Cuban Revolution: Celebrating 50 years of accomplishments

By Owen Richards

On January 1 Cuba’s working people will celebrate 50 years of freedom from imperialist rule. The Cuban Revolution, a socialist revolution that has made big advances in achieving environmental sustainability, has also been largely untouched by the economic crisis sweeping the capitalist world owing to its planned, nationalised economy and its strong ties to its new revolutionary ally in Latin America, Venezuela.

To survive for 50 years, despite a constant and aggressive counter-revolutionary campaign waged by the US imperialists involving military attacks, sabotage, assassination attempts and a brutal economic blockade, is a world-historic achievement. Socialist Cuba has achieved social, political, economic and environmental achievements unequalled by any other Third World country, and some unmatched by many First World countries.

New Year’s Day in Cuba in 1959 was marked by a general strike in Havana that culminated a three-year revolutionary war against the US-backed regime of Fulgencio Batista. That day, Batista fled Cuba. On January 8, 1959, Fidel Castro’s Rebel Army rolled victoriously into Havana to cheering crowds. With the revolutionaries in power, great strides began to be made, starting with a radical land reform program and then later a wave of company nationalisations. The revolutionary changes that were made to Cuba’s economy — reorienting it toward serving the needs of working people instead of capitalist profit — laid the economic basis for the impressive social achievements that Cuba has sustained since then.

A real education revolution

Since 1959, Cuba has carried out a genuine education revolution. Illiteracy and educational backwardness were chronic social problems prior to 1959. The first and greatest of revolutionary Cuba’s achievements in education was the abolition of illiteracy, which stood at 23% in 1958. A mass literacy campaign, led by 280,000 volunteers teaching some 100,000 students, eliminated illiteracy in just one year.

Not long after, free education was established for all Cubans. From preschool to PhD, free education was guaranteed both in the Cuban constitution and in practice, with the socialisation of the cost of tutoring, books, pencils and pens. Cuba now has more teachers per capita than any other country in the world.

Cuba’s great strides in education were motivated by more than just goodwill on behalf of the government. The Cuban revolutionaries understand the great importance of education. They have had a genuine concern for the ability of the individual to develop all of his or her potentials so that they can contribute to the life of the country as best they can. But education has also been a way to increase social equality. Even in a society where class inequalities have been largely overcome, professional and educational inequality persists. By making education as accessible as possible to all people, a certain social levelling can take place.

Miracles in health care

As with education, healthcare in Cuba is completely free — from the cradle to the grave. And not only is it free, but Cuba’s health system is among the best in the world.

Before 1959, the vast majority of Cubans had very limited access to health care. The capitalist elite had their private physicians but the poor had only a handful of rundown hospitals, and medicines were mostly unaffordable. In the countryside it was even worse; health care was virtually non-existent.

The revolution established that health care is a basic right of all Cuban citizens. It established a new ethic in health care — not for profit, but for service to the people. Cuba’s 1976 constitution states: “The state guarantees this right by providing free medical and hospital care by means of the installations of the rural medical service network, polyclinics, hospitals, preventative and specialized treatment centres; by providing free dental care; by promoting the health publicity campaigns, health education, regular medical examinations, general vaccinations and other measures to prevent the outbreak of disease.”

According to the Word Health Organization, life expectancy in Cuba is now 78 years — 76 years for men and 80 years for women. In comparison, the US life expectancy at birth is 75 and 80 years for males and females respectively. In 1959, average life expectancy in Cuba was just 58 years.

In 2008, infant mortality in Cuba was 5.9 deaths per 1000 live births. In 1959 it was 10 times that. Many other countries in Latin America still have an infant mortality rate more than 10 times that of Cuba. Infant mortality in the US is 7 deaths per 1000 live births. According to the WHO, Cuba has nearly twice as many physicians per capita as the US — 5.91 doctors per 1000 people compared to 2.56 doctors per 1000.

In fact, Cuba also has more doctors per capita than any other country in the world. In 1959 there were only 6300 doctors, most of whom soon left for the US. Today Cuba has 70,000 doctors; 30,000 abroad and 40,000 resident in Cuba. There are some 90,000 Cuban students currently studying to work in health care. Cuba is also training — free of charge — 76,000 foreign students in medicine. Cuba also has a flourishing biotechnology and pharmaceuticals industry. It has developed a vaccine for meningitis B and exports the world’s best hepatitis B vaccine. It also developed the first synthetic vaccine for pneumonia prevention.

Not only does it look after its own people, but the Cuban Revolution exports its world-class health care to other poor countries. In 2008, 36,500 Cuban doctors were sent to 81 Third World countries to provide health care to people who would otherwise not have received it. This is a greater number of doctors than is provided by the WHO or by all of the rich countries to the Third World.

The Cuban government has also entered a health care “joint-venture” with the Venezuelan government, called Mission Miracle. The aim of Mission Miracle is to eliminate blindness. Patients fly free of charge to Cuba where they receive a free eye operation. The vision of more than one million Latin American and Caribbean people has been restored through this program.

Defeating racism and sexism

Cuba is also a world leader in overcoming the scourges of racism, sexism and homophobia. From the arrival of the Spanish in 1492, centuries of racial prejudice have persisted in Cuba. The Spanish colonisation was only made possible by the massacre of Cuba’s indigenous peoples. The Spanish colonial masters used racism to justify this brutality. Racism was also used to justify more than three centuries of enslavement of African-Cubans working the sugar and tobacco plantations. According to a common racist expression of the time, “children are born to be happy; blacks are born to steal chickens”.

