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A Comparative Look at Socio-Economic
Conditions in Pre-Castro and Present Day Cuba: Zenith to Eclipse Havana Rock
|MYTH AND REALITY||Datos importantes:|
in my opinion, suffers from the same sickness so much of Latin America
does in having frail civil societies where powerful economic and political
interests are not tempered by grass roots religious and civil institutions
(and where indeed those civic organizations independent of the government
lives in fear for the lives of its members!). This failure to develop complex
civil societies is no less true in Cuba than it is in El Salvador. This
is the inevitable result of Latin American societies built on the Spanish
conquista and its Counter-Reformation ideology and consequent poorly
developed sense of individualism and appreciation of political freedom...
this so damaging historical legacy of pronuncamientos, military
uprisings, guerrilla insurgencies, and coups d'etat and the attendant lack
of development and poverty. I can see the Third World dynamic here in Los
Angeles with so many millions of Mexican and Central American immigrants:
the masses of poor people with hardly anything to offer an employer but
the sweat of their brow and then a small minority of wealthy living in
the hills. Your e-mail and its apotheosis of la Revolución
reminds me exactly why this is so often the reality in Latin America.
You tell me that "La Revolución" in Cuba eradicated these nasty intractable Latin American habits of old. But when I look at Cuba I see the traditional top-down authoritarian political structure which has been such an impediment to democracy in Latin America to be alive and well on an island where the same caudillo and political party have held a complete monopoly on power for nearly 40 years of uninterrupted rule. I doubt Fidel will or would ever have stepped down from power voluntarily as long as he is alive; it is the nature of most dictators to relinquish power not peacefully but only at the barrel of a gun. Cuba is not the only unfortunate historical example of revolutions turning into dictatorships, as strongmen seize power and govern until their regimes decay and rot in the fullness of time and then there is a new revolution, dictatorship, decay, revolution, dictatorship, etc. ad infinitum. Castro usurps Bautista and then someone will eventually usurp Castro or his successor and democracy never will sprout roots in Cuban soil. Cuba will never be a truly free or prosperous country until it enjoys political and cultural pluralism. This will never happen while Fidel Castro -- a caricature of himself after 40 years in power, clinging to his guerrilla fatigues and anti-imperialist rants like the Cold-War relic that he has become -- is alive and well.
You contemn Castro but praise the Revolution. What is the Revolution without Castro? What is Cuban politics without the Communist Party? What kind of civil society or civic institutions independent of the government are there in Cuba today? It seems to me Cuba is stuck in the same old rut as always: political life as a crude Hobbesian struggle in a war of all against all in "a perpetual and restless desire for power, that ceaseth only in death." Political prisoners and political police, the official ideas the only ones that matter and virtually no possibility of a peaceful transference of power from one faction to another. It was precisely this that the framers of the American Constitution in 1789 sought to avoid in building a stable democratic government where, as Alexander Hamilton hoped, men could choose their governments "by reflection and choice" instead of forever having to depend on "accident and force."
The world has changed so in the last ten years! Yet, like so much of the aging left still languishing in Latin American university political science departments, Cuba still bows and scrapes at the golden calf of la Revolución which, in the words of recently deceased Mexican poet Octavio Paz, is "the great Goddess, the eternal Beloved, the great Whore of poets and novelists." Look upon the prophet Enesto "Che" Guevara or El Salvadoran seer of violence and revolution Roque Dalton and the exalted place they still hold in Cuba, if not the rest of Latin America! (John Keats, a supremely idealistic poet of a Romantic era very much more innocent and less murderous than our own, separated himself subtly but crucially from and criticized the likes of "Che" and Dalton thusly: "The poet and the dreamer are distinct... / The one pours out a balm upon the World / The other vexes it.") It is instructive to watch how Paz, nearly alone among the major Latin American intellectuals, never stayed duped for long by the sirens' songs of the Bolshevik or Cuban revolutions. After Solzhenitsyn and the true nature of the commissar culture of the dictatorship of the proletariat came to light, Paz exclaimed, "Now we know the splendor, which seemed to us the coming of dawn, was a blood-soaked, burning pyre." But even today to acknowledge this truth is to make oneself anathema to the intolerant few of the Latin America left still bewitched by the charms of la Revolución which has promised so much and delivered so little! This attitude, as evidenced in your comments, has much to do with why Latin America struggles to progress, in my humble opinion.
