When will we step out from the shadow of our Cold War past? The dust up over Bernie Sanders’ praise of the Cuban literacy program ran afoul of the rigid binary Cold War myth-machine that “we” are all good and “they” are all bad.
Our nationalist knee-jerk reaction is so complete that we always have to begin this conversation stating the obvious. Of course, Castro’s Cuba was an authoritarian regime, as was the right-wing authoritarian regime before him – one the United States supported until it was too awful to deny.
The U.S. began the 20th century declaring Cuba a “protectorate,” insisting on the right to intervene in Cuban affairs. That continued for three decades, and then the Depression and WWII took over. We supported the afore mentioned right-wing regime through the 1950’s and that was followed by Cuba becoming immediately embedded in the Cold War. Castro teamed up with the USSR to become a Soviet irritant in our hemisphere. Bad, bad, bad.
But what was obscured by the Cold War curtain, with its blanket propaganda targeting Cuba as the enemy and all that is wrong with the world, is what Cuba did well. The two core promises of Castro’s revolution were wildly successful, miraculously so given the impoverished nature of an island nation economically quarantined by the United States. Universal education and health care were promised and delivered.
A 1984 a United Nations report studied the Cuban literacy campaign and found that in 1959, when Castro came to power, nearly 24% of the population could not read or write. By 1961 all but 4% of the population had passed a basic literacy test. Yes, that radical improvement came with significant regime propaganda but take a look at U.S. textbooks sometime.
Even more impressive was Cuba’s medical revolution because it changed the world. Life expectancy in Cuba is higher than in the United States, and there are three times as many doctors per capita in Cuba than we have here. According to TIME, there are 50,000 Cuban doctors working in 67 countries serving impoverished communities. Cuban medical teams have been internationally praised for their work in post-earthquake Haiti and during the Ebola crisis in West Africa. Throughout South America and Africa, Cuban medical teams deliver health care to people and places that would otherwise be bereft. Cuba’s health care is not as sophisticated as ours but in comparison to the size and complexity of our two economies, it more than holds its own.
What Castro began in the 1960’s as a propaganda tool for his revolution has now become an $11 billion import. Cuban medical teams are leased to countries in exchange for cash, oil, and other valuables.
Does all this make Cuba a paradise? No, but what it does say is that we need to look through the weeds of our own Cold War craziness and grow up a little. As Gandhi said, “the ally we must cultivate is the part of our enemy which knows the truth.” When we hear candidates or journalists insisting on either/or thinking – in which someone is either all good or all bad, all right or all wrong – it is time to step back and be curious about their motives. Binary thinking inflicts blindness instead of clear vision.