People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 03

January 17, 2010

Cuba Has Eliminated Child Malnutrition, UNICEF Confirms


Naresh �Nadeem�


ONLY a few days before the year 2009 expired, Havana representative of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said Cuba is among the countries that have best implemented the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and that other countries in the world should learn from Cuba about how to ensure the protection of children's rights.

On this occasion, the UN diplomat, Jose Juan Ortiz, further said though Cuba is still under an economic embargo and suffers frequent natural disasters too, it has significantly reduced child mortality and improved child nutrition. The levels it has reached in this regard can well rival those attained by the most developed countries.




The secret of Cuba�s amazing progress in protecting its children lies in the government's political will, Ortiz added. He was of the frank opinion that all governments in the world should follow Havana's example and strive to provide better conditions for their children in education, health and other fields of social welfare. This way, he said, most countries of the world would be able to meet the targets set by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

There lies a story behind what Ortiz said. Quoting Prensa Latina, as Lisa Karpova reported in Pravda on January 4, a recent report from the UNICEF pointed out --- in unambiguous terms --- that Cuba is the only country in Latin America and the Caribbean that has eliminated child malnutrition.

According to this UNICEF report titled Progress for Children: A Report Card on Nutrition, released at the UN headquarters in September 2009, the reality of Cuban infants is in sharp contrast to the fact that as many as 146 million under-five children in the developing world are underweight. In fact, Cuban children are free from this curse, and this is recognised worldwide. 

According to the figures given in the document, the percentages of underweight children below five years of age are 28 per cent in Sub-Saharan Africa, 17 in Middle East and North Africa, 15 in East Asia and the Pacific, and seven per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean. Added to these figures, the countries in Central and Eastern Europe have five per cent and other developing countries have 27 per cent of child malnutrition. But Cuba has no such problem. In fact, in Latin America and the Caribbean it is the only country that has zero per cent rate of child malnutrition.

The UNICEF report was very categorical in accepting that the credit for it goes to the Cuban government�s efforts to improve the diet of the people, especially of those who are considered vulnerable.




It is a harsh reality of the world that as many as 852 million people suffer from hunger and that 53 million of these live in Latin America. There are about 5,200,000 malnourished people in Mexico alone while their number is 3,800,000 in Haiti. Across the globe, more than five million children die of hunger every year.

Going by the United Nations estimates, moreover, it would be very difficult to eliminate this scourge in the near future, more so in the third world. Ensuring basic health and nutrition for all people would require an amount of 13 billion dollars a year in addition to what is being spent now. But this is a figure that has never been achieved so far, though it is quite meagre in comparison to the trillions of dollars being spent every year on commercial advertising. We cannot afford to forget either that, in the United States, over 40 billion dollars are being spent today on narcotics or eight billion dollars on cosmetics.

To the credit of Cuba and its socialist system, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) too has acknowledged that Cuba is a nation which has, in the fight against malnutrition, made more progress than what other countries in Latin America have done.




Despite the criminal and crippling US sanctions against Cuba, in place for about half a century, the island country has made this achievement because its socialist government guarantees the basic food basket that gives sufficient nutrition to its population. This is made possible because of regulated distribution of essential products. Far-reaching steps and adjustments have been made in the �special period� to regulate the markets and services, so as to improve the Cuban people�s status on the scale of nutrition and to mitigate the food shortage. The Cuban state especially keeps a constant watch on the food requirements of children and adolescents. This attention to the nutrition issue has given the Cuban people a better standard of living and way of life natural for humankind.

At the same time, from the earliest days of the revolution, Cubans have realised the incalculable benefits of breastfeeding, which multiplies the effects of all the efforts made in Cuba for the health and development of its children. The result is that a large number of the newborns remain exclusively on breastfeeding till the fourth month of their life. Moreover, they continue to consume milk, supplemented with other food items, until they are six months old.

Currently, in Cuba, 99 per cent of newborns leave the maternity homes while still exclusively on breastfeeding. This figure is higher than the proposed UN goal, which is 95 per cent. This indicates that all the provinces of Cuba have been able to meet their targets.

In the next stage of these infants� life, despite the difficult economic conditions the island nation is facing, the Cuban government ensures for them enough food and nutrition, including the daily delivery of a litre of milk, till they are seven years old. Added to this, it also delivers them supplementary food items like jams, juices and meat. In the quantities permitted by the fund available in the country, these are distributed equally and free among small children across various age groups.

