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Cubans: Poor people, living rich lives

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By Owei Lakemfa
ONLY a few songs had the kind of impact, Coat of Many Colours, the October, 1971 song by Dolly Paton, had on me. It talked about a poor kid whose parents could not afford  to buy her a  coat “way down in the fall’ and how her mother made her  a coat from a box of rags “sewing every piece with love” while telling her the Biblical coat of many colours Joseph wore. She sang that “Although we had no money, I was rich as I could be.”


I was from a working class home and the song fitted me well. It was about morals, love, sacrifice,  innovativeness, meeting basic needs, determination to change circumstances and trying to live a good  life even when poor, while being dignified  human beings. This is the summary of the Cuban story in the last six decades. The tiny country which is just 90 miles from the mighty United States, was a play-ground of the American rich; a centre of gambling and prostitution which was its Foreign Direct Investment.

Cuba had in the 1880s, fought a liberation war against colonial Spain. Following an internal explosion in  the USS Maine in the Havana Harbor, the United States,  in 1898 intervened in the war and within a few months, Spain  signed a peace treaty ceding  Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippine Islands, and Guam to America. However, Cuba did not want to be part of the US and elected  to become independent.

America continued to have a sense of proprietorial ownership over  Cuba; many Americans lived on the island running multi-million dollar businesses while the American military occupied the Guantanamo Bay.

When some Cuban youths led by Fidel Castro overthrew the dictatorship of  General Fulgencio Batista on January 1, 1959, the American Government was  unhappy that its stooge, a former Sergeant, was overthrown. The following year, it imposed sanctions on the Island and in  1961, broke off diplomatic relations. On April 16, 1961, 1,500 mercenaries trained and financed by the US, invaded Cuba in what became known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion; they were routed with two thirds taken prisoner. In 1962, the US made the embargo official hoping to make the tiny country crumble. Today, the embargo remains in place but Cuba and its revolution did not  crumble.

In October, 1962, with further threats of invasion by mighty America, Cuba secured missiles from the then Soviet Union. President John Kennedy   threatened to go to war with Cuba and the Soviets if the missiles were not removed. They were removed following an undertaking by America that it will never invade Cuba and that the US missile sites in Turkey, along the Soviet border,  would be  dismantled. This was done the following month.

On  April 19, 2018, the Cuban leadership baton passed from the Revolution generation to a post-Revolution one  led by Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez. Whether the Revolution has been a success or not, I decided to make a patently unfair comparison between Lilliputian  Cuba with little natural resources and  the giant US with enormous natural resources.

The US with its 9,833,517 Square kilometres, is over 83 times the size of Cuba with 110,860 Square kilometres. The American population is  313 million while Cuba is 11 million. The average Budget of America from 2000 to 2013 was $3.4 Trillion while that of Cuba was a mere $47.7 Billion.

On health, America spends $8,362 per person yearly while Cuba spends $431. Yet, the comparative results are startling. For example, despite the American spending, its enormous riches and famed technological advancement, its life expectancy is 78.49 years while Cuba is 77.87 years. The Cuban physicians per 1,000 people is 5.91 while that of America is 2.3 per cent,  that is thrice that of America. The American infant mortality rate in 2005  was 6.8 infant deaths  per 1,000 live births reducing to 6.06 by 2017 while that of Cuba was 4.1. While America is still battling to maintain healthcare for many of its citizens covered by the revolutionary OBAMACARE which the Trump administration is trying to reverse, all Cubans for over half a century have had free and qualitative healthcare. There are no private hospitals in Cuba and for  decades, Cuba has sent thousands of doctors to underdeveloped countries as solidarity.

On education, Cuba decided that it will eradicate illiteracy. It began its campaign in 1961 when it deployed 250,000 teachers and students to teach 1 million  illiterate citizens. Within one year, 750,000 of this, had attained rudimentary literacy. Today, 14-15 year-old Cubans are 100 per cent literate compared to 86 per cent of Americans. Also, because education is compulsory and free in Cuba, the ratio of minorities like blacks to whites is at par unlike America where education remains “separate and unequal.” While Cuba spends 12.86 per cent of its GDP on education, US spends 5.2 per cent.

Unemployment in Cuba is 3.8 per cent and 8.1 per cent in US. While  1.5 per cent Cubans live below the poverty line, it is 14.8 per cent in America. Government Debt in Cuba is 17.0 per cent, and 104.1 per cent in the US. Cuba has 4.8 guns per 100 residents while America has 88.8 guns per 100 residents.

In terms of foreign relations, while Cuba has not occupied or bombed any country since 1980, America has invaded or bombed at least 16 countries in the same period including Nicaragua, Grenada, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya  and Syria.

While America held that Africans who were fighting Apartheid were terrorists, Cuba saw them as liberation fighters. While America talked about ‘Constructive Engagement’ with the Apartheid regime, thousands of Cubans laid down their lives under African skies to defeat Apartheid; a  Christ-like  sacrifice for the oppressed, repressed and exploited African peoples.

In 2018 America, the campaign is still that “Black Lives Matter” but Cuba has taken that for granted for over 60 years now. Fighting racism and discrimination is a core principle of the Cuban Revolution.  In the new post-Revolution leadership elected last week Thursday, three of the six Vice- Presidents of the ruling Council of State are black, including the First Vice-President and three are also women. Yet, blacks constitute less than 10 per cent of the Cuban population! It is an emphatic statement on racism, gender  and affirmative action by the Revolution.

The Cuban Revolution produced the unforgettable Camilo Cienfuegos who went down in an airplane on October 28, 1959, Ernesto Che Guavara who went on to fight in other skies including Africa,  the heroines; Celia Sanchez, Melba Hernández and Haydée Santamaría, and of course, the Castro brothers; Fidel and Raul.  The fearless youths imbued with a sense of duty to the Cuban people and humanity,  who carried out the Cuban Revolution  gave humanity an alternative development paradigm.


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