Cuba Reflections: On Life and Death

A Nice Surprise

It’s not very often that you hear or see a salaried U.S. corporate media employee defend Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s Cuban Revolution and its accomplishments. That’s why I did a double take when I read a recent opinion piece titled “Cuba’s Success Lost in Media Frenzy” in the Gannett-owned Iowa City Press-Citizen. The commentary was not written by some radical academic or graduate student at the local university (I’m not sure such a professor can be found at the University of Iowa anymore) or by an independent radical like me (I have a long record of publishing pieces in the Press-Citizen’s laudably open-minded Opinion page). No, it was penned in defense of President Barack Obama’s recent historic visit to Cuba by a clever young man named Ian Goodrum, who happens to be the paper’s “community content and engagement editor.”

Goodrum did a decent job. He rightly mocked “most media in the U.S. media” for using President Barack Obama’s recent historic visit to Cuba as “an opportunity to denounce the tiny island nation for daring to have an economic and political system different from our own.” He criticized that media for taking seriously the “increasingly absurd pronouncements from [Cuban] expatriates.” Goodrum justly criticized White House Press Secretary Earnest for absurdly claiming that the U.S. had been “ignoring” Cuba for “more than 50 years.” As Goodrum noted, Earnest’s comment is preposterous given dedicated U.S. efforts to punish and overthrow the Castro government, including a “crushing trade embargo and crippling sanctions” and the “the encirclement of isolation of Cuba by the United States” (Goodrum) for more than a half century.

Goodrum detailed some of Cuba’s remarkable “accomplishments since the [1959 Cuban] revolution,” all achieved despite the hostility of Uncle Sam. The triumphs Goodrum mentions are considerable:

“Keeping the aforementioned antagonisms in mind — and understanding that survival under the baleful eye of the world’s richest nation is a miracle in itself — [socialist Cuba’s] successes are nothing to sneeze at. Infant mortality has dropped while life expectancy and literacy rates have skyrocketed. Economic growth has stayed consistent with the exception of a few years during the “Special Period,” when the loss of 80 percent of Cuba’s trade led to a downturn. Yet the social safety net and housing, education and food guarantees from the government were able to continue even in this time of extreme privation. Media outlets like to talk about how the average monthly salary amounts to $20 or $30, but this is a dodge. Comparing Cuban economic indicators to those of the United States is a matter of apples — heh — and oranges. When weighed against countries like the Dominican Republic or Haiti, Cuba stands head and shoulders above its direct competitors.”

“What could be considered the crown jewel of Cuba’s economy, the health care sector, is perhaps the best example of what a system like Cuba’s can do. Transmission of HIV from mother to child was eliminated in Cuba and a vaccine for lung cancer has been developed there. Exporting medical professionals around the world to deal with threats like the Ebola outbreak show the country’s commitment to help those in need, and a disproportionate capability to do so. But this is what can happen when you prioritize public welfare over profits” (emphasis added).

I’m not sure I should say more about Goodrum’s column: I don’t wish to contribute any further to the possibility of him losing his job. At the same time – and maybe Gannett authorities can put this towards Goodrum’s favor – I should say that a better title for his essay would have been “Media Continues to Ignore Cuba’s Success” (the blockading of the U.S. public from good news about Cuban socialism is an old story). And I’d like to mention four key matters that did not make it into the young columnist’s welcome essay (things that, to be fair, require a bigger word count than what is available to Op Ed writers).

Ecological Triumph: Teeming With Life

The first thing missing is Cuba’s remarkable environmental achievement. Cuba stands out among all nations (rich and poor) in a critical way. The makers of the United Nations’ Human Development Index (UNHDI) have found that Cuba is the only country on the planet to combine a quality of life consistent with “high human development” with a globally sustainable carbon footprint. A report by the World Wildlife Foundation includes a graph that shows two features for the nations of the world: the UNHDI (including measures of life expectancy, poverty, literacy, health care, and the like) and “ecological footprint” – the energy and resources consumed per person in each country. Only Cuba received a passing grade in both areas. As the University of British Columbia has noted,

“The majority of food grown in Cuba is produced without chemicals.  Good bugs fight bad bugs in the fields.  Their soils – like their communities – are teeming with life…Today, Cuba’s agricultural cooperatives provide 80 percent of the food produced in Cuba and her system of urban agriculture is a model for the world. Building on the success of her agricultural cooperatives, Cuba is now taking bold new steps to build a more cooperative, just and people-centered economy.”

