Tom Owolade is a second-year English Literature student at Queen Mary, University of London. His interests include Shakespeare and American literature, but also enjoys cheering on Arsenal when not avidly following American and British politics. Otherwise, he is a big fan of jazz. Below, he responds to Luke Warner’s article previously published on King’s Debates, arguing that there is little to redeem Fidel Castro, a violent dictator who stunted economic development and the reduction of poverty.
I can’t think of a better use of the phrase “check your privilege” than to shame those who defend a communist dictatorship whilst enjoying all the benefits of a liberal democracy.
The death of Fidel Castro, who led Cuba from 1959 to 2008, has spawned a flurry of predictably absurd responses from the predictably absurd. Paeans to the regime are sung by those who don’t have to worry about being imprisoned or executed for holding critical opinions of their government. People are taking to Twitter and Facebook to proclaim the greatness of a regime where internet access is forbidden to 95% of the population. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn praised the “social justice” of a dictator whose regime sanctioned the abuse of gay people and forbids the wages of government-employed workers to go above $20 a month. The prime minister of Canada topped him: Justin Trudeau, chief flamen to the predictably absurd, declared in a statement that Castro was a “remarkable leader” who had “tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people”. If state-enforced indigence and suppression of civil liberties constitute love, then I wouldn’t want to witness what hate looks like.
Some responses have avoided hagiography in favour of greater balance. Luke Warner’s response is one such example. A third-year undergraduate student at King’s College, Cambridge, he acknowledges that “part of Castro’s ruling style was strict authoritarianism at home and the support for cruel leaders abroad”. He also notes, “Castro’s island experiment was intimately linked to flagrant human rights abuses, shortcomings in policy, and the persecution of class and national ‘enemies”. Nevertheless, I have some quibbles with his article. He makes too much out of the economic and health care changes in Cuba in a way that is simply unwarranted by a fair reading of the facts. He posits:
“Castro was instrumental in entirely turning around the appalling living conditions experienced by the majority of the Cuban population prior to his time in office. Through reform and investment, the state universalised education (bringing literacy up to 88% by 1970 compared to 60% in 1958) and healthcare (life expectancy grew from 63.90 in 1960 to exceed that of USA by 1980 at 73.83 years), and the scope of public services along with state housing were extended.”
It is strange that many who invoke the importance of context in discussing Castro don’t mention that Cuba was an impressive country in the 1950s in terms of the very same metrics often used to praise Castro. Cuba’s education and health care levels in the 1950s were above the Latin American average and comparable to some European countries. The literacy rate when Fidel Castro took over was 78%-79%, the 4th highest in Latin America. Life expectancy was third in the hemisphere and it had the 4th lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America. Cuba had higher TV sets per capita than any other Latin American country and higher than that of Italy. It also had Latin America’s highest consumption of meat and fruits. In the 1950s, GDP per capita was between the 2nd and 4th highest in Latin America; now, it is between the 9th and 11th. In pre-Castro Cuba, workers had one-month paid holiday, eight-hour workdays, and women were entitled to six-weeks leave before and after childbirth. The impression that Cuba in the 1950s was a backward country in terms of the metrics often used to praise Castro is thus highly disingenuous.
It is true that Cuba’s literacy rate is admirably high and its health care system, relatively speaking, impressive. But limiting an analysis to those metrics speaks to how short-sighted even a balanced account of Castro can be. Let’s compare Cuba with Costa Rica. As Richard Feinberg, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, notes in a report on Cuba’s economy:
“Costa Rica and Cuba also made different choices in the face of severe external shocks. In responding to the external debt crisis of the 1980s, Costa Rica abandoned its earlier policy of protecting local industry (“import substitution industrialization”) and opted to integrate into the global economy and make the attraction of foreign investment a centrepiece of national development policy. In contrast, in response to the collapse of the Soviet Union and after a brief flirtation with liberalization, Cuba chose to dig in and maintain a command economy.
As a result, over the last two decades the Costa Rican economy has grown at a steady 4 to 5 percent annual clip: per capita GDP now reaches $10,500; nearly twice Cuba’s $5,400. 103 In fact, the differences are probably greater, as will become apparent once Cuba’s badly distorted relative prices, including its exchange rates, are fully adjusted. One telling indicator of Costa Rica’s success: despite the ease of emigration, Costa Rican youth choose to remain at home. The number of Costa Ricans living in the United States is only 126,000 according to the 2010 U.S. Census, as compared to 1.8 million Cuban-Americans. Costa Rica does not suffer from brain drain of its best and brightest, a major concern to Cuban policymakers as they implement a major relaxation of travel restrictions in 2013.”
In his penultimate paragraph, Warner argues:
“In many ways Castro achieved his aims. He significantly lifted out of poverty the majority of the population and created a political system that, for all its flaws, successfully incorporated people of different creeds, ethnicities, and backgrounds into professional and governmental posts earlier than many of its neighbours. He ousted an arguably crueller figure and ended the trend of blatant economic exploitation that had created an image of Cuba as America’s casino.”
This looks rosy, but dig deeper and you’ll notice it masks a rot. The average salary in Cuba is $20 a month. Doctors, allegedly Cuba’s most feted profession, earn on average $40 a month. If you think this is bad enough, then consider that taxi drivers in Cuba who have private licenses can earn up to $60 in one day. A country where taxi drivers can earn more in one day than doctors earn in a month is not a well-functioning one. Indeed, it will inevitably breed more “economic exploitation”. Incentives matter more than ideology. Moreover, Cuba may not be “America’s casino” anymore, but it is still a haven for sex-tourism. Canadian and European men often visit simply to have sex with often underage girls, pimped out by their parents out of desperation to earn a decent wage.
The Castro family have a net worth of over $900 million dollars whilst the average Cuban earns $20 a month. If Cuba is evidence of communism working well, as many seem to imply, then maybe we have to consider there is something fundamentally wrong with communism.