Above Photo: Doctor with a patient in Cuba. (Ministerio de Salud Publica, Cuba)
Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua
Latin America has been one of the regions worst-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, in every sense. Not only are countries like Brazil, Colombia, and Peru suffering epidemiological catastrophes, the result of right-wing neoliberal policies, but the World Bank and other financial institutions have reported that the region has suffered the most serious economic crisis as a result of the pandemic. The 2020s in Latin America are set to be a “lost decade,” with little social, economic, or political advancement in a number of nations. The failures of capitalism have become glaringly obvious during COVID-19, even though they were already apparent prior to the outbreak of the pandemic. And while there has been an overwhelming focus on the deaths, violence, and instability wracking numerous Latin American states, far less attention has been paid to the three countries that have, against all odds, defied this norm: Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.
All three countries have distinguished themselves as having excellent, though little-studied COVID-19 responses. Not only that, but they are acting as global good Samaritans, rendering international assistance to other states in need, particularly those of the Global South. This internationalism sits in stark contrast to the right-wing Latin American governments that have abandoned their own people to the ravages of the coronavirus, and puts to shame the embarassing pandemic responses of the developed world, their barbaric hoarding of vaccines, and continued interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign states.
What is more, Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua have made significant strides in protecting their people and defending their socialist projects, even as they face a series of interventions orchestrated by Washington, ranging from long-running economic blockades to media campaigns and even military operations. The resilience of Latin American socialist societies and institutions in this context of COVID-19 and U.S. intervention merits significant attention.
It is important to discuss in detail the ways in which Latin American socialism has not only survived, but also shown its force amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Now more than ever, it is necessary to highlight successful alternative political models when the neoliberal capitalist system is clearly in an advanced state of decay and, in some places, nearing collapse.
It is fitting to begin this analysis with a focus on Cuba. Well before COVID-19 arrived on the island, Cuban state-owned media was providing rigorous coverage of the spread of the virus worldwide, as well as updating recommendations on treatment and social distancing measures as health professionals became more acquainted with the virus. Having lived and studied in Cuba at the time of the COVID-19 outbreak, I can attest to the thoroughness of the Cuban media in their reporting. Moreover, a serious benefit of state control and coordination of the media is that it prevented the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories, which have readily taken root in the United States, European states, and Australia—all countries with private media monopolies.
In late January, the Cuban Ministry of Public Health established a series of national training programs for over 95,000 doctors and 84,000 nurses to diagnose and treat COVID-19. This useful information was also shared across social media platforms in simplified language for everyday Cubans. Revolutionary mass organizations such as the Federation of Cuban Women and the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution also assisted in this awareness-raising campaign, ensuring that citizens across the island were well-informed regarding the dangers of COVID-19 and how to protect their communities. Once the first case was detected in Cuba on March 10, 2020, a range of testing sites were established across the nation, and thousands of Cuban medical students from across the nation’s thirteen medical universities undertook a massive campaign to visit every single house in the country. This has meant that Cuba provides some of the most accurate COVID-19 case data in the world. Once again, the benefits of a socialist system and a strong, centralized state were on full display. Centrally controlled, well-coordinated medical institutions allowed Cuba to respond to new outbreaks quickly and adapt to the rapidly evolving situation.
By March 20, 2020, as the number of cases began to climb in Cuba, president Miguel Díaz-Canel announced a series of measures to be implemented across the nation. This included the expulsion of tourists and foreign students; physical distancing; paid self-quarantine for vulnerable Cubans; full payment of wages for all Cuban workers for the first month of quarantine, and a subsequent guarantee of 60 percent of a workers’ wage for the duration of the pandemic; and an expansion of the rationing system to increase access to food and sanitation packages, particularly in poorer neighborhoods. It must be recognized that these measures are hallmarks of the socialist system. Very few countries have provided such significant, targeted, and appropriate socioeconomic assistance to their populations as has Cuba.
