The Cuba Factor: Propagandizing Democracy and Human Rights

Cuba proved to be an influential force at the 2012 Summit of the Americas held in Cartagena, Colombia even though the country was not represented at the meeting of members of the Organization of American States (OAS). The summit ended without a final declaration because two—the United States and Canada—out of the 31 participating nations adamantly opposed a proposal to allow Cuba to participate in the next summit to be held in Panama in 2015. Both U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper referred to a lack of democracy and human rights in Cuba as the primary reasons for their veto of the proposal. Ironically, Obama stated his position on Cuba while standing beside the president of Colombia, the country with the worst human rights record in the region, in yet another blatant illustration of the hypocrisy that exists in U.S. foreign policy.

Cuba was banished from participating in the U.S.-dominated OAS in 1962 because it was a communist nation. The suspension came one year after the United States unilaterally initiated the economic blockade on Cuba that continues to this day. Since the end of the Cold War, many Latin American nations have advocated that Cuba be permitted to re-join the OAS. However, the United States and Canada remain adamantly opposed, having shifted their justification away from the fact that the island nation is communist and instead insisting that Cuba implement democratic and human rights reforms.

In response to a question about why he had vetoed the proposal to allow Cuba to participate in the next Summit of the Americas, Obama stated that “the fact of the matter is, is that Cuba, unlike the other countries that are participating, has not yet moved to democracy, has not yet observed basic human rights.” In short, Obama was repeating the same anti-Cuba propaganda that has been voiced by Washington for more than half a century. But U.S. policy towards Cuba is not dictated by a desire to see “democracy” and “human rights” in Cuba. Instead, it seeks to discredit a socialist system that provides a more humane alternative to the neoliberal global capitalist model promoted by Washington. After all, if a lack of democracy and human rights were the primary determinants of U.S. foreign relations then how does one explain Washington’s close ties with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Kazakhstan and many other authoritarian and repressive regimes?

To understand the degree of distortion and disinformation that exists in the official U.S. rhetoric towards Cuba it is necessary to better understand Cuba. Firstly, Cuba has elections! Candidates participating in Cuba’s municipal elections stand for office as individuals and not as party representatives. Between two and eight individual candidates, who have been nominated by neighborhood assemblies, vie for each seat in municipal elections held every two-and-a-half years. The candidates post a photograph and biography of themselves in specified public locations and the people vote for their desired candidate on Election Day. There is no campaigning and, therefore, no funding of campaigns. Consequently, as political scientist Robert Buddan points out, “There is no financial competition between campaigns in Cuba and money does not determine who wins as it does in so many western elections.”

Candidates for the National Assembly are proposed by the elected representatives of the municipal councils and by hundreds of nominating assemblies held throughout the country consisting of members of civil society organizations representing workers, youth, farmers, women and many other sectors. For the most part, it is in the debates that take place in these nominating assemblies that the democratic process at the national level occurs. Through this process one candidate is nominated for each of the 614 seats in the National Assembly and then each nominee must receive at least 50 percent of the national vote in elections held every five years. If a candidate fails to obtain more than 50 percent of the vote, then another must be nominated and stand for election. The National Assembly then elects the Council of State, which in turn elects the president. In what Buddan has called a “bottom-up democracy,” voter turnout routinely runs higher than 90 percent and women constitute 35 percent of delegates elected to the National Assembly—resulting in Cuba ranking sixth out of 162 nations globally in gender equality in parliament.

Unlike what so often occurs in a liberal democracy, participation in Cuba is not limited to casting ballots, particularly at the municipal level. Elected municipal officials hold consultative meetings every week in which citizens can engage face-to-face with their elected representatives and deliver requests and make complaints. Every six months, public meetings are held in which elected officials are required to explain how they responded to the requests and complaints. It is not unusual for as many as 80 percent of eligible voters to attend these meetings, which stands in stark contrast to the lack of citizen participation at the municipal level in liberal democracies such as the United States and Canada. As political scientist George Lambie notes, “It is at this point of contact between citizen, delegate, and in turn the government’s administrative and delivery systems, that participation in Cuba’s formal democracy is most visibly exercised.”

