Book Review: Mountains Beyond Mountains
Humanitarianism Should Not Be Confused with the Degradations of Cuban-Style Oppression
By Pete Geddes
I've just finished Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder, the selection for One Book-One Bozeman, a worthy effort to promote community and literacy through a common book reading. A schedule of events can be found on the web at: onebookonebozeman.org. The book tells the story of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Harvard trained physician and anthropologist. Dr. Farmer's calling is to deliver quality health care to some of the world's most destitute. Much of his work is in Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Haiti has been plagued by brutal political violence and economic mismanagement for most of its history.
Dr. Farmer sees poverty as the default human condition, an alien concept to Bozemanites. His patients live in filth, hunger, and pain. Many die young, either by disease or violence. His courage and determination in helping some of the world's least fortunate makes compelling reading.
Dr. Farmer is outraged at the sorry state of so much of humanity. Unfortunately, he sees solutions through the prism of Marxist influenced liberation theology. This distortion leads him astray. For example, he spends an entire chapter praising the wonders of the Cuban health care system. If Dr. Farmer had applied the same critical reasoning skills to political economy as he did to medical sleuthing, the book would be a positive force for progress.
Dr. Farmer surely wants to avoid becoming the latest in a long line of those duped by a political ideology that promises "social justice" but consistently delivers the gulag. Perhaps the most infamous example was Walter Duranty, columnist for The New York Times and winner of the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Russian Revolution.
Duranty helped cover up the Ukrainian famine, purposely engineered by Stalin, which killed millions of peasants. Duranty understood the magnitude of the atrocity, but dismissed Western news reports of the Ukrainian genocide. Later, Duranty's uncritical reporting of the Moscow show trials lent the prestige of the Times to this farce. The purges that followed killed millions. Duranty purposely ignored the huge gap between the promise and the reality of communism.
Excellent health care exists in Cuba, but not for ordinary Cubans. Historian Jaime Suchlicki at the University of Miami, and author of Cuba: From Columbus to Castro and Beyond, explains that there is not one health care system in Cuba, or two, but rather three.
The first system is for "medical tourists," foreigners who pay in hard currency and are treated at modern state-of-the-art facilities. The second is for Cuban elites—Party members, the military, and others approved by the regime. (In the Soviet Union, these people were known as the nomenklatura.) They generally receive top-notch care, but not always. When Fidel Castro needed help from a botched operation, he flew in a Spanish surgeon, along with advanced O.R. equipment, on a chartered jet.
The Washington Post and Cuban physician and dissident Dr. Darsi Ferrer Ramirez report that the ordinary Cuban health care system is wretched. Conditions are unsanitary, and patients must bring their own bed sheets, soap, towels, food, light bulbs—even toilet paper and basic medications are scarce. There are links to photos on FREE's website (see URL below).
Why do intelligent people persist in mythologizing totalitarian Cuba? Can't Dr. Farmer see the connection between Castro and the Peruvian Marxist terror group the Shining Path that bombed his pharmacy in Peru? (Given the apparent pleasure Dr. Farmer gets from "speaking truth to power," he surely would not last long in Che's, Fidel's, or Raoul's Cuba.)
Is Dr. Farmer unaware that Dr. Che organized and directed the Revolution's first firing squads, founded Cuba's concentration camps, and locked away political dissidents? (Later the regime also locked away gays and AIDS patients.) Only dictatorships build walls with guard towers and machine guns pointed in, not out.
Perhaps next year, One Book-One Bozeman will pick The Mystery of Capital by Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto. De Soto is the social science analogue to Dr. Farmer. He explains how government barriers to private ownership effectively perpetuate poverty. The Shining Path has targeted De Soto for assassination due to his efforts to help the poor. And then the year after, how about Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom?
Pete Geddes is executive vice president of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE). Email: [email protected].