As Cuban-Americans, we submit our reflections on the last half-century in Cuba, in light of the resignation of Fidel Castro. Throughout, we will attempt to remain faithful to the realities of life in Cuba. We draw insight and inspiration from the stories of our friends and families, as well as from our personal experiences. The progress presumed to have taken place since the revolution hardly begins to justify the sacrifices in personal liberties that the Cuban people have had to endure.
For instance, Castro’s regime is often credited with having overseen a low infant mortality rate, but it is important to keep in mind the unreliability of statistics produced by a totalitarian government which micromanages every aspect of society. In Cuba, anyone who questions the validity of this information pays a price. Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet was sentenced to 25 years in prison after revealing the government’s practice of chemically inducing abortions through the use of a drug Rivanol, which causes fetuses to come out dead or die within hours of birth. These abortions were systematically performed in the event of a high risk pregnancy to reduce the number of early neonatal deaths—when an infant dies within seven days of birth—which is the statistic employed in calculating the infant mortality rate. Dr. Biscet has been denied voice and subjected to inhumane prison conditions for denouncing this practice.
Cuba does hold the 25th lowest infant mortality rate (a useful indicator of public health care) in the world, but prior to the revolution it held the 13th lowest rate. The reforms that were enacted after the revolution were only extended insofar as they helped Castro consolidate his control over the island. Doctors, for example, are expected to keep records of each family’s “political integration,” assessing their patient’s commitment to the failed ideals of the revolution prior to treating them.
Besides Cuba’s questionable success in reducing infant mortality, health care in other respects is decidedly lacking. Cubans are indeed granted free diagnosis, but they lack free care. Cuba lacks the resources to treat its patients, who are expected to supply their own pillows and water during hospital visits. These hospitals are in decaying condition, a fact made more appalling by its contrast to the exemplary hospitals which only foreigners have access to.
Castro’s regime has also relished highlighting the fact that Cuba has a higher literacy rate than the United States, yet this too must be qualified. Although literacy was expanded to areas of the country where education had been lacking, the overall quality of education under Castro suffered due to its emphasis on indoctrination. A student is not given the opportunity to explore varied educational interests. Students are taught Marx, but not Smith; Lenin, but not Locke; Guevara, but not Jefferson. Education in Cuba is merely another instrument for the government to intrude into everyday life, manage opinions, and disarm the intellectual from opposing the government.
A truly free educational system should operate unconditionally. But in Cuba, your education comes at a severe price: forced labor in escuelas del campo (countryside schools), to which junior high students are sent for work ranging from picking tomatoes to cutting sugar cane. Entrance into Cuba’s universities is conditional on involvement with the Communist Party. Cuban students cannot express dissenting opinions for fear of being identified as “counter-revolutionaries,” effectively precluding them from pursuing professional careers.
To qualify the repressive nature of the regime with praise of those supposed advances in medicine and education is unacceptable. Anything that falls short of a free society leaves all other considerations insignificant. It is hard to imagine that 90 miles from our shore, freedoms are alienable. In Cuba, the choice to dissent from the government has dire ramifications. Citizens are imprisoned for merely voicing an opinion. Prisoners of conscience are systematically tortured and often executed for not conforming to the constraints of the totalitarian state—just some of many blatant violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of which Cuba is a signor. Evidence of these abuses can be seen in the prison memoirs of Armando Valladares and countless other accounts by political prisoners. Valladares writes, “Freedom is so natural, so simple, so intangible and subtle for the millions who were born into it and enjoy it in this world that they fail to appreciate it…the other half of mankind lives without it, desperately yearning for freedom.”
Cuban citizens lack the right to travel and are denied access to hotels and beaches on their own island. Those areas are reserved for tourists. Cubans are paid in Cuban pesos while goods must be purchased at high prices in “convertible” pesos, keeping daily essentials out of reach. Ration cards, which Cubans have to pay for, provide scarce allotments of basic goods, such as two rolls of toilet paper per month. Possessing red meat is illegal, and killing a cow will result in four to 10 years in prison. These are just some examples of the unabashed disregard for human rights that prevailed during Castro’s dictatorship and that we can expect to be carried on by Raul Castro.
With great hope, we look forward to the day when Cuba can promise liberty to all its citizens. To a day when we could publish a critical article of this nature without having to fear the retribution of the government. Castro’s resignation is symbolic and significant in its own context, but unfortunately, it won’t mark the start of a new era in Cuban history.
Andrew Velo-Arias, the Harvard College Liason for Cuban American Undergraduate Students Association (CAUSA), lives in Holworthy Hall. Daniel Balmori, the Secretary of CAUSA, lives in Grays Hall.