George Pyle: Do we have to be like Cuba to have what Cuba has?

John Cole Cartoon 3/5/20

So Bernie Sanders admires the high literacy rate in Cuba. And there is no reason why he shouldn’t. The World Bank says the literacy rate for adults in that small, poor country is effectively 100 percent.

The same figure for the United States: 86%. Rated 125th in the world.

But Bernie heard some pushback, because American politicians aren’t allowed to admire anything about Cuba. It was run with an iron hand by the Castro family for more than half a century and remains a dictatorial one-party state.

Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. — especially in Florida, a place with a high and influential population of Cuban refugees and their descendants — aren’t supposed to take note of that nation’s high literacy rate. Or the fact that life expectancy and infant mortality rates in Cuba are a bit better than that found in the United States.

So even though Sanders told CNN and others that Cuba is a horrid dictatorship, he said it was still notable that a nation with a bad government and stagnant economy could provide some basic services of government better than we have managed to.

And it is.

It is notable that some of the highest literacy rates in the world are nations of the old Soviet Empire — Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, etc. — as well as North Korea. As in Cuba, the thinking seemed to be that it would be easier to indoctrinate the population if everyone could read.

That goes against the more American way of thinking — with roots in laws that specifically prohibited teaching slaves to read — that controlling people is easier if they are uneducated. And it should tip us off that the massive misuse of social media to deliver misinformation is a Russian, not a Republican, tactic.

Still, the burden should not be on Sanders to explain himself, so much as it should be on the defenders of American Exceptionalism to explain why moving toward Cuba’s literacy rate or health outcomes would somehow require also having its lack of freedom or levels of poverty.

Or can’t good old American ingenuity manage that?

It seems that the center-right American argument is that it can’t. That only old-style Communist states can do those things. And, because they are evil, that means that anything that kind of country can provide is something we don’t want. Even if it is.

By this way of thinking, the Price of Freedom isn’t military preparedness. It is ignorance, illness, homelessness, inequality, racism, sexism and poverty. Because, obviously, if we did away with any of those things, we’d no longer be free.


Freedom is all that free speech, free press, free worship stuff. And property and privacy rights. Unquestionably.

But it is also freedom to move about, to make your own way in the world, to survive the night, to have an idea where your next meal is coming from, to not have to choose between health and bankruptcy, to not have to explain to your children why they have to move and change schools again.

The nations of northern and western Europe, along with Australia and New Zealand, the ones with lots of free education and universal access to health care, also have high literacy rates, basically 99% to 100%. And if you suggested to any politician, or minimally aware person, in any of those nations that they somehow had to give up their freedom to achieve those, well, freedoms, they’d look at you like the daft person you are.

Those high literacy rates, apparently, mean that the leaders and voters of those very free, in all senses of the word, nations read Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union Message. The one in which he laid down what he called a Second Bill of Rights. Things like a job at a living wage, a decent home, education, health care, protecting the livelihood of farmers and the rights of businessmen to not be smothered by monopolistic competitors.

Universal literacy, universal health care, minimizing homelessness, making hunger a thing of the past. Those things are not antithetical to freedom. They are freedom. FDR knew that. He was just lucky that he didn’t have to mention Cuba.

George Pyle

George Pyle is editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune.


Twitter, @debatestate