This noteworthy attainment is of no small significance in an age of ever more imminent environmental collapse rooted in (among other things) capitalism’s addiction to fossil fuels. It is no mere accident. Beyond a fuel and currency shortage, it reflects inspiring and instructive eco-socialist innovation in the use and development of alternative fuel sources, technologies, and practices on the part of the Cuban state. As Garry Leech noted on CounterPunch last year, Cuba “redefined socialism” in the wake of the decline of its former protector the Soviet Union. Over the past two decades, Leech shows, Cuba has moved towards a more participatory system that also happens to be an outstanding model of environmentally sustainable and healthy, permaculturalist economics:

“In the 1980s, Cuba more closely reflected the state socialist model that ultimately failed in the Soviet Union…But with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of the socialist trading bloc, Cuba had to become more creative if it was to survive both literally and figuratively as an island of socialism in an ocean of capitalism. And it was the creative survival strategies that emerged during the 1990s that have helped to redefine socialism in Cuba today…The collapse of the Soviet Union, in conjunction with a corresponding tightening of the five-decades-long US blockade, meant that Cuba could no longer import sufficient food or oil. The country responded to the shortage of petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers by becoming the world’s leader in organic agriculture. It responded to the shortage of fuel by becoming a leader in urban agriculture to diminish the need to transport food great distances to markets. As a result, more than 80 percent of the country’s agricultural production is now organic… [and produced by] smaller worker-owned cooperatives. The new cooperatives not only increased production, they also constituted a shift away from state socialism by empowering workers who previously had little or no voice in the running of their workplaces….This emerging worker democracy through cooperatives not only existed in agricultural production, it also occurred in the selling of products…”

“The shift to a more ecologically sustainable agricultural production has resulted in healthy organic food being the most convenient and inexpensive food available to Cubans. Because of the US blockade, processed foods are more expensive and not readily available. This reality stands in stark contrast to that in wealthy capitalist nations such as the United States and Canada where heavily-subsidized agri-businesses flood the market with cheap, unhealthy processed foods while organic alternatives are expensive and more difficult to obtain. The consequence in the United States is high levels of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.”

Call it Earth Science-friendly socialism – or maybe even Earth-scientific socialism, some of its apparently and actually drawing strength from the U.S. blockade.

Socialism as the Basis of Sustainability

The second thing missing is the very basic fact that Cuba owes its success not merely to its prioritizing of public welfare over private profits but rather to its rejection and indeed overthrow of capitalism, the profits system, half a century ago. The Cuban permaculturalist Roberto Pérez tells Leech that Cuba laid the basis for an environmentally sustainable society “when the revolution gained sovereignty over the resources of the country, especially the land and the minerals…You cannot think about sustainability,” Perez explains, “if your resources are in the hands of a foreign country or in private hands. Even without knowing, we were creating the basis for sustainability.”

This is a very critical point. As the New York City-based Marxist writer Louis Proyect noted last year, “capitalism and capitalist politics have to be superseded if humanity and nature are to survive. Once we can eliminate the profit motive, the door is open to rational use of natural resources for the first time in human history. How we make use of such resources will naturally be informed by our understanding that reason governs the outcome and not quarterly earnings. The alternative,” Proyect reminds us, “to this is a descent into savagery, if not extinction.”

Misplaced Imperial Arrogance

The third thing missing from Goodrum’s commentary was any sense of the utter arrogant, idiotic, and imperial absurdity of Barack Obama going to Cuba to lecture the people on democracy, freedom, and how to achieve a good society. What, like the United States? Really? The U.S… the mass incarceration capital of the world, home to a quarter of the world’s prisoners, an “armed madhouse” (Greg Palast) of a nation where: the top 1 percent owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent; 6 Wal-Mart heirs together possess as much wealth as the bottom 42 percent; politics and policy are in grip of an unelected and interrelated dictatorship of money and empire; an openly plutocratic oligarchy rules in total indifference to public opinion; world-capitalist ecocide finds its leading carbon-addicted financial and propagandistic centers; white median household wealth is 13 times higher than Black median household wealth; more than 16 million children (22 percent of all U.S. children, including 38 percent of Black children) live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level; municipal water systems are rife with poisonous lead; infrastructure is crumbling; pollution is rampant; schools are under-funded and mind-numbing; civic discourse is hopelessly degraded; racial hyper-segregation and the harsh racialized concentration of poverty and joblessness (in Black ghettoes, Native American reservation, and Latino barrios) is predominant; one in three Black men is saddled with the crippling lifelong stigma of a felony record; politicians and not-so “public” policy are bought and sold like any other commodity; the current endless and populace-marginalizing presidential election is shaping as a contest between (in Diana Johnstone’s words) “the two most hated people in the country” (the mad-dog imperial war hawk Hillary Clinton and the quasi-fascist media buffoon and real estate mogul Donald Trump); much if not most of the populace is kept in a woeful and dangerous state of mass ignorance and stupidity about history, current events, and much more; violent death (fed by off-the-global-charts homicide and suicide rates) is rampant; purposefully mass-murderous assault weapons are widely available and ubiquitous; mental illness proliferates; natural resources are regularly stripped and destroyed; livable wage jobs have disappeared en masse; commercialized mass alienation and soulless anomie are endemic; substance abuse and obesity are epidemic; economic insecurity is pervasive; more than half the population is either poor or near-poor; food is systematically poisoned and adulterated in field, factory, corporate laboratory, box-car, tractor trailer, warehouse, restaurant, and grocery store; agriculture is criminally misdirected and absurdly extra-local; water supplies are gravely imperiled; more than half of federal discretionary spending pays for a giant war machine and global empire that accounts for half the world’s military spending; you can’t even watch the last three minutes of a college basketball tournament game without having to be bombarded with ten minutes of mindless mass-consumerist commercials.

