Cuba at 50: Has a half-century of revolution improved lives?

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, left, greets Cuba's President Raul Castro in Maiquetia, Venezuela, Dec. 13, 2008.
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, left, greets Cuba's President Raul Castro in Maiquetia, Venezuela, Dec. 13, 2008. Miraflores Press Office / AP

Fifty years ago, an attorney turned bearded guerrilla marched triumphantly into Havana and declared victory over a departing dictator. Then he became a despot himself.

Fidel Castro forever changed the landscape of both Cuba and Miami. He jailed or executed his enemies, seized private property, divided families, and drove nearly two million Cubans into exile. His nation became a Cold War pawn.

At the same time, Castro launched a massive literacy campaign. The island churned out armies of new doctors. Cuba became an international player, inspiring guerrilla movements and supplying soldiers for ''anti-imperialist'' wars around the globe. Castro's refusal to kowtow to the United States won him praise.

As the Jan. 1 anniversary of the revolution's triumph approaches, many of the social welfare achievements that were the trophies of the communist regime have rusted. Years of failed economic policy, waves of mass exodus, and Cuba's inability to recover from the collapse of its patron, the Soviet Union, have dulled Castro's touted crown jewels -- the advances in health and education.

Still, the revolution that ousted Fulgencio Batista and transformed a tropical getaway into a communist state remains one of the Western Hemisphere's most significant events of the last century.

''The Cuban government is going to celebrate its 50-year anniversary -- 50 years of what?'' said Andy Gomez, a senior fellow at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, who left the island in 1960 when he was 6.

"Fifty years of sacrifice and misery?''

In the only communist country in the Western hemisphere, many would argue that Castro had a single resounding success: staying in power. He built a strong rebel army, never bothered with civic freedoms or presidential elections, and created a vast and powerful state security apparatus that kept watch on literally every block.

His regime reigned over a population that is among the world's best educated, but many still flee. Every year, about 20,000 are issued permits to resettle in the United States, and each year a nearly equal number risk their lives on dangerous sea voyages.

But if numbers alone could tell this story, Castro met his revolutionary goals -- without any meddling from Washington.

Within two years after Castro emerged from the jungle in 1959 to seize control of the island, more than 700,000 Cubans learned how to read, and 25,000 new homes were built. Cuba's communist revolution would eventually produce so many doctors that last year there was one physician per 155 residents, more than double Florida's ratio. Before Castro, there was one doctor for every 1,058 people.

But today, almost a quarter of the nation's doctors are serving ''missions'' overseas so the government can collect much-needed hard currency from their work. So many underpaid educators have left classrooms that the school system is relying on teenage interns to teach.

There is no question that Cuba enjoys a low infant mortality rate, high life expectancy, and crime statistics that any Latin American nation would envy. But experts say Castro's early accomplishments have declined so sharply that only drastic measures can save them.

''They always say the great achievements were healthcare and education, but in Cuba you don't spend your whole life sick or studying,'' said Lizette Fernández, a former banker and dissident who arrived in 2006 and now sells cosmetics in Hialeah. "If the medical system was an accomplishment, doctors would not be writing prescriptions without any hope that you will find the medicine.''

Experts stress that when Castro, with the help of his younger brother, RaUl, and other rebels, took over on Jan. 1, 1959, they took the helm of what was already one of the most developed nations in the hemisphere. Cubans led Latin America in the number of households that owned TV sets, and Cuba was outpaced by only Argentina and Uruguay in other economic and social indicators.

According to a report last week by the University of Miami, Cuba already had the lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America and was among the region's most literate countries.

But the wealth and progress were concentrated in Havana. Illiteracy rates reached 42 percent in the rural areas, while only 23 percent of urban dwellers could not read, according to early national statistics.

Castro's government promised to change that. It set out to upend the social order, claiming that Cuba would become a nation where women matter as much as men, black people could become doctors, and peasants could read and write.


As the middle and upper classes fled to Miami and as Cuba lost half of its doctors to exile, the government went after private businesses, killed or locked up political opponents, and sent thousands of youngsters to the countryside as teachers in a vast literacy campaign. Then it built clinics and thousands of schools.

World Bank statistics show that half of Cuban children were enrolled in school in 1950. Now, all of them are. Cuba more than quadrupled the number of teachers.

Even as Cuba has high graduation rates and people with engineering degrees, many find it more lucrative to wait on tables. Uneven access to dollars has brought inequality back, and college graduates complain that there are few worthwhile opportunities after their studies.

