The Promise of Cuba

For more than 50 years, Cuba has been one of the most maligned countries in the western press. As the island’s political system grappled with its limitations and shortcomings, as all countries do, mainstream press coverage demonized the island, despite no tangible military threat to the US today.   The media continues to justify an obscene economic and political embargo, appeasing a heavily influential right-wing political lobby.  In some ways, the geopolitical tensions faced by Cuba’s people are not unlike those of Palestinians struggling for economic self-sufficiency and an unalienable right to a homeland.

Yet, calls for an end to the blockade stem from different quarters, including the UN, together with various resolutions focused on Palestinians’ rights, and the late Pope John Paul II, who denounced the blockade, in no uncertain terms, during his historic visit to Cuba in 1998. Such appeals, however, have fallen on deaf ears. This is undoubtedly linked to strength of counter lobbies and organizations, working against a Palestinian state and an end to the Cuban blockade, who are deeply embedded in the US’s internal political firmament. As such, U.S. politicians and political leaders like Barack Obama ignore these lobbies at their peril, tantamount to political suicide.

The constant demonization of Cuba and its revolution serve to underplay the achievements of a country that captured the imagination of the world on January 1, 1959, when revolutionaries waged the first successful campaign against a western backed dictatorship in the region. Their successful overthrow of the corrupt Batista regime and subsequent nationalization of assets, many of which were US assets, were a serious affront to ‘Yankee imperialism.’ The Cuban revolution also brought to an end the use of the island as the financial and recreational playground of affluent US citizens and wealthy investors, severing Cuba’s informal role as another U.S. colony; a relationship influenced by the foreign economic policies of the Monroe Doctrine. This political change also confirmed that an alternative model could emerge from a region that had hitherto only known a colonizing model of governance, which had kept most of its inhabitants economically and politically disempowered.

A Tricontinental Vision

It is not surprising then that the Cuban revolution served as a promising source of real hope not only to the impoverished people of Latin America but also to the rest of the Tricontinental World, to use a term favored by the revolution’s tenacious and charismatic architect, Fidel Castro. The term was used in 1960 during a visit to the UN and subsequently Harlem in NYC, where connections were made between the Cuban condition and that of Afro-Americans, considered the most oppressed U.S. population at that time. The plight of Afro-Americans was very evident in Harlem, where the Cuban delegation stayed,[i]courtesy of the efforts of Malcolm X among others.[ii]

A Tricontinental Conference was later held in Havana in 1966.  It offered a militant version of the ‘Third World’ alliance against continued western imperialist designs, an alliance that owes its origins to the Bandung Conference, which had taken place eleven years earlier.[iii] The term ‘tricontinental’ captured a significant feature of the Cuban revolution–its “South-to- South” international ethos of cooperation and solidarity. Moreover, Castro’s notion of ‘tricontinental’ applied to those who Frantz Fanon had called the ‘wretched of the earth’ to refer to the exploited and colonized populations of Latin America, Asia and Africa.

But this radical vision of “tricontinental” was not merely determined by geographical boundaries.  If anything, the Cuban delegation’s efforts to link with Afro-Americans and their leaders suggest otherwise. Castro and his collaborators, including Ernesto “Che” Guevara, were fully conscious of the existence of the ‘third world’ in the ‘first world.’ Castro remained true to this commitment; even as recently as 2004, he offered help to the ‘wretched and oppressed’ of the same country that has been the main cause of hardships endured by the Cuban population. These oppressed Americans are the impoverished of New Orleans, a region understood by Cubans as the home of jazz and blues—the soulful music of the oppressed.

Hence, it is not surprising that the woes of impoverished Americans were thrown into sharp relief for Cubans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. True to form, Castro offered to provide access to Cuba’s never ending supply of top-notch doctors and health workers to assist with the plight of the poor whose home and communities had been devastated by the storm. Some interpreted the humanitarian gesture as Castro’s ultimate insult to his mighty neighbor; and indeed US leaders must have regarded it so, promptly, flatly, and churlishly refusing the offer. Nevertheless, the island’s willingness to lend assistance shed light on Cuba’s commitment to alleviate poverty and support the oppressed and impoverished anywhere, irrespective of the contentious relations that have existed for decades with the U.S. It also signaled Cuba’s commitment to the global south, defined widely.  The poor and forsaken of New Orleans, themselves victims of a US war fought on two fronts—an expensive war against the Iraqis to retain geopolitical control in the region and a devastating domestic class war against those of modest means by implementing simultaneous cutbacks of social welfare programs for the needy, while simultaneously providing huge financial bailouts for the wealthy—are embraced as members of this global south.

