(Editor’s note: This is Part 3 of a special in-depth series on Cuba by Anthony LoBaido. Read Part 1 and Part 2 . Don’t miss Part 4. )
HAVANA, Cuba – Abortion is a sensitive issue in Cuba. It is a terrible problem that has impacted the island’s demographics.
In 2005, Fidel Castro called upon the Catholic Church to help stem the “plague of abortion.” This was a 180-degree turn in that Castro had wanted Cuba to be an atheistic state. Fidel made this request to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the archbishop of Genoa.
Cardinal Bertone told La Stampa, an Italian newspaper, “The spread of abortion, as Fidel Castro emphasized, is among the causes of the country’s demographic crisis. And it is also a consequence of the plague of sexual tourism. It is natural that Castro is concerned, and that I am embarrassed by the behavior of some Italians abroad. The Church can make its contribution in the area of abortion and low birthrates in a country where openness is total.”
According the Cuban government statistics, 60.2 percent of all pregnancies on the island end in abortion. This is the highest number of any nation in the Western Hemisphere. Other attempts at an empirical analysis of Cuban abortion show 130,000 live births with just less than 85,000 abortions in a typical year. (South Korea has the lowest birthrate in the industrialized world, due to the government wishing to boost GDP figures, gendercide against females and the fact that abortion is a money maker for Korean hospitals.) Under Soviet communism, the average Russian woman might have had as many as 13 abortions in her lifetime.
In Cuba, abortions, like funerals, are actually funded by the government. (“The abortion is the baby’s funeral,” many Cubans say.) Those who have opposed abortion in Cuba have been mercilessly beat up by the state intelligence apparatus.
Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet is a Cuban doctor who taught obstetrics in Havana. He opposed chemical abortions carried out via a drug manufactured in Germany called Rivanol, an acidic product also known as ethacidrine lactate. Used in the second trimester, it is injected into the sac surrounding the baby and is 98.8 percent “effective” within 48 hours. Clinical trials for Rivanol were carried out in Vietnam, another communist country with links to Russia.
Dr. Biscet has taken on the vaunted Cuban national health care system as being in league with genocide. He penned a white paper titled, “Rivanol: A Method to Destroy Life.” After protesting the dispensing of the drug outside an abortion clinic, he was beaten by a mob. He was then given a three-year sentence and sent to jail. (As in the case of the Argentine Dirty War, Cubans who oppose the government and are subsequently carried away incognito are known as “the disappeared.”) Shortly before his arrest, Dr. Biscet had established the Lawton Foundation, which helps spread his pro-life message. Yet the dark sacrament of eliminating the souls of children remains a Cuban pastime.
Father Miguel Jorda is another pro-life advocate who dared to distribute pro-life literature in Cuba. He was expelled from the nation in 2000. Fr. Jorda issued a public statement saying, “The members of the National Health Service itself go to the schools and encourage girls to undergo abortions without further ado, without telling them about the trauma it causes, without discussing the moral and ethical point of view. Presenting [abortion] as if it were the normal way.”
Regardless of one’s position on the issue, abortion in Cuba – along with homosexuality, HIV/AIDS, foreign wars in Africa, poverty, anti-Christianity and anti-Americanism – is all part of the fallout still lingering from Havana’s involvement with the worldview of the former Soviet Union.
(Photo: Anthony C. LoBaido)
Political change for Cuba?
Will change come to Cuba? If so, when, how and to what degree?
In January 2012, Raul Castro told Communist Party leaders corruption was a major problem Cuba must overcome. He offered no hope of change toward a multi-party system, instead declaring, “To renounce the principle of a one-party system would be the equivalent of legalizing a party, or parties, of imperialism on our soil.” (As if Cubans having multiple political parties that are run by, of and for the Cuban people is “imperialism.”)
His brother, Fidel, was unimpressed with the most recent American Republican presidential candidates. Fidel stated, “The selection of a Republican candidate for the presidency of this globalized and expansive empire is – and I mean this seriously – the greatest competition of idiocy and ignorance that has ever been.” (Evidently Fidel missed the TV show, “The Bachelor.”)
