What Filipinos should learn from Fidel Castro

Ricardo Saludo

Ricardo Saludo

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!


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  1. very true but Cuba is a socialist authoritarian state which means no congress and senate , no red tape and less buraucracy, what Fidel wants or priorities are followed without delay with efficiency. Being superior in their health care and medical innovations being a 3rd world socialist country makes them superior compared to their neighbors. whereas in the philippines we have hundreds of red tapes, slow painstaking bureaucracy, divisions, lack of family planning with the intervention of the church, etc etc. its like comparing apples and oranges not mentioning rampant corruption deeply rooted into our system and culture. Hopefully Duterte and his administration will make some changes for the better but it will take years not overnight. at least something to look forward for. if duterte is able to reduce corruption then that is already a big leap because corruption is everywhere even in china. lol so we can only reduce it to its minimal is the goal.

  2. Vincent Santos on

    I can also attest how safe I am to move around Cuba. I remember my tour guide thanking me for choosing Cuba over Mexico or the Dominican Republic because of how safe Cuba is and NO DRUG PROBLEMS.

  3. Vincent Santos on

    I have been to Cuba five time including a visit to Havana. It is like stepping into a time machine and teleport you back to the 1950’s because of the sight of those American “tanks” aka Cadillacs, Fords. The buildings are still in good condition but it could use a makeover. I can vouch for Cuba’s impressive education system, healthcare and their sports machinery despite having a very limited resources and now they have another thing going for them: Tourism. They started to open up during the mid 90s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ironically, Russians don’t even make up a good chunk of foreign tourists in Cuba. It’s the Canadians who are keeping Cuba’s economy alive and if the American embargo is lifted you will see a flood of American goods and money flowing into Cuba. Over there, Americans are actually liked. It is only the politicos who are painting the Americans in a bad light.

  4. The Fidel from Cuba fought for his people against Western powers while the Fidel from the Philippines is a Western stooge who will betray even his own cousin President to seize power. There is nothing good to learn from the latter Fidel.

  5. Excuses and excuses. There is no virtue whatever in communism. The medical community there is lauded because it provided “free” care to anyone who showed up. Nothing is free. It’s best doctors work overseas to earn foreign currency to send home. The care is marginal and no better than the Philippines. It is hyped up by leftists who persist in trying to find virtue in communism. Why look to the Caribbean for examples of communist failure. Look out over the South China Sea to see all you need to know. Seventy million Chinese were exterminated by Mao before his wife looked enviously at Imelda’s clothes and compared her Mao Suit to Imelda’s national dress and fabulous shoes and jewels. That was the beginning of the end for Communism in China. Once Hong Kong was opened up the nails were lined up and the hammering began on the coffin of socialism which is just communism in disguise. Praising Castro for destroying his nation is shameful. They are exactly where the Chinese were when Imelda got of the plane and showed Mao how to live. Castro should be condemned and not celebrated as some kind of hero.

  6. This article is just saying the good things, about Cuba’s accomplishments,under the socialist government, but look at the life difference of Cubans life in Miami, Florida and Cubans life in Havana. Then ask yourself, why is it all south American countries want go and live in North America.

    • Thank you for your comment, Rey.
      You may wish to reread the first sentence and rethink whether “[t]his article is just saying good things about Cuba’s accomplishments.”
      As for the obvious gap in wealth between America and the rest of the Americas, this is in fact the underlying fact of the article, which highlights Cuba’s world-class achievements in sports, health and education even if it does not have the resources and level of development as Miami. Thanks again.

  7. You wrote a very informative article about the achievements of the late Fidel Castro. I hope the Philippines would have a leader like Castro someday who is a nationalist.

  8. Population of Cuba is 11million.
    If we want to replicate the health care (especially the extremely low infant mortality) then we need to PUSH contraception as aggressively as drug dealers push shabu here.
    You forgot to mention the extremely low birth rate/woman in Cuba-1.48 child per woman. Very few unwanted pregnancies. Few pregnant drug addicts, HIV (+), hepatitis C, etc, so lower infant mortality rate.
    If they are poor, they don’t have more children, therefore women go to school, and work. Less children mean better fed children, etc, etc…
    As long as we resist birth control, we remain hypocrites, sycophants, dreamers….