In 1958, the year before Fidel Castro came to power in a revolution and promised prosperity, democracy and the restoration of Cuba’s 1940 constitution, the Caribbean island, while troubled by poverty, a corrupt dictator and the American Mafia, was also better off than most developing nations.
While poor compared to the United States, Cuba in 1958 had a per capita GDP of $3,170 according to the OECD. (Canada’s was $8,947.). But Cuba outranked all other Latin American countries except four: Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Venezuela.
Tellingly, in 1958, the island nation’s per person wealth was higher than any East Asian country or colony, save Japan, which barely beat Cuba at only $3,290. Hong Kong had a per capita GDP of $2,924, Singapore’s was $2,294, the Philippines’ was $1,447, Taiwan’s per person GDP stood at $1,387 and South Korea’s was $1,112.
Thus in 1958, Cuba was almost as rich as Japan, one and half times as wealthy as Singapore, richer than Hong Kong, and three times as prosperous as South Korea.
Fifty years later, Cuba is one of the poorest countries in Latin America.
Meanwhile, jurisdictions such as Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan (the latter two also had dictators and problems similar to Cuba in the 1950s) have long eclipsed Cuba. They’ve done so not only in per capita wealth, but in measurements Castro’s defenders point to when they assert the Marxist revolution “worked,” such as in health care and education.
The irony of Cuba’s position became even more evident recently.
By happenstance, I was in Cuba when Castro resigned. It should have happened long ago and I doubt his replacement, his brother Raul, will change much.
Human Rights Watch puts it this way: “The repressive machinery (Castro) constructed over almost half a century remains fully intact.”
That machinery, documented extensively by a plethora of sources in the decades since 1959, includes secret police, plenty of snitches, summary executions, concentration camps, sadism against male and female inmates alike, “re-education” and forced labour. One refugee I spoke with last year told me how his father was sent away for three years to work in the sugarcane fields after the family applied to leave Cuba in 1969.
The abuse of Cubans continues even recently. In 2003, the Cuban government gave 75 journalists jail terms of 20 years and more for expressing something other than the state line.
Sometimes, Cuba’s government is just petty. In 2005, a chambermaid, Leidys Morales Quinteros, was fired after she was overheard criticizing Castro. (Note to Canadian tourists: this is why Cubans tell you they don’t want to discuss politics.)
On the economic front, the effect of 49 years of Castro’s communism is clear.
One travel guidebook estimates that 45 per cent of Cubans live in substandard shelter. That might be a wild underestimate. Walk around Havana and much of the housing is literally crumbling. It’s also substandard and cramped.
Peer into an apartment and you’ll notice the ubiquitous dividers in rooms. It’s common for several families to live in apartments and houses designed for just one.
Then there’s the social fallout of the glorious revolution and its Marxist doctrines.
One acquaintance chatted with a Cuban training to become a doctor. Her rent was 100 pesos a month. Her income was 30 pesos. When asked how she paid the bills, she replied that she prostituted herself once a week — twice weekly when the rent was due.
Some will point to the U.S. trade embargo as the source of Cuba’s economic ills.
I agree. It’s a significant reason for Cuba’s poverty, that and the Communist system itself — and both should end. Cuban-Americans don’t have to give up their claims to property confiscated by Castro and his thugs, but that can be dealt with if and when Cuba becomes a liberal, market-oriented democracy.
In the meantime, money is power and the Americans should try another strategy: wash the Communists out to sea on a tidal wave of U.S. dollars from investment, trade and tourism.
If Castro cared about Cubans instead of raw power, he could have long ago admitted that his economic program had failed, reversed course, and/or even resigned. He could have called elections as did other Marxists such as Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega in the 1980s.
But instead, precisely similar to past Cuban dictators, Castro tightened his grip and now has a worse economic and human rights record than the dictator he toppled, Fulgencio Batista.
Cuba in 2008 should be the Hong Kong or Singapore of Latin America. That it is not is the fault of Castro and his cronies.