An insight view of Cuba

Since President Obama took steps to normalize relations with Cuba, much of the public discussion has been about how to improve relations between the United States while also opening access for the Cuban people.

This new relationship is important, as an exchange of new ideas and development of new opportunities in commerce and trade. Personally, I am excited. The possibilities are significant.

For many years I have traveled to Cuba, researching and learning best practices about social responsibility and sustainable development. During my latest trip to Havana earlier this month, I was able to confirm, once again, what makes Cuba stand out from the rest of the world.

In Cuba, societal problems get solved by creative means. This is often through the use of inventive, innovative, and entrepreneurial "intellectual" and social capital. Even though Cuba was largely sheltered from global technological and economic advances for more than a half-century, there are nonetheless valuable lessons Cuba can teach the U.S. and the developed world.

Specifically, Cuban people are a source of inspiration when it comes to:

• Sustainable development, as the country is moving in lockstep with the United Nations' millennium development goals, commonly unmet by most nations on the planet.

• Organic crop growth and agro-ecological techniques, that are only now dawning upon industrially developed countries.

• A student-sensitive, teacher-strong education system, which has propelled literacy to among the highest in the world -- without bureaucracy and intensive standardized testing.

• A sensible, accessible, affordable health care system, focused on early intervention and not impeded by health insurance and payment headaches.
From years of annual visits to the country (more than 20 in all), I've developed a deep respect for Cuba.

I have seen the hope, where others see a spiritless vacuum where nothing could be done, or was allowed to be done. A lot of positive things are happening, things that would not have been noticed during the brief, guided and limited excursions of tourists, whose visits were desired only for the hard currency they left behind.

Cuba is a place, a hardscrabble one materially, where the absence of another "ism," consumerism, allows for a cause for a pause, a time to think differently from the developed world and its frenetic charge for change.

Start with the simple act of growing food in a world now dominated by mega-agro corporations and global consumers who are increasingly worried by chemical intrusion into the food stream.

Cuba couldn't afford to follow the rest of the world in the use of fertilizers, insecticides and chemically-aided crop growth. Instead, it set and met a goal to institute "the largest conversion from conventional, industrial agriculture to organic farming that the world has yet seen." Even the Ministry of Agriculture staff in Havana tore up the front lawn of their building to plant lettuce, bananas and beans.

The government, years ago, instituted a local-growers-to-local-markets policy, only now being discussed in the United States, as a healthful and beneficial food delivery protocol. This is national policy, not a Saturday farmer's market pop-up stall here and there.

Long before the term "sustainable growth" was known to the developed world, Cuba started that national policy called "Law 33." In 2006. The World Wildlife Fund Living Planet Report ranked Cuba as the only country in the world as having truly achieved "sustainable development" in their human development index and ecological footprint. A decade later, the United Nations' sustainable growth initiatives are only now getting the fitful attention of developed nations.

As an educator myself, I took an acute interest in the methods and techniques used by teachers to benefit their students. Cuba has very high educational standards, strong academic talent, adequate salaries, and a high degree of professional autonomy that is sometimes restricted by more centralized, standardized - and some might say homogenized - layers in the American educational system. "Standardized" testing in Cuba is nowhere near the level here. Yet, their system is ranked as among the highest in the world (higher than the United States), and among the likes of Finland, Singapore, Shanghai (China), South Korea, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Canada.

Cuba boasts better health indicators than its exponentially richer neighbor 90 miles across the Florida straits. From cradle to death, life expectancy is nearly 80. Infant mortality is only 4.8 deaths per thousand births, far lower than the U.S. There is a doctor for every 220 Cubans, one of the most favorable ratios on the planet. Oh, and nobody quarrels over medical billing from hospitals, doctors and insurance companies - it's all free.

The lesson for the day: Cuba demonstrates how nations - no matter how good or bad their governments - can "profit" with the resources they have, once they focus, as a people AND a government, on the priorities of health, education and literacy.