You write about how orderly and peaceful is authoritarian Cuba where citizens quietly wait for the bus. I am sure it was no different in Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union; but beneath the apparent calm, I am sure there seethes discontent that finds no outlet. Where is the release valve for dissent, for disagreement? (It seems obvious the only route is to emigrate abroad or become an enemy of the State) How are Cubans able to identify the best way to organize their society -- face the challenges of the future? -- if they are unable to freely debate the issues challenging them? How can Cuba progress if the political culture be rigid and static? Is everyone in impoverished Cuba happy, or are they merely resigned to their fate? Is an enforced calm healthy for a society? I would rather live in a vibrant and fractious free country amidst the "din of democracy" than in a quiescent land of official censors, political police, government-controlled media, and the dull conformity of heavy-handed bureaucratic statism. I prefer an open society that readily adapts to change and is therein resilient and innovative - constantly re-inventing and re-defining itself.
You write about the high rates of literacy. What is the good of all this putative education in Cuba? We read, that we might think. We hear, that we might speak. We dispute, that we might understand. As John Milton put it, "Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making." But in Cuba, one either adheres to the party line or keeps one's mouth shut; a Cuban learns not to search for the truth but learns in order to serve the narrow needs of la Revolución. There is no freedom of speech, no freedom of the mind. (What of lasting value can we expect from the stagnant waters of such a controlled intellectual milieu?) It is instructive to observe how it is Castro's Communist Party and not individual Cubans who decide what one's course of study will be in school, what career a person will pursue in adult life (an educational system which should be most insulting to the most curious and best educated). This is the condescending attitude of an authoritarian government which thinks it knows better than do the individual citizens what people should do with their lives. Of course it is relatively easy to command and control a people, exceedingly difficult to lead them. As Edmund Burke describes it:
To make a government requires no great prudence. Settle the seat of power; teach obedience; and the work is done. To give freedom is still more easy. It is not necessary to guide; it only requires to let go the rein. But to form a free government -- that is, to temper together these opposite elements of liberty and restraint in one consistent work, requires much thought, deep reflection, a sagacious, powerful, and combining mind.Having never known free elections or opposition political parties, Fidel Castro's Cuba is a stranger to this freedom and liberty. "Obey us!" "We know what is best, so trust us!" "The path to a better tomorrow requires that you have faith and work hard!" "Have patience!" "Tomorrow will be better than today!" "¡Viva la Revolución!" That so many Cubans -- after almost four decades of Castro at the helm of the government with no checks on his power -- are so credulous in this regard speaks powerfully to the lack of education (in the fullest sense of that word) in Cuba.
To learn to read and write are only the most rudimentary steps of any real education that ought to end in critical and independent thinking. Where is the independent thinking in Cuba today? Where are the dynamic visionaries and innovators plotting a forward-looking course for Cuba in the 20th century? Meanwhile, the nation of Cuba rots on the vine and seems unable to move into the future; it is more than a little pathetic to look beyond the martial rhetoric of revolutionary socialism ("¡Socialismo o Muerte!") and see a Cuban society in survival-mode turning to tourism and prostitution to eek out a living. There seems to be some stability in the universality of poverty, but I find this an achievement difficult to celebrate.
But all this is almost beside the point. As Cuba lived by the material and moral support given her by the Soviet Union, so she has fallen precipitously with the death of her benefactor and fading dreams of globally triumphant international Marxist-Leninism. Castro threw his lot in with the Soviets during the Cold War and now is an anachronism from that era and is himself the main impediment to any real change. In his current screw-the-capitalist-world stance and secular religion of la Revolución with its ubiquitious "Che" posters officially pasted everywhere, it seems obvious to me nobody in Cuba will escape penury and misery until Castro dies (or unless that Cuban manages to defect to the outside world). The United States can live easily without Cuba; Cuba cannot live easily without the United States. Every campesino with hardly a peso to their name in La Habana might have an AK-47 in their house, but that translates into next to nothing in terms of political or economic power. It hardly matters that a people have access to weapons if they have been conditioned to act like children. It takes moral courage and independent reasoning to stand up and speak like an adult -- to demand change and explain why it should be so. How many people today dare to challenge authority in Cuba? How many people are willing to risk it all?
It was so liberating as an American at the end of the Cold War! As the strategic threat of the Soviet Union to the national security interests of the United States receded and then evaporated virtually overnight, suddenly nobody much cared about these squalid, brutal, winner-take-all civil bloodlettings which punctuated the geography of Latin America in places like El Salvador, Peru, Guatemala, Chile, Columbia or Cuba. The United States can today afford to be much more discerning about choosing its friends; it feels little obliged to embrace thugs in marriages of convenience, as during the Cold War. Who really cares if dullish, reactionary goons from the Right or wild-eyed, fanatical revolutionaries from the Left murder or imprison each other en masse. What will it ultimately matter? What will change? You would claim Cuba is poor and a stranger to political freedom only because of the United States. Cuba was poor long before the United States played a meaningful role in its affairs and will be poor long after Fidel Castro is dead and buried. "He who works for freedom and democracy in Latin America plows the sea," Simón Bolívar would have updated his original assertion of the region as history repeats itself over and over.
