January 25, 2003
Over at the Museo de la Revolucion, Fidel Castro’s case against the dictator he overthrew 44 years ago is vividly on display.
Fulgencio Batista was evil incarnate, the museum earnestly instructs visitors in room after room of the once-magnificent building, formerly a presidential palace built in 1920 and decorated by Tiffany’s of New York. Under Batista and his predecessors, we learn through photos and text, Cuba became a playground for crass tourists who came for sex, drink and gambling, and who crowded the country’s pristine beaches to the detriment of ordinary folk. To drive home the immorality of pre-socialist times, the museum displays an original National Lottery of Cuba ticket from early in the century, a symbol of the country’s fall from grace.
We learn that Batista was an illegitimate leader, the election he won stolen by manipulating the press. Worse, Batista intimidated, even jailed or killed, political opponents.
But Batista also failed Cuba by failing to invest government funds wisely. One damning display berates Batista’s priorities with a list of budget line items that show government expenditures on frills such as roads, promenades and buildings. Batista’s sky-high spending on telecommunications – which the display dubs as military – comes in for criticism. Another display lambastes Batista for failing to diversify the economy. Another still, which provides a year-by-year report of sugar output, accuses Batista of neglecting this all-important industry. The numbers show a downward trend, interrupted with some up-ticks, in the 1950s, and then a giant leap forward, as Castro mobilized the country to produce more sugar in one of his regime’s grand economic plans.
The moral and economic rot under Batista led to humiliation and human tragedy, the museum tells us. “Many women who were denied jobs saw themselves forced to become prostitutes in order to survive,” said one display. Said another: “According to a census in 1953, there were 200,000 shacks and misery huts.” Said a third, also referring to the 1953 census: “40,939 people died due to lack of medical attendance and unsanitary living conditions.”
The history the museum imparts is part truth, part fiction and all hypocrisy. Batista was indeed an unsavory character. He did oversee a corrupt administration in Cuba. He did undermine the halting democracy that the United States helped create after liberating Cuba from oppressive Spanish occupation at the turn of the century.
But Cuba and its U.S.-style constitution was also an economic powerhouse with potent social institutions and impressive accomplishments. A 1958 United Nations report ranked Cuba’s vibrant free press eighth in the world, and first in Latin America. Despite its much smaller population, Cuba had 160 radio stations compared to the
U. K.’s 62 and France’s 50. It had 23 television stations compared to Mexico’s 12 and Venezuela’s 10. The tiny country supported 58 newspapers, fourth in Latin America behind populous Mexico, Brazil and Argentina.
Cuba once installed telephones at a rapid rate. No more. It once ranked first in Latin America, fifth in the world, in television sets per capita, and also ranked high in radios, automobiles, and many other consumer goods. No more. With the population increased and the housing stock degraded, more people suffer inadequate housing today than ever before, and sanitary conditions have become a scandal through much of the country.
The information-hungry populace in the Batista era was well-educated, as it remains. Student registration at primary schools in 1955 was 1,032 students per 10,000 inhabitants, higher than the figures for 1990 of 842. The registration rate for higher education was an impressive 38 per 10,000, about the same as it was 10 years later (34 per 10,000) and 15 years later (41 per 10,000). The country, in fact, had a long history of high literacy levels: At the turn of the 20th century, only 28% of those 10 and over couldn’t read or write, not that different from the current figure, 100 years later, of 16%.
But unlike today, Cuba’s economy under Batista was powerful, both domestically and in exports, and it was becoming increasingly diversified. Under Castro, its economy is in tatters, nowhere more so than in the sugar industry that Castro once promoted so heavily. Last summer, Castro announced a shut down of half of the country’s sugar mills. “We had to act or face ruin,” he explained. As he told NBC News just this week. “It cost us more to produce sugar than what we could sell it for.”
But if Batista bested Castro in virtually every broad socio-economic indicator, he paled in comparison when it came to controlling either the electoral process or the populace. Castro executed thousands of political opponents after he came to power, imprisoned tens of thousands and caused hundreds of thousands to flee to exile. Where Batista won a disputed election, a Castro election leaves no room for dispute: Castro allows no opponents, no opposing viewpoints to appear in the press, and, because that might not be enough, his political machine ensures a good turnout by keeping tabs on who votes and who doesn’t: In last Sunday’s national election, Castro managed a 90%-plus “yes” vote, not quite as impressive as Saddam Hussein’s 100% but, among dictators, respectable enough.
Those who revile Batista often point to a decadent economy that relied on mafia-run casinos, prostitution and other demeaning jobs servicing tourists. Tourism was important under Batista – Havana was an east-coast alternative to Las Vegas, complete with the sex and gaming, and the same mafia owners – but never as important as tourism has become today. Cuba’s once diversified economy is gone and Castro is now putting all of his hopes in attracting tourists.
To do this, Castro’s Cuba now permits prostitution, it winks at sex tourism – tourist guide books even include sections on the country’s once-taboo gay and bisexual scenes – and, as under Batista, the country unabashedly invests heavily in tourism. Earlier this week, Castro inaugurated a US$100-million resort on the island’s northeastern coast, broadcast nationwide, to underscore the importance the government places on the new five-hotel complex of 944 rooms able to house 1,500 tourists.
Tourism is now Cuba’s No. 1 source of foreign income, with 1.6 million visitors generating about US$2-billion last year. More tourists come from Canada than from other important sources of foreign exchange, chiefly Germany, Britain, Italy, France, and Switzerland. Castro, like Batista, is eyeing one other important tourist market.
“Our friends from the north are not in this list,” Castro said with a grin, referring to Americans that can’t travel to Cuba due to U.S. government regulations.
Some day soon, perhaps, Castro’s dream may be realized, and Cuba’s economy may once again benefit from U.S. tourism. If it does, Cuba under Castro will have recovered one of the benefits that the country once enjoyed. Forty-four years into the Revolution, Castro will have achieved all the failings, real and perceived, that Cuba had under Batista, and it will have retained few of the virtues.