One of the motivating factors in the high levels of participation is the social ownership of the means of production. In Cuba, the state accounts for approximately 90 percent of formal economic activities with provincial and municipal assemblies being responsible for much of it. Consequently, citizen participation in weekly and bi-annual meetings—in addition to voting in elections and involvement in worker-managed cooperatives—provides people with an meaningful voice not only in political and social matters such as electing representatives and determining health and education policies, but also in economic policy-making and in the operation of their workplaces.

This economic democracy contrasts sharply with municipal politics in liberal democracies under capitalism where the means of production are privately owned, thereby closing off any space for participatory decision-making in the economic sphere and ensuring that business owners cannot be held accountable by workers and community members. In short, and in contrast to liberal democratic capitalist societies such as those in the United States and Canada, democracy in Cuba, while not perfect, exists to a significant degree in both the political and economic spheres, particularly at the municipal level.

The United States and Canada label Cuba a dictatorship because political parties cannot field candidates in elections and Cubans cannot vote directly for their president as occurs in representative democracies—the latter being something that Canadians also cannot do under that country’s parliamentary system. Critics, however, ignore the fact that democracy in Cuba transcends the political sphere and includes the economic realm by allowing people a direct voice in policy decisions at the municipal level where people’s lives are most directly impacted by government. Social ownership of the means of production as part of a participatory democracy has resulted in high-levels of citizen engagement and empowerment. Ultimately then, the problem from the perspective of capitalist elites is not so much a lack of democracy in Cuba, but rather that the country is not a “liberal democracy” that prioritizes the interests of economic elites—or the top one percent.

It was no coincidence that the CEO Summit of the Americas was held simultaneously with the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena. Both Obama and Harper addressed the CEO Summit held at the Hilton Hotel that was attended by hundreds of business executives from multinational corporations including Pepsi Cola, Barrick Gold and Scotiabank. The CEO Summit was organized by Colombia’s private sector and highlights the access and influence that economic elites have at the highest levels of government in liberal democracies. Interestingly, media access to the CEO Summit was limited, although it has been revealed that leaders and business executives focused largely on promoting global trade. In his closing remarks at the Summit, Obama said that the American people look forward to the time when the Cuban people can “fully participate in this global economy and international institutions,” such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and World Trade Organization (WTO).

Due to both its socialist beliefs and the draconian U.S. embargo of the island, Cuba has existed on the margins of neoliberal globalization. Nevertheless, despite being a small nation with few natural resources to speak of, Cuba has succeeded in meeting the basic food and housing needs of all of its citizens and has provided free education and healthcare systems that are among the best in the world. Furthermore, Cuba has managed to preserve these social achievements despite the loss of its largest trading partner and supplier of aid—the Soviet Union—and a corresponding intensification of the U.S. economic embargo.

In the realm of healthcare, Cuba has one doctor for approximately every one hundred families, resulting in a ratio of physicians per 1,000 people that is twice as high as in the United States. Cuba has also established internationally-recognized research and development facilities in biotechnology, immunology and other areas, and has become a world leader in the production of vaccines.

As a result of its emphasis on social well-being, Cuba has achieved health indicators far superior to every other nation in Latin America and comparable to those in many wealthy countries of the global North. For instance, life expectancy in Cuba is 78 years, which is one year higher than in the United States. Similarly, Cuba’s infant and child mortality rates—deaths of children under one and under five years of age respectively—are both superior to those in the United States. When Cuba’s health indicators are compared to capitalist nations in Latin America, the differences are astounding. Cuba’s infant mortality rate of 5.6 per 1,000 births compares to 19.0 in Mexico, 24.2 in Colombia and 14.4 in relatively wealthy Argentina. A similar discrepancy exists between socialist Cuba and its capitalist neighbors with regard to child mortality rates.

Further evidence that Cuba has succeeded in ensuring that the fundamental needs of all of its citizens are met became apparent in 2007 when UN Special Rapporteur Jean Ziegler visited Cuba on a fact-finding mission related to food security. At the end of the mission Ziegler declared that he had not encountered a single malnourished person in the country; a far cry from the reality in every nation in the global South existing under capitalism.