Impact of Tensions in the Region

The fact that Cuba received much bad press in the western media is hardly news given the revolution’s disruption of the status quo, with respect to both material wealth and power at home and the larger geopolitics of the region. Indeed the isolationist reaction of the US and its blockade against Cuba led the revolutionary Cuban government to the only alternative path available within the cold war scenario of the time. Cuba moved into the Soviet Union’s orbit becoming a potential menace to the US, given its geographical location—a situation that would come to a head with the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. The blockade and fomenting of counter-revolutionary attacks such as the Bahia de los Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) fiasco, as we would see later with the Contra war in Nicaragua, served to make the revolutionary state more autocratic in its efforts to weed out any possible attempts at sabotage from within and without (not to mention attempts on Castro’s life).

Hence the growing tensions in the region offered the western media a field day, as if being in the USSR’s orbit was not reason enough for portraying Cuba in a bad light. Yet, when making this point, we should not deny what leftist colleagues who visited the archipelago referred to as the persistent feeling of repression. Revolutionary movements cannot rest on their laurels especially at a time when a younger generation has emerged with little remembrance of life in Cuba under the former dictatorship. Whatever the achievements of the revolution, probably lost on the younger generation and those who think the country must ‘kick on’ and not cling to the past, there is a need to ensure a plausible system of democracy that convinces one and all that the Cuban government has the backing of the people, whatever form democracy might take. We say this to emphasize, despite the rhetoric, that western style bourgeois representative democracy is not the only conceivable model of democracy and as the current financial collapse shows, it has its limitations.  These limitations are constantly being underlined by the indignados in Spain and Greece and elsewhere, as references to the emergence of more capillary forms of power and grassroots democratic networking abound.[iv]

At this juncture, it is also helpful to recall that the Sandinistas in Nicaragua legitimized their leadership following the overthrow of a corrupt dictatorship in 1979 with an internationally monitored election, which they won by a landslide in the early eighties—a democratic process that the U.S. refused to honor. This points to the simple fact that whatever model is adopted, the process of democracy must be genuine rather than a case of mass manipulation and intimidation, which has resulted in certain forms of ‘direct democracy’ being denounced, when put into practice elsewhere.

Currently, Cuba’s policy of exerting strict control over departures and arrivals of citizens from abroad also needs to be revised, given that the situation has dramatically changed since the early days of the revolution when Cuba lost a huge percentage of its brainpower, in terms of doctors and other professionals, to the US. If anything, the small nation now engages in an impressive proactive policy of exporting such power.  Furthermore, also in need of rethinking is the manner in which serious infringements (i.e., drug trafficking) are uncompromisingly punished by the death penalty. There is no doubt that the use of the death penalty anywhere, including the USA, stirs mixed emotions. As in the recent execution of Troy Davis in Texas, the 1989 execution of Arnaldo Tomas Ochoa Sanchez, a hero of the Angola war, and his associates raised human rights concerns.

Yet, while underlining such strictures, we must also do justice to a country that, much like Nicaragua (although forgiveness even of torturers was a feature of the initial period of the Sandinista revolutionary government), was forced to contend with overwhelming obstacles in its efforts to serve as a revolutionary model to other countries within the US intercontinental sphere of influence in the Americas. Despite sordid moments, the Cuban revolution hoped to evolve into an alternative political economic structure in contestation to the west, where unrelenting capitalist accumulation has functioned to the benefit of the few, at the expense of the many

One cannot help but to underline the potential that lies within the Cuban model, including its health and educational systems, which are the envy of many nations, including the much-heralded countries whose universities lead the ‘world rankings.’ The Universidad de la Habana (University of Havana), although not recognized in the top flight of these university leagues, has a medical school that is considered among the best in the world.  Ask the many ambitious students from the formerly Anglo-colonized Caribbean who break their backs learning Spanish in order to gain admission to Cuba’s medical school.

