Farewell, El Comandante
IWOULD count myself lucky to have had the opportunity to set foot in Cuba and forge pioneering academic collaborations while Fidel Castro was still presiding. The late president was wellnoted for this passion in pursuing development for the country through the use of knowledge to the envy of many since the days he was the prime minister of the Republic of Cuba from 1959 to 1976 and then as president from 1976 to 2008 when he handed the position to his brother, Raul.
The overall literary rate in Cuba closely trailed 100% for a long time. As early as 1959 after the revolution, hundreds of literacy centres were opened to reach out to all, including those at the countryside, to teach fellow Cubans how to read. Several literacy campaigns followed. By 2000, following drastic changes in the education system, some 97% of young Cubans aged 15 to 24 were literate.
Castro, like his other comrade in arms, was a strong believer of citizens actively participating in nation-building. For this they must be not only educated, but also fully engaged with the community regardless where they are so as to create a close rapport as part of the living learning process. In 1999, the World Bank reported that the Cuban educational success was not a miracle or an accident, but the result of many years of concerted effort and commitment by the government to its people. Social cohesion among the population therefore remains high whereas the gaps and divides among them are closely bridged.
Even though we were not fortunate enough to meet him in person, but did meet several who were in the inner circle, including his son, to feel the aura of what Castro stood for and the firm principles he held in the fight against global oppression and international injustice.
In the education sector, this is best exemplified by the setting up of a prestigious programme that offers international students with less privileged backgrounds to study medicine in Havana. It involves a number of countries ranging from the US and UK to those in Africa and Asia embracing no less than two dozen nationalities represented by more than 3,000 students. While in Cuba, I had the opportunity to meet some Malaysians who took the opportunity to equip themselves with “new” healthcare approaches that are affordable and appropriate without compromising quality and outcomes.
It was not surprising therefore that in 2015 the UNDP Human Development Report 2015 placed Cuba’s Human Development Index (HDI) at 67, among high HDI countries despite it facing embargoes and isolation over several decades due to the high-handed US policy against the island state. Despite a US economic blockade dating back to 1960, in defiance of the UN General Assembly’s overwhelming vote (opposed only by the US and Israel) to lift the embargo, Cuba thrives. This is indeed the high point for Cuba under Castro’s leadership as compared with many others that are wide open to the latest in the advances of knowledge but remain dismal in their HDI, languishing in the low HDI bracket.
Notably in the field of biotechnology, Cuba can confidently claim to be second to none worldwide with many great innovations to its name. Similarly, in the spheres of public health and ecological balance. Unlike developed countries that score the similar HDI status (of at least 0.7), Cuba’s ecological footprint is kept within the expected limits without indulging in the excesses of an unsustainable development and squandering its resources.
According to the Global Footprint Network, as of last year, Cuba enjoys “very high human development” while keeping its ecological footprint lower than 1.7 global hectares per person (ghapp) based on the UN data. In ironic contrast, both the US and China, while meeting the minimum HDI requirement, sorely missed the second criterion by a wide margin based on the ghapp.
Yet I vividly recall the response to my query about a travel book on Cuba at Changi airport in Singapore. What I got