It is thus today at the end of the 20th century for the same reasons as it was at the beginning of the 19th century during the era of el libertador: a tradition of authoritarianism, an inability to compromise, legacy of instability, and the consequent underdevelopment and poverty. Look at these twin evils which have so bedevilled Latin America and its development since the first conquistador stepped onto the continent: militarism and populism! Look at the strongmen of Latin America -- whether they be Marxist guerrillas or fascist nationalists -- from only this century, these fanatic believers in themselves as the embodiment of their nations' souls! The list is long and little distinguished: Fidel Castro, Alberto Fujimori, Augusto Pinochet, Juan Perón, Abdala Bucaram, Alfredo Stroessner, Bautista, Somoza, Ortega, Noriega, Torrijos, etc. etc. ad nauseam. It is enough to drive a partriot of Latin America to despair! In an authoritarian country of the right like Chile you have a soldier like Pinochet in charge with the strong support of the Catholic Church, and in leftist Cuba there is Fidel the strongman also wearing a uniform with the entire country bowing down before the official state religion of Communism: from the very beginning it has been all about either the State or the Church in Latin America, and power flowing down from powerful institutions (and weak civil societies dependent on them).
Maybe this is changing even as we speak; Fidel Castro is, in fact, the only dictator left in Latin America today, and functioning democracies have been firmly in place now for some years in countries where formerly they were embattled, usurped, or unknown. Civil societies are forming and political power is diffusing downward from the traditional elites. Look at the Mexican PRI and their toadies losing elections for the first time in its history! There is reason for optimism. Yet history and tradition change but slowly, and political stability has yet to be tested over time and forged by adversity in Latin America. But if in the past decade Latin America has changed Cuba has not; and Castro the Caudillo increasingly lives in an imaginary world of his long lost dreams of worldwide socialist revolution, as Cuba the nation-state limps on into an uncertain and inhospitable future with an anachronistic head of state who wears military uniforms and harangues his people with defiantly angry seven-hour speeches while the world largely ignores him. Talk about jousting at windmills! It is surreal!
In contrast, the real world is a messy and busy place full of hypocrisy and ugliness where much compromise and wheeling and dealing is needed to keep even the basic machinery of society working. Don Quixote-like dreamers such as Fidel Castro in Latin America need get off ineffectual Rocinante, saddle up Sancho's mule, and get to the mundane work of actually making unglamorous and ambiguous ordinary political and economic life work peaceably (if at all possible) in a global economy instead of embracing the epic millennial revolutionary struggle. There is so much work to be done! Of course it is easier to become a murderer/martyr, a dreamer instead of a builder, a blamer of others for your own problems, a whiner far removed from the centers of global power; but this does not improve the lot of your people. Perhaps in another decade or two Castro's revolutionary fever will become fashionable again in Latin America and those countries will suffer yet another round of guerrilla uprisings and military governments in a never-ending cycle of political instability, economic underdevelopment, and general suffering. From your comments, I see clearly this is possible. Bolívar himself lamented pessimistically that the nations of Latin America were "condemned to oscillate between anarchy and tryanny."
At the end of WWII, Asia lay largely in ruins but now flourishes in many places after long years of hard work and conscientious building and development. I suggest Latin America do the same instead of lapsing into irrelevancy on the world stage - like in the case of Cuba. Nobody owes you a living in this world. And nobody cares if you languor in the instability and poverty of a geopolitical backwater cursing your fate.
Ricardo, I could have sweet-talked you and been conciliatory in this e-mail; I have instead chosen to speak the rude truth. Please receive my comments in this spirit.
DOING BUSINESS IN CUBA
On this trip, as in prior trips, I will encounter businessmen at the Hotel Nacional, businessmen from the world over, businessmen who are not pleased with the way the Cubans do business. The excuse that the U.S. trade embargo is the reason why the Cuban economy is in such decline is a facetious one. The world isn't the United States. And Cuba is free to do business with any other nation -- Canada, France, Germany, Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Japan and so on.
