Reflections on Cuba: Health, Terror, “the Five” (Part II)

The following is Part II of an edited and enhanced version of an interview conducted by Rick Smith (radio host of United for Progress, a 100% pro-labor and unapologetically progressive voice, heard on WHYL News Talk Radio (960 AM), Carlisle, PA) with Dr. Doug Morris, Department of Education and Technology, Eastern New Mexico University, Portales, NM.

Rick Smith: What is your sense of the understanding of Cuba in the US population?

Doug Morris: As you know, there has been nearly fifty years of anti-Cuba indoctrination and propaganda in the US. If Cubans could walk on water the US dominant media would say they were too weak to swim. It is very difficult to get information on Cuba that does not in some way denigrate the socialist experiment. Even the phrase “Castro’s Cuba” gives the impression that Cuba is Castro and nothing else, as though one person carries out a revolution and continues the struggle. Reviews of SiCKO, while generally positive, often found a way to say something negative about Cuba, typically a line such as “but Moore failed to mention Cuba’s human rights violations.” Richard Levins points out how Cuba’s successful programs to address Hurricane damage and prevent the loss of human life is often attributed to “the Communist state,” as opposed to people in the US, for example, who have the ability to exercise their “democratic” right to drown.

While it is important for US citizens to understand Cuba because there is much we can learn from the Cuban experiment, more important, it is crucial for us to understand that much of the most critical and urgent work must be accomplished here in the US to change the US commitments to aggression, violence, torture, sabotage, blockades, profits, power, militarism and destruction, not to mention work toward creating a more substantive democratic culture and politics in the US. Given US power in the world and the threats arising from that power, it means understanding that our options are intimately and increasingly linked to the ways in which our projects critically engage matters of war and peace, authoritarianism and substantive democracy, environmental destruction and environmental sustainability, economic inequality and instability and economic equality and stability where the latter requires a much more equitable distribution of wealth, income and resources along with meaningful employment, disease and health with an understanding that non-profit based health care along with an organization of society that promotes health and well-being is both possible and necessary, hunger and nutrition, etc.

In these domains, new and urgent projects in formal and informal education, inside and outside classrooms, which acknowledge the political nature of pedagogy and the pedagogical nature of politics, in the US are vital because a new and better world is not only possible, but NECESSARY, sooner rather than later! “Our choices,” Gabriel Kolko warns, “are increasingly a matter of their implications for human survival.” We must work to ensure that we make the right choices!

Rick Smith: As a result of Michael Moore’s film SiCKO Cuba’s healthcare system has received much publicity in the US. Is Moore’s depiction accurate?

Doug Morris: In Cuba healthcare is a right, not a commodity or a privilege. On this matter, and a number of others, Cuba, unlike the US, endorses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

There is a question we might ponder: How has Cuba done so much given they have so little? And, we might consider a related question: How has the US done so little in comparison given that it has so much? For example, Cuba has more doctors per capita, 1 per 170 people, than the US, 1 per 188. In addition to its current 70,000 doctors, 65,000 new students have enrolled in Cuban medical schools since 2004. If Cuba does not already, they will soon lead the world in doctors per capita, meeting their accomplishment in teachers. Most doctors in Cuba are women, as are most philosophers. Cuba also exports more doctors and health professionals to the third world — to 68 countries — than any other country, including roughly 15,000 doctors and dentists to Venezuela in exchange for much needed oil. The paradox is partly resolved in Fidel’s comment “Human capital is worth far more than financial capital.”

Total per capita expenditure on health care is under $300 in Cuba and over $7,000 in the United States. Furthermore, Cuba is dedicated to health as well as healthcare and they see the two as dialectically linked. Cuban notions of social responsibility and solidarity promote a sense of “we are all in this together,” and that opens up larger discussions around how different aspects of social life, work life, cultural life, family life, nutrition, leisure, etc. are linked to individual and community health. In a profit-based medical system as exists in the US there are obvious advantages to having lots of sickness around, i.e., more profits. In the US it is virtually impossible to have rational discussions about health because there is not a common “people-first” agenda as there is in Cuba. In Cuba, the question is “how do we organize ourselves in society to promote the best health and healthcare for the people?” We should understand that these questions are taken up under siege conditions, and that often creates difficulties and contradictions. In the US, another question always intercedes to undermine reasonable thought and discussion: “But how will that impact profits?”

