Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Health Revolution

The Cuba Journal blog has posted video of a two-part television program called Cuba: The Accidental Revolution. The program was recently aired for Canada's CBC Television The Nature of Things, which is an award-winning television program that focuses on the environment. It's host, David Suzuki, is also an environmental activist who's foundation focuses on issues of sustainability in Canada.

The first part of the documentary focuses on Cuba's "Green Revolution" when it turned to organic agricultural production due to shortages of the Special Period. The second part talks about Cuba's healthcare system. Undoubtedly, two very controversial subjects, both of which are not seriously discussed or investigated by the mainstream US media. For example:

As far back as 2001, the Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First) noticed how "one of the most efficient organic agriculture systems in the world" was developing in Cuba and being marginalized by the US press. Some european news outlets like the BBC took notice though. Since then, the topic of Cuban "sustainable agriculture" [PDF] has been written about extensively. The release of the 2002 book Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance: Transforming Food Production in Cuba was supported by Food First and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

It should be noted that these agricultural developments in Cuba only reveal how widespread organic farming can become, but it does not provide a solution to widespread world hunger (as some might view it). Even supporters of the new developments acknowledge that in Cuba "[b]y the latter part of the 1990s the acute food shortage was a thing of the past, though sporadic shortages of specific items remained a problem, and food costs for the population had increased significantly."[PDF] Today, while the great majority of food grown in Cuba comes from organic, cooperative or private farms, food sold at the market is still far too expensive for the regular Cuban wage.

Yet, this doesn't stop those who see this "Green Revolution" as nothing but propaganda for the Cuban government. When Andrew Buncombe last year wrote about Cuba's "self-sustaining system of agriculture that by necessity was essentially organic," the people at NewsBusters described Buncombe as one of the "defenders of communism out there in the Western press." Yet, Buncombe's excellent and well-researched article (spending two-weeks in Cuba) never mentioned communism, but, on the contrary explained how this "organic approach is far more efficient than the previous Soviet model that emphasized production at all costs." The NewsBusters piece also includes a rebuttal by Buncombe that further clarifies his point.

And, a similar reaction occurred with the premier of The Accidental Revolution. Terence Corcoran from Canada's Financial Post provided a rebuttal describing the documentary as "a two-part propaganda homage to the greatness of Cuba's agricultural economy" and a reactionary account of "the evils of modern agriculture." In the end, Corcoran asks two important questions: "Is this ['green revolution'] a total coincidence, or could it be that the rise in oxen use is a function of a police state run by the old murderous despot? Could it be that people are not doing this because they have a choice?"

I say these are important questions because they do draw one to consider other perspectives, even one that includes the history between Cuba and the US, and even to ponder how the Special Period and additional sanctions towards Cuba at the time did not result in a social collapse, given that an important element like food had become scarce.

Recent news about U.N. Special Rapporteur Jean Ziegler to Cuba adds more controversy to other questions about Cuban agriculture and food availability. Ziegler was recently quoted as saying: "We cannot say that the right to food is totally respected in Cuba, but we have not seen a single malnourished person."

Of course, this came with an anticipated reaction. Ziva at the Babalu Blog took the opportunity to call Ziegler an "anti-Semite" (focusing on an unrelated story), and UNWatch described Ziegler as having an "extreme anti-American political agenda" and called for his removal. Notice no direct counter-arguments about the state of malnutrition in Cuba were provided. There's a reason: Cuba's food situation is not that bad, and there are far worse situations of malnutrition nearby in South and Central America.

Its generally accepted that child health (and malnutrition) "is the most widely used indicator of nutritional status in a community and is internationally recognized as an important public-health indicator for monitoring health in populations." So we should inquire into what exactly is the state of Cuba's nutritional situation and compare how it does with other countries. Health statistics from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FOA) of the UN has shown that Cuba is a mixed picture (surprise) with respect to malnutrition, but generally does not fare worse than other countries in the Latin region which operate under "free markets" and "free elections."

Results of a PAHO 2000 national survey revealed that in Cuba "5% [of children] showed moderate malnutrition and 1% severe malnutrition." Whereas countries of the "Northern Triangle" (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador) show significantly higher malnutrition levels. In Honduras, "[t]he prevalence of malnutrition in 1997 was 40.6%, 26% moderate and 14% severe." In Guatemala, "[t]he prevalence of global malnutrition (as measured by weight-for-age) is 24% in children under 5 years of age." In El Salvador in 1998, "chronic malnutrition in children under the age 5 was 23.3%." The same grim picture applies to countries like the Dominican Republic ("deficit of height-for-age in schoolchildren was close to 20%") and Colombia ("prevalence of chronic undernutrition was 13.5% in children under 5").

In 2003, our friends at UM's Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies (ICCAS) published their version of Cuba's state of health. They write that "[t]he repercussions of the shortcomings of the Cuban system are becoming more and more apparent as nutritional deficiencies register throughout the country." While they don't miss identifying nutritional deficiencies in Cuba (which are accurate), they miss the larger picture of malnutrition in the Latin region and instead conveniently blame "the Cuban system."

One source used by ICCAS comes from the 2002 FOA annual report titled "The State of Food Insecurity in the World. According to FOA (2002), ICCAS writes that "13% of the Cuban population were chronically undernourished from 1998-2000." (It must be that "Cuban system" to blame.) The statistic is accurate, and can be seen here, but FOA never describes the situation as "chronically undernourished" (but you gotta love ICCAS for trying). And, also notice the other countries highlighted in the Caribbean region. Cuba's 13% is way below the average of 25% undernourished in the Caribbean, and significantly better than the Dominican Republic's 26% undernourished population. In fact, Cuba's 13% is much closer to the average in South America (at 10%), and similar to US allies like Peru (11%) or Colombia (13%). Given that both Peru and Colombia operate under "free markets" and "free elections" (and close ties with the US), those two systems should be as much scrutinized as "the Cuban system."

Aside from South America and the Caribbean, countries in Central America also show troubling numbers. The average percentage of undernourished people is about 20%, with El Salvador at 14%, Honduras at 21%, and Guatemala at 25%. The numbers provided by FOA reveal a REAL chronic undernourishment problem in Guatemala, showing that since 1979 undernourishment has gotten worse. The recent 2006 FOA report [PDF] shows that the situation has not significantly improved from 2001 to 2003 (with 23%). Nevertheless, this didn't stop President George W. Bush in March from describing Guatemala and the US as "fellow democracies... partners in trade... allies in the cause of social justice."

But, ICCAS does get it right in pointing out other nutritional deficiencies in Cuba, such as the prevalent iron deficiency anemia that PAHO describes as "the most frequent nutritional problem in Cuba" which mostly affects children and pregnant women. PAHO reports a staggering "46% of children from 6 months to 2 years of age in 2000" as being anemic. This is very high compared with Mexico's 27% of children under five with anemia in 1999, and Colombia's troubling 36.7% for "the 12-23-month-old group" with anemia in the late 90's.

Going back to Cuba's "Green Revolution", ICCAS's 2003 report did call the new agricultural developments in Cuba after the Special Period "surely praiseworthy." But of course, they give no credit to "the Cuban System." Just as they, and others, continue to ignore the realities of Cuba and the chronic health problems of the larger Latin region.

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