Opinion: Cuba marks 60 years of lost ground

July 30, 2013


Cuban President Gen. Raul Castro celebrated Friday the 60th anniversary of the guerrilla attack on the Moncada barracks that marked the beginning of the Cuban revolution, but the event could just as well be remembered as marking six decades of Latin America’s biggest political, economic and social fiasco.

Granted, many of us, especially those born outside the island, once saw the “Cuban revolution” with a dose of romantic admiration. But even if you brush aside the fact that Cuba’s revolutionaries toppled one dictatorship to install another, the cold statistics of the past six decades tell a story of thousands of senseless deaths, a massive emigration that split Cuban families, and an economic collapse with few parallels anywhere.

In 1958, the year before then guerrilla leader Fidel Castro took power, Cuba had a per capita income of roughly $356 a year, one of the three or four highest in Latin America, according to Carmelo Mesa Lago of the University of Pittsburg, co-author of “Cuba under Raul Castro” and one of the most prominent experts on the Cuban economy.

By comparison, Costa Rica was poorer, and Asian countries such as South Korea were much poorer, with per capita incomes of less than $100 a year.

Consider how much things have changed since:

l According to the World Bank’s databank, South Korea, which started welcoming massive foreign investments in the early 1960s, today has an annual per capita income of $22,600; Costa Rica of $9,400, and Cuba of $5,400. And according to Mesa Lago, Cuba’s real per capita income is probably lower than that because the figures have been manipulated by the island’s government.

l South Korea has 276 cars per 1,000 people, while Costa Rica has 135, and Cuba only 21, the World Bank statistics show.

l In South Korea, 37 percent of the population has access to broadband Internet, compared with 9 percent in Costa Rica and 4 percent in Cuba, they show.

While South Korea has become a world industrial powerhouse — its Samsung electronic goods and Hyundai cars are exported everywhere — and Costa Rica has high-tech factories from companies such as Intel, Cuba is an industrial basket case.

The island has not even been able to continue producing sugar or cigars at its 1958 levels. According to Cuban government figures cited by Mesa Lago, Cuba’s sugar production has fallen from 859 tons to 106 tons per 1,000 people over the past six decades, and Cuba’s cigar production has fallen from 92,000 cigars per 1,000 people to 36,000 over the period.

Until recently, Cubans used to joke that the three biggest accomplishments of Cuba’s revolution are health, education and the restoration of national dignity, while its three biggest shortcomings are breakfast, lunch and dinner.

But even Cuba’s health and education standards have fallen in recent years, and its national dignity has been compromised by its almost total economic dependence first from the former Soviet Union, and lately by Venezuela.

Today, Cuba’s life expectancy of 79 years is the same as that of Costa Rica, and below South Korea’s 81 years. In education, Cuba deserves credit for virtually eliminating illiteracy sooner than most other Latin American nations, but its higher education is far from what it used to be.

A newly released ranking of Latin American universities by QS, a well-known London-based university research firm, places the once prestigious University of Havana at the 81st place in the region. It ranks way behind universities of Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Venezuela and Paraguay.

Asked whether Castro’s latest pro-market reforms to revert Cuba’s economic disaster will work, Mesa Lago told me in an interview that “these are the most important economic reforms that have been implemented in Cuba since the revolution. The problem is that excessive regulations, bureaucratic red tape and taxes are blocking their success.”

My opinion: Cuba’s apologists will probably argue that I’m influenced by the Miami exile “mafia” and will come up with Cuba’s own figures purporting to show the island as a model country.

But when I heard the presidents of Uruguay, Bolivia, Nicaragua and other countries who were standing next to Gen. Castro on Friday’s anniversary in Santiago de Cuba praising the “achievements of the revolution,” the first question that came to my mind was: If Cuba is such a success and Cubans are so happy, why hasn’t the government allowed one single free election in six decades? The answer is that Cuba’s dictatorship knows very well that its revolution has been a fiasco, and that it would lose them.

— Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for The Miami Herald.


Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 8 months ago

"But even Cuba’s health,,, standards have fallen in recent years,"

But at least Cuba's health standards have not fallen as low as the health standards in the United States.

Infant mortality rate:
The number of deaths of infants under one year old in a given year per 1,000 live births in the same year; included is the total death rate, and deaths by sex, male and female. This rate is often used as an indicator of the level of health in a country. The following are 2013 estimates:

Cuba: 4.76 deaths per 1,000 live births.

United States: 5.90 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Source: The Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America (CIA)

And, the United States does not beat Cuba in life expectancy by very much:

Cuba: 78.05 years.
United States: 78.62. years

Source: The Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America (CIA)

But, we have a lot more cars than they do, that is a for sure.

jafs 4 years, 8 months ago

This is an odd piece.