The difference can be attributed to Cuba’s people not profits system of healthcare and social organization in which there is a commitment to community collaboration on health matters, universal access to primary care, clearly defined and exercised “mission-based goals and objectives,” a national emphasis on health education and preventative healthcare, a social responsibility to provide decent nutrition, minimal administrative costs, and a commitment to research and development that is relevant to people’s needs. The latter point partially explains why Cuba can do important research around malaria and other diseases that are low-priority in the US because they are diseases of the poor.

The first-world level accomplishments in health are linked to a three-tiered Cuban model: (1) Health guardians, that include neighborhood-based teams of physicians and nurses, who interact regularly with citizens in their community. This “army of white coats” provides childhood immunization against 13 preventable diseases. That, along with guaranteed nutrition and a real sense of belonging to a community, is a key component in Cuba’s low infant mortality rate that is lower than that of the US. Doctors perform regular home visits, even visiting those in good health. The regular visits are carried out to consider not only physical health, but also to examine issues of lifestyle, work life, environment, nutrition, etc. Community and public health health concerns are addressed through community interventions; (2) a network of healthcare polyclinics (over 470) dedicated to integrating multi-medical-specialties (e.g. pediatric medicine, heart treatment, ophthalmology, optometry, x-rays, rehabilitation, 24 hour dentistry, minor surgery, ultrasound diagnostics, etc.). A billing department or business office will not be found because of the universal free health care system. That alone minimizes stress related to health problems; (3) Hospitals: acute care facilities spread across the island. One of these larger Cuban hospitals was featured in SiCKO, and there was evidence of the neighborhood clinics and doctors, not to mention the low-cost medicine.

Officials in the Cuban Ministry of Health note that Cuba’s roughly $2 billion tourism industry may soon be surpassed by joint ventures in biotechnology, vaccine exports and the supplying of health provisions to other countries as the primary provider of foreign exchange earnings. Less reliance on tourism and the values and attitudes tourism brings to the island will assist in addressing the “battle of ideas.”

As mentioned, in response to Hurricane Katrina, Cuba assembled over 1,500 humanitarian doctors and offered to assist the people of the Gulf Coast. The offer was declined by the US, and on September 19, 2005 the Cubans created the Henry Reeves International Contingent of Doctors Specialized in Disasters and Serious Epidemics to carry out relief work around the globe during emergencies. It is another example of Cuban international solidarity.

SiCKO is an important film. What is happening in Cuba is too complex to be captured in a short segment in a film, but Moore’s film has opened up some discussion and curiosities about what is happening in Cuba and that can help. Additionally, SiCKO asks us to consider a very simple question: do we want to dedicate our system of health and healthcare to improving human well-being and happiness or to maximizing profits for insurance companies and pharmaceutical giants? In short, are we more interested in the well-being of flesh and blood human beings, or the “well-being” of abstract entities called corporations? The majority in the US supports the former, corporate power supports the latter. That is a political battleground.

Rick Smith: What is the current US position on Cuba?

Doug Morris: In general it is still hostile and committed to overthrowing the revolution. Cuba is still confronted by US threats and intimidations; this is very evident in the more than 400-page US document from 2004 called “A Plan for Assistance to a Free Cuba,” which of course is a euphemism for “A Plan for the Complete Subjugation of Cuba and the Destruction of Cuba’s Achievements under the Revolution.”

The document’s arrogance and stupidity are appalling. It claims the US will apply to Cuba the lessons learned in Afghanistan and Iraq (Fallujah, Haditha, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, for example?) It says it will bring literacy and vaccines to Cuban children, not knowing that Cuba has a 100% literacy rate, and among the best vaccination programs for children in the hemisphere. Under a US regime, Cuban social security will be eliminated and old people will be put to work (60 is the current retirement age in Cuba — far too soon for US planners who assume that all human worth is linked to producing profits for the ownership class). The document proclaims that the US will abolish all Cuban social programs (schools, health care, sustainable farms, etc.) and privatize them…neoliberalism strikes again. The document admits that such subjugation will not be easy, and that is correct. In Cuba, they say “even the arms of the dead will rise up and fight the imperialists, and fight onward to victory!”

