The single greatest image which captured the end of the Socialist State system of the 20th century was the sight of hundreds of thousands of Germans breaking down the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall had been built in 1961 to stop residents of Communist East Berlin crossing over to capitalist West Berlin. Despite the barbed wire, watch-towers, attack-dogs and gun-totting sentries a few thousand people “escaped” from East Berlin to the West over the three decades of this Wall’s existance, each successful escape producing a hero and each killing on the Wall producing a “martyr”. The Berlin Wall became a metaphor for imprisoning an entire population and it was a distressing fact that this was being done by a State which claimed to champion the ideals of Karl Marx.
This column has earlier spoken about the endemic lack of freedom in the socialist States of the 20th Century (4, April, 2007). In a sense, they had made a Faustian bargain with what Marx had called “the characterless monster of unfreedom” in their attempt to protect their revolution. It has not only been the socialist revolutions which ended up denying freedom to their people, but this has been the unhappy chronicle of almost all modern liberatory revolutions. As this column has recounted over the past three weeks, similar was the case with the revolution of Haiti too, which in 1804 achieved freedom from slavery and colonialism, but is today wracked by poverty, imperialist plunder and oppressive rulers.
Comparing the glorious history of Haiti and witnessing her dire present during my recent visit to that country, I would often wonder what was it in the structure of modern liberatory revolutions which invariably pushed them towards authoritarianism, cruelty and petty-mindedness. Why has it been the same story from Robespierre to Aristide? The answer to my questions came as a pleasant surprise in the weed overgrown compound of the ramshackle St. Michael’s hospital in the small town of Jacmel on Haiti’s southern coast.
Jacmel had played host to Simon Bolivar, the South American revolutionary who had liberated that continent from Spain’s colonial control, when he had to flee Venezuela in 1815. Today, the Bolivarian revolution of Venezuela is financing Cuban doctors working in Jacmel, as in other parts of Haiti. The eight Cuban doctors I met in the hospital in Jacmel showed me that all revolutions do not flounder. These Cuban doctors gave me a glimpse of what socialist wo/man is capable of and why socialism is the future to aspire for.
Cuba has the world’s most comprehensive and well developed medical system, according to the World Health Organisation. Cuba alone has over 71,000 doctors when the entire continent of Africa has about 50,000. Its public health statistics are better than the USA and most European countries and unlike elsewhere, medical services to its citizens are totally free. Cuban doctors are considered among the most competent in the world and are highly prized for their abilities. Four hundred and thirty nine of these doctors are in Haiti working in its hospitals and fanning out into the countryside providing vital healthcare – free of cost – to the Haitian poor. The socialist Government of Venezuela provides the money for the Cuban doctors to work in Haiti.
A British team of health investigators have recorded that in areas where the Cuban doctors work, infant mortality is below 30 per 1,000 whereas the typical figure for Haiti is above 80 per 1,000. Similarly, maternal mortality in areas where Cuban doctors work is half of the national figure of 526 per 10,000 births. This British team estimated that Cuban doctors had saved over 80,000 Haitian lives in the period from 1999, when they first came to Haiti, till 2003 when this study was conducted. Unlike the hundreds of other foreign aid workers, Cuban doctors live in houses like common Haitians without air conditioning, often without even proper electricity and water. In their area of operation, they go to each house in every village, talk to the residents and identify the health problems before working out public health action plans. Those who require specialised medical assistance are then provided that. The Cuban doctors also train the locals to be mid-wives, para-medics and public health workers. Apart from this, the Cuban doctors also bring with them agricultural and fish seeds to augment their hosts diets. I was told that sometimes the Cuban doctors also join their hosts in physical labour to improve public sanitation.
Haiti is a country which is teeming with UN, American and European aid workers and UN troops. It is easy for the Cuban doctors to simply take the bus to the USAID or UN compound, rather than to a poor Haitian rural community, and ask for asylum which would be gladly given. But in the past eight years there has not been a single Cuban doctor who has done this. Given their world renowned medical skills, the relative poverty of Cuba and the large amounts of money they can make as doctors in the USA, it is astounding that not one Cuban doctor has till date “escaped” in Haiti. Rather they continue their daily visits to the rural communities and their ten hour shifts in the town hospitals.
When I asked them why they would not just leave this ramshackle hospital and migrate to the USA or Europe where they would get huge salaries, they did not seem to understand my question. They were doctors who had come to attend to the health problems of people here, why should they go to Europe or America to earn money, they seemed to counter question me! In the middle of this conversation of incomprehension, it suddenly dawned on me that for these people sitting around me, money and material comforts are quite secondary, a trifling matter which I was unnecessarily going on about. They had their homes, they wore good clothes, had their rum and songs and passionate conversations, what else would they require to live the good life. It was almost as if they were questioning me why would they want more; why would they sell themselves for getting things they really did not require. It appeared to me then that they did not measure their capabilities according to the money it could earn them or the comforts it could provide, but rather they measured their capabilities according to what they could achieve through them.
There are a few moments in a person’s life when we realise that we are face to face with a life-altering truth. That afternoon in the compound of St. Michael’s Hospital in Jacmel was one such moment for me, where, in conversation with a bunch of Cuban doctors, I realised I was an alien with in-human ideologies of measuring human achievement with money. I realised i was among amidst a different type of human being who does not need barbed wires and gulags to sustain loyalty to socialism, a human being who does not measure her worth by the money she earns, a human being who is not on the escalator of endless material desire – that shameless myth of capitalism. I realised I was sitting among people who are socialist without having to wave red flags.
Why is it that of the dozens of countries which professed Marxian socialism in the 20th century, only one – Cuba – remains socialist today while all others have either collapsed or become de-facto capitalist? The answer perhaps has largely to do with a simple, yet profound principle, which has been embedded into the very structure of the Cuban Communist Party thanks to the ideological battles won by Ernesto Che Guevara in the early years of the Cuban revolution against the onslaught of Soviet bureaucratisation. Next week this column travels to 1960s Cuba to discover what makes Cuba survive.
(to be continued)
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A slightly different version of this will be published in The Post on 6th February, 2008.