I am standing in a restaurant located at a fortress in old Havana. Nursing my glass of Mojitos, I stare at the distant lights of new Havana. The city of swaying palms looks ethereal. The sea looks like a dark patch between the illuminated Havana and where we stand on the other side of the bay. The restaurant opens into a courtyard where Cuban singers and dancers are singing Guantanamera, a Spanish song based on a poem written by Cuban hero and legend Jose Marti.
Singing and ancing comes naturally to the Cubans, and they are able to bring in so much enthusiasm that it can get infectious. I look over my shoulder, someone has quietly walked next to me. In his early fifties he warmly introduces himself as an American writer based in Cuba — one of those who have been allowed to settle in this Caribbean island. “How is it to live in Cuba?” “It is a relaxed place, but there are problems,” he says. “The American embargo has made life miserable for the people.
They have been forced to make great sacrifices. The government is stretching itself thin in trying to cushion the crisis. Cubans may not have purchasing power, but the state provides them something that even the US cannot — free education and medical care, which is more important for majority of people. Cubans would have to give up all this if the socialist regime is overthrown by the Americans.” He does not stop here. “Don’t we spend a large part of our salary on food, housing, education and healthcare? And if all these are taken care of by the state, then why should anyone look for an alternative?”
Cuba may be feeling stifled by the US embargo, but its healthcare and education system is still intact. The people who collect at the sea wall of Malecon are well fed. Even beggars, who chase tourists for “hard currency”, I am told, are not without food and housing. They know they cannot starve in socialist Cuba. It is a country of well-built, healthy people, who can gallop to a high economic growth if the external environment becomes friendly.
It was an interesting realisation as I bid adieu to my American friend in that quaint Cuban restaurant. A few days after I returned home, the finance ministry announced an extraordinary nine per cent growth in the earlier financial quarter. The contradiction of high growth in India coexisting with degrading poverty and general misery and economic stasis in Cuba with quality healthcare and a welfare system, presented a baffling picture. What is more important for a country — good health/education or good economic growth, which is not inclusive?
Surya Sethi, of the Planning Commission, says, “Bad health and sicknesses are pulling down crores of families. It is a major dampener for growth.” Some years ago, a CIA study had predicted that HIV/AIDS, if unchecked in India, could cause major internal-security problems and dampen growth. At that time, these projections were rubbished.
But the recent panic after the dengue and Chickungunya epidemics shows that law and order could be a major casualty if health systems are not beefed up. The stink in the healthcare system may show up whenever there is an epidemic, but the rot runs deep. A visit to any of the country’s five lakh villages or urban slums would show how sick we really are. Malnourished children, with bloated stomachs, polio, discoloured hair, deformities. Emaciated women beaten by multiple pregnancies, looking far older than their age.
Cancer is rampant. Tuberculosis has returned with vengeance. In a southern state, I was told by health ministry insiders, the government distributed Rifampicin to children infected by TB. After months of treatment, there was no improvement. The health of many children had worsened. On investigation it was found that the children were being given empty capsules, without any medicine in it!
IIt is not known whether any action was taken against the supplier of these medicines. Corruption of this kind in the health system is possible only in a country like India. Here, fortunes are made by those who pontificate in the chambers of commerce on the virtues of corporate social responsibility on the dead bodies of ordinary people. Multinational pharma companies swoop on tragedy-scarred people to fatten their profits. Would it not be prudent for the national leadership to shift big funds to education and health, like Cuba has done, before gloating over its high economic growth?
Hardnews is the South Asian partner of the eminent French monthly Le Monde Diplomatique