You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 23: What Cuba Got Right

What Cuba Got Right

Though Fidel Castro was an authoritarian leader with no tolerance for dissenting views and little regard for human rights, Cuba under his rule developed and maintained robust public education and healthcare programs. This seeming contradiction exemplifies some of the challenges that understanding Cuba presents. In short, Cuba’s governance in the past and today is complicated.

SIS professor Philip Brenner joins Big World to discuss what Cuba has gotten right. He shares his thoughts on Senator Bernie Sanders’ surprisingly controversial remarks about the country earlier this year (2:22) and reveals what we may not know about present-day Cuba when our perceptions are colored by attitudes toward Castro (5:00). Professor Brenner also breaks down the impact of Cuba’s investment in public health after the revolution, including its medical diplomacy efforts before and during the coronavirus pandemic (7:41).

What has led to Cuba’s modern-day emergence of entrepreneurship (12:30), and how different is life in the country today for the average school kid than it was under Castro (18:43)? Professor Brenner answers these questions and describes the current state of the US’s bilateral relationship with Cuba (21:10). We end our podcast with Professor Brenner recommending what US-Cuba relations should be like going forward (25:24).

During our “Take Five” segment, Professor Brenner shares the five practices he would change to improve the US’s policies toward Latin America (15:07).

0:07      KS: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that really matters. Earlier in 2020, Bernie Sanders made headlines when, in a 60 Minutes interview, he seemed to defend some aspects of the Fidel Castro regime in Cuba. Specifically, he said that Fidel Castro had a "massive literacy program." These remarks and the backlash that followed them may have been a surprise to some younger voters, but anyone who has followed US-Cuba relations for any length of time knows that the Castro regime did indeed have robust public education and healthcare programs. They also know that Fidel Castro was an authoritarian dictator with no tolerance for dissenting views and little regard for human rights. In short, it's complicated.

0:56      KS: Today, we're talking about what Cuba got right. I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Philip Brenner. Phil is a professor in the School of International Service and an expert in US-Cuba relations, Latin America, and the Cuban missile crisis. His most recent books are Cuba Libre: A 500-Year Quest for Independence, co-authored with Peter Eisner and Cuba at the Crossroads, co-authored with William LeoGrande and John Kirk, which came out just two weeks ago. Phil, thanks for joining Big World.

1:26      Philip Brenner: My pleasure. Thank you, Kay.

1:28      KS: I should add that we're not in our usual studio inside the school today. As we record this, everyone is advised to stay home and practice social distancing because of the risks of transmitting the novel coronavirus. We're recording this from our respective homes, and Phil, I want to thank you for agreeing to be our guest guinea pig for virtual recording.

1:48      PB: It's a pleasure. I wish the same for everyone to stay healthy.

1:52      KS: Exactly. All right, so let's get into it. Phil, it was a little surprising to me when headlines about the current democratic nominating contest suddenly became all about Fidel Castro. It's hard to remember, but a few months ago, this was big news. It was all we were hearing about. It was a reminder of what a long shadow he casts. It's almost impossible for Americans to discuss Cuba without talking about Castro, even though he died four years ago. First of all, were you surprised at the remarks made by Senator Sanders or by the reaction to them?

2:22      PB: I wasn't surprised by Senator Sanders' remarks because they were accurate. As you said in your introduction, Cuba had a model literacy program starting in 1960. UNESCO, the United Nations organization lauded it as a model for what other countries could do. What happened in 1960 and ended in 1961 was Cuba went from 65 percent literacy to 98 percent literacy. It took high school students and college students all over the country, they closed the schools actually, and those students went out to teach other people how to read. They were called Brigadistas.

3:09      PB: I can tell, you there's a museum of the literacy campaign as it was called, and the most graphic image for me is a note that was written by a 90-year-old woman. She wrote a note that said, "When I was 60, I was told I was too old to learn how to read, and here I am writing this letter to you. They were wrong." Tears came to my eyes. This was true all across the country, that people learned how to read, and Cuba became a country with a very highly educated population.