The same can be said of a science centre (Cuba has quite a number of them) lauded, in the late 80s, as a remarkable research institution of its kind in a program shown on Rai (Italian) TV by that great connoisseur of Latin American affairs, Gianni Mina`, editor of the Italian review Latino America, who carried out a long televised and published interview with Castro himself.   In 2000, Argentina’s former soccer superstar Diego Armando Maradona, like others, chose to go to Cuba for rehabilitation from a life threatening, drug-related illness.

Cuba today places its educational and medical facilities at the service of not only its own people and celebrities but also the common people of Africa, Asia and many other parts of the world. As part of its revolutionary commitment to international cooperation, with no strings attached—quite credible now that the connection with the dismantled USSR is history and a small country such as Cuba cannot harbor imperial designs—Cuba makes the products of these institutions (teachers, health workers, doctors) available for export against token fees, depending on the receiving country’s ability to pay. It is, in fact, the bilateral, trilateral or multilateral agreements generated by these forms of collaborations with other countries, within the context of South-to-South cooperation, which is the primary focus of a forthcoming book, The Capacity to Share: A Study of Cuba’s International Cooperation in Educational Development, edited by Anne Hickling-Hudson, Jorge Corona Gonzalez and Rosemary Preston.

South-to-South Relations

This notion of horizontal South-to-South relations is contrasted with the more global and dominant models of hierarchical North-South relations, which keep former colonies even today in a colonial bind.  Different organizations of an international nature are also important to this process. In addition, we now have the European Union joining the act with its Europe-aid programs, although it is to be said that the EU is not monolithic and contains spaces where people, well aware of the history of USAID, for instance, use their influence in working groups and other EU epistemic communities to help develop more reciprocal forms of relations with ‘developing’ countries. EU involvement requires studies of the kind carried out, in this new book, with regard to the older and more well-known forms of North-to-South aid. We now also have the Union of the Mediterranean, propelled by France’s Sarkozy with the support of Spain’s Zapatero, which also involves North-to-South relations in a regional context.  Of course, it remains to be seen what consequences the current ‘debtocracies’ in Southern European countries will have on such a project.

Whatever the case, the South-to-South relations, consistently promoted by Cuba even in its most difficult economic restructuring days post-1990 and at the time of the US decision (still not revoked) to boycott any firm that engages in commercial relations with the Caribbean island, is presented as an alternative model for international exchange.  This model is based not on predominantly business interests or financial profit, which would render it consistently subject to ‘bottom line’ considerations, but instead on the revolutionary humanist principle of communal sharing. Rather than being regarded as the individual rights of a few, the world’s assets are viewed as the birthright of humankind.

In a ‘delinking’ process, southern assets can be exchanged in a complementary manner. Venezuelan oil at low prices and interest rates is exchanged for Cuban teachers, doctors and health workers. Cuba had Venezuelan literacy tutors trained in the ‘Yo si Puedo’ pedagogical method created by Cuban educator Leonela Realy. As a result, Cuba helped the Venezuela government keep the Bolivarian revolutionary momentum going by teaching one and a half million people to read and write.[v] This satisfied a great social demand.  It was then followed by an attempt to articulate the achievements of the crusade with the formal, technical-rational demands of a state educational system that is crucial to Venezuela’s development.[vi] In this way, Southern assets can also be shared to enable traditionally subordinated people and countries to delink from the structural residues of their colonial past. However, this process is not without its critics. There are those who have expressed civil rights concerns as to whether qualified personnel chosen for these exchanges have the option to decline work assignments abroad.

Beyond Romanticizing Cuba

Rightly so, Cuba is not to be romanticized. Great poverty exists.  Prostitution, for example, that very same social predicament of exploited poor women and adolescent girls initially tackled head on by the revolutionary government through educational and rehabilitation measures such as schools for prostitutes, is on the rise once again, especially in tourist areas (similar to other countries), despite its illegality.  There is also an overproduction of qualified people without reciprocal economic investments to integrate them. Should this be solely blamed on the infamous blockade—which certainly has no justification today (if ever), now that the Soviet ‘threat’ to the USA has been nullified?

