Fidel Castro and Yoweri Museveni: Brothers in arms

The Insider

Museveni and Castro both came to power through a revolution. Despite a crippling international blockade led by America, Cuba under Castro made huge strides in development while Uganda, a darling of the West, has remained backward – with all those millions of dollars in aid. It is a country where ordinary diarrhea is a life-threatening condition.

Among the similarities between Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda, and Fidel Castro are their being born of at least one immigrant parent, growing up to participate in multiple anti-government insurgencies and succeeding after prolonged bush wars, made possible by the support of the local people, in putting an incumbent leader to flight. In his condolences to the Cuban people, Museveni refers to Castro as a friend and brother.

They were both avuncular in manner. Commentator after commentator has remarked about Fidel Castro’s ability, regardless of what you thought of his policies, to make you stop and take notice. It seems everyone now has a Castro story that throws his humanity in to high relief. President Museveni shares a similar charisma although it has diminished somewhat since the 1980s. I have seen a senior public servant, an army officer at that, close to tears when Mzee Museveni was criticized in his presence.

In addition to their biographical and personal similarities the two guerillas shared political sensibilities although President Museveni abandoned his position on the Left shortly after attaining power. While in the bush, Museveni is quoted as commenting that the people there had diseases for which there were no names. Castro was likewise horrified by the deprivation that was commonplace in Cuba in the 1950s. They had a heart.

They shared a healthy disdain for the Western hegemony which they saw, with reason, as exploitative. The solutions, they surmised, lay in radically improved service delivery in the health and education sectors and land reform.

Post coups d’état, Uganda’s in 1986 after Castro’s in 1959, the revolutionaries rode a wave of popularity enhanced by visible change. Deeper into their tenures, reports of repression became at least as frequent as the anecdotes proving their bona fides as bringers of progress.

Early attempts at governing were frustrated by external factors. Museveni’s foray into barter trade with neighboring countries failed when subsidized commodities were dumped on the region as aid. Castro’s overtures to the Eisenhower Administration in America in 1960, similar to those made by the 16 new leaders of the African countries whose statehood was officially recognized by the US in that year, were rebuffed: President Eisenhower would not receive him or listen to his proposals for cooperation. (Ostracism was to be the fate also of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba who was also punished for the crime of leaning to the Left.)

And there the trajectories of the two men diverge significantly.

The twins are separated

Billions of dollars in grants and loans were decanted into Uganda while allegations of graft escalated to the point where the country became an established kleptocracy and the leaders of its Revolution a liability. The AFRICOM, under the US Department of Defense has come to realize this and included Uganda in a series of studies of African countries to assess potential risks to their stability. [1] J.D. Barkan describes Uganda as having only a veneer of democracy fashioned out of unfair elections. He notes Museveni’s approach to governance as authoritarian, depending almost entirely on patronage which, as Barkan points out, means he needs a constant stream of resources or opportunities for corruption to maintain loyalty to him. This has been known for some time. Uganda ranked 139th out of 167 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Index in 2015.

Even after threatening to cut off aid and later reducing aid before reinstating it again, the US and other donors remain in collaboration, or more accurately collusion, with the Ugandan Revolution.

For his part Castro persevered, surviving hundreds of American assassination attempts (verified by the Church Commission) and an economic blockade for the five decades.  His land reform programme involved nationalizing corporate going concerns and what he termed ‘idle’ land.

American owners of the nationalized properties are hoping for reparations, justly so. Their claims should be appended to the Historically Oppressed Peoples Claims Register underneath Native Americans, African-Americans and Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire, formerly known as Congo Kinshasa. Either that or all the above losses should be chalked up to development and the common good.

The revolution in health

The results of the choices each man made are well known. In the area of health, for instance, an official report describes Ugandan public hospitals as being “characterized by morbidity and avoidable death.”[2] On the other hand, the availability of medical services in Cuba exceeds that in most developed countries with 6.7 doctors per 1,000 citizens, up from 1 in 1960. America has just 2.4 doctors per 1,000. [3] In Cuba health provision is a right of citizenship universally accessible and of a high standard. In the United States it is good if you can afford it. Many cannot, in a system in which according to Bernie Sanders 0.1% of the top 1% of the population owns wealth almost equal to the bottom 90%.

As a result, over 10% of Americans (i.e. 28.4 million people, nearly three times the population of Cuba) under 65 years of age lack health insurance, according to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention as at 2015. The Bernie Sanders website has a total figure of 35 million uninsured.

Thirty years after the Museveni revolution the probability of a Ugandan child dying between birth and the age of five is 66 per 1,000 live births. In post-revolution Cuba it was 47 in 1963 and is now six 6, comparing well with the 7 and 5 per thousand in the USA and UK respectively (Source: IndexMundi). There has been only 1 doctor per 1,000 Ugandans for decades.[4]

More embarrassingly, Cuba manages to train Ugandan and American students in medicine, gratis. By the time of Castro’s death, numerous African and a number of American students are registered as students in Cuban medical schools.

A leading cause of infant mortality in Uganda is diarrhea, a known and treatable disease and not difficult to manage like the diseases Museveni saw in his bush war days. The incidence of diarrhea can be reduced by 30% simply by hand washing. Actual outcomes though are depressing; while 70% of Cuban children with diarrhea receive the oral rehydration salts necessary to prevent death, fewer than 50% of sick Ugandan children receive this simple mixture of sugar and salt.[5]

A statement by one anti-Castro Cuban American celebrating his death confirms the necessity of Castro’s hard line. Delirious with joy she said: ‘Now we can go back to the good old days [when many had no access to healthcare, under 50% of eligible children were enrolled in primary school and the Mob owned Cuba]’. In those days, both British and American administrations expressed concern about the endemic corruption in Cuban public service. Partido Ortodoxa was formed in 1947 on an anti-corruption platform and won some seats in Parliament before the Batista coup in 1952. Still, in 2015 Cuba ranked 56th on the T.I. Corruption Index, ahead of most of S. America and Africa as well as Italy and American allies Iran, Pakistan, Kenya, Uganda and Republic of South Africa. Israel is not far ahead.

As a result, while life expectancy at birth in Cuba is 79.3 years (to America’s 78.9); in Uganda it is 58.4, both up by over 16 since 1960.

Access to water and sanitation

Facilities necessary to sustain health are woefully inadequate in donor-enabled Uganda. Access to water is stellar in Cuba, blockade or no, as the following tables show.

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