Learning from the Cuban experience

Ask most people about Cuba and they’ll tell you it’s a socialist country with Fidel Castro as head, big Cuban cigars, old 1950’s cars and great music courtesy of such groups as the Bueno Vista Social club.

Except for Fidel, who has been replaced as head by his brother Raul, it’s all true but far more important are the brilliant health and education programmes which make this poor country the healthiest and most literate in the world.

It has achieved all this while under severe international pressure from its close neighbour the US which is desperate to stop the country becoming a positive role model for social development. America’s political elites don’t want the tens of millions of their own underprivileged population asking why the wealthiest country in the world can’t provide the same services to everyone as can their poor neighbour.

It’s an American nightmare so a 52-year campaign of misinformation and denigration has run to demonise Cuba and its achievements. The anti-Cuba lobby in the US is probably the second biggest lobby after the pro-Israeli lobby.

Since the overthrow of Cuba’s Batista dictatorship by the Castro-led socialist revolution in 1958 the US has initiated or supported numerous campaigns and terrorist activity aimed to undermine and destabilise the Caribbean country. Cuba’s big neighbour supported the Bay of Pigs invasion where an attack by US-based Cubans was driven off by the organised defence of the Cuban people. It’s all been part of a continuous campaign of misinformation and denigration to paint Cuba as a Caribbean hellhole.

Another good example of US anti-Cuban hysteria was the arrest and imprisonment of five Cubans who had entered America to monitor right-wing extremist groups which have carried out numerous terrorist attacks against Cuba. The US supports and encourages these groups and for this reason these five Cubans entered America to give early warning of potential terror attacks and thwart the groups involved.

However the five men were arrested in 1998 and tried on false charges of “conspiracy to commit espionage” and “conspiracy to commit murder”. They were convicted in a frenzied anti-Cuba atmosphere and given sentences of up to several life terms of imprisonment. It’s easy to see why an international campaign has been underway for their release and has received the support of many high-profile Nobel prize winners, international jurists, politicians, intellectuals and writers.

The Cuban five (Gerado Hernandez, Antonio Guerrero, Ramon Labanino, Fernando Gonzalez and Rene Gonzalez) are patriots and national heroes in Cuba but political scapegoats for a paranoid, hypocritical US government.

Two weeks ago we saw a welcome thawing in Cuban relations with Australia. The Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith hosted Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and spoke warmly of Cuba’s medical aid programme which assists developing countries throughout the world. In East Timor for example Cuba is training hundreds of locals to become doctors.

It’s a similar story throughout the Pacific where countries such as the Solomon Islands receive much needed community medical support from Cuban doctors. In fact Cuba provides no less than 25,000 doctors to 68 developing countries. This unheralded and usually unreported assistance comes without the attached strings which are common in what passes for aid from much closer neighbours such as New Zealand.

Foreign Minister Smith said there was great potential for Australia and Cuba to join forces and help small island states in the Pacific and the Caribbean to boost their medical services.

He said “given Cuba’s world class credentials in the medical training area, given our world class expertise in child and maternal health care, we believe there is potential for us to work together.”

Smith went on to say Australia was looking at assisting Cuba build a medical facility in quake-hit Haiti.

We should expect New Zealand to take a similar attitude to Cuba and work with a country which has far more limited resources than New Zealand and yet manages such high standards of health care at much lower cost. The benefits to Pacific countries are obvious and the bonus for New Zealand would be in learning from Cuba how to defeat third world diseases, particularly in children, which are now endemic in this country.

As Australian doctor Jeannie Ellis told Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recently “Maybe Australia should take a leaf out of the Cuban healthcare system’s book where they have something like $20,000 less per capita and they have exactly the same healthcare indicators as Australia. I’ve lived in Cuba for a long time and I can tell you that they run a very, very good healthcare system and they get a lot of bang for their buck over there.”

With our healthcare system struggling along with decreasing health statistics for the most vulnerable New Zealanders, we can learn a lot from the Cuban experience.