3:46      PB: I wasn't surprised by Senator Sanders' remark because it was quite accurate. What was surprising is how visceral the reactions were still antagonistic to Cuba, because, after all, President Obama opened diplomatic relations with Cuba. In 2015, he visited Cuba. Under the Obama administration, Cuba and the United States signed 23 memoranda of understanding agreements to share technology, to open up regularly-scheduled airline travel, so on. There was a moment of detente, if you will. It could be that the reaction was partly fueled by President Trump's policy of antagonism towards Cuba.

4:35      KS: Right. As you mentioned, when we talk about present-day Cuba, we talk about a nation that is led by someone else entirely, by President Miguel Díaz-Canel with Fidel's brother, Raul Castro currently serving as first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba. When our assessments in the US of present-day Cuba are colored by attitudes toward Fidel Castro, what are we missing about Cuba today?

5:00      PB: Well, in part, it's not totally inaccurate. After all, Miguel Díaz-Canel was anointed by Raul Castro. Raul Castro became president in 2006 when Fidel Castro took ill and then he remained president for 10 years. Miguel Díaz-Canel was the vice president named to be the president, essentially. He was elected, but nonetheless it wasn't much of an election. There is that sense that there is still no democracy and Raul Castro, as you know, is the head of the Communist Party and will continue in that role until 2021.

5:46      PB: On the other hand, Cuba is a much different society than it was in the 1960s. There's a vibrant private sector in Cuba, although that's been diminished by the efforts by the United States to stop any travel from US citizens and to discourage foreign investment in Cuba by other countries. Still, there is a thriving private sector in Cuba. There is much more openness. They have internet access that they never had before and so they get information from all over the world. In fact, they were getting that kind of information before the Internet opened up in 2014.

6:28      PB: They have a weekly Paquete, it's called. You can take a thumb drive, go to a neighborhood source and download any TV shows that you want that are shown anywhere in the world, and there's a weekly listing. All the shows that anyone would watch in the United States are available to people in Cuba. They had lots of access to information. It was no longer a closed society. People felt free to actually openly criticize. There are magazines published online because paper is very expensive, but people have ready access through cell phones and through texting. It's a very—the vibe in Cuba is a very different one than it was 20, even 30 years ago.

7:21      KS: We talked about the literacy program a little bit. One of the other positive developments in Cuba after the revolution ended in 1959 was the country's investment in public health, which is certainly on everyone's mind right now. What can you tell us about that investment in public health in Cuba after the revolution and what resulted from that?

7:41      PB: Shortly after the revolution, a large number, two-thirds of the doctors in Cuba left Cuba. They were attracted to come to the United States with generous offers, and they felt that they were not going to be able to earn the kinds of money they were earning before. Cuba had to rebuild from the ground up.

8:04      PB: By the early 1970s, it had done so. Cuba ultimately had the largest per capita doctor population in the world, and there was a great emphasis on preventive health care as well as curative health care. Cuba began to have a profile, a health profile, that was the same as an advanced industrial country. Their infant mortality rate today is actually lower than in the United States, far lower than most third world countries at about 4.6 deaths per 1,000 live births. The United States is a little over five. They have a system of family doctors where doctors make regular house calls in neighborhoods.

8:55      PB: Of course, medicine is free. Health care is free. All kinds of operations are free. They made an enormous investment. So much so that they had more doctors than they needed and so they started actually sending doctors abroad. First, in a free capacity so that there were essentially providing aid to poor countries that needed doctors. Then when they began to need hard currency, currency that you can use in international transactions, they started charging.

