, with extended leave at 60% pay until the child is one year old.
A recent report by the US-based Center for Democracy in the Americas (by no means a non-critical source) noted: “By several measures, Cuba has achieved a high standard of gender equality, despite the country’s reputation for machismo, a Latin American variant of sexism. Save the Children ranks Cuba first among developing countries for the wellbeing of mothers and children, the report points out. The World Economic Forum places Cuba 20th out of 153 countries in health, literacy, economic status and political participation of women – ahead of all countries in Latin America except Trinidad and Tobago.”
6. Community spirit still exists
Modern capitalism breaks down communities. Consumerism and individualism create isolation and depression. Poverty creates stress and family tension. Inequality leads to crime, which leads to a culture of fear – something that is completely inimical to the project developing a sense of community and togetherness. Anyone who has experienced life in a modern western city will understand this only too well.
Cuba provides a very different example. It is an exceptionally safe country, with very little in the way of violent crime. With a high level of participation in local administration, social stability, social welfare, low unemployment and a media that promotes unity rather than disunity, Cuba’s sense of community is something that visitors quickly notice.
Assata Shakur mentions this, and contrasts it with the US:
“My experience in the United States was living in a society that was very much at war with itself, that was very alienated. People felt not part of a community, but like isolated units that were afraid of interaction, of contact, that were lonely. People didn’t build that sense of community that I found is so rich here [in Cuba]. One of the things that I was able to take from this experience was just how lovely it is to live with a sense of community. To live where you can drop in the street and a million people will come and help you. That is to me a wealth that you can’t find, you can’t buy, you have to build. You have to build it within yourself to be capable of having that attitude about your neighbours, about how you want to live on this planet.”
7. There will be no capitulation to capitalism
The Cuban leadership have had any number of opportunities to sell out their people and to abandon the cause of socialism. If Fidel had been willing to convert himself into a fluffy social democrat, abandon militant internationalism, abandon the government’s commitment to equality and social justice, and accept the subjugation of Cuba’s economy to the IMF and World Bank, he would be portrayed throughout the western world as a brilliant and righteous man. Instead he has spent over half a century being portrayed as a ruthless, corrupt dictator.
Many expected that Cuba would give up the cause when its major supporters – the Soviet Union and the eastern European people’s democracies – did. It was an era when socialism seemed doomed; the “end of history.” And yet the Cubans never considered such an option. They could see the type of catastrophic consequences that capitalist restoration would bring: massive impoverishment and demobilisation of the masses; the collapse of the basic moral fabric of society; an explosion of crime, drugs, racial division, alienation, prostitution; along with, of course, the accumulation of obscene wealth in the hands of a few. In a thinly-disguised attack on Gorbachev’s policy of endless compromise with the west and his readiness to throw away any semblance of revolutionary leadership and vigilance, Fidel said in 1989:
“It’s impossible to carry out a revolution or conduct a rectification without a strong, disciplined and respected party. It’s not possible to carry out such a process by slandering socialism, destroying its values, discrediting the party, demoralising its vanguard, abandoning its leadership role, eliminating social discipline, and sowing chaos and anarchy everywhere. This may foster a counter-revolution – but not revolutionary change.”
The 2002 Constitution, approved by 98% of the electorate, states:
“Socialism, as well as the revolutionary political and social system established by this Constitution, has been forged during years of heroic resistance against aggression of every kind and economic war waged by the government of the most powerful imperialist state that has ever existed; it has demonstrated its ability to transform the nation and create an entirely new and just society, and is irrevocable: Cuba will never revert to capitalism.”
Over a million people – nearly a tenth of the country’s entire population – turn out to celebrate International Workers’ Day every May 1st. In spite of some limited market reforms that have been implemented in order to revitalised the economy, Cuba is still very much organised along socialist lines. The working class has a firm grip on political power. In an era such as ours, Cuba’s continuing commitment to socialism is very much something to celebrate.
8. Cuba is a functioning socialist democracy
Cuba is far more democratic than Britain or the US. The process of decision-making is far more open to grassroots participation, and is in no way connected with wealth. It is easy enough to see that one cannot expect to be successful in politics in the capitalist countries without a good deal of money behind you; political success is therefore predicated on the financial backing of the wealthy, who expect return on their investment. Political representation in Cuba is nothing like this. Representatives are elected by the people, and are expected to serve the people.
“Despite popular belief, elections do take place in Cuba. They take place every five years and there have been turnouts of over 95% in every election since 1976… Anybody can be nominated to be a candidate for election. Neither money nor political parties or orators have a place in the nomination process. Instead, individuals directly nominate those who they think should be candidates. It is not a requirement that one be a member of the Communist party of Cuba to be elected to any position. The party does not propose, support nor elect candidates.” As a result, the Cuban Parliament has representatives from across society, including an exceptionally high proportion of women.
