6 December 2016

Lessons from an intimate enemy

Daniel Herwitz

If Fidel Castro’s regime dispensed with civil and political rights, the U.S. denied its people the substantive socio-economic rights Cuba put in place for its entire population

The passing of Cuban leader Fidel Castro at 90 is a moment to reflect on what he did and did not do for his country, but also what the United States might learn from the Cuban example in spite of its many problems.

That Castro’s regime dispensed with civil and political rights is a well-known fact, one which many across the world and especially in the U.S. took as a clarion call for isolating and indeed invading Cuba. Having been spurned by the big daddy of a land ninety miles to the north, Castro embraced the Soviet Union to a fault, applauding their repression of Eastern Europe, not to mention allowing their missiles on Cuban soil. The Soviets were his bread and butter, and also his security blanket, his only way of keeping the pigs at bay. Cuba had many faults, including its culture of local surveillance, its repression of the arts, its jailing of dissidents, its refusal to allow emigration and so on. The little country with the big cigars was, during much of the Cold War, a poster child for everything wrong on “the other side”.

Substantive rights for citizens

What fell under the radar is the way Cuba achieved success in solving the problem of substantive rights: the right to health, to food security, to literacy and education, to a job. These social goods are not considered rights in the U.S., whose litany of rights is restricted to civil and political rights. The U.S. has, as far as I can tell, exactly one substantive right: the right to bear arms, a right that has proved for the many dead in my country unbearable. With Cuba no longer the poster child for our enemy (thanks to President Barack Obama, although this may change with the new President), and with Castro’s passing, the U.S. ought to reflect on what a right is, and whether the balance sheet of Cuba’s institution of rights does not perhaps have something to teach the big daddy.

A place to begin is with a country much indebted to Cuba for its transition to democracy in 1990 and thereafter: South Africa. There is a reason why Nelson Mandela chose to go to Cuba for his first diplomatic visit after being voted in as the first democratically elected President of the country in 1994. It is not only because Cuba had supplied soldiers to help the African National Congress fight the South African defence forces in Angola and Namibia during the 1980s. Nor is it only because Cuba supplied South Africa with doctors as part of a programme of service, doctors who set up clinics in rural areas and built medical infrastructure. It is because Cuba’s commitment to substantive human rights was for Mandela a model of South Africa’s own future — although his repression of civil and political rights (which Mandela and his companions had struggled to achieve for all South African people) was not.

Two years later, South Africa produced its Constitution, which is among the most forward-looking in the world. Its preamble begins from a concept of the dignity of each and every individual South African, then goes on to say if you really believe in human dignity you are required to assign all citizens a rich panoply of rights to insure that dignity. These include civil and political rights but also the right to a house, to a job, to health care, to education in any of the 11 official languages of the country, even to customary law so long as it doesn’t conflict with other rights. And these rights have political force. The government was twice successfully sued in the Constitutional Court for its failure to make a “reasonable effort” to institute these rights. First in 1999 for its failure to build homes for the millions living in shacks in appalling conditions throughout the country, second in 2002 for its failure to offer anti-retroviral drugs to a population that was at the time a flat 20 per cent HIV positive (the highest HIV rate in the world at that time). In response, the government built millions of houses and made drugs available at an affordable price.

Not that there haven’t been problems. To take one example, the government has sometimes built houses without also putting in place the required infrastructure such as sewage, roads and the like, as if all one needed were four concrete walls and nothing else. However, the roll-out of houses and drugs has improved the lives of millions. It should also be noted that a current worry in South Africa is the weakening of the independence of the judiciary through debased appointments of judges who are known to be willing to turn a blind eye to corruption.

Comparing the scorecards

Cuba has done much better in the field of substantive rights (it is also a smaller and less divisive country than South Africa). Cuba’s primary health care is a world model in spite of low cash flow and boycotts. Its primary school education beats the U.S. if you look to the impoverished school system of Detroit rather than charter schools in affluent West Los Angeles. Yes, in Cuba one had access to doctors and medicines but not to freedom of speech. But how far does freedom of speech really get you if your health insurance deductibles are so large that you have had to forgo your heart medication and are in a state of atrial fibrillation? The point of making health a human right is that it is mandated for everyone at all times, period. The U.S. treats health as a political instrument in the fight between Democrats and Republicans, which is frankly an indecency. There is no right more important than freedom of speech but the U.S. fetishises this right to the diminishment of pretty much all others. It is even ambivalent about voting rights (it took Selma for then President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act, at which point he lost the entire southern Democratic contingent, which remains largely Republican to this day).

The real message is that both Cuba and the U.S. share ideological failures in the human rights field. Cuba refused civil and political rights, the U.S. the substantive (socio-economic) rights that Cuba impressively put in place for its entire population.

Rights really have adequate force only if deployed as an ensemble. You need freedom to speak and vote, but also a job, a doctor and a decent school, all of which are chronically lacking in my own country. And so the measure of Fidel Castro is far less clear than many in my country imagine. And that is because the U.S. is wedded to eighteenth century ideas of rights restricted to liberty and property that are centuries past their sell-by date.

Daniel Herwitz is Fredric G.L. Huetwell Professor of Humanities at the University of Michigan and Honorary Research Associate at the University of Cape Town. From 1996 to 2002, he was Chair in Philosophy at the University of Natal, Durban.

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