The mobilization of the public and grassroots organizations has been a cornerstone of the island’s COVID-19 response. The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, or CDRs, number some eight million Cubans out of a total population of eleven million, and were first created in 1960 to root out U.S. subversion. These organizations have been essential in Cuba’s fight against the pandemic. Organized at the level of the neighborhood block, CDR members have volunteered en masse to clean and cook in quarantine centers, deliver supplies to families in remote areas, and prepare medical and food packages to send to vulnerable neighborhoods. This was clearly framed within a revolutionary context—the hashtag #EsteEsMiGirón (#ThisIsMyBayOfPigs), which became popular on social media, indicates that everyday Cubans viewed the fight against coronavirus as a revolutionary battle, something that needed to be overcome in order to defend the sovereignty of the nation.
The start of 2021 saw cases on the island increase dramatically following a lifting of the ban on tourism. Since then, Cuba has recorded case counts exceeding 6,500 per day, though deaths remain low. This is a paradox of the Cuban context. While Cuba has undoubtedly implemented one of the best responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, the harsh economic reality of the poor, isolated nation, still suffering under an ever-more severe U.S. blockade, has necessitated sacrifices to ensure that Cuba can continue feeding and housing its citizens. Spurred in part by this reality, as well as the revolutionary vision first laid out by Fidel Castro, the Cuban government invested heavily in vaccine research right from the beginning.
Cuba’s biopharmaceutical prowess dates back to the 1980s, when Castro decided to focus Cuba’s scientific experience on this sector. And it has clearly paid off. Cuba is one of just three countries, alongside Russia and China, that has successfully produced a vaccine without relying on the private sector. In fact, the island has produced five. Of these five vaccines, Abdala is the most effective. Currently, it has an efficacy of just over 92 percent, with the Cuban president indicating that this will be improved to 95 percent by the end of the year. This would make it one of the most effective COVID-19 vaccines in the world, perhaps rivalled only by new developments with Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. So experienced is Cuba’s state-led medical coordination that, by the end of the year, all Cubans will be fully vaccinated, and Cuba will be able to produce millions of doses each month for international use.
This brings us to another component of Cuban socialism’s COVID-19 response: internationalism. Ever since 1959, Cuba has had a long tradition of assisting fellow nations of the Global South with education, health care, and infrastructure development, free of charge for those nations that cannot afford to pay. COVID-19 is no different. Cuba has sent COVID-19 medical teams to over thirty countries in Africa and Latin America, and even Italy and Andorra, assisting some of the most vulnerable communities in the world confront the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is remarkable that Cuba has achieved so much with so little, particularly given the increasingly brutal nature of the U.S. blockade on the island, alongside other efforts by Washington to destabilize the island. The Donald Trump administration, for example, applied over two hundred new embargo-related sanctions against the Cuban government and economy throughout his four-year term, including many during the COVID-19 pandemic itself. Cumulatively, the blockade has cost Cuba some $130 billion over the past six decades. And Joe Biden, proving himself to be equally hostile to Cuba as his predecessor, has not removed any legislation relating to the blockade. Such a staggering economic impact, and the resultant social implications this has had, amounts to nothing less than a genocide. Citing shortages of food, medicine, and other essential products caused directly by the blockade, 184 UN member states overwhelmingly called for the United States to end its inhumane policy toward Cuba in 2021, as the international body has done for the past twenty years.
This cruel situation, created and indeed maintained by the United States, has had predictably debilitating effects for Cuba during the pandemic, particularly when coupled with the collapse of tourism, vital for Cuba’s economic and social well-being. This has been exploited by the United States in its attempts to destabilize the island.
July 11, 2021, saw social unrest aimed against the Cuban government emerge in several towns and cities across the island, fomented and funded by the United States. International media was quick to claim that thousands of protestors had railed against the government. However, initial estimates and all available audiovisual evidence suggest that, in reality, it was hundreds, not thousands, of Cubans who took to the streets. Moreover, Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez has demonstrated with clarity and on public television that many of these protestors were backed by the United States, and were in large part linked to either the far-right Cuban-American community in Miami, or specific criminal elements. This latter group made itself known through attacks on security personnel and the destruction of public property during the demonstrations. President Díaz-Canel recognized that some protestors had legitimate grievances related to the scarcity of basic goods, though rightfully placed the blame on the U.S. blockade. The fact that these protestors failed to do so is indicative of their duplicity.