These days, Cuba is a no-man’s land outside of NATO, the UK, the European Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and other major bodies of influence. (Cuba does belong to several regional trade groupings.) In sporting terms, Cuba is a free agent able to chart a new destiny. That new destiny is ready to take shape.
As first evoked by Gorbachev in the late stages of the Soviet Union, the word “perestroika” (Russian for “restructuring”) is a dirty word to Cuban elites who fear changes in the way the island is run will hurt their prestige, control and purse strings. Raul Castro knows all of this all too well. Raul took control of the country in February 2008. He was named president at that time. Only three years later, in April 2011, he became the first secretary of the Communist Party. Then he began – either out of a new vision or pure desperation – to turn over chunks of the economy from state actors to privateers. The glacial pace of political and economic change has indeed been accelerated. Even Raul’s worst critics will admit some movement has transpired.
Raul has let more than 125 prisoners out of jail who had been imprisoned for political reasons. (Of course, in Cuba, whether it is the number of prisoners, the number of hunger strikers, the number of abortions and/or the HIV rate, no one can attest such numbers should be written in stone.) When Raul took over as the first secretary of the Communist Party, a white paper called the “313 Guidelines” was released containing macro and micro details of a purportedly new economic path. Yet market forces will continue to be eschewed for the usual central planning model long embraced by communist nations. However, as signs around Cuba exclaim, “Socialism or death!,” the new plan is in line with Raul’s vision that the one-party state still is king and that his vision of a sustainable socialism (reminiscent of the juche or “self-reliance” in North Korea) will never be reversed. For many, waiting for the end of economic communism in Cuba can be like waiting for the Chicago Cubs to win the World Series.
Cubans are true believers, emboldened by the discredited, American-led Western economic model. Cubans are leery of a 1 percent capitalist elite emerging to challenge their 1 percent communist elite. Yet elites emerge in all societies and have since ancient Greece. Financial titans, as a part of the aforementioned ancillary cultural products of mythologized Cuban national folklore, are the Henry Potter types found in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” on K Street, Fleet Street, in Tel Aviv, Switzerland and other outposts of transnational capitalism. In the Cuban mind, only capitalists are greedy and corrupt, not communists, Marxists and Stalinists. According to this mindset, communists, Marxists and Stalinists are like pink, fluffy bunnies; they would never, ever think to be greedy – not even for one second.
(Photo: Anthony C. LoBaido)
Some might believe education is the answer to bringing change to Cuba. Yet Cuban schools are one of the critical insertion points for national patriotism. Despite being a truly multicultural nation, there are no identity politics in Cuba. Unlike many in the United States, Cubans see themselves as citizens and not victims (from real or imagined racism, slavery that ended in the 1860s, a lack of civil rights, anti-white affirmative action, racial quotas, anti-Christian and anti-Jewish hatred) entitled to things a lack of class, character, work ethic and intelligence prevent them from attaining on their own. In America, money and merit are redistributed to those who often do not deserve it. In Cuba, poverty is equally distributed, along with national unity.
There is little of the anti-intellectualism and self-hatred to be found in Cuba that is inculcated into various races and cultures in the United States. Smart people are not hated in Cuba. Schools seek deep-thinkers who can tackle difficult problems. The model for the public school system in the West comes from a militarized Prussia. This is meant to instill feelings of patriotism and rugged militarism. Cuba feeds off that model. What Cubans are not taught is the ancient Greek political model of Solon, who established the idea of the revocability of political power, meaning rulers voluntarily leave office after a season – and of their own volition.
As for educational curricula, Cubans now study English as a mandatory language. They learn about hard sciences, their government’s patriotic indoctrination, math, history, agriculture and social studies. They can choose three paths in high school, ranging from general studies to vocational studies to teacher training. However, the best English teachers move on to the tourist industry to get tips from foreigners, deal in hard currency (euros, U.S. dollars, Canadian dollars) and increase their earnings. There is no war over English versus Spanish in Cuba, as there is in the U.S.
