THE year was 2005, and the context was the devastating earthquake that took the lives of thousands and destroyed homes and livelihoods of many more in parts of AJK and Balakot, KP. The international aid community had descended upon Islamabad to coordinate relief operations to the devastated areas. The one foreign contingent which wasn’t booked into the Marriot — staying in fact at a fairly dingy hotel in Aabpara market — was from Cuba.
I was desperate to track down the Cuban delegation and meet them. While the dominant perception of Cuba was that of a terrible dictatorship that kept its helpless people politically enslaved and economically deprived, I was, and still am, in awe of the socialist island’s unparalleled achievements.
There were about 50 doctors in the Cuban delegation, and despite my rudimentary knowledge of Spanish and their similarly limited English skills, we were able to communicate freely and at length. Extremely affable, the doctors acted as representatives of the Cuban people at large. They brought with them a message of international solidarity well beyond the actual emergency relief they provided, embodying the very idea of the Cuban revolution.
This idea, at its core, is very simple. In Cuba, a trained medical doctor neither earns nor is respected much more than a taxi driver, and actually celebrates this fact. Cuban society is characterised by a shared collective commitment to dignity and equity for all its people. And it is a state that sends its doctors to serve abroad, and whatever else it has at its disposal, with no strings attached.
We can’t imagine being a society that produces doctors like Cuba.
What we experienced in small quantities in 2005 has been experienced by many other countries in the six decades since the Cuban revolution. The island’s achievements are never big news because they demolish the hegemonic notion that unbridled capitalism guarantees individual mobility and unparalleled riches. Many young Pakistanis with whom I have shared the anecdotes of Cuba’s doctors receiving wages similar to that of taxi drivers actually scoff at the absurdity of it all.
Today, Pakistan, alongside many other non-Western postcolonial countries, is struggling to acquire vaccines for Covid-19. The state is failing miserably to procure anything like the quantity of vaccines needed, while the rich and powerful are predictably using their connections to jump the queue. Meanwhile, a black market for the vaccine is already emerging which, needless to say, will not serve this country’s working masses.
Amidst the chaos of the so-called ‘free market’ and capitalist statecraft, Cuba is once again writing a different script. In a somewhat reluctant tone, the Washington Post reported earlier this week that “Cuba could become a coronavirus powerhouse”. This is akin to the admission made in 2001 by the then president of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, that Cuba had done a “great job on education and health” despite a decades-long US embargo.
If you haven’t paid attention to Cuba’s sustained achievements in the medical field, a global pandemic should surely force you into doing so. A year ago, when Covid-19 exploded into our lives, there was a yearning for something beyond capitalism; beyond the for-profit industrial agriculture that triggered the novel coronavirus; beyond the profiteering of pharmaceutical companies and private health providers; for a world in which resources are spent on making every single human being healthy and educated rather than on wars and hateful ideological engineering.
This yearning has been suffocated by the survival of the fittest, dog-eat-dog mentality that is our distinctly cynical brand of Pakistani capitalism. The government kicks out and brings in new finance ministers almost on a daily basis. An estimated 20 million Pakistanis continue to suffer the fallouts of lost employment. And millions more live out their lives without the prospect of even two measly corona vaccine jabs.
We can’t imagine being a society that produces doctors like Cuba who consciously live out their lives as equals of taxi drivers because our imaginations are stunted by a rotten system. Cuba is certainly not a perfect society; it suffers from racism, sexism and other forms of institutionalised hierarchy. It is both a deeply democratic society, but also a restricted one. Its young people also yearn for substantive change in some spheres of political and economic life.
But socialist Cuba guarantees the health and education of all of its people, and is willing and able to give peoples the world over a coronavirus vaccine at a time when no one else is. It is committed to an ecologically sustainable model of development. It celebrates art, sport, and its cultural openness is second to none.
Maybe one day we can build such a society. But to do so requires us to first imagine that such a possibility even exists. In a society like ours, to do even this represents bravery of the highest order.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, April 2nd, 2021