With Cuba’s half a century of stagnation under his rule, the late communist strongman Fidel Castro, who died last Friday at age 90, does not seem to offer much for any nation to learn, except perhaps lessons on what not to do.
Yet, in fact, there are at least three areas in which Castro’s Cuba outperformed many countries, including the Philippines, despite its far less resources, plus the antagonism from the West: health, education, and sports.
Despite its small population of just 11.4 million, Cuba perennially wins international athletic competitions. In this year’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics, its athletes took home five golds, two silvers, and four bronzes — No. 18 in the world medals tally.
In the Pan-American Games predictably dominated by the United States, Cuba has won 2,026 medals, including 875 golds since the competition began in 1951 until 2015.
That beats countries with far greater resources and populations, like Canada (456 golds), Brazil (329), Argentina (294), and Mexico (221). Only the US has more Pan-American medals (4,431 total, including 1,948 golds).
How does Cuba keep winning? As other communist states do, the government spots talented youngsters and gives them support and training from youth. But it also disseminates sound physical development dos and don’ts, like telling mothers to massage their babies’ muscles 45 days after birth.
The National Institute of Sports, Physical Education, and Recreation (INDER by its Spanish initials) promotes fitness nationwide, but also scouts for and develops young potential. That probably makes the body too busy to squabble over who heads the national Olympic committee.
Beyond state programs, Cubans also take great pride in competing and winning for the nation. And with name brands banned by the US trade embargo selling to Cuba, its homegrown BATOS company makes most sports gear used in the country. Now, it’s doing deals with foreign marques interested in manufacturing and marketing its items.
How to make a nation healthy and bright
Health is another area of world-class excellence for Cuba, focusing more on preventing ailments rather than curing them. Visiting in 2014, World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan praised Cuba’s achievements not only for its prevention thrust, but also for its innovation.
“Cuba is the only country that has a health care system closely linked to research and development,” said the WHO head, who hails from Hong Kong. “This is the way to go, because human health can only improve through innovation.”
How good is Cuba’s health? Well, take infant mortality: 4.7 deaths per 1,000 births is better than even the US (6.2), and leads developing nations.
Sadly, in the Philippines, there are 17.6 deaths for every thousand births, as of 2014. It dropped by about one death per year between 2000 (29.5 deaths) and 2010 (19.9), but the improvement has slowed since.
If the country adopts federalism, it must ensure that regional governments don’t falter in health care, as many provinces and cities did after the Local Government Code devolved the primary services of the Department of Health.
One way to prevent that is to learn from Cuba, which provided world-class health services to a population similar to a typical Philippine region.
And the same can be recommended in education. Here’s what an education expert of the Food and Agriculture Organization reported about Cuba in a 2000 paper, “The Cuban Educational System: Lessons and Dilemmas” by Lavinia Gasperini < http://web.worldbank.org/archive/website00238I/WEB/PDF/CUBA.PDF >:
“The record of Cuban education is outstanding: universal school enrollment and attendance; nearly universal adult literacy; proportional female representation at all levels, including higher education; a strong scientific training base, particularly in chemistry and medicine; consistent pedagogical quality across widely dispersed classrooms; equality of basic education opportunities, even in impoverished areas, both rural and urban.”
Gasperini, who holds a PhD in Education from the Sorbonne, also noted that Cuba ranked first in math and science achievement for both males and females, in a recent regional study of Latin American and Caribbean countries. She sums up: “In many ways, Cuba’s schools are the equals of schools in OECD [industrialized]countries, despite the fact that Cuba’s economy is that of a developing country.”
What if Castro didn’t fight America
Actually, Cuba is not far behind the rich world, going by the World Bank’s purchasing-power parity (PPP) ranking of per-capita gross domestic product (GDP), which removes price disparities between countries in assessing the output of goods and services.
Based on 2015 World Bank GDP PPP data, Cuba ranks No. 58 with $20,649 per-capita GDP in PPP dollars, just behind several East European and Latin American countries (Croatia, Romania, Chile, Panama, Uruguay), and ahead of Thailand ($16,306), China ($14,239), Indonesia ($11,035), and the Philippines ($6,969).
One wonders how much better Cuba might have done if it had not crossed America by allying with Russia, nearly hosting its nuclear missiles, and fomenting communist revolution in Latin America. For that, Washington not only embargoed trade and travel to Cuba, but also restricted aid and loans from multilateral bodies where the US had clout.
Which may be the other lesson the Philippines should learn from Castro’s Cuba: better not pick a fight with any big power, or become a pawn in superpower rivalry. Especially if the nation one would take on happens to be the global engine of economic growth, as America was in the last half-century, and China looks set to become in the current one.
To be sure, the US gave Cuba much reason to fight it. The Central Intelligence Agency funded the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion by Cuban exiles in 1961, just two years after the Cuban Revolution installed Castro. And while he might have wanted to improve relations long ago, Washington seemed in no mood, even after the Cold War with Moscow ended after the Soviet Union broke up a quarter-century ago.
Now, President Rodrigo Duterte is leading what may be his own revolution, breaking away from America, refocusing on long-deprived regions and services for the poor, and making friends with all, instead of taking sides in big-power tussles.
As he leads 100 million Filipinos toward change, the man from Davao would do well to learn from not just one, but two Fidels fond of cigars: former president Ramos, whom Duterte calls “my No. 1 critic and supporter,” and his fellow revolutionary from Cuba.
Viva Fidel Castro!