As in America, where the stock, tech, housing and education bubbles have all burst in the last 12 years, Cubans with higher-education degrees are finding their studies increasingly worthless. Experts in agriculture, science, technology, engineering and math fields are becoming more rare. For some reason, people want to study art and sports communication, literature, sociology and other similar degrees at a time when Cuba needs scientific farmers and geologists – just as the Israelis do. Medicine is another ball game: Cuba exports thousands of doctors on several continents and allows many medical students to come to Cuba to study medicine. But a doctor in Cuba earns 75 cents per day.
The truth is, Cuba has been radically changing for more than two decades. When the Soviet Union fell, Cuba, cut adrift like Angola, the “Stans” and Eastern Europe, considered the loss of Soviet subsidies to be something of a national emergency. To counter this economic hole, tourism poured in, along with the “legal” use of the U.S. dollar. Businesses, in the micro sense, began to thrive. But with Venezuela and mainland China offering to help Cuba replace the former Soviet Union, Fidel Castro ended his “Special Period in Peacetime” (1991–2004), re-established the anti-business climate and once again made use of the dollar illegal.
Caracas and Beijing became the new Cuban sugar daddies. The good times were back again, as they were in 1959 when Cuba was a top Latin American nation with more doctors per citizen than France, a life expectancy to be envied and optimism for the future. Literacy levels were excellent, and child hunger was stamped out. Socialism, Fidel style, would take Cubans from the cradle to the grave. All Cubans also receive what amounts to glorified food stamps in the form of the libreta, which offers “free” yet small quantities of food and goods that might allow a typical person to subsist. Fulgencio Batista was a dictator, but he was America’s dictator. He did not hand out socialist-style freebies to the people, giving them gifts out of their own piggy bank. He could not outlast Fidel’s revolutionary onslaught (1953-1959). And as for reform, Raul Castro has found the libreta, like the national health care system in the UK, is beloved by Cubans. Any attempt to remove it will be openly opposed without any fear.
Some believe discrediting the Soviet model would bring change to Cuba. After the fall of the USSR, inflation in Havana roared. Cuban wages lost 75 percent of their buying power, social spending per person decreased by about 75 percent per citizen and the deficit increased by one-third. Cubans had given up their notions of freedom and privacy for a bowl of porridge, and now that bowl was in jeopardy of running dry. Today, at least one in five Cubans is poor.
At a local fair in a gentrified section of Havana (Parque Central) were several doctors who left medicine to sell candy and magazines, become high-end call girls or open food stalls. So if someone wishes to buy a hot dog and discuss the most effective treatment for idiopathic (unknown cause) cytopenia (low blood counts) from the same vendor, they’re covered in Cuba as in no other place on earth. Yet Cuban doctors are found working in almost 80 countries around the world – nearly 40,000 of them. The reason why medicine is so popular in Cuba may harken to the Soviet Union’s rubric of public life. In the USSR, academics were the one “free” area where students could excel and find a semblance of freedom outside the control of the state. Also, there is the ideal of solidarity and the Catholic and evangelical Christian view of Jesus Christ as a healer helping children, Roman soldiers and others find freedom from disease and bad health. There are many motivations for Cubans to become doctors, but none of those motivations is economic.
Many would argue Cubans don’t need hope, which focuses on the future – they need change right now.The island needs agricultural experts, scientific farmers, better agricultural teachers, something like the 4-H Club, technical know-how and elimination or reform of Acopio, which is a grossly mismanaged Cuban governmental entity controlling marketing. The sugar crop yields are down. Oil, nickel and gas are the new staples. Like Israel or Myanmar, Cuba has all of the elements that can make society work and flourish. But the problem is that Israel has bloomed while Cuba and Myanmar’s leaders limit freedom, destroy market forces, discourage hard work, waste money on the military, oppress dissent, persecute those who speak out and purposefully mismanage the economy to enrich the ruling elites.
