February 1, 2003
Fidel Castro worked miracles after leading the Revolution that liberated Cuba from the dictator, Batista. The statistics are there, for any fool to see.
Soon after Castro came to power in 1959, he decided to eliminate illiteracy in the island nation. As he stated in an address to the United Nations the following year, “Cuba will be the first country in America that in a few months’ time will be able to say that it does not have a single illiterate person.” Castro was as good as his word. He launched his Great Campaign for literacy in January of 1961 and ended it in victory in December that same year. Cuba is a “territory free of illiteracy,” he declared, triumphantly announcing an end to “four centuries of ignorance.”
In a mere 12 months, Cuban government data demonstrated, socialism had given the gift of learning to the Cuban people. This eradication of widespread illiteracy is widely regarded as one of his Revolution’s two stupendous social policy successes.
The other stupendous social policy success came in health care, where Castro gave his people the gift of health and a long life. By investing in doctors, hospitals and other medical services geared to the poor, Cuba’s official statistics show, Cuba achieved one of the world’s best performances in terms of broad statistical indicators such as life expectancy and infant mortality. In controlling AIDS, Cuba also has one of the world’s best showings. Among Castro’s most celebrated medical successes was the absolute eradication of dengue fever, a dreaded disease transmitted by mosquito that has plagued Cuba and other tropical countries through time immemorial.
To these two stupendous well publicized successes must be added a third, even more stupendous accomplishment, albeit little appreciated outside Cuba. Castro’s accomplishments are a hoax; his statistics have been fudged or fabricated; his admirers abroad, from heads of state to movie makers to social activists, have been duped, dazzled by a beard in a military suit.
Castro’s regime has excelled in only one area, as seen in statistics from independent agencies such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
The government claims it takes no political prisoners. The numbers provided by human rights agencies – an estimated 500,000 since 1959, with thousands executed – tell a different story. In Castro’s Cuba, it is a crime to meet to discuss the economy, to write letters to the government, to report on political developments, to speak to international reporters, to advocate human rights, to visit friends or relatives outside your local area of residence without government permission. Cubans are arrested without warrants and prosecuted for “failing to denounce” fellow citizens, for general “dangerousness,” and, should some crime not be covered by these criminal code provisions, for “other acts against state security.”
The courts, under Cuba’s constitution, are formally subordinate to the governing elite and cannot protect the innocent. Neither can lawyers, who lost their right to work in private firms in 1973 and have been forced to work either for the government or in collectives. Lawyers who had defended dissidents were refused membership in the collectives.
Cubans found guilty under this criminal justice system – and their fate is rarely in doubt – often serve 10 to 20 years in jail for political crimes. But most Cuban criminals are not political. A large proportion of the estimated 180,000 to 200,000 common criminals in Cuba’s 500 prisons are people who broke the law by killing their own pigs, cattle and horses and selling the excess meat on the black market.
To maintain discipline inside prisons, prison guards appoint hardened prisoners to “prisoners’ councils.” Reports Human Rights Watch: “The council members commit some of Cuba’s worst prison abuses, including beating fellow prisoners as a disciplinary measure and sexually abusing prisoners, under direct orders from or with the acquiescence of prison officials.”
Despite this appalling human rights record, Castro has been courted and condoned by a fawning international intelligentsia that includes Harvard lawyers and statesmen who have made their reputations defending civil liberties. These include former Canadian prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau – Castro was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral, no less – former South African prime minister Nelson Mandela, and, more recently, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter. One world leader who has not been duped is Czech President Vaclav Havel, himself a political prisoner before the fall of communism in Europe, who sponsored a resolution condemning Cuba at the UN Commission on Human Rights.
DUPED: Fidel Castro with Jimmy Carter as honorary pallbearers at Pierre Trudeau’s funeral . . . Credit: Jacques Boissinot, CP Photo
. . . and with Nelson Mandela in Johannesberg. Credit: Jose Goitia, AP Photo
. . . (Pierre Elliott) Trudeau
. . . (Barbara) Walters
. . . (Peter) Jennings
Although Castro forbids collective bargaining or even independent unions, Western labour leaders endorse him. Although Castro makes the top 10 “Enemies of the Press” list produced by the Committee to Protect Journalists’, journalists such as Peter Jennings and Barbara Walters have covered him uncritically. Although artists in Cuba must toe the government line, Harry Belafonte and others who should understand the importance of artistic freedom hold him up as a paragon.
Those who cavort with Castro forgive him his transgressions, reasoning that his feats outweighed his faults, or that human rights abuses were necessary to achieve his towering accomplishments in literacy and health. But there were no great ends that justified his brutal means. Castro’s feats are all modest or non-existent.
Literacy did improve under Castro but the tale is hardly heroic – illiteracy was neither high prior to the Revolution, as Castro claimed, nor was it much changed after Castro’s Great Campaign. In fact, since Castro came to power, other Latin American countries made far greater gains in literacy than Cuba, largely because Cuba didn’t have as far to climb – it already had one of Latin America’s highest literacy rates.
