In their current form, the fruits of Fidel’s movement are rotten
By Chris Vazquez
HAVANA TIMES – Unaware of what was to happen a week ago Sunday, I tweeted that “The fruits of the Cuban Revolution are rotten”. Then, on an episode of 60 Minutes, Bernie Sanders defended positive comments he had made in support of Fidel Castro and the 1959 Cuban Revolution in a 1980’s interview, telling journalist Anderson Cooper, “I’m very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but you know, it’s simply unfair to say everything is bad.”
Sanders then touted the laurels of Castro’s mass literacy program and the free education and healthcare that were implemented in Cuba as the reason why there was no popular uprising against the Cuban government in the early years of the Revolution. One would think the Cuban American backlash to Bill de Blasio proclaiming Viva la Revolución after landing in Miami a few months ago would be enough to dissuade any candidate hoping to win Florida from making such egregious comments in support of the movement that forced them into exile in the first place, apparently not.
The way I see it, there are two issues at play here: Sanders’ praise for and clear admiration of Fidel Castro and his defense of the social merits of the Cuban Revolution that he mentioned. Although extremely difficult to do given the emotional reactions they elicit for so many refugees who fled Castro’s Cuba, I’d like to examine the issues separately. The reason is that the former is more so a subjective matter of opinion, while the latter can be assessed objectively and ties directly to my tweet about the fruits of the Revolution being rotten.
1) Bernie Defends his Praise for Fidel Castro
I remember back during the 2016 presidential race, a finch landed on Bernie Sanders’ podium at his rally in Portland. Bernie commented on the bird to his supporters in attendance, saying that the finch was actually a dove in disguise and that there was symbolism at play. It’s likely he could have been referring to the dove that landed on Fidel Castro’s shoulder during his 1959 speech in Havana just seven days after the triumph of the Revolution.
Superstitious by nature, the crowd of tens of thousands of Cubans erupted into cheers, Castro had achieved god-like status among his followers. It’s no secret that Sanders has mirrored this admiration for the Revolutionary leader, commenting on it several times over the years and defending his position on 60 Minutes.
People will form their own opinions on Bernie’s admiration of Fidel, so I realize there is not much room for debate here. In my opinion, nevertheless, to idolize a narcissistic and authoritarian dictator who reneged on promises, withheld free elections, nationalized businesses, executed innocents in the name of “revolutionary justice” and imprisoned thousands more without due process is reprehensible and insulting to the 1.5 million Cuban Americans living in a state Sanders hopes to win, the majority of whom are there as political refugees from a regime led by the man Bernie was praising. Given the subjective nature of the topic, there’s not much more I can say here.
2) Bernie Lauds the Social Merits of the Revolution
To this I say that the fruits of the Cuban Revolution exist, but they are rotten because they no longer serve the people they were created to serve. What is the point of free education and healthcare if neither translate to a higher quality of life?
Castro’s Revolution advocated for progressive reform, but the absolutist nature of his movement tainted its social contributions.
As codified by the rebels in the Sierra Manifesto, the Cuban Revolution was incredibly progressive for its day and massively popular among the populace, mainly because of the corruption within the Cuban government at the time.
Fulgencio Batista, the dictator whom Castro ousted, was in bed with both the United States government and with the American mafia. He empowered government officials to abuse the authority of their offices for financial gain, and unless you were benefitting directly from the rampant corruption, you wanted a change.
So, contrary to the constrained quasi-official narratives that have been formed in exile about Cuba in the 1950’s, the island was not without its problems. The Cuban Revolution, therefore, was seen as both a symptom of and a widely-supported antidote to the issues Cuba was facing. Castro’s Revolution advocated for progressive reform, but the absolutist nature of his movement tainted its social contributions.
The fact is that Fidel Castro cared more about himself than about the social advancement of his people. In April of 1961, he closed all schools in the country for eight months so that the curriculum could be “re-tooled” to conform to revolutionary ideals, private schools would never reopen on the island.
Castro then instituted and weaponized the literacy campaign praised by Bernie Sanders to indoctrinate the Cuban youth into his Revolutionary ideology. The students were to be pioneros de la Revolución, aspiring to “be like Che” in all they did, even if that meant spying on their parents in the name of the Revolution.
The increase in Cuban literacy after 1959 came at a high price indeed. Individualism and critical thinking were sacrificed for social conformity, and personal effort and achievement took a back seat to devout loyalty in the new Cuba.
Fearing that the Cuban state would assume legal guardianship over their children, many Cuban parents scrambled to get them out of Cuba in what would come to be known as Operation Pedro Pan. Throughout 1961, the same year the literacy campaign was implemented, approximately 14,000 children were boarded on planes bound for the United States in what would come to be the largest exodus of unaccompanied minors in the Western Hemisphere.
If this still isn’t enough to demonstrate the corrupt nature of Castro’s literacy campaign and the reorganization of the Cuban education system, let’s examine literacy data prior to the 1959 Revolution.
In 1950, nearly a decade before Fidel’s rise to power, Cuba boasted one of the highest literacy rates in Latin America according to UNESCO. At nearly 78%, Cuba was on par with Costa Rica and Chile, two of the most successful countries in Latin America today that currently also boast nearly 100% literacy, without the loss of basic human freedoms, economic strife, and communist indoctrination.
Cuban artist Tania Bruguera summarized it best when she said, “Yes, they taught us to read & write, and then they forbade us to read what we want and write what we think.”
While Cuba did have its fair share of problems before the Revolution, it cannot be refuted that the island had already been leading the region in key healthcare metrics prior to 1959, just as it had been in literacy, the numbers don’t lie.
Research done by Cuba specialist Carmelo Mesa-Lago shows that Cuba led Latin America in low infant mortality through most of the 1950’s. Cuba also led nearly all countries in the region in life expectancy in 1959. Based on official statistics published by the Cuban government, whose credibility is often questioned, life expectancy in Cuba today is essentially the same as it is in flourishing Costa Rica and Chile, two countries that Cuba exceeded in life expectancy by two years & seven years, respectively, in 1960.
The unfortunate reality is that today doctors in Cuba are not valued for their skills. They lack incentive to show up to work as they will be paid regardless, and their meager state wages encourage the acceptance of bribes for seeing patients. Though not necessarily the norm, the dystopian nature of the Cuban system further incentivizes doctors to steal from their practices and sell what they can in the black market, which in Cuba consists of toothpaste and tampons rather than drugs and arms. If they are assigned to a medical mission abroad, doctors must leave their families behind; they must surrender up to 70% of their salaries; and they are often used to advance the political aims of the Cuban government and its host ally.
Based on the information presented, it’s clear that there are many issues with the current state of education and healthcare in Cuba. However, let’s not lose the forest from the trees, Fidel Castro did what he did to ensure the preservation of his movement and to promote Cuba’s image internationally, attempting to mask the heinous human rights abuses that came as a package deal with the reforms.
To this day, Cuba continues to tout its excellent ability to develop human capital through its education system. It then squanders this capital by suppressing it at home through the removal of incentives, forcing it to either move abroad or go to waste.
So again I ask you: What good is free education if your degree doesn’t help you feed your family? If your crumbling house could still implode at any moment? What good is free healthcare if the hospitals lack beds and basic supplies? If you have to pay to make ten trips on overcrowded public buses before you can finally see your doctor?
Don’t get caught up in the minutia. In their current form, the social advancements of Fidel Castro’s movement do not serve the people they were intended to serve, the fruits of the Cuban Revolution are rotten.
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