Dealing with Poverty — U.S. “Experts” vs. Cuba’s Reality

Experience Counts for More Than Words

by W.T. Whitney Jr.

Eduardo Galeano in 1967 wrote about Guatemala’s children; “misery itself murders with impunity…of those who live, nearly all are condemned to live without schools, or shoes, or milk, or Sundays, or toys.” At the opening session, November 17, 2000, of the Ibero-American Summit, Fidel Castro returned to the subject of children in Latin America. He made two points; children’s lives are still full of misery, and the misery is preventable.

According to Fidel Castro, 45% of the Latin American population is poor. He quotes a UN Children’s Fund report: “Children are more severely affected by poverty. No other age group is as vulnerable since the physical and psychological damages they sustain affect them for life”. He presents data as to the causes of death, mortality rates, nutritional deficiencies, and lack of immunizations. Educational levels are low, and the rates of HIV infection, child labor, and maternal deaths are rising. He refers to the twin plagues of domestic violence and sexual exploitation of children. “I [would] rather avoid the political and economic causes of this tragedy since they are very familiar to you.” Castro then provides statistical information that confirms the fact that Cuban young people are healthy and well educated. “Our tough experience has demonstrated that a lot can be done with very little resources.”

This speech is remarkable for its brevity, for Fidel Castro’s use of data and facts instead of rhetoric, and for his main point, the fact that in socialist Cuba children thrive. The implication is that, in general, the basic needs of all people there are being met.

In sharp contrast, the report in Harvard Magazine (Nov.–Dec., 2000) of a roundtable on the world’s poor, held at the Harvard School of Public Health, is wordy, replete with anecdotes and impressions, and it holds out zero hope for the poor people of the world. A look at the content of this roundtable provides insight as to the thought processes of ostensibly beneficent and charitable apologists for the status quo.

If it could have been done, these academics — aid experts, international health specialists, publicists, and NGO leaders - ought to have been able to put a decent face on the monster that is globalization.

Harvard Magazine is sent out every two months to people with past or present connections with Harvard. It reports on University news and includes historical, biographical, and scientific articles. The tone is of generalized self-satisfaction. The participants in the symposium were:

According to the report, the group showed “the broadest concern about social cohesion, institution building, government competence, and the quality of political leadership…innovative ways were proposed to encourage investments in techniques and research needed to improve living conditions…”

The group was unable to decide how many poor people there are in the world or where they live. In China, for example, the spread of markets is said to have sharply reduced the number of needy people. Kremer holds that the numbers will go down everywhere. In India, for example, the present growth rate of the economy exceeds that of England (0.5% annually) during the years of the industrial revolution. Apparently this is good news for India.

Statements like, “We all agree that growth is good for the poor,” and “the engine that has the biggest impact on poverty is growth,” set the tone of the roundtable. The experts do admit that 10 percent of the people in poor nations will escape the benefits of the market economy and continue to suffer. Special measures have to be taken to rescue them. “International public goods” is a term used in the roundtable to describe aid from rich nations, especially in the areas of health care, education, agricultural research. The topic of income redistribution surfaced very briefly and was dropped.

Among the specific suggestions are these:

Symposium participants appear to rely on assumptions like these: decision making proceeds from the top down; in an elitist world, competency and advanced training get high marks; victims are often at fault; and military power is always handy.

Targeted countries may need to change before they are allowed to receive international aid. Timmer cites Indonesia, which was a “basket case” in 1966. “When that window opens (as in Indonesia), a new government comes in, a leader takes over, you’ve got to be ready to move in a hurry.” Indonesia then received “…appropriately targeted aid. It made a big difference.” There was no mention of the stage having been set by the massacre of 500,000 suspected Indonesian Communists.

A transition period is described during which misery spreads. Timmer: “In the short run, the poor starve. But in the slightly longer run, getting food prices up — so that farmers can invest and grow and have income — benefits the rural poor.” Bloom, the public health doctor, chimes in with the precedent of the Black Death that killed 50–70 per cent of city-dwelling Europeans in 1348: “.. it killed off marginal labor, raised wages, and increased productivity”. The shortage of scribes even contributed to the invention of the printing press.

Even though these experts in international aid are unable to describe strategies that might be helpful to the masses of poor people, an image is projected, blurred at times, of overall good intentions. The participants appear to have adopted a good cop role to bad cops like CEOs, generals, and mainstream politicians, and these, of course, are the ones who call the shots.

The Harvard Magazine symposium is remarkable for two unmentionables — profit and socialism. It accepts the twin icons of growth and markets as being sacrosanct. But grief and suffering are left in their wake, and they do not come close to providing a remedy for the misery of the poor. No critical commentary is heard from the participants. For them, profit, which is served by growth and markets, has to be part of a hierarchy of values into which the relief of suffering does not fit.

The “S” word — socialism — apparently is also off limits in polite society, even for the purposes of condemnation. Supporters of the status quo have reason to shy away from recalling those ideals of egalitarianism and shared sacrifice that have enabled Cuba to put into practice that which the roundtable was supposed to have been talking about. This symposium speaks not a word about socialist Cuba.

There, the project of socialism has enabled the Cuban people to count on access to the means and materials they need to hold onto their dignity and to survive. Cuba presents the threat of a good example, so much so that that nation has been the object of an assault on its sovereignty and independence that has lasted forty-two years.

Washington itself may be short of answers as to how to feed, heal, and school all the people, especially poor people, but, recognizing waywardness, the U.S. government shows no embarrassment at all about trying to keep its close neighbor on the right track. Cuba’s experience has provoked unrelenting animosity from the top dogs in U.S. establishment circles and apparently from most of their hangers-on. The remarkable contrast between Fidel Castro’s speech and the symposium stands by itself as ample justification for hard work both in defense of Cuba’s revolution and for a socialist future here in the United States.