Communism in Cuba: have its benefits been oversold?

Commentary regarding the Cuban version of communism usually concedes the fact of rigid one-party political control and a limited national economy. Such assessment, however, is almost invariably balanced by praise of social improvements accomplished since the ouster of the dictator Batista in 1959.

Cited most often are more equitable distribution of adequate housing, medical care, and education, as well as national income. Indeed, social advancements of this sort are presented to other third-world countries as inducements to adopt the Cuban model as a superior way to improve the lot of the masses. Even most critics in the United States concede these gains. In fact, a common concern in the US is that popular movements elsewhere will view similar one-party governments as the most effective means to achieve rapid social advancement.

Because this image of Cuba is so widely accepted it is interesting to note that alleged superior social conditions there are not substantiated by published data. Information compiled by the Population Reference Bureau of Washington, D.C. confirms, for example, that conditions of life in Haiti are the worst in the Western Hemisphere and among the poorest in the World. What seems especially striking, however, is that there is no evidence that social conditions in Cuba are particularly better than those on most neighboring islands.

The only categories in which Cuba ranks highest in the region is the percent of urban population and the ratio of students per teacher. Because political indoctrination is a normal part of schooling in Cuba, even this advantage may not be as great as it appears.

Perhaps most surprising are statistics related to secondary education. The sources suggest that only about two-thirds of Cuban teen-agers were enrolled in school in 1975. If true, the achievements of Castro's regime have been substantially less impressive than its admirers have claimed, considering that a secondary education was firmly established before the revolution.

One would expect, for example, that the small French departments of Martinique and Guadeloupe as well as the US Commonwealth of Puerto Rico would rank high in this regard. But evidence that independent states such as Trinidad-Tobago and Jamaica have done as well or better raises questions about the social advantages of the Cuban system.

Efforts by Cuban apologists to compare educational achievements now with conditions before the 1959 revolution rather than with those in neighboring countries likewise are not wholly convincing. Precise information is lacking in several categories but published data show that in 1953 the Cuban population 10 years or older was 76 percent literate. Educational opportunities definitely have widened over the past 20 years, but prerevolutionary Cuba was hardly the land of mass ignorance it has been pictured.

Or take the category of "physical quality of life," developed by the Overseas Development Council in response to a need for a non- income measure to summarize many aspects of human well-being. It combines three indicators -- infant mortality, life expectancy from age one, and literacy -- into a single composite index. The index runs from zero to 100, and 100 as the highest level. Cuba ranks well on this measure, but no better or not as well as four other Caribbean political entities and only slightly better than four others. Certainly its record does not deserve special commendation, especially when official statistics report an actual rise in infant mortality since the mid-1950s.

The question of comparative per capita gross national product is not easy to interpret. Contrasts are particularly difficult when communist and noncommunist economies are involved. Communist governments, for example, normally report the value of goods but not services. Adjustments to achieve a common index seldom are wholly satisfactory. It is true that elimination under socialism of private capital accumulation causes the per capita figure to more nearly reflect actual personal income than is true in places where wide disparities in wealth exist.

But even with this proviso, the economic status of Cuba in 1978 was mediocre at best in comparison with most of its neighbors. Prior to 1959, sources ranked Cuba anywhere from first to fourth in Latin America in this category.

Also of note is the fact that the income level of agricultural workers is fixed at less than a fifth that of managers. General wage increases in July 1980 even increased the differential slightly. Thus a class structure with uneven rewards is institutionalized under the rule of Marxist government.

These data do support the assumption that under Fidel Castro the Cuban people have benefited outstandingly from improvements in general social welfare. The question arises, however, whether they would not have done was well or better under a less repressive political system. Other nearby former colonies have comparable social indicators without loss of individual freedoms.

Within the Caribbean only Cuba and Haiti, and more recently Grenada, aare dictatorships. Leaders who won contested elections are in power everywhere else. Considering the evidence from published social indicators it seems as if Cubans have paid a high price in political freedom for a quality of life no better than that of many of their neighbors.

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