Is the author unaware that the US has refused to trade with Cuba? It's kind of hard to engage in profitable trade with other countries if they simply refuse to do that.

To then blame that on the Cuban government is Orwellian.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 8 months ago

There are 196 countries in the world. Each has the right to engage in trade with whomever they choose, they can choose how much to trade, or they may choose not to trade. Assuming trade is mutually beneficial, then the U.S. economy and the Cuban economy would be hurt equally by the embargo or helped should the embargo end.

Of course, if you really want to examine the Cuban economy, you would have to ask yourself a couple of questions. When the Cuban revolution came about and the U.S. first imposed the embargo, what effect did the Soviet Union's substantial support have in propping up their economy? Did that support essentially offset the embargo? Then with the collapse of the Soviet Union and a lessening of their support, Venezuela essentially stepped in to prop up the Cuban economy. Did that essentially offset whatever drag was created by the continuing embargo?

Orwell 4 years, 8 months ago

I thought it was individuals, not "countries" (i.e., governments) who could make transaction decisions. How does this embargo square with the notion of the free market?

jhawkinsf 4 years, 8 months ago

Well, I'm generally in favor of free markets, but I'm not a fanatic about it. Government regulations have an important role to play, so whether or not we allow trade with Cuba, North Korea or Iran are questions for our elected officials to make. That said, I'm of the opinion that the Cuban embargo has outlived it's usefulness.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 8 months ago

My opinion is that it's somewhat questionable whether the Cuban embargo ever had any usefulness.

jonas_opines 4 years, 8 months ago

"Assuming trade is mutually beneficial, then the U.S. economy and the Cuban economy would be hurt equally by the embargo or helped should the embargo end."

Focusing on nominal value here ignores marginal utility. What you're basically saying here is that Bill Gates and the guy who lives under the bridge would get equal benefit from a $100 dollar bill. From a purely nominal standpoint, that $100 provides equal purchasing power, but it's representative share in the total wealth of the individual makes each of those additional dollars mean much more to one of those individuals than it does to the other.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 8 months ago

You're correct. That's why I said that in order to correctly assess the effect of the embargo, we would need to see whether or not the Soviet Union's support essentially made up for whatever loss in trade that resulted from the embargo. And what did we do in response to our lost trade with Cuba. If the support given by the Soviets was equal to that which was lost on trade with the U.S., and we engaged in trade with some other partner that was of equal value to what we previously traded with Cuba, then it would have had no effect on the economies of either Cuba or us.

skull 4 years, 8 months ago

Millions of people vacation in Cuba every year. They go there because it's still a nice place to vacation and there are no Americans. Don't know what any of this has to do with Detroit. Nice try though.

Nikonman 4 years, 8 months ago

How do you engage in free trade with a country that has very little money? Free Trade with Cuba would amount to Free Aid. We would have to lower the price on products so they could buy. Senator Roberts wanted to end the trade embargo for wheat so it would benefit Kansas farmers. What that would involve would be the US government buying at market prices and then discounting it to Cuba. The best "product" Cuba has is tourism and they don't make use of it that much. By the way, other countries are free to trade with Cuba and there has never been a rush to do so.

jafs 4 years, 8 months ago

Free trade involves buying and selling, right?

How do you think that China got so well off? The US is a huge consumer nation. I can virtually guarantee that if we'd been buying stuff from Cuba as long as we've been buying it from China that Cuba's economy would be a lot better.

Our foreign policy regarding trade lacks any sort of philosophical ground, and is quite inconsistent. We trade with Saudi Arabia without worrying about human rights, Ecuador (a socialist government), China, but not Cuba.

We could go a couple of ways to be more consistent - we could say that we don't care about human rights, and we'll trade with anybody, or that we care and will only trade with countries that have a decent human rights record.

The first is sort of libertarian - at least it's consistent, but I prefer the second.

Grégoire Guillaume 4 years, 8 months ago

The average Cuban is more independent and much happier than the average American. Most Cubans grow their own healthy food and don't have to rely on GMOs that have been the cause of are health crisis since being introduced. How can anyone that truly looks at the insanity of modern American life cast judgement on another country? We have Big Brother (NSA) Big Pharma, Big Walmart that refuses to pay a living wage and lets the taxpayers foot the bill for healthcare, food stamps, etc. for their workers. Let's not forget about the fracking debacle.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 8 months ago

Yet people risk their lives to come here while very, very few go the other way.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 8 months ago

My comment compared Cubans coming here as opposed to Americans going to Cuba. Your link lists the top 42 destination for Americans living abroad. Cuba did not make that list.

oldbaldguy 4 years, 8 months ago

end the embargo, the castros will fade away.

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