Neither can Castro’s health claims be taken as credible because the health system, like the legal system, is subordinate to his regime’s need for propaganda. In 1997, a major epidemic of dengue fever, which causes hemorrhaging, broke out in Cuba. Patients were bleeding from every orifice of their bodies and choking on their own blood. Public health authorities and the government’s Institute of Tropical Medicine called the disease “an unspecified virus” and denied its existence, partly to protect the reputation of Castro, who had personally declared the disease’s extinction, and partly to protect the tourist industry, which was becoming a major earner of foreign exchange.
One physician, Dr. Dessy Mendoza Rivero, recognized the disease as dengue fever and tried to alert the authorities, only to find a cover-up underway. Dr. Mendoza, the president of a medical college, blew the whistle by calling a Miami radio station and telling the outside world of the disease. “There are approximately 13 dead, 2,500 hospitalized patients and 30,000 afflicted,” Dr. Mendoza revealed. Soon after, the Cuban State Security police arrested him. He was sentenced to eight years in prison for “disseminating enemy propaganda,” leading Amnesty International to declare him a “prisoner of conscience.” Ironically, one week after his sentencing the government admitted that the epidemic was dengue fever.
Anecdotes abound of the government cooking the books to prove the glories of the Revolution to the world, with many academics distrusting the official government figures. A demographer from the National Academies of Sciences found that the Cuban government’s own data was at odds with official overall statistics for child mortality: If anything, it indicated a growing, not a falling, infant mortality rate, a suspicion supported by other statistics from the Cuban Ministry of Health which showed high rates of several childhood diseases that generally correlate with high infant mortality. Other scientists doubt the claims made over HIV, noting the many Cubans who had served in African wars, the many African students in Cuba, the rampant sex trade in Cuba, and the high rate of HIV among Cubans who escaped from the island. A secret 1987 Cuban Communist Party survey of 10,756 respondents showed 88% of the public in one province to be disappointed with their health-care system. When the Cuban suicide rate skyrocketed – it’s now twice the typical rate in Latin American countries – the Cuban government stopped reporting suicide statistics in a way that allowed international comparisons.
To the extent that the Cuban government’s health claims are credible, the results often came at a price no civilized society could countenance. Patients with AIDS were forcibly removed from society and isolated in sanitaria. Expectant mothers with AIDS were coerced into aborting their babies. Abortions were similarly used to improve infant mortality statistics in general – Cuba has twice the abortion rate of most countries – by terminating high-risk pregnancies. To obtain co-operation from doctors, their compensation was tied to their patients’ infant mortality rate. Many Cuban mothers claim that their doctors killed their baby at childbirth – babies who die at birth do not show up in Cuba’s infant mortality data.
At the same time that some of Castro’s admirers deny claims that the medical system is failing Cubans, other admirers admit to the disastrous health outcomes, but blame them on food, drug and other shortages caused by the Cuban embargo. One such study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, lamented “several public health catastrophes [including] more than 50,000 cases of optic and peripheral neuropathy . . . A 1994 outbreak of the Guillain-Barré syndrome in Havana was caused by water that had been contaminated with Campylobacter species because chlorination chemicals were not available for purification.”
The American embargo on Cuba did harm the Cuban economy, but to a modest extent – the most comprehensive study of its economic effects showed a mere US$84-million to US$167-million a year in lost exports. The real harm to the Cuban economy was self-inflicted: The economy collapsed shortly after Castro took power, partly because Cuba lost a staggering number of managers and professionals who fled the country and partly because Castro’s central economic plan – The First Economic and Social Plan of a Socialist Nature of 1962 – was ruinous, as Castro would later admit. Food rationing began the same year.
Cuba, once an important rice producer, now produces less than it did before the Revolution, its rice fields half as productive as those of neighbouring Dominican Republic. Cuba also produces less sugar than before the Revolution because, admits Castro, it costs more to produce than it’s worth. Because Cubans can no longer efficiently grow food – not because the United States won’t provide Cuba with food exports – Cubans consume less food today than before the Revolution, and less food than citizens of any other Latin American country.
Castro and others who argue that the embargo hurt Cuba point to Cuba’s shortage of food, medicines and other necessities, as if these could not be readily imported from Canada, Europe and other nations. These economically confused people, perhaps, are the greatest dupes of all.
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A reader’s response to this article:
Feb. 10, 2003
Letter to the Editor
Lawrence Solomon puts in doubt Cuban health and literacy statistics, but doesn’t bother to cite any statistics to the contrary. In Cuba, there is a doctor for every 167 inhabitants (the highest per capita average in the world, compared with 1/358 in the United States and 1/437 in Canada). In 2001, Cuba’s infant mortality rate was 6.2%, lower than Canada’s and comparable to the United States’. If these numbers were even half true, they would still be major.
However, Cuba’s achievements in health care are shown by means other than statistics. For example, the U.S. pharmaceutical industry has shown great interest in bringing down the embargo to get access to Cuban medical techniques and knowledge. The U.S. government recently insinuated that Cuba may possess biological weapons – purely because Cuban health sciences are so advanced. The Cubans recently shipped, free of charge, much-needed vaccines to stop a meningitis outbreak in Uruguay. They import doctors from other developing countries for training and they export their own doctors to needy locations all around the world. These accomplishments really are stupendous.
Vincent J. Guihan, Ottawa