SUNDAY NATION, JANUARY 6 2019
- Cuba survived unbearable difficulty thanks to the fact that its peoples’ basic needs such as healthcare and education were fully catered for.
- In 2019 may we see unwavering commitment from President Kenyatta in making comprehensive healthcare and quality education accessible for all Kenyans.
By ISAAC OTIDI AMUKE
When historians write on Kenya during epochs within which 2018 shall fall, the events of this year shall form not footnotes but entire chapters of such texts. From the swearing in of Raila Odinga to the handshake between Mr Odinga and President Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenyans have indeed had their fair share of what would easily pass for political events of the decade.
However, as all these took place, the general public mostly remained in a head space filled with uncertainty, unsure about the full implications of these events as pertains their everyday struggles.
As if those weren’t significant enough, the Auditor General recently rang the alarm bell that were the country to default on its debt obligations to China as regards the financing of the standard gauge railway, then the Mombasa port, used as collateral, will be up for grabs by the Chinese. We all hope it doesn’t get to that, like in Sri Lanka’s case.
At times such as these, when a lot is happening and everyone is struggling to make sense out of it all, it is always important to take a moment to reflect, both as a country and as individuals. And there is no better time to do so than now.
In the late 1980s, Fidel Castro Ruz, then Cuba’s Commander-in-Chief, warned Cubans that they needed to be alive to the possibility of the dissolution of the Soviet Union — at the time Cuba’s largest trading partner — and what such an occurrence would mean for Cuba. Thanks to its Communist leadership and its dalliance with the Soviet Union, Cuba had been blacklisted by the United States, placing a multibillion economic blockade against the island.
In the early 1990s, Castro’s prophesy came to pass. The Soviet Union dissolved under what its leader Mikhail Gorbachev considered mandatory reforms. The union split into a number of states some of which denounced Communist ideals in aligning with the United States. As such, Cuba lost its largest trading partner, resulting in serious economic hardship, what Castro christened the Special Period starting in 1991.
The Special Period — coupled with the United States blockade — made having a meal a day no mean task for Cubans. Yet to Cubans — egged on by Castro’s sometimes eight-hour-long speeches explaining the need to persist — the period was simply a phase which would subside.
Of course there was no unanimous support for Castro — especially by Cuban exiles in the United States and dissidents at home who remained his biggest critics — but Cubans took solace in the fact that despite economic difficulties, they had almost all their basic needs catered for by the State, including subsidised food rations and comprehensive healthcare.
Throughout Castro’s reign, Cuba’s healthcare sector constituted about a third of the country’s national budget, followed by education. To Castro, the future of Cuba was dependent on a healthy, educated population. So those two sectors were first priorities for the State. Despite its many shortfalls, the fact that Castro’s State took care of its population using the very limited resources enabled Cuba to survive the tough economic times.
On December 31, Cuba marked its 60th anniversary since Castro led a military invasion into Havana. To Cubans, this marks 60 years of surviving tough external pressures while strengthening internal resilience through programmes such as comprehensive universal healthcare.
Kenya, like the United States, has since repaired its diplomatic relationship with Cuba. President Uhuru Kenyatta — like his former United States counterpart Barack Obama — visited Havana, where the head-bust of his father and Kenya’s founding President Jomo Kenyatta was unveiled. Later on, 100 Cuban doctors were absorbed across the 47 counties.
But as Cuba’s new friends like Kenya strengthen their co-operation and congratulate Cuba as it celebrates the 60 year anniversary of its new republic, it is important to remind the likes of President Kenyatta that tiny countries such as Cuba have survived unbearable difficulty thanks to the fact that its peoples’ basic needs such as healthcare and education were fully catered for.
In 2019 — as Kenya grapples with challenges of introducing a new curriculum and rolling out universal healthcare — may we see unwavering commitment from President Kenyatta in making comprehensive healthcare and quality education accessible for all Kenyans. It may mean training more personnel — Cuba has over 70,000 doctors and nurses for a population of 11 million — and increasing the fiscal allocation for healthcare to 15 per cent of the national budget in line with the 2001 African Union Abuja Declaration.
These interventions are what will cushion Kenyans during uncertain times.