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Cuba celebrates 50 years of revolution

CSMS Magazine Staff Writers

On January 1, 2009, the republic of Cuba will celebrate its 50 years of revolution. In May of 1958, Fidel Castro and a group of romantic revolutionaries heroically prevailed over 10,000 government soldiers and paved the way for the January 1st 1959 triumph after then Cuban president Fulguencio Batista fled ahead of the rebel final advance toward Havana. Preparations for this extraordinary milestone have been under way for months. To coincide with the number 50, fifty caravan members were selected from each province. They all will converge in the country’s second largest city Santiago, and from there, they will retrace the same route taken by members of the Rebel Army from Santiago de Cuba to Havana in 1959.

As a major symbolic act, members of caravan were chosen “from among Pioneers (schoolchildren), members of the Federation of Intermediate Education Students and the Federation of University Students; outstanding youth, teachers, doctors, artists, athletes, scientists, internationalists, campesinos; members of the Association of Combatants of the Cuban Revolution, and officers and soldiers from the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the Ministry of the Interior,” according to Cuba’s committee for the preparation of the celebration.  The Caravan of Liberty, as it is called on the island, is set to leave Santiago de Cuba on January 2 at 8 a.m. and is scheduled to reach Ciudad Libertad on January 8.

Historic milestone

When the revolutionaries walked triumphantly and unopposed to the center of town under the gleeful display of tears of joy of the Havana residents on January 8th 1959, no one predicted it to last this long. Fifty years later, history and the original leaders of the revolution have proved them flat wrong—the pessimists, the mercenaries, the counterrevolutionaries and all others who inspired the downfall of the nationalist regime tinted with Marxism à la Caraïbéenne. Cuba, teritorio libre de las Ameircas, has survived 10 U.S. Administrations, Bay of Pigs invasion, countless assassination plots against its leaders and an economic embargo designed to bring down the aspiration of the Cuba people.

Of course, Fidel Castro and his top lieutenants, including legendary Che Guevara, were under no illusion that the road ahead was going to be bumpy. “The dictatorship has been defeated. The joy is immense. And yet, there still remains much to do. We won’t deceive ourselves by believing that everything will be much easier from now on; perhaps it will be much more difficult,” declared a somber-visionary Fidel before the revolutionary crowd. Well aware of the challenge that lay ahead—the deplorable condition under which millions of Cubans lived, the prevailing consensus was that work had to begin immediately. Fidel quickly proclaimed the right to self-determination as a preemptive measure designed to keep the United States at bay, away from meddling in its internal affairs.   “Fidel Castro’s neutralism is a challenge for the United States,” wrote Time Magazine in 1959. This was the signal that the Cuba’s neutrality declared by its leaders was not going to be left alone. Of course, in imperial politics, this was a major blow to US foreign policy. It was almost like overnight, American influence on the Island was brought to a devastating, grinding halt.  

Before 1959 and specifically since the Spanish-American war, US ambassadors were proconsuls, who enjoyed much greater power than the Cuban government itself.  Fidel used the program he announced during his famous Moncada trial in 1953 in his historic speech History will absolve me as a show of self-determination and full political independence.

Is Cuba of today a socialist paradise?

It would be an intellectual exercise filled with shallow truth to declare Cuba a socialist dreamed state. But in revolution and, more importantly, in building social justice, perfection has always been a relative term. Only those who enshrine or instill in their broken minds the illusory and maximalist dogmatism would believe that an ideal society free of mishaps, flaws or faultiness is still possible within the framework of an environment filled with hostile neighbors. Walking through the street of Havana, it is easy to assess the work that still needs to be done in Cuba.

However, Cuba of today is far better of than the country it once was, back in 1958. Back then, the country enjoyed limited industrial development, almost totally depending on sugar production managed by agro-businessmen and local dinosaurs latifundistas , who controlled 75% of the total arable land. “Most of the country’s economic activity and its mineral resources were managed by U.S. capital, which controlled 1.2 million hectares of land (a quarter of the productive territory) and most of the sugar industry, nickel production, oil refineries, the electricity and telephone services and the majority of bank credits. Likewise, the U.S. market controlled approximately 70% of Cuban imports and exports, within a system of highly dependent volumes of exchange: in 1958, Cuba exported products worth 733 million pesos and imported 777 million pesos worth of goods,” according to Cuban analyst, Lazaro Barrero Medina. The end result was an ugly picture of a decaying society with a widening gap between urban and rural citizens, racial and gender discrimination, rampant illiteracy and unemployment, large scale prostitution among the young people and a quasi inexistent healthcare, housing and social safety net for the vast majority of the population.