This is a nation that thinks is has anything to tell Cubans, or anyone else, about how to experience and sustain democracy, freedom, and a decent society? Seriously?

Some Messenger of Freedom

And what about the messenger? Yes, Barack Obama, the slimy used car salesman who won Advertising Age’s 2008 “Marketer the Year” award as he rode into the White House on a tide of hope for progressive change and then proceeded to (as predicted by yours truly and a painfully small cadre of Left intellectuals and activists who were largely banned from so-called mainstream U.S. media and “higher education” for doctrinal reasons) give the nation what William Greider memorably called seven years ago “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They have watched,” Greider wrote, “Washington run to rescue the very financial interests who caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend – when the right people want itAnd little to spend on the rest of us, the wrong people, soon to be known as “the 99%,” left to ask where’s my bailout?

Yes, Barack Obama, who in his nauseating 2006 campaign book The Audacity of Hope criticized the “left-leaning populist” Hugo Chavez for thinking that developing nations “should resist America’s efforts to expand its hegemony” and for further daring – imagine – to “follow their own path of development,” unforgivably “rejecting the ideals of free markets and democracy.” Obama showed how profound his commitment to democracy in Latin America was in the spring and summer of 2009 when he and his right-wing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton backed a disastrous right-wing military and business coup that overthrew the democratically elected left-leaning populist Manuel Zelaya government in Honduras.

Obama’s seminar on ruling class power will conclude, the president hopes, with final Congressional approval of the arch-authoritarian, global-corporatist Trans Pacific Partnership – a monument to world capitalist unaccountability and a potentially fatal blow to humanity’s ability to avert environmental catastrophe.

(I don’t have time and energy to go into his Orwellian surveillance state policies and his expanded war on/or terror.)

That’s some champion of people’s democracy there that Raul Castro just watched baseball with: Barack Obama.

The Goal Remains the Same: If Obama Has His Way

The fourth thing missing from Ian Goodrum’s surprisingly progressive column is why the noxious neoliberal emperor Obama just went to Cuba. I can’t say it any better than the aforementioned Gary Leech did on CounterPunch yesterday so I’m just going to quote him:

“In his speech to the Cuban people in Havana, President Barack Obama declared, ‘I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas. … I’ve urged the people of the Americas to leave behind the ideological battles of the past.’ But Obama made clear that his desire to end the decades-long US economic blockade of the island is not based on the fact that it constitutes the bullying of a small country by the world’s most powerful capitalist nation, nor is it a response to the sheer inhumanity of the blockade, it is simply an acknowledgement that the policy has failed to bring down Cuba’s socialist system and return the country to capitalism. Obama then proceeded to spend much of his speech telling Cubans that they should live under a US-style democracy and a capitalist economy. In other words, he has no intention of leaving behind ‘the ideological battles of the past.’ He is simply shifting strategy” (emphasis added).

Make no mistake: it’s only the means, not the ends of U.S. Cuba policy that Obama has been working to change. The goal remains the same: collapse Cuban socialism and bring back U.S.-dominated capitalism 90 miles off the coast of Florida. As I noted on Facebook the other day, “If Obama has his way, Cuba will be a festering pit of commercialized alienation and eco-cidal pollution in a couple of decades.” Obesity, diabetes, and depression will spread like gangbusters along with the chemical poisoning of Cuban water, land, air, and food and spreading inequality and – who knows, if all goes to plan? – mass incarceration, the corporate takeover of health care, and endless commodity-hawking commercials on radio and television. Big Pharma could really make a killing.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to pass. I went to Cuba to speak on and against U.S. corporate and commercial media almost exactly one year ago and got to spend three days in Havana. I’ll never forget it. Cuba struck me as the healthiest, happiest, sexiest, most dis-alienated and sociable society I’d ever had the good fortune to visit. It is “teeming with life” on numerous levels. Coming back to the United States was like taking a cold bath of hostility and estrangement, an immersion in extreme disparity where material abundance for some is juxtaposed against material privation for many along with unbridled spiritual and social ruination for all. It struck me as almost teeming with death. That’s too strong, perhaps, but one thing is very clear: we U.S.-of-Americans and our imperial Wall Street president have little if anything to tell Cubans about how to live and how to organize their society.

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Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).