Not only do the social indicators of all the capitalist nations in Latin America pale in comparison to Cuba’s, but those countries also are not forced to endure an oppressive economic embargo at the hands of the United States and, in fact, many of them receive significant “development” aid and loans from Washington and international institutions such as the IMF and World Bank.

Cuba’s socialist healthcare model not only meets the needs of its own people, it is also rooted in a concept of solidarity with poor and marginalized peoples throughout the world, and in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa in particular. Such an approach is only possible under a social system that prioritizes human need over profit. For example, Cuba is engaged in a barter trade agreement with Venezuela under which it exchanges more than 10,000 doctors and literacy experts in return for 90,000 barrels oil a day. Also, beginning in 1997, Cuba engaged in a medical cooperation agreement with Haiti and ten years later Cuban medical staff were caring for 75 percent of the population. During that time, infant mortality rates per 1,000 births plunged from 80 to 33 and life expectancy increased from 54 years to 61 years.

Similarly, in 2004, Cuba launched “Operation Miracle” to restore eyesight to poor people throughout the global South suffering from cataracts and glaucoma. The project was initiated after Cubans who were engaged in literacy projects in Venezuela discovered that many poor people could not learn to read and write because of impaired eyesight. In its first five years, at no cost to the patients, the program restored sight to more than 1.6 million people in 28 nations and established eye surgery clinics throughout Latin America and Africa.

Perhaps one of the most compelling examples of Cuba’s international solidarity is its establishment of a medical clinic in Havana in 1990 to provide free healthcare to Ukranian children that had become sick from radiation poisoning—and to children born to parents contaminated with radiation—resulting from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Over the past twenty years, the Tarara Clinic has treated more than 18,000 Ukranian children for cancer and other radiation-related illnesses, with some of them staying at the clinic for as long as a year at a time.

The Cuban government covers all the costs of room, board, medical treatment and schooling for each of the Ukrainian children, with medical costs alone estimated to have totaled more than $300 million. The Cuban economy receives no benefits from treating these children; in fact, the Tarara Clinic constitutes a significant drain on the country’s economy. Nevertheless, Cuba’s socialist system continues to treat these children who cannot afford medical care back home because human well-being is prioritized over economic growth.

Ultimately, Cuba seeks to train domestic personnel in the countries in which they work so they can eventually operate their own healthcare systems. To this end, the Cuban government provides scholarships annually to thousands of people from nations throughout the global South to attend Cuban medical schools with the only stipulation being that the new doctors return home to practice medicine for a minimum of five years—rather than emigrating with their newfound skills to wealthy capitalist nations and becoming part of the brain drain from South to North. Tellingly, Cuba’s number one export is health care. This contrasts dramatically with the leading export of the United States, which is weaponry.

The United States has also been effective at manipulating much of the human rights discourse on Cuba. The dominant human rights model under capitalism prioritizes individual rights to the degree that they cannot be significantly infringed upon in order to ensure the collective—social and economic—rights of everyone in the community. This is why there is no right to food, housing or healthcare for citizens of the United States, where more than 40,000 people die annually due to a lack of access to the latter. These issues are viewed as the responsibilities of the individual rather than rights ensured by the broader society.

Consequently, the social and economic rights of millions of people in the United States are violated annually in order to defend individual rights, and this is viewed as perfectly legitimate under the hegemonic discourse of capitalism. But when a country such as Cuba defends the collective rights of all of its citizens with regard to access to food, housing, education and healthcare against the threats posed by those who seek to prioritize individual rights in a manner that violates the country’s socialist constitution, then the Cuban government is portrayed as a major violator of human rights.

In order to defend the collective rights of Cubans, the Cuban government has imprisoned dissidents for their opposition to the country’s socialist project. The Cuban government claims that many of the political prisoners in its jails are Cubans who have received funding from a foreign government that is intent on achieving regime change. One such foreign program has been conducted by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) which, under the guise of “democracy promotion,” distributes internet and satellite communications equipment to certain Cuban groups in direct violation of Cuban law.

The project came to light when U.S. aid worker Alan Gross, under contract to USAID, was arrested by the Cuban government in 2009. This case constitutes the latest example of the constant threat posed to the socialist system in Cuba by the world’s most powerful capitalist nation, which is actively engaged in a campaign to destroy the revolution through its continuation of an inhumane economic embargo and many other militant actions.