Then, till they reach the age of 13, the government has prioritised for them the subsidised distribution of complementary products such as soy yogurt. Moreover, in case of a natural disaster, the government protects its children by providing them staple food free of cost. The government has incorporated child-care centres into the nurseries and primary schools that are full time regimes, and is continuing its efforts to improve the children�s diets by providing these centres milk protein and other dietary components.




With the support of its own agricultural production as well as increased food imports in conditions of severe drought, the government has taken the level of nutrient intake to above the standards set by the FAO. In Cuba, in addition, the official category of social consumption includes the school lunch that is distributed free of cost to hundreds of thousands of students as well as education workers. Then, in the eastern provinces, there are special supplies of food to the children up to the age of 15 and to the people over 60. Similar provisions have been made for the pregnant women, nursing mothers, the elderly and the disabled, and for the low-weight low-height children.

Currently, special food supply provisions are being made for the municipalities of Pinar del Rio, Havana and Isla de la Juventud which were hit by hurricanes last year, and for five municipalities in the provinces of Holguin, Las Tunas and Camaguey which are currently experiencing a drought. With the help of the World Food Programme (WFP), the government is making efforts to improve the nutritional status of more than 6,31,000 vulnerable people in the eastern region. Yet, no doubt, Cuba has certainly come much ahead compared to 1963 when it had to cry for emergency WFP assistance for the victims of Hurricane Flora.

The progress registered by Cuba in abolishing malnutrition is significant in the background of the strenuous UN efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. As we know, along with the goals to eliminate extreme poverty and hunger by that date, elimination of malnutrition prominently figures in these MDGs which a summit of heads of state and government adopted in 2000. Though nobody can be sure about how many countries will fail to achieve these MDGs by 2015 --- many such pious intentions after all remained only intentions because of the lack of political will or because of the operation of crassest class interests ---  the UN reckons Cuba as one in the forefront of head-on confrontation with such challenges of human development.

Though the Cuban progress in the field of health and nutrition has its own share of shortcomings, difficulties and limitations, it is a recognised fact that the progress would have been much more dramatic but for the severe economic, commercial and financial embargo the US has imposed. It is another thing that the Cubans are by no means desperate or alarmed. As they say, the millennium development goals do not frighten anyone in the country.

This is perhaps what Ortiz meant when he said that Cuba leads and that others can profitably learn from Cuba.




On the other hand, a number of prominent non-government organisations (NGOs) have also confirmed that despite its much lower GDP per capita, Cuba keeps beating much richer countries on economic, social and environmental indicators. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for instance, Oxfam America contrasted the carnage in New Orleans with Cuba�s extraordinarily effective disaster response. Then, in its Living Planet report in 2006, the Worldwide Fund for Nature identified Cuba as the only country that has achieved high levels of human development while fulfilling the requirements of development with environment protection.

Still more importantly, Save the Children UK has developed a new Child Development Index (CDI), which has Cuba at number 20 in the comity of nations. In other words, on this index, Cuba is not only in the highest place among the developing countries; it is three slots above the US.

It is notable that the recently launched CDI builds upon the UNDP�s work on the Human Development Index and Terry McKinley, formerly of the UNDP�s International Poverty Centre, has been involved in the development of both indices. To give the various countries an overall score, the CDI combines three indices of child deprivation --- non-enrolment rate in primary schools, moderate or severe malnutrition, and infant mortality. Out of the 137 countries represented on the CDI, Japan is at the top and Niger at the bottom.

David Mepham, policy division head of Save the Children UK, has thus interpreted these results:

1) Nutrition is a massively neglected issue in development; progress on malnutrition is slower than on the other two indicators. Malnutrition accounts for 3.5 million out of the 9.2 million child deaths every year, and some countries perform worse on this score than what their GDP per capita would suggest. Mepham, in this context, quotes the example of India where malnutrition rate is close to one child in every two.

2) Growth alone is not enough. Mepham says growth is a very blunt instrument for improving the children�s wellbeing and, in this context, he refers to the Cuba versus US case.

3) Equity does matter. Mepham bluntly says issues of rights, power, discrimination and exclusion are crucial in deciding the level of children�s wellbeing or a lack of it.

But who will doubt that adding the parameters of equity would place Cuba still further ahead of the USA!