Policy & Practice - A Development Education Review



Cuba's Model of Development: Lessons for Global Education

The Shifting Policy Landscape of Development Education
Autumn 2011

Stephen McCloskey

In this Viewpoint article, Stephen McCloskey argues for a more balanced perspective on Cuba in development discourse and the wider English-language media. For too long Cuba has been subjected to clichés and stereotypes concerning its socialist model of development which have prevented a wider and meaningful discussion on its social achievements at home and humanitarianism overseas. He argues that Cuba’s real achievements in health, education, climate change and international aid provide potentially rich opportunities for learning and partnership for international development agencies and global educators. With the neo-liberal model of growth that prevails in much of Western Europe in a state of crisis, it is time for development practitioners to look at alternative models based on clear development principles. 


Few countries have been subjected to as much stereotyping and caricature as Cuba has been in Western Europe and the United States (US) over the past 52 years. The public’s perception of Cuba has largely been shaped by a regularly lax mainstream media content to run superficial stories informed by easily congestible stereotypes. Regular features of English-language media reportage are old standbys like the 1950s’ American cars on Cuban roads or decaying buildings on Havana’s Malecón, the broad esplanade running along the coast-line, symbolizing a society trapped in the past. Articles of this nature regularly gloss over or ignore entirely Cuba’s hugely impressive social achievements in creating unprecedented advances in the context of the developing world in health and education. Cuba also has an astonishing record in its contribution to international solidarity and aid around the world by dispatching doctors and nurses to the most acute points of humanitarian need no matter how treacherous the environment or how high the cost. Cuba’s cultural contributions are also rich and varied in fields such as dance, music, film and art. Its achievements in sport relative to the size of its population and national wealth are outstanding and have yielded consistently impressive performances in international competition over the past five decades.

          What makes these achievements all the more laudable is the fact that they have been delivered in the context of economic blockade approaching its 50thanniversary imposed by the US, Cuba’s near neighbour, and the dominant economy in the hemisphere. Cuban society has not just survived but evolved over the past half-century despite Washington’s interventions and ongoing efforts to derail the revolution. This article will consider some examples of media stereotyping of the Cuban revolution and outline many of the island’s achievements that deserve a wider airing. It will go on to argue that global education should draw upon the Cuban model in their practice as a means of discussing alternative models of development. It is suggested that this debate is particularly needed in the present context of social unrest evident in many liberal democracies, like that recently witnessed in Britain, which has accompanied the global financial crisis. The article concludes that it is time for a mature debate on Cuba in the context of global education that eschews the Cold War attitudes to the island and considers the lessons we can learn from its many achievements.

Cuban Clichés

During the recent Communist Party Congress in April 2011, Cuban President Raúl Castro announced new economic reforms to help the island address the effects of the global slowdown on growth and lighten the state’s burden of expenditure. The 300 measures ratified at the Congress included plans for 170,000 new licences for small businesses like hairdressers, restaurants and taxi services that will operate in a non-state sector to help stimulate growth and reduce dependence on state support. The reaction to these measures highlighted the normally jaundiced view of Cuba that peppers the mainstream press. Rory Carroll, a persistent critic in theGuardian, suggested that Cuba’s ‘creaking economy’ was headed ‘on a gradual path to Vietnam-style capitalism in all but name’ (19 April 2011). In the Associated Press President Barack Obama criticized the pace of change in Cuba suggesting that ‘the communist-run island has not been aggressive enough in opening its economy or its political system’ (12 September 2011). For the Financial Times the economic proposals were part of efforts by Raúl Castro ‘to dismantle one of the last surviving Soviet-style systems and punch holes in the ideology and taboos that support it’ (19 April 2011). 

          Thus Cuba is either caving to the inevitability of the free market and making concessions to capitalism or dragging its feet and adhering to tried and failed centrally planned economics. A minority view from Jonathan Glennie in the Guardian offers a different narrative to Cuba’s economic measures suggesting that it has pursued ‘egalitarian policies’ which placed a heavy burden on the state. He suggests that in Cuba ‘the extremes of opulence and misery are banished in favour of a generalised level of wealth, best described as "enough to get by"’ (5 August 2011). Glennie adds that if Cuba continues to move forward without ‘undermining its most impressive achievements’ it will ‘merit the attention of development theorists and practitioners seeking proven means to eradicate poverty’ (Ibid).

          Alas, most commentators on Cuba fail to look beyond the clichéd conception of the island as a troubled Caribbean paradise with sinister socialist overtones and a moribund leadership. Typical of this sort of treatment is a travel piece written by Cordelia O’Neill for the Irish News (9 October 2010) in which she describes the island’s ‘intoxicating salsa rhythm’ to which ‘tall palm trees seemingly swing in time’. She goes on to suggest that ‘reminders of the tough regime under which Cubans live are plentiful’ but provides scant analysis of Cuba’s socio-economic context in the developing world. In a similar piece for the Irish Times (9 October 2010) Frank McDonald meditates on the possibilities of life in Cuba post-Fidel (Castro) which he describes as a bit like ‘Waiting for Godot’. A favourite pastime of Cuba’s critics has been speculating on the revolution’s demise when Fidel Castro stepped down as president. In fact, the former Cuban leader had left public office in February 2008, long before McDonald’s article appeared in October 2010, without any significant impact on public support for the revolution or Cuba’s governance. 