9:29      PB: In Latin America, when there were richer countries, the doctors—Cuba received money for the doctors going there. Now, there were charges that this was human trafficking because the doctors didn't receive, actually, all the money that the countries paid, but the doctors did receive a quarter. In Cuban terms, that was a lot of money for a doctor. There were over 40,000 doctors in Latin America from Cuba. There was one program called Operación Milagro, Miracle Operation that restored eyesight to more than one million people. Sometimes it was a simple operation that people needed who had never seen a doctor in order to get their eyesight back. More than a million people in Latin America got their eyesight restored by this Cuban program.

10:23      PB: That's actually begun to change because the conservative governments in Latin America have kicked the Cuban doctors out. It's really quite inexplicable that someone like Bolsonaro, the leader of Brazil, has kicked the Cuban doctors out, denying his own people health care. This has cost Cuba a lot of money, obviously, and they've now taken this surplus of doctors and it's what has enabled them to help countries in Europe, like Italy, with the coronavirus outbreak. They're now sending doctors to countries in Europe and Africa to help with COVID-19.

11:06      KS: Interesting.

11:08      PB: Let me say, another aspect of this, they've also invested an extraordinary amount in capacity to create new advanced drugs. Cuba has a, what they think is an effective lung cancer vaccine. This is now actually being tested in Roswell Park, New York, under FDA auspices. This was one of the agreements that came out of the Obama administration.

11:38      PB: Another drug that Cuba has that should be tested in the United States is a drug for people with diabetes; 60,000 Americans, every year, have one or more limbs amputated because of diabetes. Cuba has developed a drug that prevents the necessity for amputations. There are things that we can get from Cuba that the current policy prevents us from getting.

12:08      KS: As we move toward what Cuba is like today, you did mention that openness that exists that didn't previously, and there's been an emergence of entrepreneurship, particularly in the tourism sector. Did any Cuban policies implemented after the rule of Fidel Castro lead to this development of entrepreneurship?

12:30      PB: Very good question, Kay. After Fidel Castro stepped down, his brother, Raul Castro, who had always been more pragmatic, saw the necessity to have a mixed economy. In 2010, he proposed that there be a new set of guidelines for creating private enterprise. Those guidelines were discussed by the whole country. There were a large number of meetings where people discussed the proposed guidelines. In fact there were a large number of changes.

13:08      PB: When the guidelines came out in 2011, it allowed some 200 different kinds of entrepreneurial activities. Everything from being a barber, hairstylist to repairing cars. It was meant to stimulate small business. One study found that in fact there was about 20 percent of the working population by 2014 doing this kind of work with an expectation that it could be as much as 50 percent ultimately doing work for private companies. In addition, they changed rules about restaurants.

13:53      PB: Originally, the Cubans were very inventive and started selling food out of their private homes. People would come and carry out. Then people started having a few seats on their patio that someone could come and eat. These were known as paladares, private restaurants. Then more and more grew the government allowed an increased number of people to be seated. You could start hiring private employees. Before, you could only have members of your family work in these restaurants.

14:28      PB: Today, there are large numbers of very fine restaurants that are privately owned and run, although they're hurting because of the diminished number of tourists that are going to Cuba.

14:48      KS: Phil Brenner, it's time to take five. This is when you, our guest, get to daydream out loud and reorder the world as you'd like it to be by single-handedly instituting five policies or practices that would change the world for the better. Specifically, which five practices would you change to improve the US's policies toward Latin America?

15:07      PB: The first thing I would do is end the Monroe Doctrine. Secretary of State John Kerry announced in 2013 that the era of the Monroe Doctrine was over, but he said it only once and it was never said again. Then President Trump has announced that the era of the Monroe Doctrine continues. The Monroe Doctrine is hated in Latin America because it is a policy of—rooted in racism, parochialism, and domination.

15:38      PB: Latin Americans think that this is an unacceptable way to have a relationship. It is not a relationship of partners; it's a relationship of domination. The second, we should end the drug war in Latin America. The drug war has not been successful. It has not reduced the flow of drugs to the United States. We need to take a new approach that doesn't displace large numbers of people, that doesn't lead to the deaths of large number of people and doesn't lead to instability in Latin America.

