The revolutionary myth that won’t die

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
July 9, 2004

Yes, Cubans do face shortages of fuel, and yes, Cubans do suffer from shortages in medicine, supporters of Fidel Castro’s regime concede. Yes, some will also acknowledge, the island nation – once the most prosperous by far in the Caribbean – has become one of the region’s most impoverished since Castro took over.

But don’t overlook the impressive gains that Cuba has made in eradicating hunger and redistributing wealth, in health, education, literacy and social justice, Castro’s supporters retort. And don’t forget that the U.S. embargo is at the root of Cuba’s economic hardships. If the embargo hadn’t crushed Cuba’s economy, Cuba would be an economic as well as a social exemplar.

In fact, the Cuban embargo did hurt the Cuban economy but only marginally – by an estimated US$84-million to US$167-million in lost annual exports, according to the best economic estimates. The U.S. embargo has had such a modest effect because Cuba has still been able to trade with Canada, the European Union, Mexico, Japan, Russia, China and others, as well as receiving in excess of US$3-billion a year in foreign aid from the U.S.S.R. (during the Cold War) – and lesser amounts from other nations. Only a true believer could attribute Cuba’s economic collapse to an inability to trade with the U.S. In fact, Cuba’s economic collapse preceded the U.S. embargo of 1962. Shortly after Castro seized power in 1959, an immense number of talented managers and professionals fled the country, crippling Cuba’s ability to perform efficiently. To complete the job, Castro brought in his central economic plan – the ruinous First Economic and Social Plan of a Socialist Nature of 1962. With its market system in shambles, the country was forced to introduce food rationing that same year, and has never been able to restore its pre-revolution levels of production.

This once-important rice producer now produces less than it did half a century ago, its rice fields being half as productive as those of neighbouring Dominican Republic.

Similarly, Cuba now produces less sugar than before the Revolution – in fact, less than at any time since the Great Depression. Castro’s economic miracle was always a hoax, his rhetoric never succeeding to either exhort or inspire Cubans to produce for the cause of socialism.

Castro’s sham economy became evident after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, costing his economy his chief underwriter. Within three years, the Cuban economy shrank by one-third, never to recover. With Cuba refusing to make interest payments on its massive US$12-billion in foreign debts, its legions of once-supportive creditors have been cutting it off. In 2002, Moody’s debt-rating service reduced Cuba’s rating to Caa1 – “speculative grade, very poor.”

The U.S. embargo did not eviscerate the Cuban economy, Castro’s policies did. Cubans now consume less food than before the Revolution, and less food than citizens of any other Latin American country. With real wages down about 50% since 1989, leaving workers with an average pay of 50 cents per day, one person in eight is now clinically undernourished. Cuba’s food rations meet less than half of the recipients’ nutritional needs. Items the state deems to be non-essential, such as fresh milk for children, have been cut out.

To make ends meet, almost everyone in Cuba has become an operator – “making business,” as they put it. Pensioners, whose monthly stipend has been slashed to $4, often sell sweets on street corners. Young girls often sell themselves.

As for the Revolution’s great gains in health and literacy, those, too, are public-relations shams. Castro declared illiteracy to be eradicated in 1961, after a one-year Great Campaign that ended “four centuries of ignorance.” Health care is good in Cuba, but only for tourists and the government elite, who want for nothing. The poor do not have access to good hospitals, or to almost any drug – unless they carry dollars.

Cuba has consistently excelled only in the number of people it has imprisoned for political crimes. An estimated 100,000 are now imprisoned – 500,000 in all since 1959, with thousands executed, according to human rights agencies. Earlier this summer, Cuban courts convicted three activists on charges of “contempt of authority, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest” after they had been caught studying the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They were treated leniently: a three-year sentence. The organizer of the study session, a physician and civil rights leader, had earlier received a 25-year prison term.

In Cuba, a crime is whatever Castro wants it to be. He has criminalized not only the discussion of human rights but also the discussion of the economy; not only letters of complaint to the international press but letters of complaint to the Cuban government. It is a crime to visit a friend or relative in a neighbouring jurisdiction without government permission. To give the Cuban criminal code flexibility, Castro has amended it to provide for the arrest of Cubans for their “dangerousness” and “other acts against state security.”

Sadly, none of this matters to Castro’s supporters. For them, no amount of suffering by the Cuban people can wipe away the romantic myth of the Cuban Revolution.

Readers’ responses

Re: The Revolutionary Myth, July 9.

It seems odd that any time these types of articles are produced to argue both sides of a political difference of opinion, the writer of the left always seems to use hysteria and fear-mongering and very little fact to support his side, whilst the writer from the right always has facts and figures to back up his argument.

Witness Nino Pagliccia’s points: “The Bush administration has proven to have lied about weapons of mass destruction and been unable to deliver a peaceful transition to democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan.” None of this, of course has been proven one way or another yet and likely won’t be for quite a few years.

And then there’s this, condemning U.S. foreign policy as little more than a plan to take over every country on this continent: “Will Canada with a government that may now depend on the NDP be on the list?” Well this of course is too ludicrous to lend itself to any rational response.

On the other side Lawrence Solomon quotes provable facts and official figures to support his arguments and his condemnation of human rights violations in Cuba are well documented by every human rights organization, including that of the UN.

Charles Reid, Nanaimo, B.C.

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