By J. Mac Holladay, President, CEO, and Founder
I returned last week from a week in Cuba. After spending two days in Havana, the Washington & Lee Alumni College group sailed around the western edge of the island and proceeded to the Isle of Youth, the largest of the Canarreos Archipelago. After visiting the capitol, Nueva Gerona, we traveled on to Cayo Largo, Trinidad, and Cienfuegos. We then drove across the mid-section of Cuba to the Havana airport to catch our one hour and thirty minute non-stop Delta flight back to Atlanta.
My impressions are too numerous to recount in this short piece, but I do want convey both some facts and thoughts. There were many surprises for me. Here are a few comparison facts to consider:
1) The voting age there is 16 versus our 18.
2) In the hospital, there is a 24% less chance of infant death than in the United States. 4.7 of 1000 babies die in Cuba before age of one, while 6.17 die in the US.
3) While there remain some critical questions about Cuba’s 1980’s HIV program, last year there were only 100 HIV deaths in Cuba. Click here for an in-depth 2012 NYT article about the program.
4) Cuba is having 26% fewer children than in the US. Annual births there are 9.90 per 1000, while in the US it is 13.4.
5) The per capita expense on health care is 93.7% less than in the US. The total public and private expenses per person in Cuba reach $558 versus $8995 in the US.
6) The inflation rate there is 5.5% versus 2.1% here.
7) The National Parliament has 45% female members versus 22% in our Congress.
8) Private ownership of fire arms is forbidden. In fact, only the National Police have weapons, the local police have only night sticks.
Our visit was both “people to people” and educational. Two Washington and Lee professors presented lectures about Cuban history, Castro, and the life and culture there. The lack of new equipment from cars to tractors to trucks was evident everywhere. In many places, horses (many of them under great stress) were pulling carts and doing hard work. While much of the country appears very capable of agricultural production, only sugar cane and tobacco were evident. Yes, there were some “classic cars” somehow beautifully restored, but many more vehicles are barely working with engines and parts from any and everywhere.
Both Trinidad and Cienfuegos have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I sincerely hope that all of central Havana can receive the same designation. There are literally hundreds of beautiful buildings in Havana that have not been touched since the 1950’s. The opportunity for historic restoration projects is almost unlimited.
Recently, the government has allowed entrepreneurs to thrive and keep the vast majority of their profits. While the country is not part of the international banking community, small business is growing. What is badly needed is massive foreign direct investment in major industry sectors still under full governmental control. There is no doubt that the now nearly 60 year old US embargo has crippled the Cuban economy.
The educational and medical systems were far more advanced than I thought they would be. The deep commitment to the arts including music, dance, and graphic arts were evident in all the schools we visited. The health care system begins at the neighborhood level and continues through excellent hospitals and research and development. Both education and health care are free at all levels.
With a population of over 11 million, this 792 mile long island nation has amazing economic opportunity for the future. Many believe that the changes now underway are unstoppable, and that once Raoul Castro is gone as president a new era will begin, perhaps with the United States as a full partner.