Rick Smith: People will often say “If Cuba is such a great place why do so many people leave?”

Doug Morris: The number of Cubans who leave is often exaggerated in the public mind because of the overblown coverage Cubans receive. Cubans who leave have received an inordinate amount of publicity compared to say Haitians who leave, or Salvadorans who leave, or Peruvians who leave, etc. One must also place this in the context of a small poor country existing next to a large very rich country and also in the history of relations between the US and Cuba especially after the triumph of the revolution. Furthermore, it is not historically unusual for people from poor countries to find their way to nearby rich countries and Cuba is poor while the US is super-wealthy.

But it is more than that. Cubans are welcomed by the US far more than any other migrants from Latin America and with special conditions attached for Cubans. While others are generally seen as economic refugees Cubans often fall into the category of political refugees, from the US perspective, and are given what amounts to political asylum. That designation is essentially US propaganda. A political refugee must demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution to be granted asylum in the US, but persecution has little to do with US judgment. Haitians fleeing a brutal and murderous US backed military dictatorship were clearly fleeing political repression in the early 1990s, but the US typically sent them back… sometimes to be murdered. The same was true of Guatemalans in the 1980s, etc., etc. There are many such cases.

Non-Cubans applying for political asylum are accepted between fifteen and thirty percent of the time with very stringent requirements for demonstrating persecution. Cubans are accepted essentially 100% of the time. Cubans have no stringent requirements. They are not required to demonstrate they are refugees or apply for political asylum. Cubans who make it to US soil are provided a virtual guarantee to permanent resident status. Such laws encourage Cubans to leave Cuba, and increase the number of Cubans who enter the US. There has been a slight modification in the policy: after 1995, Cubans who are intercepted by the US Coast Guard at sea at typically sent back to Cuba.

One must note the Cuban Adjustment Act, adopted in 1966 under the Johnson Administration. The Act altered the legal status of Cuban immigrants and must be seen in the context of long-term US attempts to undermine the Cuban revolution. One US goal was “brain drain” from Cuba. Cubans are given preferential treatment. As a result of the Act, Cubans were given not only political asylum but other privileges awarded to no other group, including permanent resident status, a fast-track to US citizenship, opportunities to work legally, as well as access to other benefits such as welfare and unemployment benefits.

People rarely ask the question, “Why do so many Mexicans leave?” Suppose there was a Mexican Adjustment Act, or a Haitian Adjustment Act, how many Mexicans and Haitians, not to mention people from every other country in Latin America, would try to take advantage of such an enticing opportunity to leave a poor country and go to the US with basically no questions asked and plenty of entitlements? The numbers would be enormous. Mexico estimates that immigration to the US will include up to 5 million Mexicans per decade over the next twenty years.

In reality, Cubans, especially over the years of “the Special Period” have left for economic reasons. Cuba lost roughly 80% of its trade overnight and the US intensified the blockade in order to further undermine the Cuban economy. Given all of that one might ask a different question, “Why do so few Cubans leave Cuba?”

We might consider one final point on this matter. Why is it that the US encourages people to leave the country with the best health care, best education, best reforestation, best sustainable agriculture, lowest infant mortality rate, nearly the highest life expectancy, some of the best scientific research in all of the Americas, lowest homeless rate, etc.? Coupled with that why is it that the US has regularly returned people to countries with the worst human rights violations where the victims will also suffer poverty, malnutrition, poor education, poor health and little access to health care, etc.? Working through that explains much about the priorities of US power.

Rick Smith: The US State Department suggests that Cuba is a state sponsor of terrorism. Is there any truth to these accusations?