Raul Castro was recently on record stating that one cannot blame the country’s economic ills only on the Blockade. There is a lot of work to be done in the economic sector and this should be the sort of challenge to which the country can rise.  It has, after all, overachieved in many other fields (sport, medicine, science, education), and has an enviable environmental track record.  According to a 2006 WWF (World Wildlife Federation) report, Cuba is the ONLY country in the world with sustainable development[vii]. It combined high human development standards (high literacy and health indexes) with a low ecological footprint; this includes the rate of electricity consumed and carbon dioxide emitted per capita.[viii]

The blockade has been condemned by several world figures; and one must not lose sight of the fact that one of them, the late Pope John Paul II, was himself a staunch opponent of Soviet communism and widely perceived to have been a catalyst for its overthrow.  Maybe the real threat to the US and its unbridled market economy stems from something else. If left to freely develop its socialist vision of democracy, Cuba might serve as a credible and more viable alternative to US-led capitalism.  Now that Cuba has modified some of its old and perhaps ossified ways, even cultivating market-socialism, we might want to consider whether the country has the potential today to meets it early promise and truly develop—through its capacity to share, with no strings attached—into a microcosm of another world that is possible.


[i] See Robert C. Young (2003) Postcolonialism. A Very Short Introduction, Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

[ii] See George Galloway (2006), Fidel Castro Handbook, London & New York: MQ Publications Ltd, p. 206.

[iii] Young, op. cit, p. 17.

[iv] See Saskia Sassen’s interview in the Italian left wing daily, Il Manifesto, 17th August 2011 with the title: ‘Con i riots la storia volta pagina’ (History turns a new leaf with the riots). The reference here is to the recent riots in England but connections are also made with other protests in Europe, notably Madrid and Greece. Sassen sees historical analogies with the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity.

[v] Humberto Marquez (2005). Venezuela declares itself illiteracy-free. Inter Press Service News Agency. 28th October, 2005.  Retrieved October 2,


[vi] Mike Cole, (2011). Racism and education in the UK and the US: Towards a socialist alternative. New York

& London: Palgrave Macmillan.

[vii] See We are indebted to Professor Paul J Pace from the University of Malta for making this source and the one that follows (endnote V) known to us.

[viii]John Bachtell: Cuba shows that planet Earth can be saved with the help from environmentally sustainable socialism’ in greenblog 09/03/09,

Author Bios

ANTONIA DARDER holds the Leavey Presidential Endowed Chair in Ethics and Moral Leadership at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.  She is author of Reinventing Paulo Freire: A Pedagogy of Love (Westview 2002) winner of an Outstanding Book of the Year Award from the American Educational Research Association; After Race: Racism After Multiculturalism (with Rodolfo D. Torres, NYU Press 2004); Culture and Power in the Classroom (Bergin & Garvey, 1991; Paradigm, 2011); and a Dissident Voice: Essays on Culture, Pedagogy and Power (Peter Lang, 2011). She is coeditor of The Critical Pedagogy Reader (Routledge 2002, 2009). She is co-editor of the Critical Ethnicities of the Latino Diasporas book series at Peter Lang and the Palgrave-Macmillan book series, Postcolonial Studies in Education.

PETER MAYO is Professor in sociology of education and adult education as well as Head, Department of Education Studies, University of Malta. His books include Gramsci, Freire and Adult Education (Zed Books, 1999), subsequently republished in six languages, Liberating Praxis (Praeger, 2004; Sense, 2008) which won a 2005 Critics Choice Award, American Educational Studies Association, Learning and Social Difference (with Carmel Borg, Paradigm, 2006); Public Intellectuals, Radical Democracy and Social Movements. A Book of Interviews (with Carmel Borg, Peter Lang 2007), and Learning with Adults. A Critical Pedagogical Introduction (with Leona English; Sense, 2010). He is co-editor of the Palgrave-Macmillan book series, Postcolonial Studies in Education and series editor of Sense book series International Issues in Adult Education.