OBITUARY Our Man in Hawana

Fidel Castro

Despite its flaws, Fidel Castro provided a strong counter-narrative to capitalism

Few would expect, or even want to see, Fidel Castro featured on the editorial page of India’s leading business newspaper. He was abhorred by ‘capitalist as’ pink papers and the global investor community for advancing a revolutionary economic counter-narrative that was, until only recently, at odds with the West.

Shortly after Fidel began his quest to survive 10 US presidents over half a century, he was dubbed America’s main offender. For millions living in Asia, Africa, West Asia, Latin America and Russia, Fidel was the chosen one -the only one, rather -who had successfully defied American presidents and their sanctions, blockades (in Castro’s dictionary , `embargo’ was an imprecise word) and exploding cigars.

This from the leader of a rum-sipping, cigar-smoking Caribbean island 90 miles south of Florida with a population of only 12 million.

This author visited Fidel’s Cuba in 2007 as part of a United Nations-sponsored parliamentary delegation. His parliamentary colleague and he travelled to Havana to study Cuba’s acclaimed healthcare system. In spite of a few oddities, author was impressed by the system’s overall efficacy.

For instance, Cuba’s national HIVAIDS program is regarded as one of the world’s foremost programs for controlling the spread of the disease. Here’s the secret: since 1986, when the first case of HIV was detected on the island, Cuba began quarantining HIV-positive people in sanatoria, granting them limited access to their communities but unlimited access to anti-retro virals manufactured in Cuba.

Like numerous other distinctive Cuban economic and social models, Cuba’s HIVAIDS program would have never worked in a democracy. It would raise serious ethical and human rights questions. But fortunately for Castro, Cuba was a one party state.

JAZZMATAZZ

Cubans fondly called -and will continue to call -Fidel by his first name. Most Cubans have met him over his five-decade-long reign and consider him not so much a leader but more a friend and comrade. What’s surreal, however, is that many Habaneros (the pepper is spelt habañero, guys) I met in 2007 had never seen an iPod -which wouldn’t be too unusual in 2016 -or knew where El Presidente lived.

During author’s visit, author is not going to deny that he also managed to find the time to soak up his fair share of Cuba’s famed and highly recommended jazz scene. However, the thing that stands out the most in Cuba isn’t Cuban jazz, the bevy of 1952 Chevrolets in need of urgent makeovers, Cuban cigars, mojitos or Caribbean beaches. I take that back -the beaches are breathtaking.

But seriously, it’s Cuba’s multiethnic, multi-cultural and multi-talented people. Cubans rank high among Latin America’s, and probably the worlds, best educated and most diverse people.

It’s little wonder that Cuba is a major exporter of healthcare and pedagogical services to most of Central and South America.

In spite of almost six decades of the harshest US embargo against Cuba, it has accomplished what few nations’ social sectors rarely achieve: a near-100% literacy rate and a heal thcare-to-GDP government spend of 7.5%. Also, Cuban women have a higher life expectancy than Cuban men. Compare this to the capitalist world and the US, for example, whe re over 30 million adults can’t read.

The average American’s life exp ectancy is only 79.3 years compared to 79.1 years in Cuba. This after Am erica’s six-decade head start with free-market capitalism.

In a meeting with the then-vice president of Cuba, author recalls him urging India to invest towards strengthening Cuba’s energy security. He was convinced that the US would lift its embargo on Cuba once it discovers oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

Seven years later, under President Barack Obama’s leadership, the US did just that.

Fidel’s economic counter-narrative wasn’t always blinded by his ideological opposition to the West. In 2007, Fidel warned the world and the US in particular, that food-based bio-fuels were driving up global food prices. Soon after, the world was con fronted by a steep rise in the prices of wheat, rice and other crops.

For India, rising food prices coupled with oil at $134 a barrel in 2008 resulted in double-digit inflation in 2009, higher interest rates and slowed growth.

BOOMERANG

I wonder what advice Fidel Castro would give to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his government’s demonetization program. Would Fidel share Modi’s view that governments should impose a cashless economy on their citizenry versus letting it happen organically? Would he alert us that cashless economies like Sweden and Norway are growing increasingly concerned about rising cyber crimes and data theft?

Most importantly, as someone who has been a long-standing friend of India’s, would Fidel enlighten us that we can’t wish away black money unless we implement electoral reforms and move towards a more benign, collaborative tax regime? Would our prime minister seek and value his counsel?

Until December 30, let’s raise a toast to Nelson Mandela’s wise words: Viva Fidel!