A torrent of fake news then followed. The counter-marches of thousands, and in some cases tens of thousands, of pro-government demonstrators were either omitted from mainstream media reporting or outright manipulated—examples abound of photos depicting revolutionary marches being presented as counter-revolutionary protests, including a particularly bizarre instance in which Fox News blurred signs of pro-government protestors in a bid to portray them as anticommunist demonstrators. In spite of these attempts at destabilization, Cuba’s government and people have resisted. The fact that Cuba can still manage a robust COVID-19 response in spite of these provocations is impressive.
Clearly, Cuba’s socialist system has allowed it to survive one of the deadliest combinations of challenges faced by any nation on Earth: a deadly pandemic and the cruel and unusual punishment of the U.S. blockade. However, the revolutionary unity of the Cuban people, together with their government, has meant that the island has outperformed not only its neoliberal neighbors in Latin America, but also most of the developed world, including the United States.
Another country that has surprised the world with its excellent COVID-19 response is Bolivarian Venezuela, a firm ally of Cuba that is also facing a severe crisis caused by U.S. intervention and economic blockade. Following the first cases of COVID-19 in Brazil on February 26, 2020, the Nicolás Maduro government established the Presidential Commission for the Prevention and Control of Coronavirus, several weeks before the country registered its first cases. Even more remarkable was the dire medical crisis the nation found itself in prior to the pandemic. Caused almost entirely by U.S. intervention, Venezuela faced an 85 percent shortage of medicines, while 300,000 citizens were at risk of death due to lack of medication for kidney disease, numerous cancers, and HIV. In spite of these challenges, Venezuela outperformed every other nation in South America with its COVID-19 response. On March 15, 2020, just two days after the first cases were reported in the country, Venezuela shut its borders to Europe, Colombia, Panama, and the Dominican Republic. Public gatherings and schools were suspended that same day to prevent the spread of the virus. Clearly, Venezuela took the threat posed by coronavirus seriously.
A key component of Venezuela’s successful response was the Sistema Patria, or System of the Homeland identity card program. First established by Maduro in 2016 to coordinate access to food and medicine services, Sistema Patria was digitized during the pandemic and an online platform established so that Venezuelans could describe their situation and what essential goods they required. Millions of Venezuelans created an account and used the online Sistema Patria, allowing for the majority of Venezuelans to receive the food and medicine they needed from the government. It also allowed the Maduro administration to keep an effective registry of the distribution and supply levels of such goods.
By late March, Venezuela had created a COVID-19 screening and diagnosis plan that saw Venezuelan doctors go door-to-door searching for cases. This was modeled off Cuba’s own anti-COVID-19 campaign and provided much-needed employment opportunities for medical workers amid an economic crisis. The resourcefulness of Venezuelan socialism saw numerous hospitals turned into COVID-19 treatment centers, while community medical centers, first established in 2005 by the Cubans, became diagnosis clinics.
It is interesting to note how Venezuela’s long experience of surviving and reacting to U.S. economic pressure prepared the nation well for COVID-19. For example, the Local Committees for Supply and Production (CLAP) food system, which since 2016 has been delivering food to the most vulnerable Venezuelans free of charge, was expanded significantly in 2020. To facilitate the purchase of foodstuffs for the CLAP program, Venezuela strengthened the power of its Centralized Public Procurement Plan, giving the state precedence over private producers to ensure that the government could use the country’s limited food resources to feed its population. Domestic production of foodstuffs has also been increased through cooperation with communes, meaning that extra fruit and vegetables for vulnerable groups, including children, could be included in regular food packages. Other localized projects, like the Yo Compro en Casa (I Buy at Home) scheme in Caracas, provides food at subsidized prices and specifically employs informal workers whose economic sustenance has vanished due to social-distancing measures. What we have seen in Venezuela is a robust and well-coordinated socialist system defending the basic human rights of the people.