While the island nation is not a city-state like Sparta, London, D.C. or even Singapore, Cuba’s communist elite do represent an enclosed system all their own. They have aligned themselves with the men who run Moscow, Beijing and Caracas. They speak about the needs of the people on one hand, but deep down they fixate on power and money. They see America embrace the African National Congress and give “most favored nation” status to China and wonder why a nation like Vietnam will have relations with the U.S. normalized, while Cuba remains a pariah. Jesse Helms, amongst others, worked in D.C. to stop Cuba from gaining access to IMF largess during the Bill Clinton years. American presidents can no longer create an embargo or lift it by whim, as JFK did. The U.S. Congress has set forth conditions for lifting the embargo – a free Cuba, free of the Castros with free elections and a free everything else.
Monument to Antonio Maceo in Havana (Photo: Anthony C. LoBaido)
Cuba imports around 80 percent of all of the food its citizens eat. This costs the island just less than $2 billion per year. Compare this to the $5 billion per month the U.S. spent in Iraq and Afghanistan at the height of the wars in those nations. Cuba has defaulted on the debt it owes to foreigners. It is outside the “rescue” mechanism of the IMF. Cuba, in effect, has zero access to credit aside from exchanges it can organize with China, Russia, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Venezuela, Iran or North Korea. It is outside of the transnational financial matrix. Cubans have little incentive to work hard. Many steal at work and waste time on idle chit-chat.
How can this be fixed?In effect, Cubans need their own Donald Trump. They need business courses, to transfer workers from the public to private sector, transfer government-owned farmland to hardworking farmers who possess the skills and knowledge one might find in the old Rhodesia – the breadbasket of Africa – and allow the growth of more small businesses. More than 300,000 Cubans applied for a license last year to open a business. Only 25 percent of Cuba’s farmland is under private development. As in India, killing a cow is a capital offense in Cuba and doing that can actually send you to prison. (“See that guy over there? He killed a cow to make a cheeseburger. You’d better stay far away from him!”) Cooperative farms are a possible solution. Cuban farmers must avoid the cul de sac that held back American cotton pickers and share croppers after the Civil War. Genetically modified and genetically engineered foods are eschewed in Cuba, but seeds, fertilizer, irrigation equipment, barns and infrastructure and other items are expensive. Cuba’s economy is agrarian-based, which is why reforming agriculture must be the capstone of the new Cuba.
Will ending the U.S. embargo against Cuba bring change to the island? Does it matter anymore, and is it necessary? John F. Kennedy purchased more than 1,000 Cuban cigars before the presidential order for the embargo was signed. Today, Cuba has stood defiant against the embargo and carries out trade with Canada, China, Spain and other nations. The embargo, politically and ideologically, “works” for the Cuban elites: They are a citadel holding out against Goliath. They are Samson, capable of hosting Russian nuclear bombers. They can’t provide fully for the Cuban people because of American sanctions. Like Robert Mugabe in Rhodesia-Zimbabwe, who used the white farmers to hide his own economic and moral disasters, Cuba’s elites hold up the American boogeyman as a shield from honest introspection. They actually need the embargo.
Can the pope in the Vatican bring change to Cuba? In an article titled, “Pope says he feels for Cubans in his heart,” published in USA Today on March 27, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI expressed his support for the “just aspirations and legitimate desires” of all Cubans, including prisoners, shortly after his arrival to [the] communist-run island … in China it is, according to the Pope, “evident that Marxist ideology as it was conceived no longer responds to reality.” He urged Cubans to “find new models, with patience and in a constructive way.”
The article then explained the change in the role of Christianity in Cuba, stating, “Fidel Castro expelled priests and closed religious schools after his takeover. The government removed the reference to atheism in the constitution in the 1990s and a 1998 visit by Pope John Paul II eased relations between Cuba and the church. Even so the church has nearly no access to state-run radio or TV, is not allowed to open schools and has been barred from building churches.”
The church has been a critic of the regime’s repression. Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, has negotiated with Raul Castro for the release of political prisoners. If there is to be a soft landing for Cuba, just as there was for apartheid South Africa, the Catholic Church will mostly likely have to play a prominent role as it is now playing in regard to HIV/AIDS, abortion, conducting small business classes and fostering a positive national Cuban ethos.
(Editor’s note: Read Part 1 and Part 2. Don’t miss Part 4 of Anthony LoBaido’s in-depth series on Cuba.)