Cuba is no island paradise for its citizens
By Mark Milke, Calgary Herald October 3, 2010 2:09 AM
For some unexplained reason, a coterie of Canadian apologists exist who
are ever eager to defend Cuba's 51-year old Marxist dictatorship. In
recent weeks, one letter writer to the Herald argued Cuban children
benefit from the island autocracy because education is free. She also
trumpeted how some foreign kids receive free health care, a variation of
the oft-heard notion that Cubans have a great medical system. Another
writer disputed the Herald's claim that communism was the 20th century's
most murderous ideology.
Fact-check time. Eleven years ago, Harvard University published The
Black Book of Communism, a series of essays, mostly from former French
Marxists. They estimated those killed by the ideology amounted to about
100 million people in the last century.
That includes Cuba. "During the (Cuban) repressions of the 1960s,
between 7,000 and 10,000 people were killed and 30,000 people were
imprisoned for political reasons," wrote French journalist Pascal
Fontaine. None of that takes away from the gravity of history's other
mass murdering ideologies, notably the Nazi Holocaust's 6 million
victims. But the Herald was correct in its assertion.
What about Cuba's oft-praised health care and education systems? In
2003, the American Journal of Public Health found that 33 per cent of
all Cuban refugee children had intestinal parasites, 21 per cent had
lead poisoning and all had higher than normal levels of disease. In
2006, Fidel Castro flew a doctor in from Spain to look at his insides.
You'd expect refugees to have higher incidences of disease. However,
given the Cubans were refugees but for a few days on their way to
Florida from Cuba, the study was telling.
None of this should surprise anyone with open eyes. I was in Cuba in
2008, the day Castro resigned. One guidebook estimated 45 per cent of
Cubans live in substandard shelter. That was obvious in Havana where I
spent five days walking around. There are some nicely restored buildings
in Havana's core but sub-standard, crowded tenements for ordinary Cubans
are the norm.
Then there is the food rationing. The Varadero resort where I spent two
days (and which is not the real Cuba) had trays full of scrambled eggs.
But in Havana, one store with eggs for sale noted a limit of just five
per person. Also in Havana, I snapped photos of a rundown school, a
public hospital in disrepair and half-empty pharmacy shelves.
Even Castro no longer defends his record. In an interview last month
with The Atlantic columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, he made this admission:
"The Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore." (His admission was
borne out by recent Cuban government reforms, including laying off half
a million people from inefficient state enterprises, and loosening up
some restrictions on small entrepreneurs). Several days later, Castro
tried to claim he meant the opposite. Too late. He inadvertently
admitted what economic data have shown: Cuba's 1959 detour into economic
tyranny after its revolution produced 50 years of suffering for Cubans.
In 1958, the year before Castro came to power, Cuba's per capita GDP was
$2,363, not far off the Latin American average of $3,047 (all figures
inflation-adjusted 1990 dollars at purchasing power parity). Back then,
Cuba's per capita GDP was higher than some East Asian jurisdictions such
as Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea and not far behind Japan and Hong Kong.
By 2008, Cuba's per capita GDP was $3,764. Meanwhile, the East Asian
jurisdictions that were below or barely above Cuba's economic status
have long eclipsed it. In 2008, per capita income was $19,614 in South
Korea, $20,926 in Taiwan, $28,107 in Singapore, and $31,704 in Hong
Kong. In real terms, Hong Kong's per capita GDP grew by a factor of 11,
Singapore's by 12, and South Korea and Taiwan by 16 — while Cuba's
equivalent didn't even double from its pre-revolutionary state.
Apologists point to the American economic embargo as a prime reason for
Cuba's poverty. It's that and communism. However, the defenders never
understand how their own argument supports free markets: free-flowing
trade between countries lifts a country's economic prospects, as
free-flowing internal trade does. Canadian apologists may not get it,
but if recent baby steps toward economic reform are any indication, the
Castro brothers apparently, finally, do.
Mark Milke is director of the Fraser Institute's Alberta office and of
the Alberta Prosperity Project.