Monday, April 15, 2013

Blinding ourselves with ideology.

Roland Merullo is a Cuban-American, a novelist who supports himself in part by writing stories for a golf magazine. On his return from a recent trip to Cuba he argues for an end to the American embargo of Cuba. He recognizes that the existing Castro regime in Cuba has produced a highly educated population, and a medical establishment that rivals any in the first world. But he also deplores the pervasive, extreme poverty of the Cuban people. If we allowed Cubans to visit the US, and Americans to visit Cuba freely, the Cubans, he thinks, would recognize the blessings of capitalism and jettison their own socialism. (Boston Globe,April 13, 2013.)
Merullo is clearly an open-minded person, but in the end he falls back on the purely ideological contrasts between socialism and capitalism, where socialism is bad even if it has some successes, and capitalism is good even if it sometimes fails.
But that comparison is an extremely destructive way of comparing the experiences of two different countries and their peoples and cultures. Cuba's education system is impressively successful. Ours, by contrast, is, as every talking head keeps repeating, "broken." One personal experience to illustrate that: I recently asked one of my classes at the local state university what capitalism is. At first there was profound silence. No one knew. Then one student volunteered that capitalism had to do with buying and selling. That's all they knew. I am sure they would all have agreed that capitalism is good and socialism bad. The educational system in our capitalist country has not served them well.
Similarly, Cuba's medical establishment is first rate, in spite of the pervasive poverty. The United States medical system is more expensive than any other in the world. Yet in listings of international comparisons of medical systems, ours comes in in 37th place. Cuba ranks 39th. ( Cuba spends a fractions what we spend on medical care.
Many visitors to Cuba report on extensive poverty. But the ideological view of the two countries – "socialism bad, capitalism good" – suggests that poverty is not a problem in our country. But consider these facts:
In Massachusetts the minimum wage is $ 8.00 an hour. A single person being paid the minimum wage may fall short as much as twelve thousand dollars a year below the federally defined poverty level. The outlook for a female-headed households in Massachusetts is that they do not earn enough to pay their bills for themselves and their children. Four out of ten two-parent households in the state will not bring in enough money to make ends meet. Six out of ten families in Massachusetts live paycheck to paycheck.
These facts are cited by the Senate president of the Massachusetts legislature Therese Murray. (Worcester Telegram and Gazette, April 12,2013:6).
To visitors from the US, the face of Cuban poverty never fails to impress. But the United States also has a terribly serious poverty problem.
It is worse than useless, it is outright destructive to approach these facts blinded by the "socialism versus capitalism" ideology. Instead we need to ask questions in the hope of learning. What do Cubans do right in education that we have not managed to do? How do they manage to have a first rate medical system at a much lower cost than ours? What attempts at mitigating poverty have been made in Cuba and in the US? Why did both fail?
Thinking ideologically that capitalism is, of course, good, we are blinded to the terrible failures that affect the lives of large percentages of US citizens. We cannot even begin to think intelligently about ways to improve our record with respect to poverty, with respect to education, with respect to the cost of medical care as long as we are tethered to uncritical and unthinking cheerleading for capitalism.
Merullo may well be right that Cubans who are more freely exposed to the experience of Americans may learn from that exposure. But surely Americans would profit also if we used comparisons between the countries in order to improve how we run our own country instead of reiterating the mantra that capitalism is good.
Yes, let's open Cuba to American visits by abolishing the Embargo. But let's also take off our blinders and visit other countries in order to learn, not in order to reinforce our prejudices.