Doug Morris: Is that like a sledgehammer accusing a feather of breaking bricks? Wayne Smith, former Chief of the US Interest Section in Havana, who resigned in protest over US Cuba policy, has a good recent piece on this at The National Interest website. Cuba is on the US State Department list of states that sponsor terrorism and has been since 1982 under Reagan, though there is no evidence that Cuba supports, endorses and perpetrates terrorism. There is plenty of evidence that Cuba opposes terrorism, especially the kind launched against it from the US. We might then ask why the US continues to place Cuba on the list. It could be inertia, it could be bureaucratic obedience, but more likely it is simply part of the continuing process of demonizing and alienating Cuba. Accusing Cuba of supporting terror carries extra weight after 9/11.

Originally, it is speculated, Cuba was placed on the terror list because the US accused them of providing support for the guerrilla forces in El Salvador and Guatemala who were attempting to overthrow murderous US backed dictatorships. If providing supplies to groups attempting to overthrow governments renders a state “terrorist” then clearly the US should have been much higher up on the list at the time for arming, training and supporting the murderous Contras. Furthermore, the US was supporting and supplying the Guatemalan government, surely among the worst terror states in the world at the time as they were in the process of killing tens of thousands of Mayans.

Strangely, right around the time the US placed Cuba on the terror list for the above mentioned reasons, the US admitted they had no hard evidence linking Cuba to arms supplies to Central America. Recently the US accused Cuba of not tracking or seizing terrorist assets. The problem is there are no assets to be seized. Al Qaeda is not keeping its assets in Cuban banks and of course the US knows that. The US accuses Cuba of harboring members of the Basque group ETA and the Colombian guerrilla group FARC, but those people are in Cuba legally and there is no evidence that they are currently linked to terrorism anywhere. The US accuses Cuba of refusing to extradite people in Cuba who committed crimes in the US and that has become a ground for placing them on the terror list. Committing a crime in the US does not make one a terrorist, or does living in Cuba. Since 1959 the US has refused countless requests for extradition, not the least of which is Posada-Carriles who clearly committed acts of international terror.

Unlike Cuba, the US is known to be harboring numerous terrorists, including many who have carried out terror against Cuba. There are plenty of state terrorists to be found in the Washington, D.C. area! If terrorism, as the US Department of Defense defines it, is the “calculated use of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or intimidate governments or societies in pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological,” and we should add “economic,” we can look much closer to home to find a state whose actions merit inclusion at the top of the list of terror states. Cuba does not belong on the list.

Rick Smith: Any closing thoughts?

Doug Morris: We should mention the Cuban Five. There was an important appeals hearing on August 20th in Atlanta. People can rally to their support, it is desperately needed. There are international days of solidarity with the Cuban Five from September 12th through October 8th.

In brief, they are five Cubans who were in the United States monitoring the activities of and infiltrating groups, such as Brothers to the Rescue, who have a long history of committing terrorist acts against Cuba. It should be noted that these terror groups operate with the knowledge and sometimes the support of the CIA and FBI. The goal of “the Five” was to prevent terrorism. In short, they were participating in the war against terrorism by working to prevent acts of terror inside a country that was harboring terrorists. The US accused them of conspiracy to commit espionage, but they were not spying on US government facilities, they did not carry out violence, they merely collected information in order to combat terrorism against Cuba.

Information gathered by “the Five,” demonstrating terrorist activities planned and organized on US soil, was shared by the Cuban government with the FBI. The FBI responded, but not quite as one might hope. They arrested NOT the terrorists but the five who were fighting against terrorism. The five were held for long periods in solitary confinement, visits from family were prohibited, and they were placed on trial in, of all places, Miami. Of course, they were convicted. Sentences ranged from 15 years to double-life. In 2005, after seven years of confinement, the convictions were overturned by a Court of Appeals and a new trial was ordered…NOT in Miami. One year later, that decision was overturned by a Circuit Court under apparent pressure from the Bush Administration. The case is a grave injustice. The August 20th appeal hearing was very important. A decision will be handed down in the coming months. Public support is crucial. [To support the Cuban Five]

In general, there is much more to share about and reflect upon, both with critique and admiration, revolutionary Cuba. Cuba is a country of multiple contradictions where many dreams have become reality (against enormous odds) but where many hoped for realities still remain dreams (but, they have not given up!). Cuba is too often a country condemned for not accomplishing the impossible, i.e. some utopian alternative, rather than being recognized and appreciated for accomplishing many dreams under conditions that made the reality of those dreams appear unachievable. Cubans are not seeking utopia but seeking ways to mobilize the collective intelligence and imagination, courage and commitment, and energy and enthusiasm of a population of people in order to maximize the potential for meeting human needs and maximizing human well-being under always changing, challenging and difficult material historical realities. For example, we should note, Cuba, a resource poor but human rich society, is the only country on the planet to meet the minimum requirements for sustainable development.

