BRACK: South Carolina can learn from Cuba

By Andy Brack, editor and publisher  |  For as long as Americans not old enough to be in the AARP have been alive, Cuba has been a pariah, a non-democratic experiment whose embarrassing Soviet connections caused a geo-political chess game.

00_icon_brackBut as Soviet regimes crumbled in the early 1990s, Cuba was left hanging, still isolated and cut off from its rich neighbor to the north. Cubans literally lost weight, as food became harder to get. But its economic crisis forced institutional changes. The Cuba of today isn’t the Cuba of the Cold War.

According to Cubans met during a recent visit, one-fifth of the people in the 5 million person labor force have jobs in private businesses from family-owned restaurants to small shops to other tourism-related jobs. Today, Cubans can swap houses if they want to live somewhere else — and have to pay some kind of confusing tax to do so. Sure, the socialist state still provides ration cards for free food for families as well as free education, health care and more. But the country also is changing economically, which eventually should have a positive trade impact with the U.S. as relations thaw.

Without getting into deep discussions over Cuba’s experiment with socialism, South Carolina may be able to learn a little from Cuba’s experiences over the last five decades. Some observations, courtesy participants in a 19-person group tour in August:

  • 15.0830.cuba_flowersHealth care. Cuba’s health care system — particularly its emphasis on high-quality doctors and medical research — has led to some innovations, such as a lung cancer vaccine called Cimavax that’s been free to Cubans since 2011. The treatment offers such promise that N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo went to Havana in April to take a look. Since then, an agreement for clinical trials in the U.S. has been signed.

Cuba focuses on preventing people from getting diseases and treating them quickly. Doctor-nurse teams live in neighborhoods they serve and know their patients. Health care is coordinated and community-based at a cost that reportedly is 4 percent of what the U.S. pays. Meanwhile, Cubans have the same life expectancy as Americans.

Noted one participant in the tour: “If Cuba has figured out a way to take care of its people, why can’t the biggest economy in the world do it? Societies need to take care of their children.” A lesson for South Carolina: Accept federal Medicaid expansion money so that the poorest of South Carolina’s poor can get access to better health care — medical treatment that focuses on prevention, not expensive emergency treatment.

  • Literacy. Cuba, while poor, has a universal public education system that has created a literate population with some 99.8 percent of people older than 14 being able to read and write a short simple statement about everyday life, according to the United Nations. In South Carolina, data indicate literacy rates of about 85 percent. It’s obvious that Cubans are doing something right, at least in early education, that merits a closer look.
  • Trash. Cuba seems like a pretty clean country. Maybe it’s because there’s not a fast-food joint on every corner. But there’s also an obvious pride of place that regular people have to keep roads and neighborhoods in urban and rural areas relatively free from trash.
  • Agriculture. Perhaps the biggest lesson we can learn is in agriculture, particularly in getting back to basics of our grandparents in growing foods without lots of chemicals or pesticides. Cuba did it out of necessity and it seems to be paying off. After the Soviets, Cuba, just to feed itself, launched a program of urban and family organic gardening to produce more food. Fresh, seasonal foods seem to be widely available. Additionally, there’s apparently a rise in the countryside of small, family farms that produce an array of foods for local restaurants and markets.

One group participant found the focus on neighborhood and small farming to be Cuba’s biggest lesson, noting how he was impressed by “the importance of small family farming and how it can diversify the crop base and reduce the influence of corporate farming.”

There is much to gain from improved relations with Cuba — for us, as much as for them.


Andy Brack is editor and publisher of Charleston Currents and Statehouse Report. You can reach him at:


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