16:12      PB: There are many ways we can do this. We could increase, for example, the facilities for people in the United States so there's treatment and less demand. We can work with those countries on developing alternatives to growing things like coca so that people can make a living on something other than drugs.

16:34      PB: The third thing I would do is end the war on Cuba. Cuba has symbolic purposes for the rest of Latin America, and we gain nothing from having an effort to try to overthrow that government. That's been a failed policy for 60 years, and there's no reason to continue a failed policy like this. That's exactly what President Obama tried to do, and President Trump has reversed that.

16:59      PB: The fourth thing I would do is aim for a negotiated settlement in Venezuela. Venezuela is a country that has now produced more than a million refugees, many flooding into Columbia, which has helped to destabilize Colombia. The conflict in Venezuela needs to end, and the only way to do that is if the United States can help act as an honest broker, rather than taking one side, which it has done in this and prevented actually negotiations that the Europeans wanted to lead.

17:35      PB: The way out of the Venezuelan morass is to promote a negotiated solution to this. The final thing I would do is I would stand at the Mexican border, and tear down this wall, Mr. Trump, the same way that President Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate and said, "Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev." The wall serves as a symbol of our unwillingness to be open to Latin America. It doesn't stop the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States, and it is very costly. The best thing we can do is tear down this wall.

18:17      KS: Thank you. That was great.

18:18      PB: Thank you, Kay.

18:24      KS: If we think about Cuba today and an average citizen or maybe even an average school child, someone who doesn't have as much of a history there, how different is life in Cuba today for that average school kid than it was under Fidel Castro?

18:43      PB: For the average school kid in Cuba today, let's say a high school student, there are both pluses and minuses. On the plus side, there is still the availability of going to university for free, becoming a professional, studying and doing meaningful work of that sort without any cost. You have those opportunities. Moreover, you can now travel in ways that you couldn't before. Students are able to get scholarships to go abroad.

19:19      PB: We had, for example, the first full-time Cuban in our graduate program two years ago who turned out to be the number one student in SIS academically. She was able to come here because SIS, the School of International Service gave her a full scholarship. Cubans obviously have difficulty affording to pay for higher education in the United States, but when they get scholarships, they're now able to accept them and to come to the United States and/or other countries.

19:56      PB: Those are new opportunities for a high school student. On the downside, young people have very little hope about the future because the economy is suffering so much so that even if you have a good education, there aren't sufficient number of jobs in which you could use that education. A person who drives a taxi makes more money than a person who is a doctor.

20:19      PB: If you are graduating from high school, your choice is, do I drive a taxi and make a living, or do I spend the next eight years learning how to become a doctor and earn a living that's less than a taxi driver? There's a sense of low morale on the part of young people. Young people have been leaving the country in greater numbers because of the lack opportunity inside the country.

20:50      KS: We talked about, earlier you mentioned the Cuban thaw that happened under President Obama in 2015, and under our current administration, as you said, some of this thaw has started to freeze back up or has been frozen. Can you give us a breakdown of what the US's bilateral relationship with Cuba is currently like?

21:10      PB: The US relationship with Cuba right now, is at one of its worst points. Although, we still have diplomatic relations that were established by President Obama with Cuba, and President Trump has not changed that. In fact, in his first year, he changed very little. He made it slightly more difficult for Americans to travel there. They had to go with the official tourist agency or a licensed group like the Smithsonian Institution or American University. That made it a little more difficult for the ordinary American to travel.

21:54      PB: There had been more than a million Americans who had gone to Cuba before that, but he didn't do much else except then in the fall of 2017, there were some US diplomats who had come down with some illnesses that the president then claimed were caused by attacks by the Cuban government. As a result, he closed down essentially, the consular section of the US embassy in Havana. There were only now 10 US foreign service officers in the embassy and he demanded that Cuba reduce the size of its embassy in Washington at the same time in retaliation for the alleged attacks.