We could ask, “What can we learn from Cuba and how can we adapt similar health, education, sustainability and environmental programs to the rest of the world?” Cuba’s WMDs are not Weapons of Mass Destruction as in the US, but Weapons of Mass Development in education, culture, health, agriculture, science, solidarity, etc

In terms of our own positions on Cuba, we might want to follow the advice of Harvard School of Public Health professor Richard Levins who says, and I paraphrase, “We should reserve the right to be critical of any particular decision within the Cuban revolution while still maintaining 100% support for the Cuban revolution.”

Forty-five years of an official US “blockade,” forty-seven years of US terrorism of various sorts, state and non-state, a bevy of US laws to punish Cuba, absurd legislation that restricts travel (this includes forcing Harvard to demonstrate it is an accredited educational institution before a travel license to Cuba would be issued), dozens of attempts, if not more, on the life of Cuban president Fidel Castro, etc., and Cuba still miraculously persists in its experiment in people-first politics and economics. Cuba, arguably, stands as a beacon for Latin America, and perhaps for the rest of the world, because Cubans have demonstrated repeatedly it is possible to achieve what seems impossible. The lesson is a simple one, but difficult: we should never allow the threat or fear of failure to impede or undermine our work in trying to achieve what appears to be impossible or unattainable.

For example, Cubans have refuted the notion that the US can dominate and destroy anyone in the hemisphere it pleases. They have shown that it is possible to create something from virtually nothing (twice: 1959 and 1991). They have survived “US sanctions [that] are the harshest in the world,” as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, in addition to surviving debilitating economic conditions under which others would have been buried long ago. As noted, the world overwhelmingly opposes the illegal US embargo. Rather than blockades Cubans need support and solidarity from us.

For years Cuba was called a “satellite of the Soviet Union,” but Cuba has demonstrated, after the Soviet “star” fizzled into darkness, that it is no satellite to anyone, but “its own star,” as shared with us by Cuban historian Oscar Guzman. Cubans, in the midst of building socialism in a hostile world, have maintained their humanity because they are inveterate dreamers deeply rooted in reality. Cubans, following Eduardo Galeano’s “rule” for education, work to learn from history so they can change the present in order to imagine and construct a better future. Reality without dreams, they recognize, is not a human reality but a barbarian nightmare.

The Cuban’s have shown that dreams, rooted in concepts of solidarity and mutual aid, can alter the harshest realities. If humans lose their capacity to dream they lose both reality and their humanity. Cubans have maintained reality and their humanity by not losing their capacity to dream. It is essential that we too do not lose our hopes and struggles for producing an inclusive, involved, informed and empowered democracy and remain, like the Cubans, inveterate dreamers.

Viva Cuba! Viva el socialismo!

Rick Smith can be contacted at; Dr. Doug Morris, Eastern New Mexico University, can be contacted at Information about and to support “The Cuban Five.” Urge your congressional representatives to end the US embargo against the people of Cuba. For information on the Radical Philosophers Association. Read other articles by Rick, or visit Rick's website.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Manny Machin said on September 17th, 2007 at 7:08am #

    Cuban solidarity.. is based on the maintaing.. a revolutionary elite.. of generals and party capitalist.. that have turned Cuba into the longest Reigning dictatorship in the western hemisphere. Its a wonderful idea to learn tactics..that have repressed and Cubans for 50 years.. Seperated families.. destroyed Cuban families..and distored Cuban history! You should be ashamed of calling yourself dissident voice its misleading.. and certinly doesn’t lead you to the true Cuban dissidents whose voices have been sancionted by the brutal dictatorship you so… blantently.. market for.


