The Fidel Castro you never knew

In his letter to the editor last week, Michael Bustamante ’06 discounts positive impressions of Cuban society as the result of government manipulation engineered to mask the true horror of the Cuban regime. (“Let’s get the Cuban government’s record straight,” 4/4)

The unbalanced view of the Cuban government to which Bustamante falls victim is shared by many in this country. In the recent coverage of the arrests of Cuban dissidents, there is a side to the story Americans are not hearing. And with the elimination of licenses for people-to-people educational exchange to Cuba, announced by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control on March 24, one of the primary avenues open to Americans to hear the other perspective will be cut off.

While I was in Cuba last month on the Yale educational trip, it became clear to me that both the Cuban and U.S. governments and media are guilty of one-sided portrayals of the island. Cuban representatives never mention human rights violations; the United States talks of nothing but. Cuban representatives talk of the achievements of their government in the realms of health, education and environmental management; the U.S. media is silent on such matters.

These polarized positions on the Cuban government are unconstructive. The truth is more complex, and it is important to seek a middle ground in our intellectual understanding of this Caribbean enigma.

The 16 Yale students who traveled to Cuba this spring break on a Reach Out service-learning trip were fully aware that in meetings with Cuban officials and officially sanctioned members of Cuban society, we would hear a slanted story of the Cuban reality. All 16 students are enrolled in a semester-long seminar about Cuba and our professor left us with no illusions. We knew that we should take everything we saw with a grain of salt.

Indeed, in many meetings, we heard Cuban representatives extol the successes of the Cuban government since the 1959 revolution, in eradicating illiteracy, providing free health care for all, empowering women, curbing the spread of AIDS, protecting the environment, and more.

And, as Bustamante says, this view was undoubtedly one-sided. But — and this is what people opposed to the Cuban government often will not recognize — the fact that it was one-sided does not mean it was false.

UNICEF reports a literacy rate in Cuba of 96 percent and an infant mortality rate of 7 per 1,000 live births, a rate equal to that of the United States. In Bolivia, 79 percent of adult women are literate; 62 babies die per every 1,000 live births. These statistics are not empty numbers. Before the revolution, Cuba was characterized by the same huge income gap, low literacy rates, inaccessible health care for the majority of the population, and environmental degradation that marks many other Latin American countries.

Today’s statistics reflect real advances made in Cuba since the revolution that are the result of a determined commitment to improving these quality of life indicators, and are substantiated through individual accounts of everyday Cubans.

For example, in Cuba I met a 64-year-old man at a neighborhood gathering in a town called Vinales who told me about the jaw surgery he had last year. “I didn’t pay a cent,” he said. Under Cuba’s universally free health care system, staffed by thousands of doctors trained in medical schools established since 1959, the Cuban government covered the entire cost of this man’s surgery, hospitalization and food, and post-operational appointments.

While in Cuba, I walked to school with the 7-year-old girl whose family I stayed with in a remote inland town near Santa Clara. She wore a government-provided uniform and carried a backpack full of textbooks supplied by the government. Her grandparents had been illiterate, but she could read and write better than the second-graders I have tutored in New Haven.

Stories like these contrast sharply with conditions I have seen in other parts of Latin America.

While I was working at a school for the blind in Bolivia last summer, I met a man named Gustavo who lost his sight a year and half ago due to a brain tumor. He would have more than a 60 percent chance of his regaining his sight with an operation. But he can no longer work and cannot afford the $4,000 he would have to pay for the operation. Had Gustavo been a Cuban, he may have had to wait in a long line and suffer from the shortage of medicines that now plagues the Cuban health system, but he probably would have gotten that operation, and he may today have been able to see.

In El Salvador last spring, I met a 12-year-old boy in the town of Cuidad Romero who told me that only his eldest brother was able to go to school. His family, he said, cannot afford the uniforms and books for the other children and needs them to labor in the fields to earn money.

In Cuba, 10 people may live in a one cramped apartment, but the shanty towns of cardboard and tin houses that cover the landscapes of other Latin American countries are conspicuously absent.

Such things matter. At a time when millions of people in developing countries not only live in poverty, but also lack access to basic health care, education, housing, food, and clean water, the world ignores Cuba’s successes at its own peril.

The reality is that exemplary achievements and odious government repression exist simultaneously in Cuba. The everyday constraint of political freedoms is stark, and can be seen clearly in the control of the press and the intolerance of the expression of “counter-revolutionary” ideas.

In Havana, we met a Cuban university student studying English and German who deplored the discrimination against Cubans that prohibits them from entering the tourist hotels. He said he hates living in a country where he cannot express his views freely, that he wants to leave Cuba, and that Cuba must undergo reforms.

And although I did not hear of the incident until I came back to the United States, the round-up of dissidents accused of engaging in subversive activity began while I was still in Cuba. Some of the dissidents have now been sentenced to more than 20 years in prison. With these arrests and condemnations, the violation of rights we as Americans hold dear has reached a crisis point in Cuba, and it is critical that the international community do everything it can to protect the civil and human rights of Cuban citizens.

But efforts to open the political climate and protect against the breach of civil and human rights should not negate the advancements that Castro’s government has achieved.

When I asked the university student who expressed deep resentment of government policies what he thought about Fidel, he responded, “Castro is a great man. He has made some mistakes, but he wants the best for us.”

Cuba is a country of contradictions, and Cubans have practice living with the paradoxes. We owe it to them and to ourselves not to oversimplify our understanding of the island by confining ourselves to one-sided views.

As difficult as such an intellectual endeavor may be, it is time to look at both sides of the Cuban coin, to work to eradicate the serious human rights abuses perpetrated by the Cuban government, while at the same time learning from the successes that same government has achieved.



Jocelyn Lippert is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. She is president of Reach Out: The Yale College Partnership for International Service.

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