Cuba was the last country in the Americas to formally abolish slavery, doing so only in 1886. But its official abolition, and the end of Spanish colonial rule in Cuba, made little difference. A succession of US-backed Cuban governments imposed discriminatory legislation, marginalising black Cubans.

The victory of the revolution in 1959 was a great triumph for race relations. It raised up Cuba’s most downtrodden. The radical redistribution of land from May 1959 and the reduction of housing rents — to a maximum of 10% of a person’s income — were the among the most important measures in undermining racism. They gave livelihood, security and dignity where before there was none. Black Cubans were also assisted with affirmative action programs, and the discriminatory private health and education systems were abolished. Free health care and free education benefited blacks the most.

Not limiting itself to economic and social reforms, the Cuban government as early as March 1959 began an ideological campaign against racism. Fidel spoke out against it at many public events.

Cuba’s revolution is well known internationally for its anti-racist stance. Most impressive was Cuba’s role in the helping end the racist South African apartheid regime. From late 1975 to 1988, 300,000 Cuban internationalist volunteers participated in the war in Angola, routing the invading South African armed forces, thereby hammering a final nail in the coffin of apartheid.

Like Cuba’s black population, Cuban women were also at the bottom of the social pyramid in pre-revolution Cuba. They made up the majority of illiterates and the unemployed. Today the situation of Cuban women is worlds apart. By 2002, 62% of university graduates were women, many of whom were studying in non-traditional areas, such as the sciences and economics. Women constitute 65% of Cuba’s professional and technical workers, while 51% of scientific researchers and 72% of doctors are women.

Gay and transgender rights

Before 1959, to be gay in Cuba was to be a social outcast. Homosexuality was illegal and police harassment of gays was rife. While the Cuban Revolution improved life for most Cubans, it unfortunately inherited some of the homophobic attitudes of its machismo history as well some anti-gay attitudes picked up from its close relationship with the Soviet Union.

But beginning in 1986 with the “rectification process”, the Cuban government began a conscious campaign to combat homophobia. Homosexuality was made legal and the government sponsored attempts to eradicate homophobic ideas in the broader Cuban society. The sharp turnaround in the revolution’s attitude to homosexuality was most clearly symbolised by the 1995 May Day procession, which was led by Cuban drag queens. The Cuban National Assembly is currently discussing legislation that would recognise same-sex unions, along with inheritance rights. It would also give transsexuals the right to free sex-change operations and allow them to switch the gender on their ID cards, with or without surgery.

Centuries of colonialism in Cuba left behind an environmental nightmare. The Spanish conquistadors razed forests and mountainsides to turn Cuba into a sugar, coffee and tobacco export zone. Sugar plantations and cattle ranches replaced most of Cuba’s lush tropical forests. After the Spanish, came the North American imperialists, who continued the same practice for most of the 20th century.

The Cuban Revolution inherited this mess and immediately set about cleaning it up, drawing on the thought of Cuba’s national hero, Jose Marti, who stressed the dependence of human society on the natural world. Today, Cuba has the world’s best environmental record, having increased its forest coverage by over 50%, drastically reducing electricity used for lighting, and implementing a revolution in organic agriculture. Today it stands as the only country in the world designated by the Word Wildlife Fund to be developing sustainabily.

Cuba is well-known for its contribution to the thought and practice of organic farming. Forced to produce the bulk of its own food after the collapse of the USSR left it without imports, Cuba carried out a real revolution in food production. The agricultural revolution was not limited to the countryside.

Havana, with 20% of Cuba’s population, became a focus for an urban food production experiment. Anyone who was willing was given land to cultivate. An urban agriculture ministry was established to give support to the new urban gardeners. By the mid-90s, there were more than 28,000 urban gardens in Havana, cultivated by 50-100,000 people. Urban community gardens are also commonly found attached to factories, colleges and hospitals, producing food for the employees’ lunches. So successful was the urban gardening experiment that organic agricultural methods for food production was made Havana law. Today most of Havana’s food is produced in the city itself.

Cuba is also leading the way in the global struggle to overcome fossil fuel reliance. The government agency, the Development Program of National Energy Sources, continues to develop alternative, renewable sources of energy, such as hydroelectricity, wind farms and solar power. Cuba is also well-known for its widespread use of bicycles for urban transport. It also uses the waste products of its sugarcane industry — bagasse — as an alternative source of fuel.

The way forward

The importance to humanity of these social gains in 50 years of the Cuban Revolution cannot be overstated. Cuba shows what is possible — even in a blockaded Third World country that had inherited deep poverty and an economy distorted by colonialism and imperialist exploitation.

Perhaps the greatest achievement if the Cuban Revolution is that it demonstrates that it possible to build a society that is motivated principally by human solidarity rather than personal greed. The health care in Cuba is based on solidarity with its own people and with other communities in the world. Indeed, all of revolutionary Cuba’s social achievements would have been impossible without its adherence to the fundamental socialist principle that the advancement of each working person is only possible through the advancement of all working people.

Humanity today stands at the same crossroads as Cuba stood on January 1, 1959. Either we continue down the capitalist path, into a new century of growing social inequality, poverty, disease, war and irreversible environmental damage, or we take a radically different path, bury the capitalist system and rescue the future of humanity by building socialism.