March 2, 2009

Cuban Solidarity and Disaster Response by August Nimtz

Cuban Solidarity and Disaster Response 
by August Nimtz
August Nimtz is Professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota and the author of Marx, Tocqueville, and Race in America (2003). A more detailed version of the argument presented here can be found in “Natural versus Social Phenomena: Cuba and the Lessons of Katrina” (The Black Scholar, 2006, 36 [4]). 

How is it that an underdeveloped country that is incessantly alleged to be under a dictatorship can do a far better job of saving the lives of its citizens when a hurricane strikes than a rich country with all the trappings of liberal democracy? The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina demonstrates that this is not just an interesting academic question but a matter of life and death. Even before then, international bodies such as the United Nations and the International Red Cross often cited Cuba for its exemplary practices in dealing with hurricanes. Measured in terms of preparation, loss of lives, and recovery, the differences between Cuba and the United States Gulf Coast persist. Even in the 2008 season, when Cuba was assaulted by the most powerful hurricanes on record, it experienced the loss of only five lives.

Opponents of the Cuban Revolution claim that its government can be more effective because it is more hierarchically organized and more intrusive than liberal governments. Cuba is indeed a disciplined, organized, and well-armed society (and for good reason, given Washington’s almost 50 years of hostility), but the fact is that while evacuations for hurricanes are mandatory, the authorities cannot force citizens to do so. More than simply its organization to defend itself, Cuba’s most essential feature is the presence and reproduction of human solidarity. This explains why Cuba, as an underdeveloped society, lacking many of the material resources available in the United States, can do a far better job of educating and meeting the health needs of its citizens—as well as those in other countries—than its far wealthier neighbor to the north. What so distinguishes Cuba from the United States is that its citizens have a political system that represents and acts on behalf of the working-class majority—in other words, substantive democracy. If some of the forms of liberal democracy, especially competitive multiparty elections, are absent in Cuba, the substance of democracy—outcomes that serve the interests of the majority—is in place, as measured by the life-and-death consequences of governmental action. Its limitations notwithstanding, government in Cuba has proven to be far more responsive when it comes to protecting the lives of its citizens than that of the United States. Cubans have a government that actively organizes solidarity.

The Cuban case therefore challenges standard liberal notions of democracy and human rights. Because Cuba lacks the trappings of liberal or, more accurate, bourgeois democracy, it does not neatly fit into such analyses. To the extent that conventional comparative analysis of democracy and human rights even considers Cuba, the island is seen as an outlier or, in some cases, an outlier of outliers. The Cuban experience makes the case for a class-analytic perspective on the question of democracy—for the need to examine whose class interests are served by the state and the government. This perspective reveals that the Cuban working-class did what their counterparts to the north have yet to do; they took power out of the hands of the tiny capitalist class and consciously exercise it on their own behalf. This fact, more than any other, explains why hurricanes have enormously different outcomes in two societies separated by only 90 miles of sea but worlds apart socially and politically. As another hurricane, the current economic crisis, assaults the entire globe, I confidently predict that workers will fare better in Cuba than workers in countries where the rule of capital is in place.

LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES, Issue 165, Vol. 36 No. 2, March 2009 133-134 DOI: 10.1177/0094582X09331815 © 2009 Latin American Perspectives

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