“Cuba libre” and democracy

The relationship between South Africa and Cuba – much like South Africa’s relationship with Palestine or Libya – is a romance of love, ideology and revolution.

When Nelson Mandela was interviewed in New York in 1990, shortly after his release from 27 years of imprisonment, he was asked about his and the African National Congress’s support for Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat and Muammar Gaddafi, leaders viewed as “terrorists” by many in the West. Mandela was unequivocal in stating that these leaders not only gave moral and political support to the struggle against apartheid,  but also provided the resources necessary to help overthrow the apartheid regime and to bring it to the negotiating table. To this end, he considered them to be friends of the South African liberation struggle.

The fact that these leaders were viewed as pariahs by prominent leaders in the United States did not deter Mandela’s position then – a risky undertaking at a time when South Africa was greatly dependent on development aid required to fulfil its democratic objectives. For many people active in the anti-apartheid struggle, Cuba represented an ideal society, one that a democratic South Africa could emulate; a model of socialism founded on the values of social justice and equity. Reflective of this ideal, South Africa’s democratic Constitution infused the values of both socialism and liberal democracy. Western-style liberal democracy has failed to truly advance the human-rights project, particularly in post-colonial societies, where powerful elites have often prevented the transition to meaningful, truly participatory democracies. Economic growth and the neoliberal myth of the trickle-down effect of wealth creation, has not translated into more egalitarian societies in many parts of the world.

Neoliberalism has failed to mend the social fissures created by decades of colonialism, systemic racism and sexism, notwithstanding its high-sounding phrases about equality. As noted in Oxfam’s most recent report “An Economy for the 1%”, in 2015, 62 individuals possessed the same wealth as 3.6 billion people combined. The wealth of these individuals increased by 44% since 2010, while the wealth of the bottom half of humanity declined by 41% over the same period.

Countries with high-income inequality also display larger inequalities between men and women in terms of health, education, labour market participation and representation in institutions of governance. According to Oxfam, the disparities are largely a result of tax avoidance by owners of capital, coupled with governments reducing taxes on capital gains. It appears that the owners of capital have disproportionately benefited from a model of democracy that is sold as a template, to improve the lives of all who participate in it, rather than just an elite few.

As a product of a post-apartheid, democratic South Africa that is highly unequal, a recent trip I took to Cuba presented an opportunity to experience the nirvana of this socialist nation before it changes too much following improvements in United States-Cuba relations. It was at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in Johannesburg in 2013, that the historic handshake between Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro sparked the renewal of the diplomatic détente between the two countries that culminated in Obama’s visit to Cuba in March this year.

Cuba provided military support to the armed wing of the ANC during apartheid. Its decisive role in the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in southern Angola in 1987 turned the tide of the freedom wars in that country and the then South West Africa. This leading to the liberation of Angola by the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA), and the independence of Namibia from South African rule, a few years later. The liberation of Angola and Namibia, in turn, led to increased pressure on the South African government to negotiate an end to apartheid.

In addition to the role its soldiers played in resisting apartheid, Cuba continues to play a significant role in the development of post-apartheid South Africa. Globally renowned for its primary healthcare methods of disease prevention, Cuba has assisted in the training of South African medical students since 1995. More recently, as pressure mounts on the South African government to implement its National Health Insurance, more medical students are being trained in Cuba to ensure that South Africa’s health demands are effectively met.

While it is agreed that South Africa is in desperate need of more doctors, criticisms have been made that the current arrangement is too costly for the required outcome. It is reported that between 2010 and 2013, for example, the annual output of Cuban-trained South African medical students constituted only 8% of the total number of fully-trained local graduates.

South Africa’s disease landscape is vastly different to that of Cuba’s, where HIV, TB and diabetes has a low prevalence; consequently, some experts argue that Cuban-trained medical students are ill-prepared to treat patients in the South African context. It could be argued that these debates are to a large extent rooted in competing methodological and ideological approaches to the study of medicine. Important as the discussion may be, the lack of consensus is stalling progress at the expense of many students sacrificing the comforts of home to study in a foreign country, in a foreign language as they pursue their dreams of becoming doctors.

I met some of these South African students while visiting Cuba and it forced me to unpack the contradictions presented by what I understood “democracy” ought to be. Is there an optimum balance to be struck in a democracy that comfortably serves both the interests of the individual and society simultaneously? The students I met highlighted that, while they are grateful for the opportunity to travel abroad and learn a new language, they are not allowed to travel outside of Cuba to explore the region during their studies. Some mentioned that the stipend provided by the South African government is insufficient to meet their family-support obligations back home, but they are not allowed to protest in demand of an increase because freedom of expression is limited in Cuba.

Although they receive the requisite practical training and extensive support from Cuban authorities while in Cuba, many are unable to cope with the theoretical component taught in South Africa that is required to complete the programme. The students attribute this to the South African model of teaching medicine being largely European in its approach. But the students are determined to overcome the challenges and finish the programme. They are acutely aware of South Africa’s current political barometer reaching boiling point, with the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMust Fall movements and want to play an active role in their country’s development.

Both Cuba and South Africa are at turning points in their history. The International Monetary Fund predicts that an end to the embargo between the US and Cuba could see as many as 10 million US tourists visiting Cuba yearly. Already Cuba’s infrastructure is insufficient to serve the needs of its tourist economy. But Cuba’s economy is also one that prioritises tourism, sometimes at the expense of its people. While the government has indeed invested in quality healthcare and education, there is visible urban decay, inadequate public transport and poor water maintenance systems. Renewed relations between the US and Cuba present the potential of the creation of wealth and, importantly, better access as part of a globalised world, both economically and socially.

It will be interesting to see whether the end of Cuba’s isolation from the US will, in fact, translate into a broadening of civil, political, social and economic rights for its citizens, rather than the prioritisation of some, at the expense of others, in the name of development. While critics may worry that Cuba will follow the same neoliberal path as post-colonies throughout the world, it may be that the country has learned from the experiences of other countries. As has been demonstrated in its approach both to healthcare and education, Cuba may provide more nuanced solutions – one that sustains its socialist ideals while at the same time serving the unavoidable necessity of its people becoming active participants in the global political, social and economic environment.

Cuba’s effective transition, however, is dependent on a variety of factors, including the attitude of its elderly leadership. Young people, not only in Cuba and South Africa but throughout the world, are urging their leaders to prepare them and their societies to take over the world of tomorrow, rather than being stuck in dreams of the past. They are dealing with a world that is both more unequal and more connected than it has ever been before. It is time for the younger generation to be groomed to take their rightful place at the forefront of change and to overcome the divisions created by competing and outdated ideologies.

Thandi Matthews is an attorney with experience in the private and public legal sectors in South Africa. She is a Senior Legal Officer at the South African Human Rights Commission, focusing on the progressive realisation of socio-economic rights by various state and non-state actors. Her interests lie in analysing the relationship between human rights, governance and society, and her academic work has been published in the South African Journal of Human Rights. She comments frequently in various media publications and panel discussions on issues affecting South Africa’s youth, with a particular emphasis on social transformation and its intersection with race and gender. She also sits as a non-executive Board member of the AIDS Consortium, an NGO which serves over 200 affiliated members in the HIV/AIDS and Human Rights sectors. Thandi holds a Masters in Development Studies from the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University based at The Hague (Netherlands); a Bachelor of Laws from the University of the Witwatersrand and a Bachelor of Social Sciences from the University of Cape Town. In 2015 she was selected by the US State Department as a Fulbright / Hubert Humphrey Fellow and based at the University of Minnesota Law School, United States.

To read publications by Thandi on our website please click here.

Comments are closed.