  2. Max Shields said on September 17th, 2007 at 12:35pm #


    This is Disident Voices – not MSM Propaganda.

    I would say that if you want the mainstream you’ve got all kinds of network and mainstream choices. If you really want to hear the anti-Cuba stuff – just sit yourself in front of Fox 24/7. They are more than glad to cater to your tastes.

  3. Charles Turner said on September 18th, 2007 at 6:07am #

    I have visitred Cuba more than fifteen times and I have lived with a Cuban family in order that I could observe life in Cuba for an ethnographic research study. Whilst this interview claims that Cuba has a good health care system, and it is known that it has achived a great deal in a poor economy there are anomalies. Public health is very poor from the point of view of there being a very poor garbage collection in many residential houses and this leads to highrer level of infection from insects since they can breed more easily. Waste water drains into open “streams” and becomes an excellent breeding ground for mosquitoes. The environmental health department staff which sprays against mosquitoes fail to spray around the water. Hospitals are filfthy and lack resources. Patients receive very little food in hospital. Hygiene in hospitals is disgusting. Many people cannot afford fruit and vegetables &b hence they are exposed to greater risk of acquring infections and thay have poor resistence to illnesses and diseases.

  4. Been there said on September 28th, 2007 at 11:44am #

    I commented in part one of this interview. I just wanted to reinforce Charles’ comments. I too have been to Cuba often and lived with real people. I have witnessed all he has. I once saw an above ground sewer pipe that had a crack in it so it could flow into a local river. The streets a filthy. There is rot everywhere. Heath care is great but prevention is better.

  5. Manny Machin said on November 14th, 2007 at 8:23pm #

    These are all disturbing issues.. of any 3rd world nation. The indepth indoctrination has been ingrained within the Cuban people for 50 years. I am cuban.. and I go to Cuba and my family who was impoverished fled for their lives when leaving. They were harassed.. imprisoned and killed as were hundreds of thousands of other Cubans. Without trials… Do you realize how many people Che Guevera murdered personally and sentenced to death in the Cabana during his time heading the prision?
    Im tired of outsiders buying the lies of a dictatorship after 50 years and putting aside expiernces of real Cubans. Not just he ones who you stay with..but the ones who feel comfortable telling you how they have suffered…Just like Hitler Death we will have to wait for Castro to die for the atrocities of his regime to come to light. A quick little test hold up a sign to impeach Castro in Cuba.. see where you end up! Or even better goto Isla into the Chat rooms and type Abajo Fidel.. see how quickly you are disconnected to the cite.

  6. Manny Machin said on November 14th, 2007 at 8:26pm #

    True dissidents.. don’t repeat…retoric.. that the government feeds you from a child.. Im sure you can come up with something better than Viva El Socialismo..!
    How much money does Cuba spend on propaganda outside of Cuba to legitimize their actions..? why don’t they spend that on feeding the people.. Hey did you know that you can go grocery shopping in Canadian dolars online.. for food that is already in Cuba?.. Yea.. the Elite of Cubas revoluition benefits fromt he fruits of capitalism.. while the rest of the country dies of misery! C’MON enough is enough.

  7. Moonqueen said on May 18th, 2008 at 3:46pm #

    Thank you for an actual alternative view of Cuba. I am gathering information for a research paper that I am writing that discusses embargoes as human rights’ violations relating to Cuba and it has been very difficult to find any information that doesn’t simply repeat the same message over and over again: “Fidel Castro is an evil dictator who commits horrible human rights violations”. I realize from the various data I’ve gathered that includes dialogue with people who have lived there that life is far from perfect (it is, of course, a third world country) but it has been difficult to find non-propaganda material. Thanks 🙂

  8. Manny said on June 12th, 2008 at 8:43pm #

    Hi Moe,
    You can check out anything that he Cuban government releases.. Try its the main newspaper in cuba.. from there you can find links to what you are looking for….Mainstream in Cuba is .. Fidel Is Good and nothing is wrong..
    Good Luck wih your research.