Viva la revolución: Cuban social justice will survive American reconciliation

John Wight
John Wight has written for newspapers and websites across the world, including the Independent, Morning Star, Huffington Post, Counterpunch, London Progressive Journal, and Foreign Policy Journal. He is also a regular commentator on RT and BBC Radio. John is currently working on a book exploring the role of the West in the Arab Spring. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnWight1
Reuters / Enrique de la Osa
Cuba's detractors have long been guilty of dismissing the achievements of the Cuban Revolution, while some of its supporters have lapsed into romanticizing the hardship its people have endured as a consequence of its isolation.

By rights, Cuba should not have the enormous global profile it enjoys, and has enjoyed going back many decades. A small island nation with a population of just over 11 million people, in a region of the world associated with underdevelopment, Cuba's international status belies its size to an extent to which no other nation comes close. The reason for this small country's unparalleled status is of course the revolution it experienced (1953-1959) and its extraordinary ability to defy the might of the United States - just 90 miles off its northern coast - as a beacon of social and economic justice.

Those who defend Cuba and its socialist system justifiably point to its achievements in education, healthcare, and the role of its doctors and medical professionals across the world in disaster zones, where their solidarity missions are a ubiquitous presence. Most recently, the role of Cuban medical professionals in tacking the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was even acknowledged in the pages of the US newspaper of record, the New York Times. This in itself is a measure of the new chapter that has opened up in relations between Cuba and its old enemy and nemesis.

What should not be forgotten as this process of normalization goes forward is that Cuba and its people will by no means be the sole beneficiaries. Already the full extent of Cuba's leading role in medical and biomedical research has been revealed with the development of a groundbreaking lung cancer vaccine, called Cimavax, which has been shared with US medical researchers with the objective of making it available outside Cuba. Such a gesture of solidarity on the part of the Cuban government is enshrined within the country's socialist constitution, but even so it remains remarkable given the concerted efforts by successive US administrations to starve Cuba into submission over four decades.

As backdoor negotiations regarding the normalization of relations between the US and Cuba continue, many pro-Cuban voices have offered a counsel of despair, forecasting the country and its socialist system's inevitable demise at the hands of a US superpower which, they warn, can only have bad and dishonorable intentions where the Cuban Revolution and its achievements are concerned.

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuba's President Raul Castro as they hold a bilateral meeting during the Summit of the Americas in Panama City April 11, 2015. (Reuters / Jonathan Ernst)

But such pronouncements are rooted in the romanticization of a revolution that has produced not only the achievements mentioned, but also unremitting hardship for its people due to the chronic shortages that have been a by-product of the embargo. Anyone visiting the country could not fail to notice the poverty and crumbling infrastructure of a society whose decades-long isolation has proved a heavy price for its refusal to succumb to the inordinate pressure leveled against it by an economic embargo that has been biblical in scope.

It is both unrealistic and grotesque to expect the Cuban people to suffer any longer. As we saw in the case of the former Soviet Union, scarcity is a corrosive that if allowed to continue beyond a certain point inevitably leads to social collapse with potentially disastrous consequences. This is not to suggest that the Cuban people have stopped supporting their government and a system that while leaving them materially poor has made them rich in dignity. Clearly the majority of Cubans support their government. Nevertheless, how long can people be expected to live on dignity alone? Aren't they entitled to the same level of material comfort that most people in the West take for granted?

To ask this question is surely to answer it.

That said, material comfort and inequality in the West are two sides of the same coin. The danger of Cuba lapsing into a similar dynamic as market forces begin to assert their dominance is one the Cuban leadership has been well aware of. In the wake of the most difficult decade of its recent history (known by Cubans as the ‘Special Period,’ it marks the severe economic crisis that began in 1989 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, forcing the small island nation to radically transform major sectors of the economy, including industry and health), the island lost its main ally and economic partner and Cuba was forced to adapt to a new reality - or perish. The situation led to the establishment of a tourism industry designed to take advantage of the island's Caribbean climate and some of the most unspoiled beaches anywhere in the world.

But along with this success came a dual economy, split between the state-controlled sector responsible for the provision of the island's much-vaunted healthcare, education, pensions, and disability benefits, as well as subsidized housing, utilities, food, and other essentials, and a dollar-based, market-driven sector underpinning this emerging and growing tourism industry. Cubans working within the tourist sector have long enjoyed higher incomes than those working in other sectors, resulting in a growing income gap that unless ameliorated would have begun to weaken the bonds of solidarity that constitute the linchpin of social cohesion within the country.

Another growing source of inequality has been caused by the ability of Cubans with relatives living in exile in the US to benefit from the remittance of US dollars, proving the country's largest single source of hard currency over the past 20 years and main driver of the Cuban economy. The Cuban government, currently led by President Raul Castro, has proved adept at responding to this development, allowing for example the expansion of its private sector and opening up of its economy to foreign investment.

No socialist economy or system can exist in splendid isolation and the process of normalization between Cuba and the West is a non-negotiable condition of Cuba's survival as a beacon of justice in a region scarred by a history of injustice at the hands of US imperialism. The Cuban people, justifiably proud and protective of achievements that are testament to their ingenuity and commitment to the ideals of a revolution whose survival has been nothing short of incredible, are entering a new chapter in their history.

The revolution continues but on a different basis. People in the US and throughout the West are about to learn for the first time why Cuba's system of solidarity and justice has and will continue to be a victory for human progress.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.