26 November 2016

Fidel, "free" markets, and the sauce with which we are being eaten

Fidel Castro is no more.  He died today at the age of 90.  Whether he is hero or villain, he certainly is historic.  This cannot be disputed.  The following article was published in the Sunday Island o December 12, 2000.  It was one of the earliest articles I wrote for that newspaper.  

That Latin America bleeds is not news. In fact, blood-letting seems to be the defining badge of the entire human race, not just Latin America. Still, bleeding has a different signature in each continent, nation and community. Thus Eduardo Galeano’s "The open veins of Latin America" reads as a particular story of a particular continent, for brutality etches certain distinctive lines of suffering on each people. Subcommandante Marcos, the spokesperson for the Zapatistas fighting for democracy, dignity and history in the Mexican Southeast, also chooses the metaphor of blood and its associations in describing the political economy of the Mayans in Chiapas in a powerful introduction to his collection of communiques titled "Shadows of tender fury," where he talks about the many veins through which value is syphoned out of that resource-rich region.

The paucity of blood has a name. Anemia. This is a story about deficiencies, especially in Latin America today’s globalized climate, with leaders clamouring to extend NAFTA (North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement) to countries other than the US, Canada and Mexico, while indigenous people say "No! We don’t have to go to university or to a library to know about globalization; we live it everyday and can very well manage without it".

Such indignation is usually found in radical gatherings, and anarchist listserves and websites. The Ibero-American Summit can hardly be called a radical collective, but there were hard truths spoken there this time, the 10th such summit, held in Panama City. It had to be Fidel (who else?) Fidel Castro is known for long and biting speeches. A lot of them are about defending socialism and the Cuban Revolution and typically end with the now familiar call to arms: "Socialism or Death!" And yet, Fidel does come up with the numbers and an analysis that is more often than not lucid and cogent. You can fault him for many things, but this should not make us blind to some of the arguments he makes, particularly since they shed light on the predicament of nations like ours. His recent speech at the 10th Ibero-American Summit held in Panama City is a case in point.

Castro gives a quick run down of the situation in Latin America:
"Forty five percent of the total population in Latin America and the Caribbean region are poor, that is, 224 million people and 90 million of them live in absolute poverty. Actually, over half of the poor and absolute poor are children and adolescents. The average mortality rate for children under 5 years of age in Latin America and the Caribbean region was 39 per 1000 live births in 1998, thus, the number of dead children was close to half a million.

"It is estimated that this year 2000, approximately 36 percent of all children under 2 years of age are in a high risk food situation which is worse still in the rural areas where about 46 percent are in jeopardy due to generally precarious sanitation conditions and greater difficulties to gain access to public health care.

"The direct cost of vaccines for the immunization of a child under one year of age against six preventable child diseases such as diphtheria, measles, whooping cough, poliomyelitis, tuberculosis and tetanus is lower than 80 cents of a US dollar. However, the World Health Organization has reported that all over the area of the Americas, including the United States and Canada, immunization coverage of children under one year against these diseases ranges from 85 to 90 percent, thus it is estimated that over 15 million children in the hemisphere, under 5 years of age, are not protected from those six diseases.

"As for education, it is estimated that 20% of children join the educational system late, 42% do not get through the first grade and 30% do not get through the second. Only 80% of children in the region make it to fourth grade and just 73% to the fifth. Eight out of every ten students attend school for seven years but the average schooling is approximately four grades. Pre-school education coverage in the region reaches an average of 15 percent."

He contrasts this scandalous state of affairs with the situation in Cuba thus:

"If the infant mortality rate in the Latin American and Caribbean region were similar to the 6.4 per 1000 live births in the first year of life and the 8.3 for children under 5 reached by Cuba — despite the fact that it has been isolated, harassed and subjected to a ruthless economic warfare for over 40 years — almost 400,000 children would have survived every year; 99.2% would have pre-school education coverage; 99.9% would be enrolled in school by the age of 6 and 99.7% would remain in school up to sixth grade. Also, 98.9% of the total first grade enrollment would have passed the sixth grade and 99.9% would have entered junior high school while 99.5% of these graduates would go on to senior high school or technical school. They could have obtained the first prizes in the Olympiads of Knowledge and there would not be children in need of special education without schools. Actually, there would not be illiterates and the average educational level of the adult population would be higher than the ninth grade; lastly, there would not be one child under 16 years of age working for a living."