Beyond representative democracy, Cuba also has a meaningful direct democracy. The Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs) were formed in the early years in order to organise the population to defend the revolution. “Membership is voluntary and open to all residents over the age of 14 years. Nationally 88% of Cuban people are in the CDRs. They meet a minimum of once every three months to plan the running of the community; including the organisation of public health campaigns to promote good health and prevent disease; the upkeep of the area in terms of waste and recycling; the running of voluntary work brigades and providing the adequate support to members of the community who are in need of help (for example in the case of domestic disputes etc). The CDRs discuss nationwide issues and legislation and crucially, feed back their proposals to the National Assembly and other organs of popular democracy.”
Looking at the Cuban system of democracy, you begin to understand the painfully shallow nature of western-style parliamentarism, where ‘democracy’ means nothing more than “the oppressed [being] allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them in parliament.”
9. Cuba is a key member of the progressive family of nations
Cuba continues to pursue policies of south-south cooperation and anti-imperialist unity. Its foreign policy has in no way been swayed by the never-ending propaganda and manipulation of the corporate press. It maintains excellent relations with Venezuela, China, DPR Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Brazil, South Africa, Angola, Zimbabwe, Syria, Belarus, Iran, Russia, Ecuador, Laos, Algeria and other not-very-fashionable countries. Cuba was a founder member of ALBA and is very active in the recently-formed CELAC. It consistently uses its role at the UN to support the progressive nations and oppose imperialism, for example voting against resolutions seeking to demonise Syria and speaking out boldly against the despicable war on Libya.
10. Cuba is a friend to Africa
Africa is the continent that has suffered most and benefitted least as a result of the rise of capitalism. Its enormous contribution to world history has been all but forgotten, and much of the continent exists in a state of chronic underdevelopment, the result of half a millennium of slavery, colonialism and imperialism at the hands of a rising western Europe.
Cuba, recognising its own African roots (“the blood of Africa runs deep in our veins,” as Fidel famously said), has from very early on in its revolution supported and built close links with Africa. Its role in defending Angola and liberating Namibia and South Africa is one of the most inspiring examples of revolutionary international solidarity. Nelson Mandela put it well:
“The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom and justice unparalleled for its principled and selfless character… We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise to the defence of one of us.”
Cuba has excellent, mutually supportive with many African states. One way it provides support is by offering thousands of fully subsidised places at its universities (for example, there are 1,200 South Africans currently studying medicine in Cuba). Cuba is very active in the fight against the scourge of AIDS internationally, for example having helped Zambia to start manufacturing its own antiretrovirals.
11. Cuba has achieved sustainable development
The World Wildlife Fund called Cuba “the only country in the world to have achieved sustainable development,” measured as a combination of human development index and environmental sustainability. Cuba is a world leader in the adoption of environmentally friendly technology. “Organic urban farms in Havana supply 100% of the city’s consumption needs in fruit and vegetables” – rather different to London, where we rely on a disgustingly exploitative and ecologically disastrous cash crop system.
Cubans understand that the protection of the earth’s resources is a global project. Fidel Castro has been very vocal at international bodies for over 20 years, particularly in drawing attention to the responsibilities of the imperialist countries, whose ruthless quest for profit has caused untold damage to the planet. “With only 20% of the world’s population, [the imperialist countries] consume two-thirds of all metals and three-fourths of the energy produced worldwide. They have poisoned the seas and the rivers. They have polluted the air. They have weakened and perforated the ozone layer. They have saturated the atmosphere with gases, altering climatic conditions with the catastrophic effects we are already beginning to suffer.”
12. Poverty is becoming a thing of the past
Considering it is an third world nation with limited natural resources, suffering under economic blockade and coping with the loss of its major trading partners in the early 90s, Cuba’s achievements in wiping out poverty are spectacular.
“Before 1959 only 35.2% of the Cuban population had running water and 63% had no WC facilities or latrines; 82.6% had no bathtub or shower and there were only 13 small reservoirs. Now 91% of the population receives sustainable access to improved drinking water. Sanitation has been a priority since the revolution and 98% of Cubans now have sustainable access to improved sanitation.
“Before 1959 just 7% of homes had electricity. Now 95.5% of Cubans have access to electricity. Solar panels and photovoltaic cells have been installed in schools and clinics in isolated areas.”
Income disparity is exceptionally low. No Cuban starves; no Cuban is homeless; no Cuban is deprived of education, healthcare or housing. There are very few countries in the world that show such unambiguous dedication to people’s basic human rights.
13. There is no homelessness in Cuba
A country that truly cared for its people would move heaven and earth to ensure that they all had somewhere to live. This is exactly what Cuba does. Rich countries like Britain and the US (which has over 600,000 homeless) could learn a thing or two.
14. Cuba makes an important contribution to science
At the time of the revolution, Cuba was stuck in a vicious cycle of underdevelopment, without the knowledge, resources or political will to use science as a tool to improve the lives of its people. Now there are over 230 institutions devoted to scientific research and innovation. Cuba’s biotech industry is considered the best in the world among developing countries, and has generated important innovations in cancer research, AIDS research. Cuba created the world’s first vaccine against meningitis B. Nobel Prize-winning scientist Peter Agre has stated that “what this small country has done in the progress of science and eradication of diseases is worthy of recognition,” adding that Cuban science’s greatest asset is its large pool of highly qualified, enthusiastic young scientists.
