Cuba's revolution: 50 years of accomplishments

On January 1, Cuba’s working people celebrated 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.

Education and healthcare

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.

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 health care as a basic right of all Cuban citizens, making it completely free for every Cuban. It established a new ethic in health care — not for profit, but for service to the people.

According to the Word Health Organization (WHO), 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. At the end of 2008, infant mortality in Cuba was 4.7 deaths per 1000 live births, the lowest in the Western Hemisphere. Infant mortality in the US is 7 deaths per 1000 live births.

According to the WHO, Cuba has 5.91 physicians per 1000 people, twice as many per capita as the US. 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 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.

Combating racism and sexism

The Cuban revolution has raised up the country’s most downtrodden, its black citizens. 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. 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.

Cuba’s revolution is also well known internationally for its anti-racist stance. 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 transsexual rights

Before 1959, to be gay in Cuba was to be a social outcast. Homosexuality was illegal and police harassment of gays was rife. Anti-gay laws and homophobic attitudes were perpetuated in revolutionary Cuba by its official acceptance of the “scientific” homophobia promoted by the bureaucratic elite that ruled the Soviet Union. But because Cuba was never a “satellite” of the USSR, its leadership was capable of leading a struggle to reroute Cuba’s revolution from Stalinist detours to its original liberatory course.

In 1979, the new Cuban penal code decriminalised homosexual acts in private between consenting adults. In 1983, the Cuban Ministry of Culture published East German sex therapist Siegried Schnabl’s book Man and Woman in Intimacy, in which he argued that homosexuals do not “suffer from homosexuality, but rather from the difficulties stemming from their condition in social life,” that is, from homophobia. In 1987 the offence of “homosexual acts in public places” was removed from Cuba’s penal code.

In an interview published in 1992, then-president Fidel Castro stated: “‘I don’t consider homosexuality to be a phenomenon of degeneration... [I consider] it to be one of the natural aspects and tendencies of human beings which should be respected. I am absolutely opposed to any form of repression, contempt, scorn or discrimination with regard to homosexuals.”

One of Cuba’s leading advocates for gay rights is Mariela Castro Espin — the 44-year-old daughter of current Cuban President Raul Castro and Vilma Espin, president of the Cuban Federation of Women from its founding in 1960 until her death in 2007. Mariela Castro heads the Cuban government’s National Centre for Sexual Education (CENESEX), which has submitted draft legislation to Cuba’s National Assembly that would legalise same-sex unions, along with inheritance rights. The legislation is due to be voted on this year.

Last May, CENESEX hosted a conference to mark International Day Against Homphobia and Transphobia that was attended by government leaders and hundreds of Cuban gay rights activists. Last June, the Cuban government announced it would fully support and cover the costs for sex-change surgery for transsexuals.

Environmental sustainability

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. Today, however, Cuba has the world’s best environmental record, having increased its forest coverage by over 50%, drastically reduced electricity used for lighting, and implemented a revolution in food production based on organic farming techniques. Socialist Cuba is the only country in the world designated by the Word Wildlife Fund to be developing sustainably.

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 Third World country that has been economically blockaded by the US for almost five decades. But the greatest achievement of 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. Indeed, all of revolutionary Cuba’s social achievements would have been impossible without its adherence to the fundamental socialist principle that the development of each working person is only possible through the development of all working people.