Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz passed away in November 2016 and his death sparked varied reactions across the globe. Hated and admired by so many, Castro is a legend not only in Cuba, but throughout all of Latin America and the world. He was also an inspiration to well-known Latin American left-wing political leaders, such as Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales.
In 1953, he lead a revolution that overthrew a dictatorship characterized by corruption and political patronage, installing a socialist regime in its place. He then served as the Prime Minister of Cuba for 49 years, until he left office in 2008 and delegated his presidential duties to his brother Raúl. Under a communist authoritarian system, Cuba remained a close ally of the Soviet Union until its collapse.
Castro, together with Kennedy and Khrushchev, played a leading role in the 1962 Missile Crisis, when the two superpowers almost came into nuclear confrontation during the Cold War. Cuba was also able to successfully stave off an invasion attempt by a counter-revolutionary military group made up of Cuban exiles backed by the United States, an event known as the Bay of Pigs invasion.
With low-middle per capita income and frozen relations with the U.S., Cuba is often referred to as a failed state. However, what many do not realize is that Cuba is also considered to have some of the best public-sector systems in all of Latin America, including universal healthcare and quality education. It boasts low infant mortality, high life expectancy, and nearly a 100 percent literacy rate. So how has a country considered third-world managed to achieve these first-world indicators?
This success is partly attributable to the universal healthcare and education systems in place, which are entirely publicly-financed. After coming to power, Castro and his cabinet invested heavily in developing the country’s education and healthcare systems, setting social welfare as one of the government’s top priorities. Castro believed that investing in the public sector, particularly education and healthcare, was the key to ending poverty and chronic underdevelopment.
The education system in Cuba has been recognized by UNESCO as a “role model for the world”. When Castro took office, the literacy rate in Cuba was between 60 to 70 percent. To address this, the regime nationalized all education entities, establishing an education system that was completely managed by the State and funded by a large share of its GDP. Castro also launched the National Literacy Campaign just after coming to power, whose actions included building schools, training new teachers and establishing literacy programs for peasants and rural populations so they could learn to read and write.
The Literacy Campaign was a remarkable success, and by its completion the literacy rate had soared to nearly 100 percent. Furthermore, Cuba’s education system has taken a gender-equal approach, without establishing any differences between boys and girls. In fact, Cuba is also considered as one of the countries with the best access to education for girls, which has resulted in the vast majority of women in the country being employed and earning as much as men.
However, it is important to note that Cuba remains under a communist authoritarian system, in which it is critical that the population sympathizes with the regime’s ideas to ensure its continuance. Children are taught from an early age about the national regime’s political beliefs, which may pose an obstacle for developing critical thought and openness to opposing ideas. Students are rarely exposed to discussions about other forms of government in a neutral and unbiased way.
The healthcare system in Cuba followed a similar path to education. From his early years in power, Fidel Castro also invested a huge amount of the country’s GDP in healthcare infrastructure and in educating doctors. Furthermore, despite having limited medical imports due to the embargos imposed by the U.S., Cuba has invested a large amount of financial resources in medical research and development. The country was successful in developing the first meningitis type B vaccine as well as effective treatments against hepatitis, and it was the first country in the world to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
Cuban healthcare is also known for its solidarity. In fact, despite limited resources, Cuba has a team of doctors trained in emergency medicine called the Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade, which offers medical support to any country suffering from a catastrophe. The Henry Reeve Brigade has provided medical aid and support to 16 countries affected by crises such as natural disasters or disease epidemics. In fact, Castro offered medical assistance to victims following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. However, the U.S. rejected this offer.
Fidel Castro was widely criticized for ruling over an authoritarian system, depriving Cuban citizens of the most fundamental human rights such as the right to freedom of speech or association; the right to media freedom; and the right to freely elect their government representatives and run for election. Likewise, according to Amnesty International, human rights and political activists continued to be persecuted and arbitrarily detained throughout Castro’s regime. However, it is interesting to reflect upon the apparent successes of Castro’s leadership, prioritizing spending on healthcare and education as opposed to, for example, strengthening the military and engaging in regional conflicts.
Julia Vázquez Santiago