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Latin America in Crisis Cuba's Self-Reliance in the Storm
Cuba’s Self-Reliance
by NELSON P. VALDES

On October 30, 2003 Enrique Iglesias, president of the Inter American Development Bank (IDB), acknowledged the obvious at Georgetown University: Latin America is moving toward a "new paradigm" based on "what works." Translation: our neighbors to the south have about had it with the neo-liberal formulas and shibboleths. The November 3, 2003 IDB newsletter was more frank, "many Latin Americans are already fed up with globalization, free-market reforms and privatization–the triad of the neo-liberal policies pursued by many countries in the 1990s."

A few days earlier (Oct. 21), at hearings of the House International Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, administration officials testified that Latin America faced "contracting economic growth rates, extensive poverty, unemployment, skewed income distribution, crime and lawlessness, a thriving narcotics industry and a deteriorating natural resource base" (Testimony by Adolfo Franco, assistant administrator, Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean, US Agency for International Development). While Roger Noriega, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs said, "Current economic growth rates are inadequate to generate sufficient jobs for growing populations, let alone address chronic poverty. Corruption and inefficiency have stunted economic development and spawned disenchantment with "free market" prescriptions." Imagine the terrible state under which Latin Americans live today that even the conservative ideologues of the Bush administration sound critical.

Some U.S. academics and political analysts have remarked that the White House had paid too much attention to opposing the Cuban government and not enough to the rest of the region. Indeed, the Bush administration has increased its hostility toward the island precisely because the Havana has not followed the economic, social and political guidelines that Washington imposed on Latin America twenty years ago. The formulas rejected by the Cubans are precisely the ones that have led Latin America to its present social and political upheavals.

Today 43.4% of the population in Latin America, 220 million persons live in poverty. Of those, 95 million (18.8% of the total population) are totally indigent. Yet these impoverished people owe a significant portion of the $740 billion of the region’s external debt. Nowadays, Latin America is constantly described by the U.S. government, Wall Street, and the mass media as "democratic"–apparently they have no problem with democracy and indigence going hand in hand.

What US politicians have recently discovered, others have known for some time. The World Bank just released an important study on the region (Inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean: Breaking with History? ), written by David de Ferranti , Francisco Ferreira , Guillermo E. Perry and Michael Walton. The introduction notes that, "For as long as data on living standards have been available, Latin America and the Caribbean (hereafter "Latin America") has been one of the regions of the world with the greatest inequality." It goes on to disclose that at present, "Whereas the richest tenth of the people in the region earn 48 percent of total income, the poorest tenth earn only 1.6 percent. By contrast, in developed countries the top tenth receive 29.1 percent of total income, compared to 2.5 percent for the bottom tenth. Gini coefficients tell a similar story: Whereas they averaged 0.522 in Latin America in the 1990s, the averages for the OECD, Eastern Europe, and Asia during the same period were much lower-0.342, 0.328 and 0.412, respectively."

The study describes in great detail the dismal situation of 20 Latin American countries. The authors make the point that since access to food, health, education and housing depends on income; those necessities are unequally distributed in Latin America as well. They write, "Such enormous differences in the incomes of citizens of the same country clearly imply correspondingly different degrees of access to the goods and services that people consume in order to satisfy their needs and wants. However, disparities extend much beyond private consumption. Following the terminology of Amartya Sen, there are profound differences in the freedom, or capability, of different individuals and groups to follow lives of their choosing-to do things that they have cause to value. Private resources and patterns of public provisioning affect such capabilities, while social and political arrangements affect the capacity to participate meaningfully in society, influence decision-making, or live without shame."

A portion of the study explores education and access. They conclude that, "With respect to education, even though public systems exist in most countries in Latin America, the disparities of attainment are equally striking to those in income." A similar point is made about health, "Health outcomes also vary dramatically along with income distribution, resulting in enormous impacts on life opportunities and quality." The World Bank volume concludes by noting that its objective, "is to consider some of the options available to policymakers in the region for breaking with the long history of inequality that has characterized the countries studied. In so doing, the authors suggest policies and policy directions that can help reform economies and societies in such a way as to make them more equitable, without detriment to economic efficiency." (My emphasis)

Yet, neither the US politicians, nor international lending institutions or the academics seem to dare to go any further. One would expect that acknowledging the regional problems would lead to paying some attention to the only country that has departed from the pattern: Cuba. That island has not followed the neo-liberal formulas, and had to face the most thorough and profound economic crisis in the entire region–imposed by the disappearance of the USSR and the deepening/ extension of the US embargo.

The United Nations Development Program in its annual report for 2003 disclosed that Cuba ranked 52nd in the Human Development Index, which measures the relative quality of life of 175 countries. Cuba’s index was the 6th highest within Latin America, ranking better than Trinidad Tobago, Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela, Jamaica, Peru, Paraguay, Guyana, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Bolivia, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Haiti.

Cuba has managed to separate access to education, health and social welfare from household income. Today the island has the highest ratio of doctors to patients in the world, and one of the healthiest populations in the hemisphere. Moreover, according to UNESCO’s Latin American Laboratory for Evaluation and Quality of Education–Cuban students in comparative national tests out-perform all other students from the hemisphere by 100 points over and above the regional average, with Argentina, Chile and Brazil following. That is the case in language skills, mathematics and physics. Contrary to what it is assumed, Cuban education tries to develop and foster creativity, critical thinking, research and cooperative learning environments.

Moreover, this had been accomplished with the limited material resources the country possesses, the absence of long-term foreign aid or soft loans. The outcome is even more extraordinary if one considers the 42 year economic embargo that the United States government has imposed on the island, the disappearance of the Soviet bloc, and the fact that the accomplishments have been done by the Cubans without significant foreign assistance since 1992.

No other country in this hemisphere has the equity found in Cuba. Despite such uniqueness there has been little investigation of how it has been done. This is a huge oversight. Yet, some countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia have requested assistance from Havana. They are aware that the Cuban government has come up with human capital and organizational alternatives for those who have few resources. The Cubans are sharing their experiences in the areas of education, health, social welfare, sports, culture, social security, employment, research and the environment. The Cubans have countered the embargo/blockade with resolute self-reliance, innovation and sacrifice. Granted the country faces numerous problems in housing, transportation and communication infrastructure, foreign exchange, food availability and labor productivity. Nonetheless, the World Bank, the Inter American Bank, American universities and U.S. politicians need to seriously study that unique island, and its surprising accomplishments despite all the odds.

Nelson Valdes is a professor of sociology specializing in Latin America at the University of New Mexico. He can be reached at: nvaldes@unm.edu