15. Free medical training is given to thousands of international students
Cuba provides full free medical training (including food and board) for hundreds of students from across the world, with a special emphasis on Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. With over 10,000 current students, la Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina may well be the largest medical school in the world. The quality of the training is world class: the school is fully accredited by the Medical Board of California, which has the strictest US standards. The only contractual obligation for students is that, having completed their training, they return to their communities and use their skills to serve the people. Another demonstration that socialism implies a level of humanity, compassion and altruism with which capitalism simply cannot compete.
16. Gender justice is being achieved
Cuba has, over the last 20 years, been making dramatic progress towards full equality for all, regardless of sexual preference. Cuban-American journalist David Duran writes: “Cuba is leading by example and positively affecting the lives of not only the LGBT people who reside there but others all over the world who see these massive changes taking place so quickly in a country where most would think the topic of homosexuality would be off-limits.”
The National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) campaigns for “the development of a culture of sexuality that is full, pleasurable and responsible, as well as to promote the full exercise of sexual rights.” This includes working to combat homophobia and to move on from the ‘machismo’ culture often associated with Latin America.
In a display of humility and honesty very rare for a politician, Fidel Castro in 2010 admitted responsibility for the mistreatment of homosexuals in Cuba in the early decades of the revolution.
17. Natural disasters are dealt with better than anywhere else
Like other countries in the region, Cuba is vulnerable to hurricanes, flooding and earthquakes. These natural disasters, if not properly prepared for, can cost thousands of lives. However, with its well-oiled Civil Defence System and highly mobilized population, “Cuba is one of the best-prepared countries in the world when it comes to preventing deaths and mitigating risks in case of disasters.” Although recent hurricanes have caused major disruption and economic damage, the numbers of dead and injured have been impressively low as a result of Cuba’s preparation and relief efforts. One need only compare this with the US government’s response to Hurricane Katrina (with its 1,833 fatalities) to see the difference in priorities between the two countries’ governments.
18. Cuba’s major export is doctors
Cuba’s ‘Operation Miracle’ has helped restore sight to millions of people across Latin America and the Caribbean. Cuba also has a huge number of doctors working in other countries of the Global South, helping to spread Cuba’s hard-won expertise in the field of saving lives. “A third of Cuba’s 75,000 doctors, along with 10,000 other health workers, are currently working in 77 poor countries.”
In response to the Haiti earthquake disaster of 2010, Cuba immediately (within hours) sent 1,500 medical personnel to help with the relief efforts. “They worked in 20 rehabilitation centres and 20 hospitals, ran 15 operating theatres and vaccinated 400,000 people. By March 2010 they had treated 227,143 patients in total (compared to 871 by the US).” Cuba has even offered to develop a complete programme for reconstructing Haiti’s healthcare system. Emily Kirk and John Kirk note: “Essentially, they are offering to rebuild the entire health care system. It will be supported by ALBA and Brazil, and run by Cubans and Cuban-trained medical staff. This is to include hospitals, polyclinics, and medical schools. In addition, the Cuban government has offered to increase the number of Haitian students attending medical school in Cuba. This offer of medical cooperation represents an enormous degree of support for Haiti.”
Cuba provides Venezuela with 31,000 Cuban doctors and dentists and provides training for 40,000 Venezuelan medical personnel (in exchange for which, Cuba receives 100,000 barrels of oil a day – a great example of two countries cooperating on the basis of their strengths).
19. Cuba loves sport
The Cuban Revolution has, from the beginning, recognised the value of sports in terms of promoting health, building community and developing national pride. Since 1959, Cuba has developed a wide-ranging sports infrastructure and has achieved massive levels of participation. In the 54 years since the revolution, the island has won 67 Olympic gold medals, compared with just four in the preceding 60 years. It consistently comes second (behind the US) in the Pan-American Games, punching well above its weight.
20. Cuba loves culture
Cuba places a strong emphasis on affording its citizens the facilities for cultural expression and enabling them to nurture their talents. Cuban children are guaranteed free access to artistic education, including musical instruments. There are more than 40 art schools, along with a system of neighbourhood cultural centres around the country for enabling art and music. The state level support, combined with a deep-rooted culture of music and dance, makes for a hugely vibrant and participatory culture. Music is everywhere in Cuba, and being a street musician is a state-licenced job. “If you stop to listen, you’re expected to pay, and musicians are around every corner.”
The full range of musical forms are supported and promoted, from classical music to Cuban folk music to hip-hop. The Ministry of Culture even has a division devoted to hip-hop, and Fidel has referred to rap as “the vanguard of the revolution.”
Cuba is under constant threat from US imperialism. Its development is made unnecessarily difficult by an unfair and illegal blockade. Yet it stands as one of the great beacons of socialism, and deserves the support of progressive people everywhere.