Farewell, El Co­man­dante

The Sun (Malaysia) - - SPEAK UP -

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

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