          The article mostly derides Cuba’s tourist industry which views foreign visitors as ‘walking wallets’. McDonald acknowledges some restoration work completed in parts of Havana ‘[b]ut walk inland just a few blocks and you’re confronted by crumbling buildings on pot-holed streets stinking of bad sewers, and scrawny dogs scouring the rubbish from overflowing wheelie-bins’. The article mentions the US blockade of Cuba briefly in the last paragraph and suggests that the longevity of Cuba’s revolution is due to the climate: ‘because it never gets cold; “socialism in the sunshine” made it possible for Castro to survive as long as he has’”. This kind of slack and sour reportage is not untypical of how Western correspondents cover Cuba and contributes to a very narrow, shallow and often inaccurate view of the island. 

          This is not to suggest that the Cuban revolution is beyond reproach or criticism. Mistakes have been made over the past 52 years and this was accepted at the very highest level of the Cuban government by President Raúl Castro at the recent Congress. He pointed to an inefficient economy with inadequate salaries and social inequalities arising from unequal access to hard currencies. He rejected past ‘dogmas’ and ‘failed schemes’ and targeted what he described as ‘excessive, idealistic and egalitarian paternalism’ (Cuba Sí, summer 2011: 10). Castro also strongly criticised the political and managerial elites whose ‘violations’ and ‘mistakes’ had not been confronted and resulted in a stifling of initiative and excessive centralisation. He even rounded on the state’s media for its ‘triumphalism, stridency and formalism’ that resulted in the broadcasting of content that was ‘boring, improvised and superficial material’ (Ibid). This very candid assessment of weaknesses in Cuban society and economic planning and the measures agreed at Congress came on the back of a three month nation-wide consultation process involving nearly 9 million citizens. The government has listened to concerns that reforms should be phased in gradually to monitor their impact as it strives to carry out a delicate balancing act of maintaining free access to education, health care and social services while reducing state expenditure in other areas. It is the social achievements of the revolution that are discussed in the next section.

Cuba’s Development Model

From the outset of the Cuban revolution in 1959 education has been a priority for its leaders. In 1961 Cuba launched a year long literacy campaign to address the high levels of illiteracy that were part of the social neglect characteristic of the pre-revolutionary period under US-sponsored dictator Fulgencio Batista. The literacy campaign was a great success and in 2011 the United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) revealed that the ‘Cuban Literacy Program’ was implemented in 12 other Latin American states with plans to expand this model to other regions (Cuba Sí, summer 2011:6). UNESCO also praised Cuba’s expenditure on education which according to the United Nations Human Development Report 2010 was 13.8 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) compared to 5.2 per cent in Brazil and 4.9 per cent in Argentina in the same period; countries with much bigger economies in the American Hemisphere. Cuba’s commitment to education as an essential human right available to all citizens means that it is available free at the point of delivery. Education in Cuba is not a privilege, particularly at third level, available only to those who can afford to pay for it as is the case in Ireland and Britain. 

          Cuba has a similarly socialised approach to healthcare with just under 10 per cent of GDP spent on health (UN, 2010) compared to 6.1 per cent in Ireland, 6.9 per cent in Britain and 7.1 per cent in the United States. As a result Cuba can boast of a ‘developed world’ life expectancy rate of 79 years which is just behind that of the US (79.6) Britain (79.8) and Ireland (80.3). But the success of Cuba’s health system is more than just a matter of statistics and free access; it is built upon an effective public model that Barry and Lynch suggest is ‘a protective and supportive system for Cuban citizens, run by the state, but in a decentralised and integrated system’ (2008: 156). The preventative component of the Cuban health system is key and is constructed around an effective primary care programme which not only prevents illness but promotes healthy lifestyles. As Barry and Lynch argue:

“[h]ealth is viewed as enabling people to achieve their full capacity, irrespective of age or ability, and with full cognisance of the wider determinants of health, such as housing, education, nutrition and exercise” (2008: 157).

          However, the benefits of Cuba’s system are felt well beyond its own borders. In 1999 Cuba established a Latin American School of Medicine which trains doctors and medical personnel from other parts of the Americas, including the United States, and Africa. Almost 10,000 students from 29 countries are enrolled in the school with students committing themselves to return to their countries and work in communities lacking adequate healthcare (Medical Co-operation with Cuba, 2011).   Cuba itself now has as many doctors servicing its 11 million citizens as there are in Britain meeting the needs of 60 million people. Michael Tynan, Emeritus Professor of Paediatric Cardiology at King’s College, London has been engaging in medical exchanges with Cuba since 1987 and found that ‘Cuba’s commitment to public health has been the heartbeat of their socialist programme – both domestically and internationally – since their struggle against Batista in the 1950s’. He adds that ‘[c]onsidering the intensification of the blockade, Cuba’s achievements in the field of healthcare – particularly in the areas of infant mortality, life expectancy and internationalism – are nothing short of miraculous’ (Cuba Sí, summer 2011: 30).

McCloskey, S (2011) 'Cuba's Model of Development: Lessons for Global Education', Policy and Practice: A Development Education Review, Vol. 13, Autumn, pp. 84-98.