Interestingly, the number of human rights violations in Cuba pales in comparison to the scale of abuses perpetrated in recent decades by capitalist regimes in Colombia, Haiti, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, Argentina and other countries throughout the region. According to international human rights groups, the principal human rights violation in Cuba is the imprisonment of “dissidents” by the government. Amnesty International lists 55 “prisoners of conscience” in Cuba, while the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation claims there are 167 political prisoners on the island.

In contrast, there are more than 7,500 political prisoners currently incarcerated in Colombia, which has been the neoliberal poster child in Latin America for the past decade. Furthermore, state security forces in Colombia have also perpetrated more than 2,000 extrajudicial executions since 2002, while more than 38,000 people have “disappeared” in the past four years and there are 4.5 million internally displaced persons in the country. And as for democracy, the recent “para-politics” scandal in Colombia revealed that some 70 congressional representatives were linked to right-wing paramilitary death squads. Meanwhile, at the Summit of the Americas, President Obama espoused the close ties between the United States and Colombia, including the new free trade agreement between the two countries, and lauded the South American nation’s democracy and security achievements.

The objective here is not to justify the human rights violations perpetrated by the Cuban state but to use the discrepancy in the magnitude of violations to highlight how the hegemonic discourse under capitalism has successfully kept the human rights spotlight disproportionately focused on Cuba’s relatively few violations of individual rights while simultaneously distracting people’s attention away from the country’s impressive social gains achieved through its defense of social and economic rights.

Because of the effectiveness of U.S. propaganda, many people are also unaware of the impressive strides made by Cuba with regard to achieving environmental sustainability, which has become a primary policy objective of the country’s socialist government. Over the past 15 years, Cuba has developed into an eco-socialist nation by becoming the world’s leader in organic agriculture. The collapse of its leading trading partner, the Soviet Union, and the corresponding tightening of the U.S. economic embargo, forced Cuba to devise new ways to feed its population during the 1990s.

By the end of that decade, Cuba had implemented a dramatic shift away from industrial agricultural practices reliant on fossil fuels towards sustainable organic practices. An astounding 86 per cent of Cuba’s domestic agricultural production is organic and the country has also become a leader in urban agriculture, which reduces the environmental costs related to transporting food from where it is produced to those who consume it. As a result, urban agriculture now supplies more than 50 percent of the vegetables consumed by Havana’s 2.2 million residents. The break-up of large state-owned farms into smaller worker-managed cooperatives has also constituted a significant component of this new agricultural model that Lambie has called “the largest conversion from conventional agriculture to organic and semi-organic farming that the world has ever known.”

Based on the country’s social indicators and its ecological practices, the “Living Planet Report” published by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) declared in 2006 that Cuba was the only nation in the world to have achieved sustainable development. In other words, it is the only country that can meet the basic needs of its entire population in an environmentally sustainable manner. Meanwhile, the same WWF report noted that four Planet Earths would be required for everyone in the world to live in the same manner as people in the United States. Furthermore, Cuba’s scientific achievements in the fields of medicine and sustainable organic agriculture dispel the myth that innovation is unique to capitalism.

In conclusion, U.S. and Canadian policy towards Cuba is not motivated by a desire to promote “democracy” and “human rights” in the small island nation; after all, both of these already exist to a large degree. This is particularly true if one broadens the definition of democracy beyond the right to vote to the right of every citizen to be able to meet their fundamental needs. Therefore, the issue for Washington and Ottawa is that Cuba’s socialist system does not prioritize the “correct” forms of democracy and human rights. It does not prioritize the individual rights (i.e. private property) required under capitalism to serve the interests of economic elites. And the participatory democracy that exists in Cuba ensures that government policy and the country’s resources are used to address the basic needs of all Cubans rather as opposed to the liberal democratic approach that prioritizes the interests of a small number of economic elites. In short, Cuba’s sin, from the perspective of the United States and Canada, is that it is not implementing the democratic and human rights models required to prioritize the interests of capitalist elites (i.e. the top one percent) over those of its people.

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