THE OPPENHEIMER REPORT
Cuba's revolution not worth price
Posted on Sun, Feb. 24, 2008
BY ANDRES OPPENHEIMER
MEXICO CITY — Now that Mexico is officially describing Cuba's newly
retired President Fidel Castro as an ''outstanding figure,'' the
Brazilian president calls him a ''mythical'' leader and the world media
are doing verbal pirouettes to avoid calling him a dictator, it's a good
time to take a dispassionate look at Castro's record.
Will he be remembered as a well-meaning strongman who raised health and
education standards? Or will he go down in history as a selfish tyrant
who clung to power for half a century and left his country poorer than ever?
A joke I heard on the streets of Havana in the late 1980s said that the
Cuban revolution's three biggest achievements were health, education and
national sovereignty, and its three biggest failures were breakfast,
lunch and dinner.
Maybe so. But the Castro government's list of shortcomings has grown
For fairness' sake, let's not dwell on reports that the Cuban government
considers unfair, such as Forbes magazine's estimate that Fidel Castro
has a $900 million fortune, or the New Jersey-based Cuban Archive
''Truth and Memory'' report, which says it has documented 4,073 Castro
regime executions and 3,001 ''extra-judicial'' killings since 1959.
And let's set aside for a moment the undisputable fact that Castro has
been — by any dictionary's definition — a dictator, and that nearly 20
percent of the island's population has left the country since he took power.
If we just look at the Cuban government's favorite ranking, the 2008
United Nations Human Development Index, which ranks countries around the
world with special emphasis on their health and education standards,
Cuba ranks sixth in Latin America, behind Argentina, Chile, Uruguay,
Costa Rica and the Bahamas.
When it comes to some specific health and education figures, Cuba does
very well: it has a 99.8 percent adult literacy rate and a 77.7-year
life expectancy. That amounts to the best adult literacy rate in the
region, and the third best life expectancy rate, after Costa Rica and Chile.
But then, Cuba was already one of the most advanced Latin American
countries before Castro's 1959 revolution.
According to the U.N. 1957 Statistical Yearbook, Cuba's 32 per 1,000
infant mortality rate that year was the lowest in Latin America, and
Cuba ranked fourth in the region — behind Argentina, Chile and Costa
Rica — in literacy rates. Cuba also ranked third among Latin American
countries with the highest daily caloric consumption rates, U.N. figures
Granted, Cuba was a de facto dictatorship when Castro took power, highly
dependent on the United States.
But nearly five decades later, Cuba expressly prohibits opposition
political parties and independent media, and there is a huge economic
dependence on Venezuela's foreign aid and nearly $1 billion a year in
remittances from Cubans exiles.
On top of it, Cubans earn an average of only $12 a month (the generous
$6,000-a-year U.N. figure includes government subsidies for food and
healthcare), there is an economic apartheid system on the island that
doesn't allow Cubans to enter hotels or restaurants frequented by
tourists and people can go to prison for reading foreign newspapers that
are deemed “enemy propaganda.''
Even the Cuba-friendly 2008 U.N. Human Development Index places Cuba
among the world's most backward countries in cellular telephone and
Cuba has an average of 12 cellphone users per 1,000 inhabitants,
compared with Haiti's 48, Mexico's 460, and Argentina's 570.
As for Internet access, Cuba has 17 Internet users per 1,000
inhabitants, compared with Honduras' 36, Haiti's 70, Argentina's 177 and
DON'T BLAME EMBARGO
My opinion: Castro admirers say that Cuba's shortcomings are due to the
U.S. economic embargo. While I'm no fan of the U.S. embargo, I don't buy
that. All dictatorships justify their actions citing domestic or foreign
threats, and Cuba is no exception.
To his credit, Castro took pride in improving the good health and
education standards he inherited, but at the cost of imposing a
dictatorship that cost thousands of lives, separated millions of
families, made the country poorer and ended up leaving it more
economically dependent than before.
In the end, the key question may not be whether the Castro revolution
was justified, but whether it was worth the price paid by the Cuban
people. It clearly wasn't.