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Why Sanders is Right About Cuba

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Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is being pilloried by Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and others for uttering a truth widely understood in Latin America—Fidel Castro’s government instituted many reforms undeniably beneficial to Cuba’s poor.

Clinton pounced on Sanders’ Univision debate comments, and her website condemns Sanders’ “troubling history of admiration for the Castros,” providing a list of allegedly incriminating Sanders quotes praising Cuba’s health care and educational systems.

In fact, according to the World Health Organization, Cuba—a small island with scant natural resources—has a life expectancy rate equal to that of the US, and higher than that of almost any other Latin American nation. Cuba’s infant mortality rate of 8/1,000 is the lowest in Latin America, and near that of the US. Patricia Danzon, a professor of Health Care Management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, asserts “[Cuba] does remarkably well in terms of infant mortality and life expectancy, and on those metrics it is comparable to the U.S.” In fact, according to the WHO, Cuba recently became the first country in the world to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis.

The 1961 Cuban Literacy Campaign was a massive effort to educate Cuba’s poor peasantry, and it succeeded in raising Cuba’s literacy level from 65% to 96%. Its biggest beneficiaries were Afro-Cubans, who had been kept at the lowest level of society and were victims of Jim Crow-style segregation. Castro abolished segregation soon after coming to power.

A 1957 survey by the Agrupación Católica Universitaria found that two-thirds of rural Cubans lived in “bohíos” – thatched hovels with earthen floors. Today that figure is less than 5%.

There is no question that, as in most underdeveloped countries, life is hard for the average Cuban. Moreover, planned, collectivized economies have often been plagued by low-quality consumer goods and shortages, and Cuba is no exception. But according to the World Bank, Cuba’s Gross Domestic Product per capita is better than that of most comparable countries—higher than Jamaica’s and the Dominican Republic’s, over seven times Haiti’s, double that of several Central American nations, and even higher than oil-rich Ecuador’s. Americans unrealistically portray Cuba as an economic failure by making a ludicrous, apples-to-oranges comparison between Cuban and American living standards.

In attacking Sanders, Clinton says that the Castro regime “oppress[es]…disappear[es]…imprison[es]…or even kill[s] people for expressing their opinions.” Sanders was more realistic, calling Cuba “an authoritarian, undemocratic country.”

The Castro regime is certainly repressive, and regularly violates its citizens’ human rights. Dissidents and protesters aren’t killed or disappeared, but they are spied upon, harassed, temporarily detained, and sometimes roughed up by security personnel. But some perspective is needed. According to the Associated Press, human rights groups say “about 70 political prisoners remain in the country.” That’s unjust, but it hardly makes Cuba the Latin gulag Clinton claims it is. Many US-backed regimes in Latin America and elsewhere have been far worse than the Castros, killing or “disappearing” hundreds of thousands.

Cuba is ruled by a bureaucratic elite that wishes to stay elite, and does so by monopolizing political power. But America’s expectations of democracy in Cuba have long been unrealistic. For decades the US government and Cuban exile groups committed terrorism and economic sabotage in Cuba, and tried numerous times to assassinate Fidel Castro. The US enforced a punitive trade embargo and has sponsored numerous attempts to organize Cubans against their government, several of which were initiated under the Obama Administration. Cuba was for decades under the threat of US military action. The Castros can rightly be condemned as caudillos (strongmen), but Thomas Jefferson would have had a hard time operating a democracy under such conditions.

In fact, Jefferson and other American revolutionaries committed similar and widespread acts of political repression during our Revolution. At the Continental Congress’ urging, all 13 states passed laws banning any publication or proclamation criticizing Congress or the state assemblies. “Committees of Censorship” destroyed the printing presses of loyalist and even neutral publishers, often exiling or imprisoning the publishers. Those who refused to swear loyalty to the new government often lost their civil rights or were exiled. Roughly 100,000 loyalists fled the American Revolution—a higher percentage of people than fled most of the 20th century communist revolutions.

The Clinton campaign and the Republicans will pillory Sanders, but he is correct in condemning America’s one-sided view of and punitive actions towards Cuba.

Glenn Sacks has a Master’s Degree in Latin American Studies, has traveled in Cuba, and has published columns in dozens of America’s largest newspapers.  

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