It is how the Cubans do business that undermines their economy. They don't pay. The foreign nationals who live in Havana and front for the Cuban Government have trouble making deposits into their foreign bank accounts to pay their bills. A Spaniard who travels around Latin America buying for the Cuban Government is unable to make deposits, in a dependable manner, into his bank account at the ING Bank in Curacao. His checks do not bounce, but they are not paid. A Venezuelan national also living in Havana is forced to fly, in a military jet with a diplomatic pouch, to Mexico to pay, in cash, for merchandise purchased and delivered, after invoices are overdue by more than 180 days. A Mexican businessman is asked to fly to Havana to receive payment for items shipped almost a year ago, and then he is paid in cash, only to find that $3,000 US of the $250,000 US he received, is counterfeit.
Havana, these days, everyone complains, is awash in counterfeit American dollars.
are dozens of businessmen -- the German who is trying to get paid for the
Korean steel shipped to Havana, the Mexican who is threatening to suspend
delivery of plastic products to the island, the Brazilian who has sent
a container-load of Coke vending machines, the Canadian supplier of souvenirs
for the island's hotel chains -- who cross through the lobby of the Hotel
Nacional, but they are frustrated businessmen, angry at the capricious
and amateurish manner in which the Cubans handle their economy. On this
trip, the familiar grievances and complaints, the same frustrations and
resentments abound. What astounds, these businessmen agree, is the contrast
among the Cubans; Miami Cubans are no nonsense professional businessmen
whereas Havana Cubans are such pathetic losers. This is why Havana is not
a Casablanca on the Caribbean. In Casablanca, deals were sealed, money
changed hands, and buyers and sellers of whatever commodity walked away
satisfied. In Havana there is little satisfaction".
An enduring myth is that 1950's Cuba was a socially and economically backward country whose development was jump-started by the Castro government. In fact, according to readily-available historical data, Cuba was a relatively advanced country in 1958, certainly by Latin American standards and, in some areas, by world standards.
data appear to show that Cuba has at best maintained what were already
high levels of development in health and education, but at an extraordinary
cost to the overall welfare of the Cuban people.
It is true that Cuba's infant mortality rate is the best in Latin America today, but it also was the best in Latin America -- and the 13th lowest in the world -- in pre-Castro Cuba. Cuba also has improved the literacy of its people, but Cuba had an excellent educational system and impressive literacy rates in the 1950's.
On the other hand, many economic and social indicators have declined since the 1959 revolution.
Pre-Castro Cuba ranked third in Latin America in per capita food consumption; today, it ranks last. Per capita consumption of cereals, tubers, and meat are today all below 1950's levels. The number of automobiles in Cuba has fallen since the 1950's -- the only country in Latin America for which this is the case. The number of telephone lines in Cuba also has been virtually frozen at 1950's levels. Cuba once ranked first in Latin America and fifth in the world in television sets per capita. Today, it barely ranks fourth in Latin America and is well back in the ranks globally.
Cuba's rate of development of electrical power since the 1950's ranks behind every other country in Latin America except Haiti. Cuba is the only country in the hemisphere for which rice production today is lower than it was four decades ago. By virtually any measure of macroeconomic stability, Cuba was in far better shape in 1958 than it is today.
Finally, the Castro government shut down what was a remarkably vibrant
media sector in the 1950's, when the relatively small country had 58 daily
newspapers of differing political hues and ranked eighth in
This paper assesses Cuba's level of development in a variety of economic
and social indicators during the revolutionary period (1959-present), especially
relative to that of other countries during the same period. It relies
(The former stipulation excludes many highly-developed Caribbean countries from consideration.)
The health care system is often touted by many analysts as one of the Castro
government's greatest achievements.
Cuba's infant mortality rate of 32 per 1,000 live births in 1957 was the
lowest in Latin America and the 13th lowest in the world, according to
UN data. Cuba ranked ahead of France, Belgium, west Germany, Israel, Japan,
Today, Cuba remains the most advanced country in the region in this measure, but its world ranking has fallen from 13th to 24th during the Castro era, according to UN Data.
Also missing from the conventional analysis of Cuba's infant mortality rates is its staggering abortion rate -- 0.71 abortions per live birth in 1991, according to the latest UN data -- which, because of selective termination of "high-risk" pregnancies, yields lower numbers for infant mortality. Cuba's abortion rate is at least twice the rate for the other countries in the table below for which data are available.
In terms of physicians and dentists per capita, Cuba in 1957 ranked third in Latin America, behind only Uruguay and Argentina -- both of which were more advanced than the United States in this measure.
