Saturday, May 23, 2009

Meet Africa's Cuba: Eritrea

Many Americans are knowledgable about the island nation of Cuba, which despite an economic embargo and political isolation by the US government, has remained one of the global South's success stories in social development. Cuba's universal healthcare system was featured prominently by Michael Moore in his popular film "Sicko".

Less of us however, have heard about a small country thousands of miles away in Africa called Eritrea, that in many ways continues to be just as controversial as Cuba to political analysts.

Eritrean guerrillas organized against the Ethiopian government in 1961 to liberate their nation through armed struggle. 18 years later the nation is perceived as a thorn in the side of the United States military and global financial institutions which are prevalent throughout East Africa.

America's closest strategic ally Ethiopia is Eritrea's sworn enemy and its former occupier. While Eritrea has no formal embargo on it imposed by the US, there has been an offical blockade of arms sales. Despite persistent threats, America has not yet added Eritrea to the list of State Terrorist Sponsors to which Cuba belongs.

For supporters, Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki is a symbol of anti-imperialim and self-reliance, but critics say he is an autocrat whose government stifles internal dissent and supports armed resistance movements in neighboring countries. An East African bloc within the United Nations went as far as calling for sanctions agains Eritrea because of its alledged support of rebels in nextdoor Somalia. The Eritrean government refutes the claims.

The parallels between Cuba and Eritrea are not lost on Eritrea's President, Isaias Afwerki, aformer guerilla leader who fought in a decades long liberation war against Ethiopia. In a recent statement to the press Afwerki remarked,

"I don't know Cuba, but I admire their resilience...Being near the United States, and the United States blockading this country for so many decades, how were they able to do it? How was it possible for them to have the best scientists in biotechnology, the best health services?"

According to the latest World Health Organization report, life expectancy for Eritrean females has increased from 53 years in 1990 to 65 years in 2007. Amongst Eritrean males the expected life span increased from 28 years to 61 years. The drastic improvement in life expectancy can be attributed to the end of the conflict with Ethiopia, but an increase in disposible income is also an important factor. Eritrea has made significant gains in the areas of health and education.

The government has also mobilized a concentrated effort to eradicate poverty and to ensure food security. In an East African region where most countries share close strategic military and economic relationships with the United States, the Government of Eritrea pursues strict adherence to the principle of self-reliance.

Throughout Africa, economic policies are usually designed by foreign investors and technocrats through the World Bank or International Monetary Fund. In Eritrea, economic policy is largely determined by mandate from the leading political party, People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ).The strength of Eritrea's committed strategy of "self-reliance" is reinforced by statements from the US Agency for Interntional Development (USAID).

"The ability of Eritrea to pursue developmental programs in the midst of conflict, massive population displacement, and drought is due primarily to intense national commitment, reinforced with an approach to development assistance designed to enhance self-reliance."

On May 24th, Eritreans will celebrate 18 years of political and economic independence. Love or hate the nation's politics, it is hard to deny the symbol Eritrea represents in the context of East Africa. Like Cuba in Latin America, Eritrea is Africa's hard-headed son who defies all conventional wisdom in international politics--- against incredible odds.