Reports that Fidel Castro turned over power to his brother Raul last week because of surgery for intestinal bleeding have brought a flashback to the Cold War, with reporters rushing to doodle prematurely on his grave and interview the vociferous hard-right Miami expat constituency that has helped dictate U.S.-Cuba policy for the last 47 years. But they’re missing a vital part of the story.

In Cuba, buying local is the only choice.

Photos: Erica Gies

Tired of my government’s hyperbole on the subject, I visited Cuba not long ago. I wanted to see it for myself and draw my own conclusions, before Castro died and the United States annexed it as a Sandals resort.

Reports of Cuba’s denigration are greatly exaggerated by people with ideological fish to fry. Cuba is no North Korea, and Castro is no Kim Jong Il. No, it’s not a perfect system — the most obvious, insurmountable issue being that its 11.4 million people are basically held prisoner on that island. Freedom of speech, press, and assembly are severely restricted, and there are no free elections. These are not circumstances I wish for myself, nor for the people of Cuba.

However, the people have not risen up against Castro for several reasons. OK, one reason is that he has allowed dissenters to leave in several waves, and has taken a stern hand against resident dissidents who don’t hew to his view. But there’s another reason, and it’s just as important. Cuba had a long history of imperial domination by Spain and then the U.S., with just a few short years of not-so-democratic democracy before Batista’s coup and Castro’s revolution. Since 1959, Castro has delivered on many of the revolution’s promises of equality, and the state has provided for the people in ways that often go unrecognized. Today, its approaches to public health and the environment could be a model worth following.

Castro just had surgery. He was in a good place for it. Cuba has one of the best medical systems in the world, with twice as many physicians per capita as the U.S. Its infant mortality rate and life expectancy are about the same as in the U.S., and its HIV/AIDS prevalence is almost nonexistent. The country also donates its medical expertise abroad: it made a huge contribution to the Pakistan earthquake-relief effort, sending 2,500 medical personnel. It even offers free medical training for students from disadvantaged areas of the U.S., provided they agree to return home and work in low-income neighborhoods. A political gotcha maneuver? Well, naturally. Fidel is a sly guy. But the mostly non-white and female doctors who otherwise wouldn’t get a chance to practice medicine are grateful, and Cubans take a great deal of pride in the program.

Cubans also enjoy a level of race and gender equality that I haven’t seen anywhere else in my travels through 24 other countries. The revolution’s principles of equal pay and equal opportunity for all have woven themselves into the social fabric. Because many who benefited under Batista were white or of Spanish descent, they were the majority who left during the first wave of emigration. Today, Cuba has a slight black or biracial majority. Interracial dating is commonplace, and kids of every color play together. People of every shade and both sexes are liable to hold any job. Most don’t live in fancy digs, but no one is homeless.

An organic farm in Viñales.

It may be the country’s environmental gains, driven by economic necessity, that are most impressive. Cuba is the only country in the world to have converted to organic agriculture in less than 10 years. On my travels, I saw fields near Viñales where corn and beans were grown together for better pest control. I also glimpsed the network of small, urban gardens that augments the country’s agricultural system, the beginnings of which are chronicled in a book called The Greening of the Revolution.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba lost $4 billion to $6 billion in annual support, including food, farming equipment, pesticides, and petroleum. Facing severe shortages, the country had to rapidly convert its fields to food crops; since there was no money for chemical inputs, farmers learned organic methods instead.

It was hard for several years. Food was scarce, and public sentiment turned against Castro. He called it the Special Period in Time of Peace, which basically meant suffering wartime scarcities without war. But by the late ’90s, the system was up and running. In 1999, the Grupo de Agricultura Organica, the organic farming association that spearheaded the conversion, won an important international honor — the Right Livelihood Award, known as the “alternative Nobel.”

Hitching a ride in a government truck.

Castro knows how to make lemonade. After the collapse, when the Soviets were unable to supply fuel and the giant autopista (think: autobahn) running the length of the country lay empty because no one had access to gas, he bought 1.2 million bicycles from China and manufactured 500,000 more, distributing them to the people. Most didn’t know how to ride, and accidents were common. But the government gave classes, and people got the hang of it. When I visited, bikers expertly threaded their way through classic American cars, horse-cart buses, pedicabs, and Coco taxis — not quite with the fearless bravado of riders in Asia, but with more laid-back flair.

The government also passed a law dictating that government vehicles must pick up as many hitchhikers as they can fit. It’s common to see 30 people standing up in the back of an industrial truck rattling along a road. Unfortunately, it’s also common to see people standing on the side of the autopista all day, fruitlessly waiting for the ride that never materializes. While the cities are filled with all kinds of random conveyances — including giant buses called camelos (camels) that can hold 200 people — getting between cities is a bit more of a problem.

Old, but not finished.

While this devotion to alternative transportation is a step in the right direction, many vehicles in Cuba are still 1950s-era gas-guzzlers. In fact, air pollution has increased since 1990. This is particularly noticeable in crowded Havana. In other places, however, the relative scarcity of combustion engines offers clear vistas and easy breathing. And Cuba’s per-capita CO2 output is one-tenth that of the U.S. While Castro’s oil-bearing friend in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, may help up that ratio slightly, his input isn’t likely to have a dramatic effect any time soon.

Outside the cities, pristine land seems to abound, and that extends to underwater areas. I went to Guanahacabibes National Park and got a fantastic five-hour tour of unusually eroded limestone caves and related habitat from the ranger, who had extensive botanical, biological, and geological knowledge. I also went scuba diving off Maria La Gorda, part of the Guanahacabibes Biosphere Reserve, designated in 1987. The waters there have been recognized as among the healthiest in the Caribbean, due in part to limited coastal development. The sea fans are flourishing, the tube sponges are neon green, and the corals have retained their color — unlike so many places around the world, where they are bleached.

So is Cuba in a position to show other countries — especially its neighbor to the north — how to succeed with health-care reform, sustainable agriculture, alternative transportation, and protected ecosystems? Maybe, but only if those countries put aside their broken-record, Cold War-era reactions and really listen.

Cuba’s system has obvious flaws, but many charges against Castro — suppression of dissent, torture of enemies, backroom dealings with nefarious world players — can be made against certain other leaders as well. As Castro approaches what the U.S. government euphemistically calls “the biological solution,” let’s try to look at his Cuba clearly, to realistically evaluate the revolution’s successes and failures — and perhaps even learn something. With some members of the Bush administration champing at the bit to widen their democracy experiment to Cuba, let’s remember how audacious it is to assume that there is only one true way.