In the socioeconomic field, the Maduro government has gone even further in its COVID-19 response. Once again relying on Sistema Patria, the Bolivarian government provides unconditional cash handouts to poor families and small businesses, and has prohibited evictions for the duration of the pandemic. These actions in defense of the people have spurred the mobilization of revolutionary organizations, and particularly notable was the role played by women in coordinating all aspects of these grassroots programs. Several thousand Venezuelans have also returned from COVID-19-ravaged countries in Latin America through the Vuelta a la Patria (Return to the Homeland) program.
Venezuela, much like Cuba, continues to suffer at the hands of an economic war instigated by Washington. In addition to these destabilizing measures, 2020 saw the U.S.-backed Operation Gideon take place, which involved a botched invasion of Venezuela utilizing Florida-based mercenaries. This escapade, which resulted in the capture of the U.S. mercenaries, has also been linked to the right-wing Venezuelan opposition. The unity of the Venezuelan people and the coordination of their public institutions to stave off these threats is impressive.
International solidarity has also been a significant factor in Venezuela’s success. Cuba has been supporting the Maduro government throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and Venezuela is now vaccinating the population with Cuba’s Abdala vaccine. Russia, China, and Iran have also rendered indispensable assistance to Venezuela, mitigating some of the worst impacts of the pandemic and U.S. sanctions. In a show of its own solidarity, Venezuela even sent two tankers full of oxygen to Brazil, where COVID-19 is claiming countless lives across the country. This move comes in spite of the fascist Jair Bolsonaro’s well-known hatred of Bolivarian Venezuela and the Maduro government. Once again, socialism’s success in protecting the most vulnerable has been difficult to ignore.
This final case study involves the least-publicized COVID-19 response of our three examples, though arguably one of the most successful, potentially even more so than Venezuela and Cuba in some respects: Nicaragua, led by longtime Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. Earlier this year, Nicaragua was listed as one of the top ten safest places to visit during the COVID-19 pandemic. As of the end of July 2021, Nicaragua had recorded just 7,313 cases and only 194 deaths. The Nicaraguan government’s response to COVID-19 was considered unorthodox by many Western medical experts due to the fact that almost no lockdown measures were implemented and borders remained open. These experts, however, have been disingenuous in their criticisms of the Nicaraguan COVID-19 response. In fact, they have been routinely debunked by numerous organizations, including the highly prestigious Lancet Medical Journal.
Nicaragua established its COVID-19 strategy earlier than most other countries, in mid–January. By then, eighteen COVID-19 hospitals had been established; rigorous health checks were mandated at Nicaragua’s land, sea, and air borders; and all returning citizens and tourists had to quarantine. Some 250,000 volunteers belonging to Sandinista revolutionary organizations, alongside 37,000 medical professionals, were trained to combat COVID-19. Community health programs already in existence, many supported by the Cubans, were also repurposed to focus on COVID-19 treatment. Moreover, a state-led campaign against disinformation was mounted through government-controlled newspapers and social media, alongside house-to-house visits, phone calls, and pop-up clinics.
Nicaragua, much like Cuba and Venezuela, has relied on international solidarity to support its COVID-19 response. Russia has provided large amounts of the Sputnik V vaccine, and Nicaragua is now also purchasing the Cuban Abdala vaccine. Suffice to say, Nicaragua is an outpost of safety in COVID-ravaged Central America.
Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua all demonstrate what a society can do when it embraces a centralized system, people over profit, and solidarity. Not only are citizens protected, but the will to fight against threats like COVID-19 is all the stronger when nations are united behind a popular and radical project. Whether this be Cuba’s socialist revolution, Venezuela’s Bolivarian project, or the Sandinista development path in Nicaragua, all have proven themselves superior to the self-interested and destructive impulses of neoliberal capitalism. This stark contrast is all the more noticeable in Latin America. When Venezuela is compared to neighboring Brazil or Colombia, Cuba or Nicaragua to El Salvador, it very quickly becomes clear that socialism is far more effective than capitalism in reducing both the human and economic costs of the COVID-19 crisis.