According to the Cuban Institute for Economic Affairs and ratified by UNESCO, in 1958, 50% of the population earned just 11% of total income, while a 5% minority controlled 26%. In acknowledging this precarious situation, the Cuban revolution seized on the 1940 Constitution to nationalize all foreign-owned businesses, corporations and all fertile lands with vast mechanism of farming production—lands that were later redistributed to poor and deprived farmers, although the country later paid compensations to all national from third countries, noticeably Canada, Spain and Britain.

Education and Healthcare: The country’s biggest prize

Today, Cuba has by far surpassed its counterparts in Latin America in its commitment to building social, economic and industrial infrastructure for all its citizens.  In the 1980s alone, approximately 60 billion pesos were allocated to the construction of productive and social facilities, even though housing remains the biggest problem. This is due to the fact the population has nearly doubled in 50 years. But if in some other areas like the economy and housing the country is still struggling, Cuba has much to be proud of when it comes to showcasing its successes in Education and in Science.   

 In 1958, almost 45% of the population was considered illiterate and semi-illiterate—about 2 million Cubans. Average Cubans only received a third grade education, “more than 600,000 children did not attend school and 58% of teachers were unemployed. Just 45.9% of school-age children were enrolled and half of them did not attend classes. Only 6% of those enrolled finished elementary education. Universities were available to just 20,000 students.” Through a massive and literacy campaign, an extensive network of schools was built with the full participation of the population throughout the country. More than 300,000 teachers and professors were hired. As a result, the education level for average Cubans has risen from 3rd grade in 1958 to 9th grade of today. Enrollment is 100% for all school children and, according to UNICEF, 98% of children complete elementary education and 91% complete junior high. Education is free in Cuba. Children with physical or mental disabilities who attend special schools are 100% guaranteed full education and vocational skills. One in every 11 Cubans is a university graduate and one in eight has technical-professional qualifications. Currently, there are 650,000 students attending universities. 

In 1958, infant mortality rate was 60 per 1,000 births and maternal mortality rate was 118 per 10,000. The mortality rate for those suffering from gastroenteritis was 41.2 per 100,000, and from tuberculosis, 15.9 per 100,000. In rural areas, 36% of the population suffered from intestinal parasites, 31% from malaria, 14% from tuberculosis and 13% from typhoid. Life expectancy at birth was estimated at 58.8 years. Around 61% of hospital beds and 65% of the nation’s 6,500 doctors were concentrated in the capital. In the other provinces, medical coverage was one doctor for every 2,378 inhabitants and there was just one hospital for all the country’s rural areas.

Today, Cuba has more than 70,000 doctors, providing coverage of one for every 194 inhabitants. By the way, healthcare is also free of charge. Out of those 70, 000 doctors, according to Medina, almost 30,000 of them are providing services in over 60 different countries.  The country has also put in place a national network of more than 700 hospitals and polyclinics.  Diseases such as polio, diphtheria, measles, whooping cough, tetanus, rubella, mumps and hepatitis B are now almost nonexistent,  thanks to a widespread vaccination campaign. Today, the infant mortality rate is 5.3 for every 1,000 live births and life expectancy exceeds 77 years.

Cuba has a biotech industry comparable to that of the United States, attracting wealthy patients from all over the world.   According to Doctor Ismael Clark, president of the Cuban Academy of Sciences (ACC), “The more difficult the circumstances, the more we must appeal to scientific knowledge.” So the country’s needs dictated the rapid development of Cuban science. The Genetic Engineering and the Biotechnology Center is one of the sector’s leading institutions. In 2007, Cuba’s biopharmaceutical products were its second most important export item.

Cuba has truly made inroads in its quest to elevate the living standard of its citizens. One can only wish Haiti, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, Bolivia and others could achieve half of Cuba’s accomplishments in just 50 years, despite insurmountable odds. In all intellectual probity, facts are undeniable. Cuba is still no paradise, but the greatest hope is the resilience of the Cuban people themselves.  Every country has the right to pursue its own destiny. Cuba’s embrace of Marxism alone could not have sufficed to achieve what it has accomplished over half of a century, it required the tacit love and diehard commitment of the country’s leaders—a commitment grounded on a nationalist romanticism—and the tacit approval of the citizens of Cuba to make this possible. And that is also the biggest weapon of Cuba.     

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