I enjoyed Brandon Ferdig’s recent commentary about Cuba (“Differential diagnosis,” June 3), though my ideology may be a bit different. At first, it seemed a rehash of a familiar refrain one so often hears: They are so poor, yet happy. I always cringe when I hear this and inquire whether the traveler asked how many of their babies have died from their poverty. This is when you realize that, no, people are not really poor but happy. Cuba is an exception, however, and Ferdig’s comments were spot-on.

This is because while Cuba is a poor country, its infant mortality rate is just 4 per 1,000 births. I wish we could say the same of the U.S., with an infant mortality rate of 6 (and an African-American infant mortality rate over twice that of whites). The difference is that in Cuba, almost every person, no matter how remote, has access to quality medical care. The adult literacy rate in Cuba is 100 percent, in tandem with the U.S., but the percentage of students in high school and the teacher-to-pupil ratio are higher in Cuba than in the U.S., signaling a higher quality of education. Once again, education is provided to every person.

As a development economist, I, too, have traveled to Cuba. Cuba initiated economic reforms, beginning in the rural sector, in the 1980s. It ended communal farming, notable for poor incentives, and replaced it with secure tenancy by individual farmers. These farmers are permitted to sell their products in “farmers markets” where they receive market prices — as opposed to lower government-controlled prices, which occurs in many poor countries. This greatly enhanced Cuban agricultural production and reduced rural poverty. The government also had the foresight to recognize that in much of Latin America, massive rural-to-urban migration stems from rural poverty and creates urban slums. The Cuban government did the opposite: It provided rural farmers with the lumber and assistance they needed to establish homes and profitable operations for themselves.

Economic reforms were also extended to Cuba’s urban areas. Most notable is the tourist industry, which caters to people from around the world. Cuba’s hotel operators, cabdrivers, restaurant owners and other service providers profit from their entrepreneurship.

I’m an economist, not a political scientist, but I am well aware that the freedoms of Cubans are restricted by their government. This is something none of us wants. But, let’s also recognize that standards of living, as well as the “expressive, upbeat population” that Ferdig recognized, are positive elements of Cuban society. Distribution of income and wealth is far more equal, and average people have far more opportunity to benefit from music and the arts than is the case in the U.S. And, yes, there always does seem to be a party going on!

Let’s also remember that Fidel Castro was a revolutionary hero who overthrew the corrupt Batista regime that impoverished his country. At the time, Cuba came first to the U.S. to ask assistance; the U.S. said “no” and instead imposed an embargo. Cuba then requested and received assistance from the former Soviet Union. And finally, all the Cuban travel, business and investment restrictions on U.S. citizens are imposed by the U.S., not by the Cuban government. The “cold relations” that Ferdig refers to come from the U.S., not from Cuba.

Furthermore, I don’t believe that “those who departed Cuba” after the revolution were necessarily the ones “responsible for technological and economic development.” Rather, they were the ones with the most to lose in an egalitarian society, and they now ensure an inordinate amount of opposition toward better U.S.-Cuban relations.

I, too, am a world traveler. And I am embarrassed by my country’s president and his hostility to all things foreign. I am at a loss to explain when people ask me how — with all of the smart and decent people in my country — we cannot get rid of one very soiled president.

 

Jacqueline Brux is an emeritus professor of economics and founder and director of the Center for International Development at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.