The numbers in Sri Lanka make interesting reading. One out of every three children under 5 years of age is underweight. The infant mortality rate is 17 out of every 1000. Under five mortality is 19/1000, indicating a high prevalance of hunger and/or poor health care.

Maternal mortality is at 60/100000. Key to understanding these numbers is that they indicate only those cases that are reported. The problem is that not everyone dies in a hospital, hardly surprising since people can’t afford the medicines and the medical attention subsequent to "structural adjustment" which is but another name for privatization and the making of things like healthcare and education a luxury.

We do have a high literacy rate, 91%, but as someone said, we are for the most part literate in reading the destination signs of buses. Anyway, in this age of private bus conductors screaming the names of destinations, being able to read is not essential. Apparently 14% of children between 5 and 10 do not even attend school. Thank you structural adjustment!

Thirty five percent of the population is below the official poverty line. As we all know, the poverty line is a neat mechanism that can be lifted or dropped at will, so the real numbers typically are higher. External debt as a percentage of GNP, in 1998, was 54%.

We have the world’s number one suicide rate. Three thousand six hundred farmers in Polonnaruwa attempted suicide last year alone, 145 died. And these farmers are under major irrigation, mind you. It is hard to think that all of them were suffering from unrequited love or something. I am sure there must be statisticians out there who can do neat regressions after factoring in the negatives resulting from the proposed legislation regarding water entitlements. Yes, it is not too difficult to draw a line from specific "adjustment" policies to these numbers.

Yes, we are better than Latin America in general and way ahead of the rest of South Asia (thanks not to early liberalisation but a long tradition of an interventionist state that was responsible to the well-being of the population), but we will continue to play "catch-up" to Cuba the way we are going. We eagerly await the 2001 census to get some numbers on the rotten fruit yielded by liberalisation since 1977. We can only hope that in the context of fixing elections and fixing matches, the numbers themselves will remain independent of the machinations of interest groups.

Back to Cuba. Cuba is faulted for pursuing socialist policies and for having a dictatorship. With respect to the latter, it must be mentioned that Fidel Castro is the only leader in Latin America and the Caribbean (and probably in the entire world), who walks into universities and factories without a security cordon. If one were to go by the numbers, then the achievements of a regime that affords its population free health care and free education are indeed remarkable. We are living in a materialistic world. Things, therefore, have to be measured in tangible terms. Cuba is a far cry from the barracks Socialist regimes in Eastern Europe. And the Cuban people have proved beyond a shadow of doubt, that a state that actively seeks to look after its population can deliver the goods. The miserbale failures of pro-US, pro-free market regimes all over Latin America only offer a startling contrast to Cuba. It is clear that there are more lessons to learn from Fidel than from Uncle Sam.

And yet, our leaders meekly follow the dictum, now openly and unashamedly waved around, that free markets are the way to go. Nowadays people don’t talk of structural adjustment. Years ago, we had "structural adjustment," which gave way to "structural adjustment with a human face," and finally "structural adjustment with poverty alleviation". The subtext is simple. Structural adjustment does not have a human face. Structural adjustment causes poverty. At least that’s what the symptomatic reading of that particular trajectory tells us. Structural adjustment, in real and understandable language was this: the twisting of our structures to facilitate the uninterrupted, indeed "sustainable" development of their (rich, capitalist, white) nations.

Nowadays no one talks of structural adjustment. No one talks of capitalism. Now we have globalization. Capitalist culture has a way with words. For example, shell-shock, which was a term anyone could understand, no longer happens in this world. Apparently. Now it is called "post conflict trauma". And so, there is user-friendly lexicon at the fingertips of the World Bank/IMF expert, the academic and the development practitioner.

Globalisation! What more unifying concept is there for us to dream about? The problem is that unity is another name for the obliteration of difference. If monoculture has alarming implications for agriculture, it portends terrifying things for civilization. Right now, in the name of globalization, we are being bought or are buying into the notion of the "free market".

Free markets, as Eduardo Galeano once said, allow us to choose the sauce with which we will be eaten. There are no free markets in the sense of the classical economic. There is no such thing as a perfect flow of information and markets are fallible if they are anything. Where vast numbers of people can neither demand from nor supply to the market, it is ridiculous to interject the prefix "free" to anything.

The question is, how long are we going to wait? After enough blood is withdrawn the body loses that minimum amount of strength to resist. My guess is that we are close to that point.

See also: History absolved him a long time ago