22:42      PB: Those attacks are a different story. There's no evidence that Cuba was involved in any of this. The problems may be as simple as a fumigation that was used on the lawns outside the people's homes that contains a chemical that causes the kinds of symptoms that these people suffered, but there's still no clear evidence as to what the cause of these illnesses were. Yet, this has been used to close down essentially the operations of both embassies, which has made it more difficult for people to travel to Cuba and especially Cubans to leave Cuba.

23:27      PB: On top of that, the president then began to reduce the availability of flights to Cuba. Now, the only flights that can go to Cuba, apart from the coronavirus, because there's essentially no travel now to Cuba because of the coronavirus, but until February he had canceled flights outside of Havana. The people who would use those flights are Cuban Americans traveling to see their families in the interior of the country, the far end of the country. So, he's made it more difficult for Cuban Americans to visit their families in Cuba.

24:03      PB: Then finally what he did is he no longer waived the provision of the 1996 Helms-Burton Law. The Helms-Burton Law was intended to create great hardship for Cuba by discouraging foreign investors from putting money into Cuba. The law allowed that a US citizen could sue a foreign government or foreign entity that was using property that had been confiscated from that US citizen.

24:39      PB: Now, that provision of the law was waived by every president starting with President Clinton and including President Trump until last year. Last year he refused to waive that, and that has now created a new burden for foreign entities that might want to invest in Cuba. It's reduced the amount of our foreign investment in Cuba. Relations are really very quite tense.

25:06      KS: That brings me to my last question. Phil, as you pull way back and knowing all you know about the country and the US and where the governments are now, what do you think the US's relationship with Cuba should be like going forward? Perhaps post-election 2020 and why?

25:24      PB: Cuba is a neighbor and we have relations that go back a long time. There are a large number of Cuban Americans in the United States who would like to have better relations with their family and to send money that president has restricted. There are Cubans who want to do things in the United States. We have things to gain from Cuba. Cuba is the number one ally we have in fighting drugs according to the Drug Enforcement Agency.

25:59      PB: We're essentially harming ourselves by not having a better relationship with Cuba. Cuba has medicines that can help Americans, and opening up Cuba to Americans is likely to bring more openness for Cuba. Although, I don't think that's such an important aspect of the policy. We have relations with all kinds of countries that have much greater restrictions on their people. Journalists, for example, are not killed in Cuba, but there are a large number of journalists killed in Mexico and Colombia.

26:39      PB: The level of freedom in Cuba is less than we would like, but certainly it's no worse than in a lot of countries where we have good relations. We stand to benefit from having peaceful relations with a neighbor rather than antagonistic relations.

26:58      PB: Finally, Cuba in Latin America, not so much the government, but the people in Latin America have looked to Cuba as a country that has stood up for itself against the United States that's often seen as a colossus trying to impose itself on Latin America. There's still enormous amount of respect in Latin America, among the people of Latin America, for what Cuba has achieved. In this regard, a better relationship with Cuba removes that aura of United States imperialism that Latin Americans associate with the United States.

27:40      KS: I've definitely heard it said before that it's interesting that we have such a hard line with Cuba on different issues when we don't take a similarly hard line with, say, Saudi Arabia.

27:52      PB: Exactly.

27:52      KS: Phil Brenner, thank you for joining Big World to discuss Cuba, it's been wonderful to speak with you.

27:57      PB: Thank you very much, Kay. Stay safe.

27:59      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or review, it'll be like finding a surprise bag of M&Ms on your desk. Our theme music is, "It Was Just Cold," by Andrew Codeman. Until the next time.

Episode Guest

Philip Brenner,
professor, SIS

Stay up-to-date

Be the first to hear our new episodes by subscribing on your favorite podcast platform.

Like what you hear? Be sure to leave us a review!

Subscribe Now