The average Cuban salary is barely $20 a month. Black Cubans, long considered the main beneficiaries of Castro's social policies, find themselves again shut out. Few Afro-Cubans obtain jobs in the tourist industry or have relatives in Miami sending dollars.

''I remember when I went to Cuba, I visited the National Ballet at the García Lorca theater, and I told the lady who accompanied us how nice her scarf was, and she told me it was from Paris,'' said Uva de Aragón, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

"People inside the theater were well dressed, and children were outside taking tips for watching cars. I thought, 'Forty years later, and this is the same. My parents' life was stolen from them to create a country where everyone was equal.'

"Now I go to the University of Havana, and while there are a few black people in the classes, the people cleaning the bathroom are still in uniform, and they are still black.''

She also said that Cuba's social welfare programs are not free -- Cubans pay for them with underpaid labor.

''A Cuban gets a salary of 500 pesos a month ($20) and is told that education and healthcare are free,'' she said. ``Nothing is free. The Cuban people pay for it with their work.''

Some experts question what will happen now that so many of Cuba's doctors are providing healthcare in Venezuela, Bolivia and other nations in exchange for money or much needed supplies, such as oil.

''Can they continue to maintain good health indicators when they are missing their primary resource -- doctors?'' asked Cuba expert Daniel P. Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington. "Doctors in Cuba specialized in having a neighborhood healthcare system. But now all these doctors are in the neighborhood -- in Caracas.''

The 2008 United Nations human development index, which measures social welfare indicators such as infant mortality, ranks Cuba 51st, on par with Mexico and surpassing Brazil and Panama. The United States ranks 12th.

Government statistics show that life expectancy in Cuba is 77.7 years, the same as in the United States. Latin Americans in general live until they are about 70.

Many Cuba-watchers stress that despite Cuba's economic woes, it still fares much better than places such as the Dominican Republic.

''The human tragedy and that so many families were torn apart is very unfortunate,'' said Professor John Kirk, a Cuba expert at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. "But if you look at education and healthcare, Cuba has made significant advances.''

People leave in droves for Miami, he said, because of the mythical image of "roads paved in gold.''


Arturo Lopez-Levy, a former political analyst at Cuba's Ministry of the Interior, agrees with Kirk's assessment that the overall balance is still positive -- if only Cuba would quit putting politics over economics.

''The economic policies of the last 40 years made it difficult to keep those achievements,'' said Lopez-Levy, who broke with the government and is now a lecturer at the University of Denver. "Overall, if you look at social indicators, I think things are better than they were in 1959.''

Advances held strong until the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, when Cuba suddenly lost billions of dollars in subsidies. Castro had poured so much foreign money into social services that he never established a sound economic policy of Cuba's own. The U.S. trade embargo further limited the country's cash flow. Money to pay for everything from school supplies to aspirins vanished.

''In the beginning, they tried to do things in grand scale,'' said Julio Cesar Alfonso, who heads Solidarity Without Borders, a Miami organization of Cuban doctors who have defected. "They graduated 3,000 doctors a year, creating so many doctors that it was excessive and unnecessary. But now they don't have ambulances in Cuba. If someone falls in the street, they flag the first car that goes by. And if the first thing to go by is a bicycle, then they flag down the bicycle.''

Alfonso, 40, who lives in West Miami-Dade County, said he was a devout believer in the revolution until he was jailed in the early 1990s and charged with ''enemy propaganda'' for suggesting improvements to the state healthcare system.

''In the last 20 years, things have deteriorated in all levels,'' said Katrin Hansing, visiting associate director of FIU's Cuban Research Institute, who lived on the island for a decade. "Today, if you need a checkup with a specialist, you need to bribe somebody -- No. 1, because there are not enough doctors, and No. 2, because doctors need to make ends meet, too.

"People used to say, 'At least we have this.' Now, they don't have this. So, it's ''para que?' '' For what?


Raul Castro formally took over the presidency last February when his brother Fidel, now 82, retired because of a prolonged illness. The new leader has publicly acknowledged the need to reform the educational sector and bring qualified teachers back to the classroom.

He also has received visits from the presidents of Russia and China. Raul Castro, 77, leads a nation with a significant foreign-policy presence -- a nation that has succeeded in thumbing its nose at Uncle Sam for five decades.

Together, the Castros have outlasted 10 U.S. presidents so far.

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