Cuba's 128 physicians and dentists per 100,000 people in 1957 was the same as the Netherlands, and ahead of the United Kingdom (122 per 100,000 people) and Finland (96).
Unfortunately, the UN statistical yearbook no longer publishes these statistics,
so more recent comparisons are not possible, but it is completely erroneous
to characterize pre-Revolutionary Cuba as backward in terms of
Cuba has been among the most literate countries in Latin America since well before the Castro revolution, when it ranked fourth. Since then, Cuba has increased its literacy rate from 76 to 96 percent, which today places it second only to Argentina in Latin America. This improvement is impressive, but not unique, among Latin American countries. Panama -- which ranked just behind Cuba in this indicator during the 1950's -- has matched Cuba's improvement when measured in percentage terms.
Rationing has been a staple of Cuban life since the early 1960's. During
the early 1990's, Cuba's food consumption
deteriorated sharply, when massive amounts of Soviet aid were withdrawn.
On its own without Soviet largesse and abundant food imports, Cuban agriculture
was paralyzed by a scarcity of inputs and poor
A closer look at some basic food groups reveals that Cubans now have less
access to cereals, tubers, and meats than they had in the late 1940's.
According to 1995 UN FAO data, Cuba's per capita supply of cereals has
Although some would blame Cuba's food problems on the U.S. embargo, the
facts suggest that the food
shortages are a function of an inefficient collectivized agricultural system
-- and a scarcity of foreign exchange
resulting from Castro's unwillingness to liberalize Cuba's economy, diversify
its export base, and pay off debts owed
to its Japanese, European, and Latin American trading partners during the
years of abundant soviet aid. This foreign
exchange shortage has severely limited Cuba's ability to purchase readily-available
food supplies from
The statistics on the consumption of nonfood items tell a similar story.
The number of automobiles in Cuba per capita has actually fallen since
the 1950's, the only country in the hemisphere for which this is the case.
Cuba also has not kept pace with the rest of Latin America in terms of
radios per capita. During the late 1950's,
Cuba ranked second only to Uruguay in Latin America, with 169 radios per
1,000 people. (Worldwide, this put
Post 1959 Cuba falls short in areas of industrial production once prioritized
by Soviet client states, such as electricity production. Although Cuba
has never been a regional leader in public electricity production per capita,
Cuba is the only country in Latin America whose production of rice has
fallen since 1958, when it ranked fourth in the region in production of
this staple. Two of the countries ranking ahead of Cuba in rice production
in 1958 --
Cuba's enviable productive base during the 1950's was strengthened by sizable inflows of foreign direct investment. As of 1958, the value of U.S. foreign direct investment in Cuba was $861 million, according to UnitedStates government figures published in 1959. Adjusting for inflation that foreign investment number amounts to more than USD 4.3 billion in today's dollars.
Contrary to popular perception, U.S. investors were not focusing on the
sugar industry in the 1950's. U.S. firms began
to gradually sell their Cuban sugar holdings to Cuban firms beginning in
1935. By 1958, U.S. firms owned fewer than 40 of Cuba's 161 mills.
While U.S. firms were moving away from sugar, they were rapidly investing
range of other ventures, especially in infrastructure development. According
to U.S. government statistics, 41 percent of U.S. direct investments in
Cuba were in utilities as of 1958.
It is no exaggeration to state that during the 1950's, the Cuban people were among the most informed in the world, living in an uncharacteristically large media market for such a small country. Cubans had a choice of 58 daily newspapers during the late 1950's, according to the UN statistical yearbook. Despite its small size, this placed Cuba behind only Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico in the region. By 1992, government controls had reducedthe number of dailies to only 17.
There has also been a reduction in the number of radio and television broadcasting stations, although the UN no longer reports these statistics. However, it should be noted that in 1957, Cuba had more television stations (23) than any other country in Latin America, easily outdistancing larger countries such as Mexico (12 television stations) and Venezuela (10). It also led Latin America and ranked eighth in the world in number of radio stations (160), ahead of such countries as Austria (83 radio stations), United Kingdom (62), and France (50), according to the UN statistical yearbook.
República de Cuba
Area: 110,992 km2
Habitantes: 11 millones.
Capital: La Habana
Población: 60% Descendientes de Españoles, 22% mulatos, 11% descendientes de Africanos, 1% Chinos
Tabla de distancias
Religión: 47% Católica,
Fiesta Nacional: 20 de mayo y 1ro. Enero, Aniversario de la Revolución Tiranica
Gobierno: República Comunista Totalitaria
Jefe de Estado:
the Cuban revolution improved the lives of Cubans?